[Rev. Gerrit Vos (1894-1968) was pastor for many years in the Hudsonville, Michigan Protestant Reformed Church.]
"Yea though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me." Psalm 23:4
What a contrast to the preceding psalm.
There we hear the terrible cry of the prophet who suffered before the suffering of Jesus.
But we hasten to add that we cannot compare the suffering of David and the suffering of Jesus. David was but a type, and his suffering was but a weak type of the Via Dolorosa of Jesus.
But here all is calm and serene: the prophet knows that God is His Shepherd and that he does not want.
He will also explain it to us: this Shepherd makes him to lie down in green pastures: all his wants and his needs are completely fulfilled.
The great Shepherd of the sheep leadeth His sheep along the quiet waters of everlasting righteousness.
And so his soul is restored from its erstwhile unrest and misery.
And this psalm is strictly theological: God does all that for His own Name's sake! He wants to glorify Himself in His church.
And then it seems that the prophet is thinking of all kinds of arguments that shall be raised against him, such as: how can a man be so calm, serene, and at peace in the midst of this world-life? Is it not true that we lie in the midst of death? Are we not miserable sinners, and are we not making our debts greater every day? Are there not devils around us and within us? And how about the wicked that surround us, the power of evil within us?
How can a man ever say: I shall not want! I am at peace! I am completely content?
And so the prophet will give his answer in our text: no I am not even disturbed when walking through the valley of the shadow of death!
First of all, we must remember that the prophet is not singing only about the day of our death.
That is the explanation of almost all the commentators of this psalm. And many of God's people often quote the verse in this vein. But it is not so.
The prophet does not mean to say: for this life my wants and my needs are completely taken care of, and what concerns my dissolution, even then my Shepherd will take care of me, for "He will go with me in that valley, and there He will comfort me with His rod and His staff."
I agree that the statement as such is true, but this text means more than that. Not only is He with me when I will make that final journey, but He is with me throughout all my life here on earth, and this latter is even on the foreground.
Here is the point: all through our life we are walking through the valley of death, and its shadow is continually upon us.
Of all my commentaries there is but one that agrees with me, but that makes no difference.
Such is indeed the teaching of Scripture throughout, and it is also plain from the text itself, as also the context.
The verses 5 and 6 certainly do not sustain the former view, the view, namely, that this verse refers to our final journey. Because when the prophet has stated the astounding truth that God is with him in the valley of death, he continues and gives testimony how God comforts him in the valley. He prepareth a table before me in the presence of his enemies; his head is anointed with oil and his cup runneth over. And, concluding, he testifies that he is assured of the fact that all his days will be spent in the house of God.
But also the text itself does not lend itself to the former explanation.
If this is the last journey, that is, our departure from this earth to the heavenly tabernacle, how shall we then explain the rod and the staff of God unto my comfort?
No, but this walk is our walk here below from the beginning to the end.
All Scripture also teaches that we lie in the midst of death; that we die every day; that we carry about with us the body of this death; that a thousand fears and a thousand deaths accompany us on this earth. The Dutch sing of it in the psalms: "Duizend zorgen, duizend dooden, kwellen mijn angstvallig hart!"
Our walk is our life, and then that life as we live it from the heart.
It does not only include our thoughts, words, and deeds, but also our secret heart and mind which no one sees but God alone.
And that walk, that life is surrounded and permeated with all manner of death.
And that is so especially when we are regenerated and converted to God.
Then sin awakes like never before. And then the devils begin their wicked work as never before. And also the whole world, inspired by the devil, sets itself against us on every side.
Our whole walk is characterized by death.
And this death is characterized as a valley, a depression.
I want to be in heaven, but I am on the earth.
I want to be in the company of God, Christ, angels, and the souls of men made perfect, but I must travel among devils and wicked men.
I want to be holy and undefiled, but of necessity I sin in all I do.
In a word: I want to be absolutely perfect, but I come far short of the glory of God.
Every night when I bow my knees I cry out my sin and my shame to God. O God, be merciful to me the sinner!
The shadow of physical and spiritual death lies hard upon me day and night.
Listen to a saint of the Old Testament: he was lifted up so that he could look and listen to heaven and heaven's inhabitants. His name is Isaiah ( Isaiah 6).
And when he has seen and heard all the glory of God, he begins to weep. Hearken to him: "Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts."
And thus it was every time when one of us saw the Lord or the perfection of heaven. Think of the shepherds in Bethlehem's fields when Jesus was born. They feared with great fear. Think of John when he saw Jesus on the isle of Patmos: he fell as dead at the feet of Him that spoke to him. Think of Job, of Abraham in his shuddering and trembling, of Habakkuk, and so many more.
It is all because of this shadow of death that lies hard upon every one of us.
And it is a wonder that we can smile at all.
And yet, the prophet says: even though I walk through the valley of this shadow of death I will fear no evil!
How is that possible?
The answer is given in the text: For Thou art with me!
It is as when the Jewish man was wandering about in Edom. He cried toward Jerusalem: Watchman! What of the night?
And the answer was: The morning has come, and the night!
They always go together for the child of God.
Oh yes, the morning has come in his heart, soul, and mind.
It has illuminated him, delivered him from death in principle in the very depths of his heart.
But also the night.
Read Romans 7, and there you see the answer. Especially in the close. The apostle has testified of his life here on earth. There was a will to do good and to be good in the depth of him, but whenever he wanted to perform the good work, evil was present with him. What he hated he did, and what he loved he could not perform. All this caused him to cry out: O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?
And the answer in Romans 7 is the same as the answer here: God was with him in all his night of sin and guilt. He thanked God through Jesus Christ his Lord.
And so also here.
David is not afraid in this terrible valley of the shadow of death for the Lord (we would say today: Jesus) was with him in the valley.
And that makes all the difference.
In that dark and gloomy valley the Lord tells him that all is well.
Jesus tells us every day: I have found a ransom for you! I know that you hate sin and that you languish under it. I know that you hate your life of sin and wickedness and that you fight to the death against it. It is My Own work in you. I know that your greatest joy would be to live without sin. Well, my sheep, you will attain it for sure. I will lead you all through the valley. In fact, I have been through that terrible valley for you Myself, only then it was infinitely worse. In all your afflictions I was afflicted. And I have taken your captivity of death captive, and now it follows Me a captive in My train. It must serve Me and you unto the attainment of highest glory.
And so the sheep are safe in this valley.
For Jesus comforts them with His rod and His staff.
This is imagery, of course.
The rod and the staff serves two purposes for the Shepherd.
It is the instrument of discipline for the sheep when they go astray, but it is also the instrument of protection against the wolves of every hue and cry that surround the flock of Christ.
And they comfort the sheep.
For He has told them that all things work together for their eternal welfare.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but note the text: no evil shall I fear. That means that although we are hated, we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter, although the blood of many martyrs of Christ soak the earth, no real evil befalls them. It is all chastisement and helps them to obtain the holiness of the Lord.
And what shall I more say?
I like to close with a text which has come before my mind's eye ever since I started this meditation. It is found in Proverbs 4:18, "But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day!"