“It is appointed for man to die and then the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). It is said that nothing is certain except death and taxes. David certainly understood this fact as he wrote the 23rd Psalm. This psalm is perhaps the best-known Scripture, perhaps because of the subject and how it is handled. It is otherwise known as the “Shepherd Psalm. ”
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me, Your rod and your staff, they comfort me ” (Psalm 23:4 NKJV). This is a familiar verse to most people, even if they are not believers. I have had the privilege to say these words at nearly 200 funerals or memorial services, usually at the request of the deceased or their loved ones. Why so prevalent?
This verse is very comforting in the face of “The End.” At least most people think of death as the last mountain. To the Christian, this is just the beginning of life with God in heaven. For the Christian this should be a joyful time, except for the uncertainty of when and how. How is it comforting? It says so. God, the Good Shepherd is with us always. In Deuteronomy, “And the Lord, He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:6). In the Gospels, “ I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Hebrews 13:5 says “I will never leave you or forsake you…The Lord is my helper; I will not fear.” These and other similar promises are very encouraging.
One of my favorite funeral homilies or sermons talked about the shadow of death. The pastor told of a little girl afraid of shadows. Her father took her for a car ride. At a stoplight they had to wait while an 18-wheeler stopped and left its huge shadow upon them. As it pulled forward, the shadow moved and left them uncovered in the sunlight. This is how death works for a Christian. “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:7). The whole chapter talks of being clothed with Christ, a new body of light.
I like to talk of how we walk through the valley. We do not stop or have a penalty box time. We go right on through to heaven. One breath in here and the breath out in heaven. Transformed from darkness into light. I also like the “darkness” translation because it describes life on earth. But “God is light and in Him there is no darkness” (1 John 1:5). Here there is death and in heaven there is not. Here there is pain and tears and fears, in heaven there is not. Light covers and transforms the darkness; it takes it away.
“Fear not” occurs some 365 times in Scripture, once for every day like a good vitamin. God would not have said it so much if we did not need this reassurance so much. What do we fear? We fear just about everything in some way or at some time in our lives. In fact, some people live in fear all the time. This is called anxiety and causes depression or panic attacks. It seems that this state of mind and spirit is slowly pervading our society entirely. Psalm 23 says, “I shall fear no evil.” Why? For God is with me. There is the key; God is with us, Immanuel. And what does God say? My rod and my staff they comfort you. The rod is a club used to destroy the enemy, whatever it is, animal, human or fear of anything. David used one to take out the bear and the lion. The staff is a crooked stick about six feet long used to guide the wayward sheep, or us back on the path when we stray. Oh, and by the way, the rod can be used on us when we disobey as disciplinarian. God does instruct. He does not punish, He took that on the cross for all of us.
Comfort us? How can a rod and staff comfort? By protecting us and directing us God comforts us. In Isaiah, after 39 chapters of trial, exile and troubles, God says “Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” (Isaiah 40:1 NKJV). He is a comforter through the storms and in the storms of life.
Meanwhile, back to death. I have had the privilege to be with many people as they have passed from this life into the next. I have experienced many emotions in the dying; however, I will say that those who trusted in the Lord have always died peacefully. Those that did not trust in the Lord did not. I have experienced dying people seeing and feeling spiritual beings in their presence that brought great comfort. One man said he was seeing his relatives; another experienced Jesus Himself just as he took his last breath. I too experienced this blessing from heaven with them. I saw and felt them in my presence. We are body, mind and spirit, and the spirit remains. A feeling of peace and warmth filled me and the dying in these times. To the contrary, those dying without the Lord in my ministry saw and experienced pain, fear and visions that terrified them. They did not die in peace, but panic. Take these true stories, as you will.
I for one am glad and grateful that the Lord is my Shepherd. I know that I have a “Valley Guide” to show me through this dark place where the rivers flow and the flowers grow. Thank you Jesus!