1 A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake. 4 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. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever (NKJV).
Many have turned to the 23rd Psalm as a source of comfort at times like this. And a comfort it is, for some. The question which must be raised is whether or not you can claim the comfort of this Psalm for yourself. In other words, can you say, “The Lord is my Shepherd. . .?”
Death should cause every one of us to give thought to our eternal destiny, and so I would like to honor this departed loved one by calling your attention to the 23rd Psalm, along with two New Testament texts. These texts will help to clarify who it is who can claim the comfort of Psalm 23, knowing with certainty that the Lord is their Shepherd.
I know that all of us are familiar with the words of this psalm. Let me call your attention first to the structure of this psalm. I believe that the Psalm falls into three parts. The first section includes verses 1-3. I believe that these verses describe the present, earthly blessings of those who can truly call the Lord their Shepherd. The imagery is that of a flock of sheep, and all that constitutes the “good life” for a sheep: green grass, abundant water, and a good shepherd, who leads and guides and vitalizes in this life.
The second section consists of one verse, verse 4. This verse deals specifically with the subject that is most in our minds at this time, and what men fear most of all – death (see Hebrews 2:14-15). God does care for His sheep during this life, but His care does not end here. He also cares for His sheep when one faces death. Specifically, He cares for His sheep when they die. But surely this comfort is also available at times like this, when we come to terms with the death of a friend or loved one.
The third section is found in verses 5 and 6. It was not until recently that I came to understand this Psalm in this way, but I now see verses 5 and 6 as a poetic description of the blessings of heaven and of eternal life. Earthly life was wonderful for His sheep, but it was a sheep’s life, so to speak. Heaven is so much more. Now, the blessings of heaven are described in terms of a dwelling in a palace, and of sitting at a sumptuous meal, in the most intimate fellowship of the One who has chosen to greatly honor His guest.
While everyone would like to think that the blessings of this Psalm are theirs, the Psalm itself suggests otherwise. These blessings are for the one who has the Lord as their Shepherd. The Psalm also speaks of enemies – those who obviously do not partake of these blessings. And so how do we know for certain that these blessings are ours. As we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” today, what is it that enables us to “fear no evil”? What is it that assures us that “Thou art with me”? This Psalm alone does not give us the full story, and so I would like to turn your attention to two New Testament passages, which give us a very clear answer to these questions.
19 "There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. 20 But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21 desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 Then he cried and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' 25 But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. 26 'And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us'” (Luke 16:19-26, NKJV).
There are two lessons which I wish to underscore from this story which Jesus told, which address a popular misconception that was held by the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees “loved money” Luke tells us in Luke 16:14, just before recording this story. They believed that since God blesses the righteous materially, anyone who was rich must be pious, and anyone who was poor must be a heathen. To put it in the simplest of terms, they believed that the rich went to heaven while the poor went to hell.
This story about the rich man and Lazarus must have really shocked the Pharisees. In our Lord’s story the poor man, Lazarus, went to heaven. The rich man – whose name is not even mentioned – went to hell.
The first lesson I wish to point out from this passage is that God truly is with His saints as they “pass through the valley of the shadow of death”. The rich man died and was buried, and went to hell. I’m sure that he had an expensive funeral, but in the end it did not affect his eternal destiny one way or the other. The poor man – Lazarus – lived all of his life in misery. His death, too, was surely a miserable one. We are not even told that he was given a burial. The poor may not have been given a funeral, and at times they may not even have been buried, but simply thrown into the valley outside Jerusalem. Nevertheless, we are not just told that Lazarus went to heaven, we are given more specific information as to how he got there: he was “carried there by the angels” (verse 22).
No matter how much pain, or how much misery Lazarus experienced in his final hours, the appearance was not the reality. The external circumstances of his death did not accurately reflect the eternal, heavenly reality of his angelic transport into eternal bliss. Your loved one’s final hours will probably not be the memories you will want to dwell upon. But I can tell you that for the Christian, no matter what the circumstances of their death, the reality is that God employs His angels to transport them from this life into eternity. You and I know that great men of old – men like Elijah and Elisha – experienced a miraculous transport from earth to heaven. But Jesus tells us that every Christian, rich or poor, is transported to heaven first class. What a way to pass through the “valley of the shadow of death”, with an angelic escort!
There is a second lesson for us in this story of the rich man and Lazarus. It is not so comforting. Indeed, it is most distressing. The lesson is that THERE ARE MANY WHO ASSUME THEY ARE GOING TO HEAVEN WHO ARE NOT. In terms of Psalm 23, they assume that the comfort of this Psalm is theirs, when it is not, because the Lord is not their Shepherd. Luke 16 does not tell us what it is that distinguished Lazarus from the rich man. Luke does not tell us here what it is that one must have to get to heaven, and if one does not possess it he will spend eternity in hell. What it does tell us is what will not get us to heaven. Here, we are told that money won’t get anyone to heaven. And the lack of money won’t keep anyone from heaven.
I must go on to say that there are many other things which will not get us to heaven, either. The best way to sum them all up is to put it this way: “No amount of effort on our part, and none of our good works will be sufficient to earn us a place in heaven.” The Apostle Paul summed it up this way:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:19-23).
Let me be even more specific. Religion will not get you to heaven, either. No one was more religious, more devout, than the Apostle Paul, before he became a Christian. In the third chapter of Philippians, Paul claimed that he was as religious as any Jew could get, and then he went on to appraise all of his religious fervor as “dung”. Paul was a Pharisee, and no one was more devout as a Jew than were the Pharisees. And yet Jesus said of the Pharisees:
“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
The bottom line is that there is NOTHING WE CAN DO TO EARN ETERNAL LIFE. How, then, can one be assured of eternal life? How can one walk through the valley of the shadow of death and not fear? The answer is very simple and very clear in the Bible: by TRUSTING IN THE GOOD SHEPHERD. It is not we who save ourselves, it is the Good Shepherd who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, and into the eternal delights of heaven. Our final text, taken from John 10, is the key:
7 Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:7-11).
The key to passing safely through the valley of the shadow of death is to be following the Lord as your Shepherd. In the New Testament, we are told that Jesus Christ is that Shepherd. He is the One who is the key to eternal life. He is the deciding factor. In John 10, Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd. He is the “door”, and those who enter through Him will be saved, or in “sheep terms” they will “go in and out and find pasture” (verse 9). In other words, those who trust in Jesus are those who will experience the benefits and blessings of Psalm 23.
Jesus is not just “with us” as we pass through the valley of the shadow of death. He has gone before us. There is a very real sense in which He has already passed through death. Jesus experienced death, suffered the penalty for our sins, and then rose from the dead. In this way Jesus not only leads us in the way, He became the way. Those who may confidently claim the comfort and the blessings of Psalm 23 are those who acknowledge that they are not worthy of these blessings; indeed, they acknowledge that because of their sins they are worthy of death. They understand that because they could do nothing to save themselves, Jesus Christ did it all, by coming to this earth, dying on the cross for their sins, and then rising from the dead.
The words of Psalm 23 are some of the most beautiful and most comforting words in all of the Bible. But they are not words that you can claim unless you have come to trust in Him who is the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. The death that we dread is the necessary result of our sin. Every funeral is a reminder of this. The only cure for our condition is the work of Jesus Christ. He became the Lamb of God. He bore the penalty for our sins. He died and rose from the dead. And in so doing, He became the Good Shepherd.
The assurance God gives to those who are His sheep is not a license to live any way you want in this life, and then feel assured that you will go to heaven when you die. The eternal life which the Good Shepherd gives is not a “fire escape.” Some people misinterpret and misapply the grace of God. They want to live their lives as they wish, not following Christ, but pursuing their own selfish desires. And then, when life is over, they want to escape hell and enter heaven. The 23rd Psalm is written by David, and it speaks of the his life as one that was characterized by following Christ as his earthly Shepherd, and then spending eternity with him. Salvation is not a license to live as you like in this life, and then to go to heaven when you die. Eternal life is a life in which your fellowship and service to God begins now, and continues for all eternity.
I hope and pray that you can truly claim the comfort of Psalm 23. And if you have come to see that the Lord is not truly your Shepherd, then I pray that you may trust in Him as the Lamb of God, and as the Good Shepherd, so that you may walk through the valley of the shadow of death without fear. For the Christian, the valley of the shadow of death is the way to eternal glory.