SCRIPTURE READING: One of Mrs. Smith's favorite passages of scripture is the text which I have been requested to use for this service:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
By the use of the imagery of a shepherd and his flock of sheep, David describes the care and the comfort which one of God's sheep has in Him. He begins by describing the comfort and care of His Lord for him in life. He sums all of God's care up in one phrase, "I shall not want." There is no good thing that he lacks, for his shepherd cares for all of his needs.
In the agricultural imagery of his day, David describes the ways in which his Shepherd cares for him.
David's Shepherd does not leave him in death, however, so he goes on to describe the Lord's presence in death. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me."
Passing through death, David says, is like walking through dark shadows. He means to tell us that the experience is not a pleasant one, but that we, if we are one of God's sheep, are to pass through death. He also tells us that the Lord is with us through this passing, so that we are not alone and we need not fear.
WHILE THIS PSALM ASSURES US THAT GOD IS WITH US AS WE PASS THROUGH THE SHADOW OF DEATH, IT DOES NOT TELL US HOW THIS HAPPENS. As I understand it, the death of Mrs. Smith was one that was associated with a hospital and surgery. In our memories we will tend to think of her passing in the context of that hospital bed. I would like to turn your attention to two texts of Scripture which I hope will modify that memory of her death.
In this text in the book of 2 Kings, the king of Syria intended to put Elisha, the prophet of God, to death. He surrounded the place where Elisha and his servant were staying. The servant was stricken with fear. Elisha, however, responded,
"Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them." Then Elisha prayed and said, 'O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.' And the LORD opened the servant's eyes, and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Ki. 6:15-17).
The lesson is a simple one: What we see is only part of the picture. Elisha's servant saw only the enemy, and they were awesome. But Elisha's prayer enabled this servant to see the larger picture: the unseen host of angels, who were there to protect them from the enemy army which had encircled them.
In this text, Elijah, the prophet of God was about to depart, and Elisha, his servant who was to take his place, knew it, and so he would not leave him. Finally Elijah gave Elisha one last request, to which he responded,
"Please, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me." And he said, "You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so." Then it came about as they were going along and talking, that behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. And Elisha saw it and cried out, "My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" And he saw him no more (2 Ki. 2:9b-12a).
These two passages remind us of a very important truth. There are things going on around us, which are normally not visible to us. In the case of the horsemen and chariots of fire which Elisha's servant was enabled to see, in answer to the prophet's prayer, these were angelic hosts, assigned to protect God's prophet. The servant's fear was based upon his lack of awareness of all that was taking place around him. We are thus all reminded that God's angels are all about us, and that nothing can harm us apart from the permission and will of God.
The chariot and horses of fire which took Elijah into heaven remind us of another fact. While it is not normally visible to us, I believe that the angels are also employed in "escorting" the spirits of those who have died "in the Lord" into God's presence. I know that apart from divine intervention, Mrs. Smith's death was not at all glorious. But I believe that this text assures us that there was much more to be seen, just as was the case with Elisha's servant in chapter 6.
In the light of these events in the life of Elisha and Elijah I believe that we have a glimpse of how God is with one of His children when they die. We may see a hospital scene, with its doctors and nurses desperately trying to save a life. We may see sophisticated equipment and heroic efforts, but let us also consider the unseen things which can be received only by faith. Let us remember that if the Lord is our shepherd, He is with us as we pass through the valley of the shadow of death.
There is only one condition, if this is to be our experience as well, and that is that the Lord is OUR SHEPHERD. HOW CAN WE KNOW THAT HE IS OUR SHEPHERD?
In addition to the figure of a shepherd, the coming Christ was also referred to as a lamb. This is because it was necessary for the Christ to take the place of His people, to bear their punishment, so that they could share in His blessings. Specifically, He would have to die in the place of the sinner, and then to be raised again. Thus, Isaiah the prophet wrote,
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isa. 53:6-7).
In the New Testament, the writers of the gospels therefore speak of the Christ who came to the earth as a babe in the manger as both the "lamb of God" and the "shepherd." When John the Baptist introduced the Lord Jesus he said,
"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).
When Jesus referred to Himself as the "good shepherd" He was identifying Himself as the promised Messiah, the Christ for whom the Old Testament saints looked. Jesus said,
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11).
The Lord Jesus did lay down His life. He was nailed to a cross. He was buried in a tomb that was sealed shut and guarded by Roman soldiers, and yet, in spite of this, He rose from the grave, appeared to hundreds, and then ascended to heaven, from which He will return.
Because of this, the apostle Peter could encourage his readers by telling them that the "Chief Shepherd" will someday appear and will reward those who are faithful (1 Pet. 5:4). In the book of Revelation, the apostle John spoke of those who suffer in the great tribulation period, yet to come, saying,
"These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Rev. 7:14b-17).
The only question which remains is this: IS THIS HOPE YOUR HOPE? IS JESUS CHRIST YOUR GREAT SHEPHERD? The faith and confidence in the face of death of which the Bible speaks is not the possession of all, but only of those who have personally trusted in Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that all have sinned, and that the wages of sin is death. Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep. He died in your place, bearing your punishment, so that your sins might be forgiven and you might live eternally in His presence.