Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Psalms 23:2 - 23:4

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Psalms 23:2 - 23:4


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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:

The Valley of the Shadow

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.—Psa_23:4.

1. The various methods of God’s leading of His flock, or rather, we should say, the various regions into which He leads them, are described in this Psalm in order. These are Rest, Work, Sorrow; and this series is so combined with the order of time that the past and the present are considered as the regions of rest and of work, while the future is anticipated as having in it the valley of the shadow of death.

2. The word rendered “valley” does not answer exactly to our English word, which suggests a pleasant lowland sweep bounded by sloping hillsides; nor even to the modern Arabic “wady” or torrent-bed, filled in the rainy season and dry the rest of the year; it is rather, as its derivation indicates, a chasm or rent among the hills—like Gehenna—a deep, abrupt, faintly-lighted ravine with steep sides and narrow floor, the bushes almost meeting overhead. Some savage glen among the hills of Judah, familiar to David during his shepherd-life, may have supplied the image; some deep narrow defile where the robber lurks and takes the flock at a disadvantage, or in which some fierce beast of prey has its lair. Of course in the failing light and blackening shades of dusk the gloom would be more than doubled.

The wilderness of Judæa is not a barren waste of sand and land without water, as a major portion of the Occidental world believes it to be. “Wilderness,” as the word is now understood, is altogether a misnomer. The “Wilds of Judæa” would be more correctly descriptive. The wilderness of Judæa is about forty miles long and ten miles broad. It stretches along the western coast of the Dead Sea and the southern portion of the Jordan Valley. This land of plateaus rises by steps westward from twelve hundred to fifteen hundred feet. This district presents a series of chalky, flint-strewn eminences and small plains separated by narrow torrent beds, worn deep by the winter rains, and here and there by terrific rocky gorges forming gloomy precipitous rifts through the beds of limestone. These gorges are veritable “valleys of the shadow of death”; for in these cragged mountains there are innumerable caves, both natural and hewn in the solid rock of the “everlasting hills” (Heb_3:6). In these caves still live numerous wild beasts. Lions have been extinct since the days of the Crusaders, who hunted and killed till they exterminated as much life as they could during their occupation of the country. Leopards are rare, and bears are now found only in the Lebanon ranges; but hyenas, wolves, wildcats, and jackals still roam at will over the country, as also birds of prey, such as eagles and vultures of great size and strength and beauty. All these are the natural “enemies” of the flocks of sheep and goats.1 [Note: A. F. Mamreov, A Day with the Good Shepherd, 16.]

3. One word is translated “shadow of death” (Heb. tsalmâveth). The same word (differently punctuated) means “deep shadow” or “deep gloom.” And it is practically certain that this is the word the Psalmist used, although the Ancient Versions and all the great English Versions take it in the former way. In any case, it is evident from the Psalm itself that the reference is not to death. The Psalm is a series of pictures of a believer’s life, and confidences. And after “the valley of the shadow of death” comes “the prepared table,” and “the anointed head,”—and “the mantling cup,” and “goodness and mercy following to the end”;—and then “the death,” or rather no death at all, for it is leapt over, or left out as almost a thing which is not,—“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”: and then, without one break, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Driver’s translation (in The Parallel Psalter) is, “Yea, though I walked in a ravine of deathly gloom, I would fear no evil.”

To think only of dying is greatly to narrow the application of David’s words; especially now, under the dispensation of the Spirit. If death throws down tremendous shadow, Christ has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. As a rule, believers do not find the avenue to the other world dark; on the contrary, the eternal light flings its radiance on their path; the eternal peace attends them; the eternal love is shed abroad within their bosom; not seldom they rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.

John Bunyan knew the Bible well, and he also had an intimate knowledge of the Christian life. Where does he place “the Valley of the Shadow of Death” in The Pilgrim’s Progress? Not at the very end of the pilgrimage,—he puts the bridgeless river there,—but in the middle of the pilgrim’s way.1 [Note: C. Jerdan, Pastures of Tender Grass, 41.]

After this long misery of haunted loneliness (in the Valley of the Shadow of Death) there comes the infinite relief of the human voice, as Christian hears great words spoken by a man going before him.… The verse which the unseen man is repeating is from the 23rd Psalm, where there is as yet no word of ending, and the comfort comes simply from the fact that God is with the man. By and by the day breaks, and Bunyan, who was intensely sensitive to the changes of light and darkness, finds a deep satisfaction in the new light. His poems of sunrise are well worth consulting. There is in them that authentic note of true poetry which reminds us sometimes of Chaucer and sometimes of Spenser. They contain the finest touches in his printed poems. The verse that Christian utters is, “He hath turned the shadow of death into the morning”: it is the same that is engraved upon the tombstone of Dr. Guthrie.2 [Note: John Kelman, The Road, i. 150.]

4. But this need not lead us away from the associations with which our old translation has invested the words. For it is not only darkness that the poet is describing, but the darkness where death lurks for the poor sheep—the gorges, in whose deep shadows are the lairs of wild beasts, and the shepherd and his club are needed. It stands thus for every dismal and deadly passage through which the soul may pass, and, most of all, it is the Valley of the Shadow of Death. There God is with men no less than by the waters of repose, or along the successful paths of active life.

One night, when I was a lad, lying in my bed at home, long ago, I awoke, and it was dark, and I heard a voice in the night—not a song, but I heard the voice of my mother as she lay upon her bed of pain. She was twenty-five years in the valley of the shadow of death. Her “light affliction” endured for a quarter of a century, but it was “but for a moment,” seeing that it led to the “eternal weight of glory.” I shall never forget how the sound of her voice floated into my dark room and my disquieted heart—“Yea, though I walk through the valley”—think of it rising in the air at two o’clock on a dark winter morning with the wind howling round your house—“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.”1 [Note: John McNeill, Regent Square Pulpit, i. 254.]

This verse is full of comfort; its very terms are reassuring. Death has become, certainly to us Christians, that which the Psalmist imagined here—only a shadow. It is dark, cold, gloomy, terrible, but only a shadow. So said Archbishop Laud on the scaffold: “Lord, I am coming as fast as I can. I know I must pass through the shadow of death before I can come to see Thee. But it is but umbra mortis, a shadow of death, a little darkness upon nature; but Thou, Lord, by Thy goodness, hast broken the jaws and the power of death.”2 [Note: W. C. E. Newbolt, Penitence and Peace, 116.]

I knew an old soldier who had served throughout the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, a plain, simple-minded man who had lived a blameless Christian life, and whose most noticeable characteristic, perhaps, was the singular elevation of his spirit in prayer. As his strength declined and he wore slowly away, his cheerfulness increased, and he would talk with solemn gladness about what lay before him. Dying had ceased to trouble him; he always called it “falling asleep.” As I shook hands with him on the morning of his death, he said—and his face beamed with a most perfect serenity—“I have taken many a journey in my time; this morning I am taking the pleasantest journey of all—I am going home to my Father’s house.”3 [Note: J. Culross, God’s Shepherd Care, 100.]

I.

Courage

“I will fear no evil.”

1. Even when we know that Love leads us in, it is natural for our poor, weak human hearts to shrink and fear in the entering. Not the timid only, but those who are constitutionally brave. Not children only, but even strong men; and sometimes strong men more than children. “They feared as they entered the cloud”—bright though it was. Imagination peoples the darkness with shapes of terror. Somewhere or other there may be danger couching invisible in the gloom, watching its opportunity, and ready to spring forth upon us without warning; and even when there is none, our faithless hearts call up a thousand frightful possibilities; and our fears are none the less distressing that they are vague and shapeless, but rather all the more.

David did not mean to say that he was devoid of all fear, but only that he would surmount it so as to go without fear wherever his Shepherd should lead him. This appears more clearly from the context. He says, in the first place, “I will fear no evil”; but immediately adding the reason of this, he openly acknowledges that he seeks a remedy against his fear in contemplating, and having his eyes fixed on, the staff of his Shepherd: “For thy staff and thy crook comfort me.”1 [Note: Calvin, Psalms, i. 395.]

In the Manchester Art Gallery there is a famous picture by Briton Rivière, entitled “In Manus Tuas, Domine!” of which the artist says: “I have failed indeed if the story does not carry some lesson to ourselves to-day, whatever be our doubts or fears.” The message it conveys is the victory of faith. The picture represents a fair-haired young knight clad in armour, seated upon a white charger whose downcast head, quivering nostrils and quivering limbs denote intense fear. At the charger’s feet there crouch three bloodhounds, also gazing before them in terror. Behind the knight is the forest glade through which he has passed, rich in green sward and sun-kissed paths, but the path in front is full of gloom and unknown terrors. In his fear the knight is at one with the trembling brutes, but he has that within him which raises him above them and gives him aid. It is faith. Lifting his sword before his face, it forms itself into a cross. “Into Thy hands, O Lord,” he says, and goes forward. He conquers fear by faith, and by it, “though he walk through the valley of the shadow, he will fear no evil.”2 [Note: J. Burns, Illustrations from Art (1912), 128.]

2. What is the bearing of the Lord’s flock in entering this valley? It comes into view in these words, which one speaks for all, “I will fear no evil.” Mark, it is a single voice that speaks, a man all alone, conscious only of the presence of God. I will go into the death-gloom without dread and palpitation of heart. There may be threatening, alarm, evil (tiger-like) watching its opportunity, all around; curses flung out of the darkness by the enemy, as if they were yet unrepealed; but I shall not be disquieted or dismayed, for evil shall not be allowed to harm me, yea, rather shall be compelled to contribute to my well-being.

Hardly any one, when the time comes, is really afraid of death. My sister said: “I have a great fear, but also a great hope.” This is uncommon. My mother said: “I wonder whether I shall ever sit in the garden any more.” I am glad to be nearer death for one reason—because I can see the problems of theology in a truer manner, and can get rid of illusions.1 [Note: The Letters of Benjamin Jowett, 247.]

About this time Mr. Romanes drew up a paper, which is given here, as it may interest some readers:—

18 Cornwall Terrace, Regent’s Park, London, N.W.

“Dear Sir or Madam,—While engaged in collecting materials for a work on Human Psychology, I have been surprised to find the greatness of the differences which obtain between different races, and even between different individuals of the same race, concerning sentiments which attach to the thoughts of death. With the view, if possible, of ascertaining the causes of such differences, I am addressing a copy of the appended questions to a large number of representative and average individuals of both sexes, various nationalities, creeds, occupations, etc. It would oblige me if you would be kind enough to further the object of my inquiry by answering some or all of these questions, and adding any remarks that may occur to you as bearing upon the subject—

“ ‘Do you regard the prospect of your own death (a) with indifference, (b) with dislike, (c) with dread, or (d) with inexpressible horror?

“ ‘If you entertain any fear of death at all, is the cause of it (a) prospect of bodily suffering only, (b) dread of the unknown, (c) idea of loneliness and separation from friends, or (d), in addition to all or any of these, a peculiar horror of an indescribable kind?

“ ‘Is the state of your belief with regard to a future life that of (a) virtual conviction that there is a future life, (b) suspended judgment inclining towards such belief, (c) suspended judgment inclining against such belief, or (d) virtual conviction that there is no such life?

“ ‘Is your religious belief, if any, (a) of a vivid order, or (b) without much practical influence on your life and conduct?

“ ‘Can you trace any change in your feelings with regard to death as having taken place during the course of your life?

“ ‘If ever you have been in danger of death, what were the circumstances, and what your feelings?’ ”1 [Note: Life and Letters of George John Romanes, 188.]

Most wonderful is it how largely and how variously this fearless confidence comes out in the Book of Psalms—not from the sanguine and untried, but from those who have had widest and profoundest experience—who have been in the valley and have come forth from it unhurt, yea, nobler and loftier spiritually. “Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.” “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.” “The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil; he shall preserve thy soul: The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.”2 [Note: J. Culross, God’s Shepherd Care, 106.]

I remember going down one night, about twelve o’clock, to the seaside, and I stood in the shadow of a gloomy wood. In the front of me for miles stretched the frith of the sea. Away across yonder were the Argyleshire hills, and up above them, again, the gloomy heavens, with here and there a star peeping out. It was like the valley of the shadow of death. The sea was lapping at my feet, and a gentle breeze was blowing over it, when suddenly I heard a sound. I listened and strained my ear, and that sound turned out to be the sound, first of all, of oars in the rowlocks—a dull, thumping sound as some fishermen urged their boat along its way. And still I listened, and what I heard was the sound of music; and as the boat came nearer, there was borne to me across the waves the sound of singing. Those fishermen were Christians, and even while tugging at the weary oar in the dark and lonely night they were cheering themselves with the songs of Zion.3 [Note: John McNeill.]

There is a courage, a majestic thing

That springs forth from the brow of pain, full grown,

Minerva-like, and dares all dangers known.

And all the threatening future yet may bring;

Crowned with the helmet of great suffering,

Serene with that grand strength by martyrs shown

When at the stake they die and make no moan,

And even as the flames leap up are heard to sing.

A courage so sublime and unafraid,

It wears its sorrows like a coat of mail;

And Fate, the archer, passes by dismayed,

Knowing his best barbed arrows needs must fail

To pierce a soul so armoured and arrayed

That Death himself might look on it and quail.1 [Note: Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Poems of Passion, 145.]

3. On what does this fearless courage rest? Not on the thought that there is no evil in the dark valley. That were false because groundless security. There may be evil great and manifold in the valley; evil that has the heart, if only it had the opportunity, to ruin us; tens of thousands setting themselves against us round about; the devil himself going about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Nor does it rest on the foolish fancy that we are able ourselves to cope with the evil. We cannot even see to defend ourselves, although we had the strength; and any fight in which we might engage were a fight in the dark. Our courage rests on our consciously enjoying the presence of Jehovah our Shepherd. All minor considerations are omitted here—such as, that others have been in the valley already, the hope of getting well through it, the thought that bright-harnessed angel-guards surround us, and so forth—and the soul fixes on this chief thing of all, the Shepherd’s presence.

It is the love of Christ and trust in Him that alone can give true courage. For notice that there is no attempt made in the Psalm to paint death otherwise than it is, in itself evil, fearful, and appalling. But it is the love of Christ that gives the confidence, the courage that we need. The God who has fed us, the Good Shepherd who has guided us through so many perils, is true and staunch, and will not desert His sheep in the hour of danger. Having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end.

Among Mr. Brown’s duties as assistant to Edward Irving in London one was to visit the Sunday schools, once a month each, when one of the exercises was the repetition of metre Psalms. An incident connected with this duty made such a deep impression on him that more than sixty years afterwards, when he was in his ninety-second year, he recorded the circumstances in a journal conducted by the Young Men’s Christian Association of Aberdeen. A poor, sickly boy, too unwell to be out, had repeated the Twenty-third Psalm. Next month it was reported that he was dying, and Mr. Brown went to see him, and found him in a miserable place—a sort of drying loft. The mother met him with tears in her eyes, and told him that her boy had been speaking all night. “What has he been speaking about?” asked Mr. Brown. “Well, sir, you see I am a Roman Catholic, and I don’t know your hymns, but it’s something about death’s dark vale.” “Oh! my woman, I know well what your boy has been speaking about; take me to him.” “On reaching his bed [Dr. Brown explained], I found it was a deal box, and he was lying on straw. ‘My dear boy,’ I said, as he looked up smiling, ‘you are dying.’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Are you afraid to die?’ ‘No, sir.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I am going to Jesus.’ ‘But how do you know that you are going to Jesus?’ ‘Because I love Him.’ It was a child’s answer [said Dr. Brown], but it was music to me.”1 [Note: W. G. Blaikie, David Brown, D.D., LL.D., 36.]

4. The spirit of the verse is that of fearless courage in going forward to encounter the dark unknown. It is not possible to evade entering the valley; but it is possible to be in it and not to fear realizing a Divine Presence in the gloom, aware of a love and power on which we may securely count. And so this verse, breathed three thousand years ago from the heart of one whom God had comforted, comes down through the ages as God’s great Fear not to His people when He leads them into the darkness; rather, indeed, His great Fatherly assurance that all things shall work together for their good. It is laid up in the Book for the use of all future ages, a promise and strength and joy for whatever evil days may come. Just like those snatches of song and sudden bursts of exaltation that lie scattered throughout the Apocalypse—like that great Alleluia which is to be uttered when the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth—so this verse, mighty for the past, is written for times still future, and lies waiting till there shall be hearts and lips to sing it.

The highest courage has its root in faith. One may be bold because he is ignorant or because he lacks sensitiveness; one may be indifferent to danger because he is indifferent to fate; one may be brave from that instinctive pluck which focusses all a man’s powers on the doing of the thing in hand, or the resolute holding of the place to which one has been assigned; but the quality which sees with clear intelligence all the possibilities of peril, which is sensitive to pain and loss, which loves life and light and the chances of work, and yet calmly faces calamity and death, is born of faith, and grows to splendid maturity by the nurture of faith.1 [Note: H. W. Mabie, The Life of the Spirit, 120.]

Edward Irving returned to London to find himself forbidden to administer the Sacraments, for the act of deposition was a judicial act, depriving him of his authority as a minister. Though he was re-ordained by the apostles of his own Church, he never recovered from the blow. He accepted it with a humility which was the more touching from his confidence in his extraordinary powers. But his heart was broken. Slowly his life ebbed from him. His faith in his mission was unshaken; he believed in it with all the fervour and strength of his soul, and toiled still to gain for it the ear of the world; but in vain. In September 1834 he left London a dying man. Riding through Shropshire and Wales, and visiting his scattered congregations as he went, he reached Liverpool. In his touching letters to his wife are messages to his little daughter, Maggie, sent in the simply-told stories that he gleaned on his way. When other comforts had failed, and fame had fled, he clung to his Bible, and made the Psalms his constant companions. “How in the night seasons,” he writes on October 12th, “the Psalms have been my consolations against the faintings of flesh and spirit.”

At Liverpool he took ship and sailed for Glasgow. The end was near. For a few weeks he was able to preach, though, at forty-two, his gaunt gigantic frame bore all the marks of age and weakness. His face was wasted, his hair white, his voice broken, his eyes restless and unquiet. As November drew to its close, his feebleness increased, till it was evident that his life was rapidly passing away. His mind began to wander. Those who watched at his bedside could not understand the broken utterances spoken in an unknown tongue by his faltering voice. But at last it was found that he was repeating to himself in Hebrew, Psalms 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” It was with something like its old power that the dying voice swelled as it uttered the glorious conviction, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” The last articulate words that fell from his lips were, “If I die, I die unto the Lord. Amen.” And with these he passed away at midnight on December 7th, 1834.1 [Note: R. E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life, 313.]

II.

Companionship

“For thou art with me.”

1. Most men will agree that it is the loneliness of death that constitutes its chief dread. If we could die in families, in groups, in communities; if hand in hand we could move down the dark valley, hand in hand breast the dark river, hand in hand pass into the Paradise of God, then death would indeed lose much of its terror and gloom. But, alas! each must die for himself, even though he may die with others. Loved ones, however dear, can only see us off. The most they can do is to smooth our passage down to the edge of the shadow, and then wish us a good voyage as we embark. Last words have to be spoken, final leave has to be taken; and then alone, as far as human eye can see, and unattended, the soul must pass out into the night that men call death. So, indeed, it seems to our dull sight; but not to the Psalmist’s. With a prophet’s keen vision he pierces the veil, and, seeing no break in the sheltering care of the All-Fatherly hand, triumphantly declares that even the death-crisis cannot come between him and his Shepherd-Guide. “Thou art with me!”

I remember being much struck with the remark made by a former Sabbath-school teacher of my own. His mother was a widow, and he lived with her. When the doctor told him he could not survive the night, he bade good-bye to all his friends; and after they had left the house, turning to his mother he said, “We will meet the king of terrors alone.” Yet even she had to leave him to die alone. But they who have God as their Shepherd are not even then alone. The Son of God has promised that He will come again to take them to Himself; that where He is, there they may be also.2 [Note: W. H. Gray, Our Divine Shepherd, 21.]

“Thou art with me.” I have eagerly seized on this; for out of all the terrors which gather themselves into the name of death, one has stood forth as a champion-fear to terrify and daunt me. It is the loneliness of death. “I die alone.”1 [Note: W. C. E. Newbolt, Penitence and Peace, 118.]

Jesu, have mercy!

’Tis this new feeling, never felt before,

(Be with me, Lord, in my extremity!)

That I am going, that I am no more.

’Tis this strange innermost abandonment,

(Lover of souls! great God! I look to Thee,)

This emptying out of each constituent

And natural force, by which I come to be.

Pray for me, O my friends; a visitant

Is knocking his dire summons at my door,

The like of whom, to scare me and to daunt,

Has never, never come to me before.2 [Note: Newman, Dream of Gerontius.]

2. Loneliness is a thing which we must learn to face, in our work, in the separations of life, and in times of quiet. Certainly, whether we like it or not, we must be alone in death, as far as this world is concerned. And men preach to us detachment. “Sit loosely to the world,” they say, that the wrench may be less when it comes. But the Good Shepherd says rather, learn attachment. It is His promise: “Fear not; I will be with thee.” It is our confidence: “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” It is more; it is our joy: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” And is not this the true answer to our fears—How can I go to meet that shadow? How will my faith stand its cold embrace? How shall I ever believe in the bright promise of a land beyond, when here all is dark? Let us ask rather—How am I going to meet the duty just before me? Is He with me now? Have I learned to find Him in the quiet hours of the day? Have I found His presence in desolating sorrow? Have I felt His hand in darkness and doubt? Have I found Him near me in prayer and Eucharist? If so, I need not look forward. He is leading me on, step by step, and day by day. He is habituating me, little by little, to the withdrawal of the light, and to utter trust in Him. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” There is grace given me for the new day’s work; there is grace given me under this desolating sorrow. There is grace given me to live well; when I need it, there will be grace given me to die well. “For thou art with me.” Now is the time to make firm that companionship. To be still, and know that He is God. To find the guiding Hand in all its strength and security, amid the death and life of each day’s hopes and fears. And then, when we enter the shadow, still it will be “with God onwards.”

What is it that a mother’s love with its infinite tenderness and ministry should welcome us into the world, what is it that friendship and love should gladden life through all its days, if when we pass away from earth there be but an awful solitude, a horror of great darkness, where no hand grasps ours, and no voice cheers us? What is it that the sun should shine, or that earth should yield ten thousand things to meet my commonest needs, if these highest and deepest wants within me be all unmet, and I go forth perishing with hunger? If in what is there be any prophecy of what shall be, if the beneficence of the present is any promise and pledge of the future, surely it must be that love shall not fail us then—then when we need it most. All hope, all need, all the goodness and promise of every day do find their fulness in the words of our Lord: “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”1 [Note: M. G. Pearse, In the Banqueting House, 145.]

3. Observe at this point the change in David’s manner of address. Hitherto he has been speaking about the Lord the Shepherd in the third person; now as he moves into the sphere of darkness, like a child creeping closer to his father’s side in the blackening gloom, he draws closer to God, and changes from “he” to “thou”! Instead of speaking about Him, he speaks directly to Him, as to one near and hearing. In the last verse of the Psalm it was “He leadeth me”; now, in the region of death-shadow, it is “Thou art with me.” The change, I think, marks the energizing of faith, and its closer grip of the great Hand in the dark. What a conception it gives us of the greatness of God that He hears, really hears, this breathing of the heart, “Thou art with me.” Think what multitudinous voices rise to the ear of God—voices of sin, distress, joy, praise, prayer—in whispers, groans, shrieks, hosannas—in all tones—in all languages—by night and by day—from the whole earth! And yet my feeble voice is not lost in the din, but reaches His ear, when I draw close to Him in the darkness, and breathe out my confidence, “Thou art with me.”1 [Note: J. Culross, God’s Shepherd Care, 113.]

III.

Comfort

“Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

1. The shepherd is as powerful as he is tender; for he carries in his hand a great oak club to beat off the wild beasts. Even to-day “many adventures with wild beasts occur, not unlike that recounted by David (1Sa_17:34-36); for, though there are now no lions here, there are wolves in abundance; and leopards and panthers, exceeding fierce, prowl about these wild wadies. They not unfrequently attack the flock in the very presence of the shepherd, and he must be ready to do battle at a moment’s warning” (Thomson, The Land and the Book). The staff is different from the rod: on it the shepherd leans; with it in various ways he helps his sheep. So that rod and staff together symbolize the power and the affection of the Divine Shepherd. Well might the Psalmist point to them with pride and gladness, and say, “They are my consolation.”

There are several places in which this word “rod” occurs that show us its meaning. The first is in Lev_27:32. The reference is to the numbering of the sheep, driving them into a corner, so that they can pass through a gap only one at a time, and the rod is dipped over them as they are counted. So the rod is the symbol of possession. Then, again, although the word is not used, there is the same thought in Jer_33:10. It is the beautiful picture of Israel’s restoration. “Again shall there be heard in this place, which ye say is desolate … the voice of joy, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, and the voice of them that say, Praise the Lord of Hosts: for the Lord is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: … in this place, which is desolate … shall be an habitation of shepherds causing their flocks to lie down … the flocks shall pass again under the hands of him that telleth them, saith the Lord.” It is the picture of fullest and most assured possession.

2. The rod and the staff are not by any means those of the pilgrim, which would be a misleading sudden transition to a different figure, but those of Jehovah the Shepherd as the means of guidance and defence. The rod and staff in God’s hand comfort him, i.e. impart to him the feeling of security, and therefore make him of good cheer. Even when he walks through a narrow defile, dark and gloomy as the grave, where surprise and disasters of every kind threaten him, he fears no misfortune.

The staff of the mountaineer is often inscribed with the names of his triumphs. And on this staff what triumphs are written! Hold it and read what is written thereon: “Able to save to the uttermost all that come to God by him.” “Able to keep us from falling.” “Able to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy.” Here is no room for fear. Here faith must sing her cheeriest, sweetest song: “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”1 [Note: M. G. Pearse, In the Banqueting House, 152.]

3. The rod and staff are sometimes regarded as two names for one object, used for different purposes. The more natural meaning of the double phrase is, however, the more correct. The shepherd carries both a shebet, a kind of club or mace slung by the side and used as an offensive weapon when needed, and a mish’eneth, a long straight pole carried in the hand and used for climbing, for support, and for helping the sheep in various ways.

The shepherd’s staff is not a crook, as painted by foreign artists. The shepherds of Palestine never used a crook, nor do bo to-day. It is a camel-herder that carries a light cane with a crook at one end, with which he catches the camel by hooking its neck with the crook, and guides it by taps of the crook instead of a halter when riding it.2 [Note: A. F. Mamreov, A Day with the Good Shepherd, 27.]

Going before the flock, the shepherd beats the grass and bushes with his staff to drive out the serpents lurking in the paths. These reptiles usually glide quickly away and escape, but occasionally one bolder than the rest will show fight. Then quick as a flash the good shepherd strikes the serpent with his heavy-headed club, taking care to crush its head, because a snake is not fatally wounded whose head is not crushed, the vital organs being situated, as with fishes, close to the head. Otherwise, even if cut in half, it is still capable of inflicting mortal injury by its sting.1 [Note: A. F. Mamreov, A Day with the Good Shepherd, 72.]

4. “They comfort me.” What does “comfort” mean, as used in the Bible? It means with strength. Comfortare is to give strength, to comfort by increasing power; not to smooth and quiet and hush down, and say, “No, be quiet, be calm.” That is not the Bible comfort; comfort in the Bible is to gird with strength, to strengthen, to stimulate. He is comforted, He is made strong enough to resume the war. “They comfort me”; they make me so strong that I take up Death, and in the great wrestle I fling him to the dust.

Death! I know not what room you are abiding in,

But I will go my way,

Rejoicing day by day,

Nor will I flee or stay

For fear I tread the path you may be hiding in.



Death! I know not if my small barque be nearing you;

But if you are at sea,

Still there my sails float free;

“What is to be will be.”

Nor will I mar the happy voyage by fearing you.



Death! I know not what hour or spot you wait for me;

My days untroubled flow,

Just trusting on I go,

For oh, I know, I know,

Death is but Life that holds some glad new fate for me.2 [Note: Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Poems of Experience, 29.]

There came a critical moment in my life when I was sadly in need of comfort, but could see none anywhere. I could not at the moment lay my hands on my Bible, and I cast about in my mind for some passage of Scripture that would help me. Immediately there flashed into my mind the words, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” At first I turned from it almost with scorn. “Such a common text as that,” I said to myself, “is not likely to do me any good.” I tried hard to think of a more recherché one; but none would come, and at last it almost seemed as if there were no other text in the whole Bible. And finally I was reduced to saying, “Well, if I cannot think of any other text, I must try to get what little good I can out of this one,” and I began to repeat to myself over and over, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Suddenly, as I did so, the words were illuminated, and there poured out upon me such floods of comfort that I felt as if I could never have a trouble again.1 [Note: Mrs. Pearsall Smith, The God of all Comfort, 45.]

5. “They comfort me.” “They” is emphatic, because they are thy rod and thy staff, says Perowne. Here we must regard “they,” not as the personal pronoun, but as a survival of the older function of the word, i.e. as a demonstrative. It would be a good practice if we followed an example which has been set by some of the Germans, and printed such latent demonstratives in spaced type. This “they” is so essential, it is so distinct and emphatic in the Hebrew, Septuagint, Vulgate, and Jerome, that it is strange Coverdale should have overlooked it.2 [Note: J. Earle, The Psalter of 1539, 267.]

6. And they bring me through. “Though I walk through the valley,” says David. There are words, says Pearse, that are like the shells to which children listen, hearing the roll and murmuring of the sea; words like the crystal stones within whose depths are a thousand mysteries of beauty. Such is this word through. I listen—it is the music of the angels that I hear, faint and afar off. I look into the word, and the light breaks, soft and pure, the light of heaven. Through,—it is as when one goes through some Alpine tunnel—on this side the bleak heights, the glaciers, the snows and solitude of an eternal winter; then the darkness, on and on, until at last we come forth from the gloom. Suddenly about us breaks the light of Italy, the green slopes that face the sunny south, the olive trees, the vineyards, the pastures gay with a thousand flowers, the hills all musical with waterfalls, the fertile plains rich with all kinds of crops. Through,—there is a way out, another side.

It is a tunnel, but only a tunnel, and, like all tunnels, it has light at both ends, and certainly it has light at that end to which you are travelling. Most of the railway stations, I notice, are entered through tunnels. I do not know why, but it so happens that coming into most of our London termini you shoot through a long, dreary, ghostly, rattling tunnel, and then there is the terminus, and your father there, or your wife there on the platform, and then the embrace and the kiss and the hearty welcome. We are going through the tunnel, and at the end of it is the terminus, and, please God, we shall soon be there. It is dark and noisome and spectral, and a little awesome and fearsome just now. Sing. Sing this Psalm of heart-confidence, and the shadows will become somewhat luminous with the light that is about to reveal itself—the light of heaven, our eternal home.1 [Note: John McNeill.]

How should it be a fear

To leave the spirit’s house

Where is our certain pain?

The wide path waits and here

We dully pine and drowse.



The Fields, the illimitable Seas,

The Snows and Storms and Suns

Are for our own soul’s foot.

With them will be our ease

When the free spirit runs



Out from the gate at last.—

O halting soul, to yield

Unto this lovely change!

To let the lot be cast—

Be bold—and sure—and yield!2 [Note: M. M‘Neal-Sweeney, Men of No Land, 77.]

When a child is born into the world, one of the most wonderful things to watch is how utterly it takes its surroundings for granted; it nestles to its mother’s breast, it does not doubt that it is welcome; then, as it begins to perceive what is happening to it, to look round it with intelligence, it smiles, it understands love, it imitates words, it claims the rights of home and family; it has not the least sense of being a stranger or a sad exile; all that it sees belongs to it and is its own. So will it be with the new birth, I make no doubt; we shall enter upon the unseen world with the same sense of ease and security and possession; there will even be nothing to learn at first, nothing to inquire about, nothing to wonder at. We shall just fall into our new place unquestioning and unquestioned; it will be familiar and dear, our own place, our own circle. The child is never in any doubt as to who it is and where it is; and in the vast scheme of things, our little space of experience is assured to us for ever.3 [Note: A. C. Benson, Thy Rod and Thy Staff, 60.]

Literature

Brooks (P.), The Spiritual Man, 286.

Burns (J. D.), Memoir and Remains, 301.

Cooke (G. A.), The Progress of Revelation, 107.

Culross (J.), God’s Shepherd Care, 93.

Drew (H.), Death and the Hereafter, 86.

Duff (R. S.), The Song of the Shepherd, 95.

Eyton (R.), The Search for God, 75.

Fairbairn (A. M.), Christ in the Centuries, 90.

Finlayson (T. C.), The Divine Gentleness, 240.

Freeman (J. D.), Life on the Uplands, 79.

Gray (W. H.), Our Divine Shepherd, 19.

How (W. W.), Plain Words, i. 45.

Howard (H.), The Shepherd Psalms , 65, 71.

Hutton (W. R.), Low Spirits, 188.

Jerdan (C.), Pastures of Tender Grass, 41.

Joseph (M.), The Ideal in Judaism, 121.

Knight (W. A.), The Song of Our Syrian Guest, 14.

Lonsdale (J.), Sermons, 248.

McFadyen (J. E.), Ten Studies in the Psalms , 23.

McNeill (J.), Regent Square Pulpit, i. 252.

Mamreov (A. F.), A Day with the Good Shepherd, 71, 75.

Newbolt (W. C. E.), Penitence and Peace, 115.

Parker (J.), City Temple Pulpit, v. 175.

Pearse (M. G.), Parables and Pictures, 68.

Pearse (M. G.), In the Banqueting House, 143.

Phillips (S.), The Heavenward Way, 88.

Roberts (D.), A Letter from Heaven, 124.

Service (J.), Sermons, 243.

Smellie (A.), In the Hour of Silence, 142.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxvii. (1881) No. 1595.

Stalker (J.), The Psalm of Psalms , 77.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), New Ser., xv. No. 1031.

Voysey (C.), Sermons, xxiii. (1900) No. 20.

Christian World Pulpit, iv. 206 (Collyer); xxi. 387 (Haynes); lxv. 232 (Parker).

Church of England Magazine, xxiii. 272 (Kelk); xxix. 256 (Perkins); xxxiv. 24 (Hull); lx. 308 (Hull).

Expository Times, v. 288 (Clemens).

Preacher’s Magazine, vi. 404 (Pearse).