I can vividly imagine the valley below one of the many lookouts of “Skyline Drive” on the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. On sunny days, one of the most eye-catching details of the landscape are the conspicuous dark spots that shade vast portions of the valley, those areas that are under the shadow of a cloud. This image helps me to understand Matthew’s relief and joy when he wrote of the arrival of Jesus Christ as light breaking through darkness: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who lived in the land where death casts its shadow, a light has shined.”
On a deeper level, our whole world can be described as “the land where death casts its shadow.” The prospect of death casts a long shadow over life in this world. Few questions grip human beings more than the question of what comes after death. “All the peoples of the world,” Herman Bavinck explains, seek “some idea of it, and all religions include some kind of eschatology… The desire to know what happens to us after death is a universal human desire.” The famous monologue of Shakespeare’s Hamlet expresses well this shadow: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause… the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country…” Philosophers like Plato and Heidegger likewise wrote of man’s lifelong orientation towards death.
No wonder, then, that Psalm 23’s beautiful poetry, “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” has captured hearts through the ages and finds frequent mention in pop-culture. Psalm 23, however, is just one of many passages in God’s Word that affirm the long shadow death casts over human life. Ecclesiastes expresses it in various ways (e.g., 2:14–17; 3:18–21; 6:6). Hebrews 2:15 goes so far as to say that all human beings are subject to the lifelong slavery that is the fear of death. The fear of death grips our whole existence—a reality manifested most recently with the COVID-19 pandemic.
This fear of death subtly affects how people act and think. We get so frustrated and impatient when our time seems to be wasted because we know that our minutes are limited, death ever approaching. The scarcity of life makes us think twice before laying down our lives for others or God. Walter Marshall made this point in his great work on sanctification, arguing that someone who does not believe in resurrection after death, like the ancient Sadducee, will not sacrifice for God: “How can he willingly choose afflictions rather than sin, when he shall be more miserable in this life for it, and not at all happy thereafter?” The Apostle Paul said as much, telling the Corinthians that if the dead are not raised, his own suffering for Christ was in vain: “What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32). In other words, the prospect of death, without the hope of eternal life, extinguishes courage and charity, leaving only the fatalistic response of the hopeless in Isaiah 22:13: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Christians today, then, live among people who vacillate on a spectrum between dread, angst, ennui, and the “you-only-live-once” (YOLO) mentality: “live your best life now, it is all you have, life is too short not to pursue what you want.” This provides an opportunity to testify to our “living hope” that comes “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). We testify that Christ died and rose that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15). We believe that death does not bring the end, but ushers one to their eternal dwelling. The startling words of Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” reflect this truth that death now conducts the believer into heavenly glory. Christ has vanquished death; he will fulfill Isaiah 25’s promise that God “will swallow up death forever.”
This does not cheapen life or lead to recklessness, but it does mean that we should not idolize life in this world. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). We are waiting for that day when Christ defeats that last enemy, death, and wipes every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). At the same time, because of the Savior’s victory over the grave, life “in the valley of the shadow of death” has profoundly changed. As Jesus made clear in John 5:24, our resurrection hope is a present reality, not merely future: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
We are delivered from that slavery that is the fear of death. Christian poets have voiced this hope by likening death to sleep. John Donne’s sonnet, “Death, be not proud,” remarks,
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow…
Likewise, Maltbie Babcock’s poem, “Why Be Afraid of Death,” asks, “Is sleep a thing to dread? / Yet sleeping you are dead / Till you awake and rise, / Here, or beyond the skies.” In other words, the Christian should no more fear death than they fear sleep. Death has lost its power over believers. Even now, death can be taunted (1 Cor. 15:55)!
Christian confidence in this resurrection hope sets believers apart in a world gripped by fear. B.B. Warfield’s story about the composure of two men in a time of chaos provides a good illustration. They pass each other as strangers, and then one comes back to the other, who had likewise turned, and they find out they shared the same view of their purpose in life: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” This expressed itself in their demeanor in a time of upheaval. Our courage during pandemic and other dangerous times serves as a powerful witness to our neighbors. The children of God “shine as lights” as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Phil. 2:15). The shadow of the Almighty proves greater than the shadow of death.
Likewise, God is with us even now in the valley of the shadow of death. Psalm 23 envisions the LORD as the shepherd who takes his sheep on a journey, not avoiding the difficult places but promising protection and guidance: “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” We are not alone in this world. The psalm ends with the promise of God’s presence that transcends death: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” We confidently look forward to dwelling with our God forever.
Until that day when we join the LORD in heaven, we rejoice in his grace now, exalting his name even while we wait for his light to cast away what remains of the shadow of death (Ps. 23:3). God’s grace is highlighted throughout Psalm 23, but especially there in verse 6, for the Hebrew behind the word “follow” was used in the ancient world to describe covenant curses that would “hunt down” those who broke covenant. David highlights the mercy of God by using a highly negative word in an extremely positive way, with hesed, the LORD’s love. As Isaiah 53:6 declares, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way.” We deserve death and curse. Yet in the fullness of time, God sent his Son into the valley of the shadow of death to be the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep (Jn. 10:11). The covenant curses that would have pursued us all the days of our life and into eternity fell upon him, so God could justly pour out blessings upon us, so much so that we can say, “my cup runs over.” The goodness that Jesus deserved now pursues us all our days.
Andrew J. Miller is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (O.P.C.) in Fredericksburg, VA.
 Herman Bavinck and John Bolt, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 4.589.
 Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 21-22.
 B.B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, ed. J.E. Meeter (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1970), 1.383-4.