Comfort in the Valley
What do we do when suffering breaks into our lives like an unwelcome intruder, when a diagnosis comes at an inconvenient time, when we feel disillusioned and full of despair? Where do we turn when we are scared, sad, and sobered at the fragility of our lives or the lives of our loved ones?
This summer I had a routine skin check at my dermatologist. After having eight biopsies done, I left the office with words of assurance ringing in my ears that everything would be fine and there was no need to worry. But two weeks later I heard those dreaded words from my doctor, “You have cancer.” Malignant melanoma. Left untreated she predicted I had less than two years to live. As I processed her words, I thought about not being able to see my four children grow up, not being able to grow old with my husband, not being able to serve Christ and His church through speaking, writing and teaching for many more years. I was sad and scared. In the quiet moments of the night, when the rest of my family slept, I wept and prayed and read God’s word. I ran to my Shepherd, my Savior, who has promised to never leave me or forsake me. Psalm 23, which was composed by King David, tells us this wonderful truth.
David, having been a shepherd himself, writes about the Lord as his shepherd. The king of Israel, who was mighty in battle and royal in court, also faced many dangerous situations, as recorded in 1-2 Samuel. Psalm 23 sprung from a soul satisfied by the chief Shepherd. Several things are noteworthy about this psalm.
First, the Lord does not withhold what His people need, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1). We are prone to worry, but the Lord promises to completely care for us. Second, the Lord gives His people rest, “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters” (v. 2). The Lord offers us rest in Him so that we can stop running our own lives, running around trying to find life, and running scared from life. Third, the Lord “restores my soul” (v. 3). We are prone to sin, but the Lord saves us and satisfies our soul. Fourth, the Lord “leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (v. 3). We are prone to wander, but the Lord keeps our feet on the right road. Finally, the Lord comforts us in “the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4). We are prone to fear, but the Lord doesn’t let our foot falter. Though His sovereignty and providence take us through suffering, He is with us. Therefore, we can say with David, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (v. 4).
Jesus fulfills Psalm 23, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The suffering soul can cling to Christ, the chief Shepherd, knowing that He is our Comforter in the valley of deep darkness.
The Lord not only provides shelter as a shepherd, He also provides sustenance at His supper. The covenant Lord extends an invitation to us to partake in a covenant meal, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (v. 5). With enemies defeated and a privileged position at the table, David is convinced of the covenant love of the Lord. The Lord’s covenantal love, His mercy and goodness, will pursue David as vigorously as his enemies ever had, indeed, more so, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (v. 6). David’s seat at the table is not a possibility, but a certainty, and it is for eternity, “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (v. 6).
All those who are in Christ have been invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. We will sing a different song than Psalm 23 there. As the bride, we will sing a song to the Lamb, our Bridegroom, giving Him glory (see Rev. 19:6-8). In the meantime, we are invited to partake of the Lord’s supper in anticipation of the future wedding feast, and in appreciation of His past faithfulness, exalting Jesus as our Shepherd and as our King.
Melanoma is aggressive, deadly and can spread very quickly. Thankfully, my doctor squeezed me into her schedule for surgery and two weeks later the pathology report came back with clear margins, showing that the surgery had been successful at removing the cancer. Our family and our church family rejoiced. We celebrated the tender care of our Shepherd “whose goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Ps. 23:6).
Dear believer, has suffering broken into your life like an unwelcome intruder? Has a diagnosis come at an inconvenient time? Do you feel disillusioned and full of despair? Are you scared, sad and sobered at the fragility of your life or the lives of your loved ones? Run to the Shepherd of your soul. He will lead you. He will be present with you. He will comfort you. And His goodness and mercy will follow you until you reach “the holy city, new Jerusalem,” in which “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore,” and we “will see his face,” the face of our beloved Shepherd (Rev. 21:2, 4; 22:4).
Sarah Ivill (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a Reformed author, wife, homeschooling mom, Bible study teacher, and conference speaker who lives in Matthews, North Carolina, and is a member of Christ Covenant Church (PCA). To learn more, please visit www.sarahivill.com.