Christ our Protector

Adapted from sermon preached at PCC Evening Worship Service on 15 Dec 2002

"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" (Ps 23:4).

Psalm 23 is a song of the sheep about their Shepherd. It is given by the Chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ to His sheep so that they may sing about Him. It is a psalm that portrays the Shepherd through His sheep’s eyes.

The Shepherd loves His sheep and the sheep love their Shepherd. There is a very intimate relationship between the sheep and the Shepherd. This is especially so for the Shepherd is a good shepherd, who took on the nature of the sheep to lay down His life for them. So there is a deep union and understanding between the sheep and the Shepherd. Not only does the Shepherd talk to the sheep, but the sheep talk to the Shepherd.

Indeed because of the close relationship between the sheep and the Shepherd, when the sheep talk about the Shepherd, they cannot help it, but begin to talk to the Shepherd Himself.

We see this in verse 4, where we see the sheep leaving off talking about the Shepherd, to talk to the Shepherd. Notice the reference to the Shepherd as "thou" and "thee" and no more as "he" and "his"… "thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

This psalm, then, is not only a psalm of instruction or testimony; it is a psalm of praise! It is a psalm of intimate praise, which the sheep offers to the Shepherd for His love towards them. They praise Him for who He is and what He is to them.

So far in this psalm, we have seen how Christ our Shepherd is our Provider, our Peacemaker, our Preserver, our Physician and Pilot. In our previous message, we saw that Christ is our Pilot for "he leadeth [us] in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake" (Ps 23:3).

Christ our Shepherd leads us in our life’s journey by His Word, by His Spirit speaking through our conscience, by His under-shepherd, and by His providence. The sheep does not walk alone. Their Shepherd leads them and guides them.

We are still on the theme of walking. But it is walking under a special circumstance. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me" (Ps 23:4a). We see here that Christ is not only our Pilot, but our Protector in our journeys especially when danger looms.

The picture here is that of the sheep being led by the shepherd and they have come to a part of the path, which is dark and shadowy. Perhaps it is a ravine overhung by high and steep cliffs, and strewn with huge boulders and caves, all of which are plentiful in Palestine. Such a path must be very frightening for the sheep. Who knows what may leap out of the shadow of the cliff, or what danger might lurk behind the darkness of the next boulder or cave?

But what is this dangerous walk a picture of? The psalmist says it, even as he paints the picture. It is the "valley of the shadow of death" he says. But what does he mean? Some commentators believe that he is referring to the perils and afflictions that are common to man as they pass through life. So John Bunyan thinks that the valley of the shadow of death refers to times of great sadness, darkness and trial. Sometimes these trials are "deep as a valley, dark as a shadow, and dreadful as death itself" (MH).

Others think that the psalmist specifically has in mind, a picture of impending death. That is to say, he is not so much thinking about all the dangers that attend our lives, though they are there. He is thinking, rather, of death itself.

It is difficult to be dogmatic. But I am inclined to the second position, for I see this verse as a transition by which the psalmist begins to talk about the future glory and enjoyment of the sheep of Christ. But before that enjoyment, the sheep must face death. One commentator puts it this way:

"Between that part of the flock which is on earth, and that which is gone to heaven, death lies, like a deep valley, that must be passed in going from the one to the other" (Scott).

Death is a most fearsome thing. The writer of Hebrews tells us that there are many people who are subject to bondage through fear of death all their lifetime (Heb 2:15). Job’s friend Bildad calls it "the king of terrors" (Job 18:14). It is a terror that we must all face. It is our last enemy. "Against this arrest there is no bail" says William Gurnal. "This is a war without discharge" says Matthew Henry.

But the sheep of Christ need not fear death: "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" (Ps 23:4).

Why should we fear no evil? David suggests 3 reasons.

1. Death has lost its sting.

This fact is beautifully captured in the words of the sheep. Consider how he talks about death: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death."

Notice two things from this statement.

First notice that it is not simply "death", but the "shadow of death." Matthew Henry observed astutely: "It is but the shadow of death; there is no substantial evil in it; the shadow of a serpent will not sting nor the shadow of a sword kill." Ah, we all know about shadows do we not? Only very little boys and girls are afraid of shadows. Indeed even little children realize how harmless shadows are. I well remember the times when my two older boys first discovered their shadows. One of them chased after his shadow to try to stomp it. The other when he was about the same age was delighted that his shadow was following him, but got upset when it disappeared.

Shadows are harmless: So too the shadow of death, for death hath lost its sting. "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law" (1Cor 15:55-56). But Christ came. He was made under the law and lived under the law to remove the sting of the law and therefore the sting of death. Death is only fearful for those for whom the sting remains. Death for the sheep of Christ is like a stingless wasp or a toothless serpent. The sheep of Christ need not fear death.

And notice secondly, that it is a walk through the valley of the shadow of death, not a walk in the valley of the shadow of death. The moment of death is very frightful. It is often frightful even for brave hearts.

For those who do not belong to Christ, the pain at death is just the beginning. It will get worse and worse every minute as they are driven by their guilt and sin into a Christ-less eternity of endless suffering. Death for the wicked is like a man being brought to a torture house and made to walk through a passage way where there are rows and rows of tortured souls crying and screaming and reaching out their hands to try to pull him to them. The man thinks that if he reaches the end of the passage, he will be fine, only to discover that right at the end is a lake of fire where demons and Christ-less persons howl and gnash at one another without respite.

Thank God that for the sheep of Christ, the passage of death is very different. It is a brief and confident walk through the vale of death into paradise! Death has lost its sting. For the sheep of Christ, death is like a man being released from prison where he has spent all his life. He made friends and he has grown to love the prison, which he had called home. On the day of his release, as he walks pass rows of friends bidding him farewell, his heart is pained,—but only for a moment. In a moment, the light from the Lamb falls upon his face and a multitude of angels and just men made perfect begin to welcome him with heavenly trumpets. Death, for the godly, is but a short walk to the gates of heaven!

Dearly beloved brethren and friends, what kind of death will you have? Can you give a confident answer? Do not wait till it is too late to be able to give an answer, for death can come knocking at any time. For the sheep of Christ "Death is only a grim porter to let us into a stately palace" says Richard Sibbes. But for goats, "Death is the butcher man to lead us into the slaughter house and the great furnace." What would death be for you?

If you are not a sheep of Christ, you ought indeed to fear death. But if you are a sheep of Christ, you need not fear death. Indeed, you must be able to say with the psalmist: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil."

But not only has death lost its sting, for the sheep. The sheep of Christ who is walking through the valley of the shadow of death fears no evil because he is not walking alone.

2. My Shepherd is with me.

It is a comforting thought that death for the sheep of Christ is the gate to heaven. But even the thought that paradise awaits may not be enough to comfort a sheep walking through the vale of death, for death can still be extremely painful. "A godly man is free from the sting, but not from the stroke, from the curse, but not from the cross of death" says Swinnock.

How does our Shepherd comfort us then? He comforts us not only with the thought that paradise awaits. He comforts us by being with us: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me," says David.

The sheep of Christ does not walk alone when he has to walk through the vale of death. The real reason why we are not afraid as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, is the fact that the Shepherd walks with us.

Sheep as we mentioned are easily frightened. If they are made to walk through shadowy or hostile territory where wild animals lurk at every corner, it will be a most frightening experience for them. Shepherds will know this well. Mr Macmillan, for example relates an incident when two dogs came into his sheep pen in the early morning and created havoc. The sheep ran wild, and were very restless. But immediately when he came out and the sheep saw him they calmed down. Why? Because they knew their shepherd and they knew that all is well when their shepherd is around even if the two vicious dogs had yet to go away.

It is so with us too. Was it not for the fact that Christ would be with us when we walk death’s vale we can expect to panic. But not so when our Shepherd is walking with us and holding our hands, and indeed at times carrying us.

Not only has the Shepherd gone the same way before, and prepared the way for His sheep; but He walks with His sheep when it is their time to walk through the vale of death.

Of course, today, our Shepherd is in heaven. He is the God-Man. He is bodily in heaven. But He is with us. "I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (Mt 28:20) He says. "I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee" (Jos 1:5). "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee" (Heb 13:5).

He is with us in the Spirit, for we are united to Him. And not only so, but at our death, Christ will send His angels to convey us to Him. Is this not what was said about Lazarus the beggar when he died?

The Lord our Shepherd: He knows our needs. Remember that He took on human flesh in order that He might empathise with us. He knew experimentally that the greatest comfort that a man can have as he walks through the valley of the shadow of death is to know the presence of God. Remember what our Lord’s request to His Father was when He was dying on the Cross and being ridiculed by the people all around? Did He request His Father to deliver Him? No, it was "be not far from me." Trouble is near, stay with me. Let me know Thy presence, that is enough! It was enough for our Lord merely to know that the Father would stand by Him. "The LORD is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me?" (Ps 118:6).

So it is for us. At the moment of our greatest fear, it is sufficient for us to know that our Shepherd is with us. Death cannot separate us from the love of our Shepherd. He will not allow death to do us any real harm. It may kill our body, but it cannot touch our soul.

Dearly beloved brethren and friends, many of us seem very brave today because we are in good health. Death seems very remote. Eternity can wait. But consider for a moment the horrors and suddenness of death.

Many people live their lives as atheists, but without fail they become religious as they walk through death’s dark vale. Why? Because man is created in the image of God. Man may try to pretend that God does not exist when things are well. But when death begins to knock, atheism becomes a silly notion immediately. There are no atheists on the vale of death.

Listen to some of the last words of skeptics and atheists, and you will know how true this is:

Sir Francis Newport, head of the English Infidel Club, said to those gathered around his death bed:

"Do not tell me there is no God for I know there is one, and that I am in his angry presence! You need not tell me there is no hell, for I already feel my soul slipping into its fires! Wretches, cease your idle talk about there being hope for me! I know that I am lost forever."

Then he adds: "Oh, that I was to lie a thousand years upon the fire that never is quenched, to purchase the favor of God, and be united to Him again! But it is a fruitless wish. Millions of millions of years would bring me no nearer to the end of my torments than one poor hour. Oh, eternity, eternity! forever and forever! Oh, the insufferable pangs of hell!"

Thomas Hobbs (1588-1679): a skeptic and philosopher:

"If I had the whole world, I would give it to live one day. I shall be glad to find a hole to creep out of the world at. I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark!"

David Strauss: outstanding representative of German rationalism, who spent many years of his life trying to dispense with God:

"My philosophy leaves me utterly forlorn! I feel like one caught in the merciless jaws of an automatic machine, not knowing at what time one of its great hammers may crush me!"

Will your death be like these atheists or skeptics? If you are not a sheep of Christ, your walk through the vale of death will be a terrifying one. Not only will you have no hope, but you will experience an increasing sense of terror of hell. And worse, you will go alone. At least it would be as good as if you are going alone, for if any accompany you, it will likely be a horrible demon rejoicing over your terrible end.

But the sheep of Christ goes with peace and confidence: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me" (Ps 23:4).

And not only are we comforted by the Shepherd’s presence, we are in a particular way comforted by the fact that our Shepherd holds a rod or staff in His hand: "thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

3. The Shepherd’s Rod and Staff Comforts Me.

It is often debated whether the ancient shepherds hold two things in their hands: a rod for protecting the sheep and a staff to guide the sheep. It was thought that perhaps the rod is a baton or club of some sort, but the staff is a stick used for directing and guiding the sheep..

However, it is very unlikely that the shepherd would carry two sticks when one will do. More likely, the shepherd carries only one stick:—the shepherd’s crook. This is a long stick made of wood, which was used for all purposes: as a disciplinary rod, as a weapon of protection, as a tool to guide or count the sheep and even a walking stick.

This interpretation is supported by the fact that elsewhere, when the shepherd’s implement is mentioned, the shepherd’s crook is either called the rod or the staff. In the book of Leviticus, when the sheep are being counted for the tithe, they are said to pass under the "rod" (Lev 27:32). In 1 Samuel, when David was preparing to meet with Goliath, we are told that "he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook" (1Sam 17:40). In the book of Micah, the prophet charged the leaders to feed or shepherd the people with their "rod" (Mic 7:14).

Most likely, therefore, David had in mind the shepherd’s crook. But he speaks of it under two names because it serves those two purposes of protection and guidance. Of protection because it can be used to beat foxes and wild dogs and other animals that come to harass the sheep. But it serves as a tool to guide the sheep because it can be used to keep the sheep from straying as they walk from one place to another.

The modern shepherd’s crook has a hook at the end. It can be used to steer a sheep that is getting out of line back into the flock. We do not know if the shepherd’s staff in the days of David has the hook too, but it is clear that it can also be used in the same manner.

Now, in the flock of Christ, we have the equivalent of the rod and staff. Christ our Shepherd is holding the rod and staff.

Obviously, He is not doing so literally. He is holding the rod figuratively, for He protects us from our enemies. "The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them" (Ps 34:7). He will not allow us to be destroyed by the enemies. He will never leave us. He will not allow death to separate us from His love. He will never forsake us.

In the same way, Christ is holding His staff. By this staff He guides us in the paths of righteousness, and He chastises us when we stray. He does so in different ways: by His Word and Spirit and by rebuke, by church discipline, by providence, etc.

Christ is ruling, guiding and comforting us with His rod and staff. Or in other words, Christ is shepherding us by His Gospel provisions. So David says in another psalm:

"The LORD shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies." (Psalm 110:2)

The rod of the strength of Christ is the Gospel. And there is enough in the Gospel to comfort the saints of Christ when it is time to die. Such as know the Gospel will know the assurance and comfort of the Lord when it is time for them to go.

Christ is with us. He will be with us when we walk through the vale of death. But why does David talk about the rod and staff in this context. Isn’t it sufficient to talk about the presence of the Lord?

Well, I would suggest that he mentions the rod and staff because death is a very complex experience. Even for the Christian, it can be very painful and fearful.

It is easy to talk about death, but when it comes to our turn to die, we will be assaulted with all sorts of feelings. Unless you are familiar with the Shepherd today and know how He uses His crook, you will be very confused when it is time for you to walk through the vale of death.

Over the last two decades I have had the opportunity to talk to a number of persons who were dying. As far as I know they were struggling with cancer. These were all professing believers. But there was a difference in the way they faced death. Consider the case of two young persons: One fought all the way till the very end unwilling to go, and became very depressed up till the very last day. The other was cheerfully submitting to the will of the Shepherd up till the moment he crossed into eternity. I trust that both these young persons met the Lord. But one of them knew very little of the Lord’s presence and found no comfort in His rod and staff. He feared and struggled. The other was acquainted with the Lord and His ways, and he bore a good testimony till his last breath.

If you know not the Shepherd, nor the way He uses His crook, you will have no assurance concerning what He is doing in your life. But if you know Him and you know He uses His rod and staff, you will know that all He does for you and all that He ordains for you to go through are out of love for you.

Does He chastise you? It is out of love for you. Does He prolong your illness? He has a reason. Does He bring you through an accident or through a swift illness? He knows best what is good for you. And if you know Him and how He uses His rod and staff, you will not be surprised or discouraged by the turn of providence He brings you through. You will have every occasion to praise Him, and thank Him even as you await to meet Him face to face.

Now is the day to know your Shepherd. Now is the day to be acquainted with the Gospel. Do not wait till death knocks before familiarising yourself with the Gospel of Christ. By the time death knocks, you will have to begin to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and it may be too late for you to begin to get acquainted with the Shepherd or His ways.

Oh will you not make sure you know your Shepherd today? Seek to know Him personally. It is not enough to know Him academically. It is not enough to know Him in your head. You must be well acquainted with Him. You must be able to talk with Him and know that you are not talking to yourself, but to your Shepherd. Only if you know Him and are acquainted with how He deals with you will you have the assurance to say:

"[When] I [shall] 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 [will] comfort me"


Death will meet every one of us. It is not ‘if’, it is ‘when’. Every one of us has received the sentence of death, and we have every reason to look upon ourselves as dying men.

When will it be my turn? When will it be your turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death? We don’t know. But Nehemiah Rogers is very candid when he says:

There is none so old but thinks he may live one year longer; and though, in the general, he say, "All must die," yet, in the false numbering of his own particular days, he thinks to live forever.

I am not saying that the Lord will take your life soon. We don’t know. But what I am saying is that you must be prepared today. You must know your Shepherd. You must know His rod and staff. If you know Him today, you can have the assurance that in the moment of your greatest gloom, the Lord will be with you, and you will recognize Him, and you will take comfort in His ways. Otherwise, death will be terrifying for you. Indeed death ought to be terrifying for you if do not have the assurance that your Shepherd laid down His life for you and therefore will not let anything separate you from His love.

Will you not therefore,—while you have yet time and opportunity,—seek to know your Saviour? Seek to know Him in prayer, in the hearing, reading and meditation of His word. Seek to be thankful in blessing, patient in tribulation, and trusting about the future. Amen.