Meditations on the Twenty-Third Psalm

Psalm 23
Before passing on to the fourth verse, which gives a still deeper shade of wilderness trials and sorrows, we would turn for a moment to another use and application of " a tree," which may be for our edification.
In 2 Kings 6:1-71And the sons of the prophets said unto Elisha, Behold now, the place where we dwell with thee is too strait for us. 2Let us go, we pray thee, unto Jordan, and take thence every man a beam, and let us make us a place there, where we may dwell. And he answered, Go ye. 3And one said, Be content, I pray thee, and go with thy servants. And he answered, I will go. 4So he went with them. And when they came to Jordan, they cut down wood. 5But as one was felling a beam, the axe head fell into the water: and he cried, and said, Alas, master! for it was borrowed. 6And the man of God said, Where fell it? And he showed him the place. And he cut down a stick, and cast it in thither; and the iron did swim. 7Therefore said he, Take it up to thee. And he put out his hand, and took it. (2 Kings 6:1‑7), we have an account of " the sons of the prophets" going to the banks of the Jordan, to cut down beams of trees, for the purpose of enlarging their dwelling place. " And the sons of the prophets said unto Elisha, Behold now, the place where we dwell with thee is too strait for us. Let us go, we pray thee, unto Jordan, and take thence every man a beam, and let us make us a place there, where we may dwell And he answered, Go ye." The young prophets, very wisely, secure the presence of Elisha with them. He consents to go; and works a miracle there, which saves them from the loss of the head of the borrowed ax. " And one said, Be content, I pray thee, to go with thy servants. And he answered, I will go. So he went with them. And when they came to Jordan they cut down wood. But as one was felling a beam, the ax head fell into the water: and he cried, and said, Alas, master! for it was borrowed. And the man of God said, Where fell it? And he showed him the place. And he cut down a stick, and cast it in thither; and the iron did swim. Therefore said he, Take it up to thee. And he put out his hand and took it."
Some have thought that there is a deep typical meaning in this apparently unimportant incident; others have been afraid to press it as such. But surely, at any rate, it is a striking illustration of resurrection life and power. As to the typical meaning of Jordan, all are agreed. It is the type of death. And as for " the ax head," it lay as lost and dead in its depths. And what is deeply interesting, and instructive too, in connection with, this miracle, Elisha was, typically, the resurrection-life prophet. He passed through the river of death in company with Elijah, and started on his ministry of grace and resurrection power from the point of the ascended prophet. (2 Kings 2) Elijah's ministry, on the contrary, was judicial in its character. He started, we may say, from Sinai, which stamped its character on his miracles. He shut the heavens over a rebellious people, " and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months." And he called down fire from heaven on the captains of the idolatrous king of Israel. At Horeb he became linked up with the broken law, and the responsibility of the people, so that his ministry called for judgment.
But Elisha starts from resurrection ground, and with his eye, as it were, on the ascended man. This is the place of God's measureless grace-the place of the risen Christ Himself, and the saved myriads that joyfully cluster around Him. Scarcely had the two prophets crossed the Jordan, when Elijah proposed blessing to Elisha, according to the desires of his heart. Not now, observe, according to law, or earthly promise, but according to his heart's desire. " And it came to pass, when they had gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me." They had left the land of law and earthly promise behind them; and death, the judgment of God against sin, was past, so that He was free to bless. This is grace, and most significant as to the character of Elisha's mission, and of God's ways in grace, through the death and resurrection of Christ, down to the present time.
Here pause for a moment, my soul, and meditate on this instructive scene. God begins His work, where sin, Satan, and all evil, cease from theirs. He quickens the dead. No evil can ever cross the grave of Christ.
The path of life, and holy, happy liberty, is beyond the domain of death. Elisha, observe, now returns to Israel.' but all is changed. He acts in grace, according to the new condition of things. Sweet foreshadowing of the risen Jesus who died for us, and for God's glory, so that His grace flows forth freely to the children of men now, and will do so abundantly to Israel in the latter day. Elisha tarries at Jericho, the place of the curse; but he brings in the power of God in blessing, and removes the curse, and heals the spring of waters, so that there would be no more death or barren land. " And the men of the city said unto Elisha, Behold, I pray thee, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord seeth: but the water is naught, and the ground is barren. And he said, Bring me a new cruse, and put salt therein. And they brought it to him. And he went forth into the spring of the waters, and cast the salt in there, and said, Thus saith the Lord, I have healed these waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or barren land. So the waters were healed unto this day, according to the saying of Elisha which he spake."
Salt is a well-known symbol in Scripture. Here it represents the healing power of grace, as flowing through the death and resurrection of Christ. The whole scene is richly and permanently blessed. Evil is overcome; the curse is removed from the ground-the world—and especially from His people Israel; and the spring of waters- the fountain of blessing—secured forever. The "new cruse" may shadow forth the renewed condition of all things under Christ in the latter day. The prophet next proceeds to Bethel, which, we know, speaks of God's unchangeable faithfulness to Jacob and to his seed forever. Now he links the people with the sovereign counsels of God's love and grace towards them. From thence the prophet goes to Carmel, which tells us of the fruitful land, thus connecting the people with the faithfulness of Jehovah, and the abundance of the land. What grace!
The curse removed—evil put away—the scene purified -the spring of waters healed—the God of Bethel known and enjoyed; and the blessings of Carmel covering the land like a fruitful field. Nevertheless—oh! most solemn and weighty warning for the present moment, as well as for all time!—if the testimony of the grace of God be despised, and His messengers mocked, judgment must take its course. Verses 20, 21.
Thus, in my meditations, have my thoughts traced, and retraced, the mystic path of these two great servants of God in this wonderful second chapter, though professedly meditating on the miracle in the sixth. But the ground we have gone over sheds wondrous light on the miracle. It now looks more like a passage in Ephesians or in 1 Peter. " And you hath he quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins." " Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."
There is no power to save the lost, or to quicken the dead soul, but the cross of Christ. When the tree is cast into the waters, the iron swims. The moment the cross is seen by faith, and applied by the Holy Spirit, the soul is quickened together with Christ, raised up together, and made to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. All this takes place in virtue of our union with Christ, when we believe in His name, and trust in His cross. But, alas, till then, the soul, however light, gay, and active, or otherwise, is morally and spiritually in the place of death. O, that poor, thoughtless, Christless souls would think of that now! What a condition to be in! The place of death—the cold depths of the river of death! What a lowering-what a sinking of an immortal soul-a soul that grace can render capable of enjoying God, and His Son, and the full glories of heavenly blessedness forever!
Where, Ο where, let me ask, is my reader at this moment? In the depths, or on the heights? It must be either the one or the other. There is no middle place. To die in the former state is to be there forever—in the depths of anguish and despair. There can be no change after death. And wilt thou, Ο thoughtless one, sell thy eternal happiness for a moment's present gratification? Why be so unreasonable—so cruel to thine own soul? Was it wise in Esau to sell the whole land of Canaan for a mess of pottage, because he could enjoy the latter at the moment? Wouldst thou call this manly, noble, or high spirited? And is it wise in thee to sell the heavenly Canaan for that which can be enjoyed only for a moment in this world? Do think of all this, my dear fellow sinner. Thy present life is most uncertain; and what an agony to those left behind, were there no hope in thy death! And what an eternity—thine! What could sweeten such a bitter cup as this, or change its wormwood and its gall? Ο then, from every consideration, look to Jesus now—just now—before laying down this paper. Let thine eyes and thine heart be up to Him. " Look unto me," He says," and be ye saved," The great work of redemption teas finished on the cross; there is nothing for thee to wait for. " It is finished!" Only look to Him, believing this, and thou art surely and forever saved.
But some, 1 know, are ready to say, by way of excusing themselves, that if they are as dead as the iron at the bottom of the stream, they must be entirely passive in the work of conversion. There is some truth in this remark, but it is far from being the whole truth. The soul is dead as regards God and spiritual things, but it is all alive as regards this world. There is no heart or energy for Christ, and His salvation, but there is plenty of both for present things; and Scripture presses in innumerable places the responsibility of the sinner. It assures him that the work by which alone he can be saved is finished, and that he has only to believe it on the sure testimony of God Himself, and, thus believing it, he is saved, and finds his present and eternal rest in Jesus.
" Wilt thou go with this man?" is a plain question. And where is the sinner-active and intelligent as to present things—who cannot answer, Yes, or No?
" Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." "And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." " If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son. He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness (or testimony) in himself; he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son.'" " Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'' Acts 16:3131And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. (Acts 16:31); John 3:1919And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19) John 5:9, 109And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath. 10The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed. (John 5:9‑10); Rom. 10:1313For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Romans 10:13).
Thus we find in types and shadows, truths and substance, that there is no virtue for the soul apart from Christ—from Christ crucified. The knowledge of Jesus—His love-His cross, quickens the dead sinner, and gives him a place with the risen Jesus. It strengthens the weak saint—upholds the fainting spirit—comforts those that are in trouble and bowed down. It destroys the power of the waters of Jordan, and sweetens the waters of Marah.
Ver. 4. " 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." This verse of our beautiful Psalm, is generally spoken of as descriptive of the believer's experience in the passage of death—the death of the body. " The valley," is generally viewed as the path that lies between the two regions of life, and though dark and dismal, the saint of God, having the Shepherd's rod to guide, and His staff to comfort him, need fear no evil.
Most truly, there is every reason for the departing soul, calmly to trust the Lord at that solemn moment, and during that brief, but mysterious, passage; but we do not think the text refers, merely, to the believer's experience in his own death, but rather to the dark shadow which the death of another may cast on his path. To the departing one, all shadows flee away. To those left behind, they may be dark and heavy. For example: -A dear and loved fellow-pilgrim has been called up higher. His, or her, place is empty. The broken circle is overwhelmed in sorrow. The whole scene below is clouded. The pallor of death shades everything to the eye, and in the felt loneliness of the bereaved heart, the path, once so bright and joyous, has been turned into " the valley of the shadow of death." But the happy soul of the dear departed rests in the pure light of God, and in the unmingled blessedness of His presence.
" No shadows yonder—all light and song;
Each day I wonder; and say, How long
Shall time me sunder from that dear throng?"
In the text, we doubt not, it is the shadow of death that the pilgrim speaks of walking through, and of his experience therein; not of death itself. Were it his own death, surely it would not be called a shadow. To go through death, and to go mourning through its shadows, are widely different things.
Here pause for a moment, Ο my soul. Such experience demands thy calm and deep meditation. In the whole realm of creation, no event is more solemn. The sanctuary is thy proper place. God's eye, His word and Spirit, alone can guide.
The experience of the believer is changed, though still under the Shepherd's tender care and mighty hand. Yes—everything is changed—changed as from light to darkness- as from joy to sorrow—as from strength to weakness. What a change! In the third verse, the pilgrim tastes the waters of Marah; in the fourth, he is plunged into them.
But the Lord Himself has done it. It must be well, and wise, and good; it must be the strongest expression of His love, and of His shepherd care. " Thou art with me" -Thou, Ο Lord, who knowest the taste of the waters, and the depths of the waters too, as none of thy people ever can know.
A loved one may be ill, very ill; all hope of recovery may be gone; still the soul is present in the body, and thoughts may be exchanged. But the moment the soul has passed into the unseen world, this ceases—absolutely—irretrievably ceases. The dear departed one may love as ever, nay, infinitely more than ever, for " God is love," and heaven is its home. The love of the bereaved may be quickened into a burning flame, and the desire to express it may be intensified a thousandfold, but there is no more communication of thought—no exchange of affection. The dark, impenetrable veil that separates the two states of being must not be passed. Faith alone may cross the threshold, and see the departed one resting—at home—with Jesus—× in the Paradise of God. For a moment, the eye is bright -something like gladness passes through the mind; but a tender recollection touches the heart—the eye is dimmed -and sadness presses down the weary soul. Everything, save the blessed Lord Himself, seems gone; but He is near, very near, blessed be His name. " Thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."
" Be still, my soul!—when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul!—thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away."
Could there be, however far apart, only the means of exchanging our thoughts and affections, it would no longer be death. We may often be parted from each other in this life, without the thought ever crossing the mind that we have suffered loss. Letters go and come; the path of the absent one may be traced, and the joys of reunion anticipated. This is life-the object of affection is possessed. It is neither death, nor its dark shadow. But from the moment that the Lord has taken the soul to Himself, all such communion is at an end. The awful fact of separation is felt. The heart may burn with the purest affection, for love never faileth-the whole soul may long to say something to, and to hear something from, the loved departed, but all is in vain. The body may be there still, and every feature may only seem in calm repose; but that which thought, loved, intended, remembered, is gone. Stillness reigns-the stillness that is indescribable. You cannot awaken the sleeping one. The heart that would have been moved to its depths by a sigh, or melted by a tear, hears not the deepest wail, and sees not the flowing tears. This is death—the death of the mortal body. And, to those that are left behind, it is " the valley of the shadow of death." And so dense is that shadow sometimes in this weary wilderness, that even the heavenly orbs seem changed, and shine differently.
At such a time, the enemy is sure to assail the distressed soul, from all points, with his fiery darts. A thousand thoughts may be suggested from the past. A lifetime may be reviewed in a moment by a mind in agony. Time misspent—precious opportunities allowed to pass unimproved, may be amongst the accusations of the foe. In such overwhelming circumstances, nothing but the firm footing of God's own plain statements of truth could bear up the stricken soul. But the Good and Great Shepherd is near. He causeth His voice to be heard. The eye is turned to Him. He lifts the fainting soul, folds it in His bosom, and bears it far above its mere human feelings, and spiritual foes. What would such trials and conflicts be, could we not say in truth, "Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me?"
Nothing can now be known of the condition and occupation of the loved departed, save that which holy scripture reveals. But, oh, blessed be the God of all grace! the light of a cloudless sky rests on the whole scene—the beams of divine light break through the darkness of these darkest of earthly days—we can see behind the veil. From the chamber of death to the house of many mansions, a bright pathway has been consecrated for the believer by the risen and victorious Christ. The light of the glory " is now made manifest by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." 2 Tim. 1:1010But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel: (2 Timothy 1:10).
Glorious truth! precious certainty for the believer -. for every believer in Christ Jesus—death was abolished on the cross, and triumphed over in the resurrection of Jesus; and by the gospel, eternal life to the soul, and incorruptibility to the body, have been brought into the clearest, fullest light. There may be great feebleness, on the part of many Christians, in apprehending these all-precious truths, but the blessed facts remain the same. They are all connected with the Person of Christ; and from the moment that He is received and trusted, the believer is associated with Him beyond the power of death and the grave. "I know," says the apostle, " whom I have believed, (trusted, margin) and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day." (Ver. 12.) Christ, personally, was his one object. All that was dear to the apostle, right on to the glory, was committed to Him.
What truths—what comfort for the soul that is passing through the dark valley. Death annulled—the eternal life of the soul possessed—the incorruptibility of the body secured. Such is the sure portion of all who have fallen asleep in Jesus—of all who can say with the apostle, " I know whom I have trusted"—of all who are simply looking by faith to Jesus, and resting on Him alone for salvation.