The Valley of the Shadow of Death Contemplated
§ Section One – Introductory Thoughts
In 1 Peter 1:6, the apostle writes to dear believers who were exiled from their homeland and suffering greatly for the cause of Jesus Christ. At the time, they were "in heaviness through manifold temptations"; but Peter makes it clear that their fiery trial was appointed by God – "for a season, if need be" – and that He had a gracious design for them in it (verses 7-9). The substance of Peter's first epistle was to encourage God's people when under affliction, and remind them of its glorious end (1 Peter 5:10).
With this thought in mind, I considered John Bunyan's placement of the Palace Beautiful – located just beyond the summit of the hill Difficulty and overlooking the two valleys far below. If Christian's ascent of the hill Difficulty and passage through the valleys denotes a period of extended trial – which I am convinced it does – then the Palace Beautiful (the church) must figure prominently in ministering to us during such times and preparing us for future spiritual battle.
This brings another thought to my mind, this time from Psalm 23. As we follow our Lord Jesus Christ, He will lead us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death just as surely as He makes us to lie down in green pastures and leads us beside the still waters.
Our pathway to the Celestial City lies directly through it.
Christian understood this before, as he gazed upward from the foot of the hill Difficulty, and it came to mind once again as he stood at the border of the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
§ Section Two – The Nature of the Valley and God's Purpose in It
So what did Christian really see that day? A steep, rocky canyon filled with darkness and danger and the reverberation of horrifying screams? No! Like the Valley of Humiliation, this new one is figurative in nature. But that which it represents is very real indeed.
Passing through this valley denotes a time of great trouble and affliction that can come upon us suddenly and without warning. A season of trial so deeply personal in nature that we seem to be all alone in it. Whatever the outward circumstances that bring it on, the worst part of such trials is the inner turmoil we suffer. Mental anguish that is too difficult to express in words – too painful or humiliating to share with others! Our hearts and minds often become so consumed by it all that we can scarcely think straight.
But all of this is by Divine design, and governed according to God's will and providence.
Valley trials are a spiritual proving ground in which our faith comes under heavy fire to prove what sort it is. For most of us, this is a painful revelation in which we are made to see ourselves, in measure, as God sees us. As a result, pride (vain glory) takes a needful hit and self-reliance (vain confidence) bites the dust, causing us to shed many a tear. But God's purpose of grace is behind it all. As we are reduced in rank and brought low – as our flesh is mortified and self is diminished – the beautiful character of our Lord shines forth more clearly in us (Romans 8:28-29).
So, like the Valley of Humiliation, the Valley of the Shadow of Death is also a refinery in which things that hinder our growth in grace are being purged away. And it is comforting to know that even though we will surely come into great conflict here, genuine faith will stand the test and come forth as gold. (1 Peter 1:7-9; Job 23:10)
§ Section Three – Faith under Fire: Voices in the Valley
I am so glad that John Bunyan did not give the specific nature of Christian's trial. This makes it easier for us to read our own circumstances into his experience; for our valley trials are designed for us as unique individuals. Therefore, your experience while walking through this dark, lonely valley will not be the same as mine.
At the very border of the valley – at the onset of this new trial – Christian was bombarded by the voice of fear and unbelief. Even for true Christians, this is a typical reaction when new trouble comes upon us and our situation goes suddenly from bad to worse. Anticipating what we might have to face causes our imagination to run wild. And the voice of unbelieving fear will quickly supply the details – usually a 'worst case' scenario!
I know this voice well, having heard it clearly more than 8 years ago, when I was diagnosed with Stage 2 colon cancer. And I have been assaulted by it quite a few times since then!
Unbelief, however, generally gives an inaccurate account of things by telling only part of the story. Like the 10 Hebrew spies who reported to Moses after surveying the Promised Land and warned him against entering it. Unbelief sees only the giants (the difficulty). Faith, however, takes an entirely different view of things – like Caleb and Joshua who, after seeing the goodly land and believing the promise of God, declared – "Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it." (Numbers 13:30)
It is safe to assume that when Christian was faced with additional difficulty, he heard the voice of fear and unbelief in his own heart and mind rather than through two actual men bearing bad news. Much like the time he met Timorous and Mistrust near the summit of the hill Difficulty! Perhaps he said to himself, "I have already had as much as I can stand and do not believe I can take anymore!" Whatever his thoughts may have been, his faith came under strong attack here. Nevertheless, he pressed forward in spite of this discouraging voice, with sword in hand and ready for use, if needed.
That is, the Word of God was also in his heart and mind, overcoming the inner voice of unbelief and fear.
"Through God we shall do valiantly: for he it is that shall tread down our enemies." Psalm 108:13
As Christian ventured a little deeper into the valley, his path became extremely narrow as it passed between two steep drop-offs. To the right was a deep chasm (ditch) named Error, and to the left a quagmire trapping those who have fallen therein. To make matters worse, it was so dark that Christian had to feel his way carefully, so as not to lose his footing.
At this point, the slightest misstep in either direction could prove his undoing.
His perilous situation denotes another danger for the Christian under severe trial – the voice of temptation. Although it may assault us at any time, we are more vulnerable to this voice and the dangers to which it exposes us when under great difficulty.
The chasm named Error represents an assault upon our faith with the intent to subvert it. The temptation here is to grow weary when under heavy trial and become negligent in spiritual matters. Those who stray too far in this direction, perhaps by looking for a way out of their difficulty, can end up departing from the truth (2 Timothy 4:2-4). Thus, many a promising pilgrimage has come to a shameful end here. (Hebrews 3:8-14)
The quagmire (miry pit) depicts another kind of assault against our faith, this time with the intent to bring about our moral downfall. This terrible pit is filled with the hopelessness and despair of those who have been overtaken and ensnared by sin. [Like the man in the iron cage!] As Christians, we must never suppose that we cannot fall into it (Thus, the apostle Paul's warning in 1 Corinthians 10:12 – "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall"; and the Lord's admonition in Matthew 6:13 to pray– "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…"). Scripture is quite clear concerning the ever-present danger represented by this miry pit (Romans 6:12-23; Romans 8:12-13).
It is true that King David was recovered after he fell into it, but he paid an awful price for his sin. So, undoubtedly, he would warn us to avoid it at all costs!
Even though the danger here is substantial, many safely pass by without falling into either the chasm or the miry pit. If we would do likewise, we must hold tenaciously to the truth and diligently maintain a godly, circumspect walk (Psalm 119:133 – "Order my steps in thy word: and let not any iniquity have dominion over me." and Proverbs 4:23 – "Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life."). The Word of God is the means by which we avoid this 2-fold temptation. Therefore, it is vital that we read, meditate and commit it to memory, for such a time as this. It will unfailingly lead us in right paths and light the way before us (Psalm 119:11, 104-105).
It is equally important that we faithfully attend the assembly where God's Word is believed and taught in truth (1 Timothy 4:15-16 and Hebrews 10:23-25).
In further describing the Valley of the Shadow of Death, John Bunyan paints a horrific word picture of eerie voices echoing through the valley and the frightful screams of souls in torment. A place where hell looms near and evil creatures lurk in the shadows with malicious intentions! A land filled with pits, snares, traps and hazards of every sort!
We know the valley is not a literal place, but what does this mean?
Since the valley itself denotes a time of severe trial, I believe these images describe another voice heard in the valley – the voice of despair and depression. Many dear saints of the Lord have yielded to it when under great difficulty. Unbelieving fear will come strongly into play here also, and the result is mental anguish that defies description. [Remember Christian on the hill D?]
As John Bunyan makes quite clear, the powers of darkness figure prominently in our valley trials. Therefore, the voice of our great enemy is near at hand in the valley. Satan's relentless purpose is to take us down and harm the cause of Christ by doing so. His evil design, his power to deceive, his clever tactics and powerful weapons seem to give him every advantage. So we must never make the mistake of under-estimating our enemy (1 Peter 5:8 – "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.")
Not surprisingly, he has a strong preference for the valleys – for those times when our defenses are likely to be at their lowest. You may remember that Christian also came under enemy fire in the Valley of Humiliation when Apollyon assaulted him directly. The attack in the Valley of the Shadow of Death is presented in its more covert aspect – an attack upon Christian's mind. When our enemy hurls accusations against us and torments us with evil thoughts that vex our souls to distraction, we can easily succumb to despair and depression.
The Word of God is a highly effective weapon when we suffer an attack of this sort – "Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD shall be a light unto me." (Micah 7:8) But what about those times when we are so perplexed that we cannot think clearly enough to take in the Word? Then, we have another choice weapon – All-Prayer – in that we may come boldly to the throne of grace and cry out to our heavenly Father for His help at any time and in any situation.
The voices that tormented Christian so cruelly in the valley – the voices of unbelieving fear, temptation and despair – are lying voices intending to discourage and deceive us. Behind them all is our great enemy – the father of lies – hitting us hardest when we are at our weakest.
Thus, everything seemed against Christian being able to make it safely through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But even though his heart was full of fear, he pressed onward, crying, "I will walk in the strength of the Lord God." (Evidence of a valley lesson well learned!) And at these words, John Bunyan tells us that the enemy forces retreated and let him pass. (James 4:5-7)
It is interesting that the remainder of the valley was the most dangerous part so far. But since the darkness had passed and Christian had full daylight, he was able to see the many hazards and avoid them. And in looking back to where he had already been, he marveled at the dangers he had escaped.
Once again, the Lord had delivered Christian from a far greater danger than he imagined. What an encouragement for us! In our darkest hours, we may confidently trust that, in His time, our Lord will turn "the shadow of death into morning." (Amos 5:8). Therefore, we need not fear when our path leads us into the valley, because we have this precious promise –"The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him." (Nahum 1:7)
§ Section Four – Concluding Thoughts
It is one thing to study the Valley of the Shadow of Death and write about it, but quite another to experience it firsthand. How well I remember the day when a diagnosis of cancer brought me to the border of that dreaded valley! But I also remember something very precious that happened during the pre-dawn hours of the second night after my surgery, when I awoke to find that my mind had finally cleared from the effects of the anesthesia. Lying weak and helpless in the stillness of the night, I quoted Psalm 121 to myself and began to ponder its meaning in light of my present situation. As I did so, the Lord spoke peace to my heart through His great and precious promise in verse 8 – "The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore."
A promise that would span all the remaining days of my earthly life and beyond! As I listened to the 'voice' of my Beloved through His Word that night – for His voice is also heard in the valley – I claimed this promise as my very own. He who is the Keeper of Israel – He who neither slumbers nor sleeps – will guard His children well. So when our troubles seem like mountains – or dark, lonely valleys through which we must pass – we can rest assured that He is with us. His voice banishes our darkness, for He speaks only the Truth. As we hear Him through His Word, and the still, small voice of His Spirit, He speaks peace. Peace to calm and comfort us as we commit ourselves completely to Him.
By His grace and for His glory, He will unfailingly see us through.
Although we would avoid our valley trials if we could, they are crucial to our spiritual growth and well-being. One of the most fundamental things we learn from them is that we cannot live the Christian life in our own strength. If we would run the race set before us all the way to the finish, we must do so in the strength of the Lord, our all-sufficient Savior. Through Him, we are more than conquerors!
He is Lord of the valley as well as Lord of the hill. All that He designs for us is shaped in mercy and working together for our highest good. Moreover, His will will never lead us where His grace cannot keep us.
So even though He leads us through times of great trouble and darkness, our great Shepherd is leading us ever onward to higher ground – to a tableland of spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus that we have never known before.
Carolyn Staley, 2016