On February 5, 2008 a tornado with winds reaching 200 mph cut a 123-mile path through Arkansas. Along the way the tornado passed just south of the town of Clinton, a place known as Culpepper Mountain. It completely destroyed the three houses on the family farm where I grew up, uprooted or snapped the trees that were landmarks, scattered family memories for miles in it’s wake — and killed my grandmother.
The 23rd Psalm is read so often in times like this that it has almost become cliché. God forbid that we ever get so familiar with His Word that we fail to comprehend the meaning contained therein. Read it again:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The part that interests me most in this situation is where David mentions the valley of the shadow of death. He says he will fear no evil because God is with him. God’s rod and staff are a comfort. But what is death?
Obviously there is a physical death. But when the Bible speaks of death is that all that is meant? No. When the Bible speaks of the wages of sin being death it means much, much more. The Bible mentions two deaths — a physical death and a spiritual death. Physical death we know. Spiritual death, according to Scripture, is a separation from God — what we call hell.
My question is this: How can David be in the midst of death and still be in the presence of God if death is separation from God? Is there a contradiction in Scripture? Before I answer that I’d like to share some impressions from the week that followed the tornado that destroyed my family’s home.
It is possible to get an idea of the devastation a tornado can bring by watching news reports on television. I had seen the homes of other families destroyed by tornados and so was somewhat prepared for what I’d find the first day after the storm. I knew I’d see debris. What I was not prepared for was the debris being personal.
On television when you see the debris you see a broom, a bucket, a shoe, a photo. But when I arrived to where my grandmother’s house had once stood I saw my grandmother’s broom. I saw her shoe. I saw bits of family photos that had decorated her walls. Every piece brought back the memories in a flood. I had already been asked to speak at my grandmother’s memorial service and so I was looking for inspiration among the rubble. That’s when I saw a small prayer card.
The front of the card had an artist’s rendering of Jesus feeding the 4,000 in Mark chapter eight. On the back was a simple little prayer and a paraphrase of the passage. I immediately thought, “This has nothing to do with our situation.” But as the week progressed I realized it had everything to do with our situation. The message?
In the passage in Mark, Jesus Christ, Himself, provided food for thousands of hungry people when, seemingly, there were no resources. But, as we know from Scripture, after the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven. So how did God provide in the wake of the tornado?
The Bible says that the Church is the “body of Christ.” Believers are to do what Christ would have done were He here in person. Christians came from everywhere to help after the storm. They cooked, cleaned, and worked to recover property scattered by the storm. They did normal chores for our family so the members of our family could focus on the task of cleaning up. They gave supplies and money. They prayed.
And in a lot of cases, after helping in some fashion, they apologized for not being able to do enough. They thought they had but meager resources — certainly inadequate to the task. But God took what they thought was insufficient and multiplied it. The property was cleaned up in a fraction of the time I thought it would take because of the body of Christ. We had more food and water than we could possibly use because of them. The money that was given is still paying for the expenses.
Someone may say, “That is all well and good for those who survived the storm, but what about your grandmother? How did God provide for her?”
God’s provision for her was the greatest of all. I’ll let her elaborate on that point…
In the rubble of her home I found legal pads of my grandmother’s handwritten Bible study notes. There were stacks of them. When I picked up the first one and realized what it was I sat down in the midst of her collapsed house and read these words in my Granny’s own hand:
“The father loved us so much that he sent his Son to bridge the gap between us. John 3:16.”
Which brings me back to the 23rd Psalm. How can David say he enjoys the comfort of God’s presence in the midst of death? Because the Psalm doesn’t say David is in the midst of death, it says the “shadow of death.”
In the Bible there are “types.” A type is usually an event in the Old Testament that illustrates or foreshadows something in the New Testament. I’ll give you an example.
In the 21st chapter of Numbers God sends poisonous snakes among the Israelites because they had sinned against Him. Many of them were bitten and died. They begged Moses to go to God on their behalf. The Lord instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent, mount it on a pole and lift it up high so that everyone could see. Then God told them to look upon the bronze serpent anytime they were bitten and they would not die.
There is no medicinal quality to looking at a bronze snake on a stick. There is no scientific or medical reason that looking at the bronze snake would prevent someone from dying from a poisonous snakebite. However, those who looked to the serpent when they were bitten did not die. They did what they did in faith.
This account is a “type” of crucifixion, a “type” of Christ. Their looking to the bronze snake for salvation was an illustration, a foreshadowing, of our looking to Christ for ours.
Likewise, the “shadow of death” David speaks of is a “type” of death. It is an illustration, a picture for our benefit. It is extremely painful to be separated from a loved one when their physical body dies. But this is just a mere glimpse at what separation from God would be like.
We are all fatally snake bit. Every one of us is under a death sentence because of sin. But just as the Israelites looked to the bronze serpent for their salvation we look to the Cross of Christ — both of us in faith.
On another page of Bible study notes Granny wrote, “Two words describe faith: sure and certain. These two qualities need a secure beginning and ending point. The beginning point of faith is believing in God’s character — He is who He says. The end point is believing in God’s promises — He will do what he says.”
God promised the Israelites they would not die if they looked upon the bronze serpent — and they didn’t. God has made promises to us as well. Romans 10:13 says, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Romans 10:9 says, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”
In the 23rd Psalm David is comforted because he is merely walking in the valley of the shadow of death — not death itself — because God is with him. Providing comfort. My grandmother’s death is just a shadow — a temporary picture of something we need not experience if only we put our faith in Christ Jesus.
D. L. Moody was a famous Chicago preacher in the late 1800s. Near the end of his life he told his congregation, “One day soon you will read in the newspaper that D. L. Moody is dead. Don’t you believe it. I will be more alive than ever.”
The obituary page from a recent edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette says that Fountaine Bayer, my grandmother, is dead.
Don’t you believe it. She is more alive than ever.
God has provided.