THE NIGHTINGALE SONG OF DAVID
by Octavius Winslow
"Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I will fear no evil: for You are with me." -Psalm 23:4.
"Even when I walk through the dark valley of death, I
will not be afraid, for you are close beside me." -Psalm 23:4.
Plaintive and pensive refrain of our Song is this- yet
how inspiriting and melodious! What a marvellous combination of note, and
harmony of sound! It speaks of soul-depression; the pathway of the valley;
the shadow of death; the presence of the Shepherd; and the triumph of the
sheep! "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear
no evil: for You are with me." The spiritual landscape of the Christian-
like the natural- is diversified in character, feature, and tint. Mountains
and hills, rivers and valleys, forests and glens, grassy mounds and sunny
slopes, compose it; and each succeeding and varied scene, presents some new
and brighter view of the divine character, and brings the saints of God into
the experience of some yet unstudied and unlearned lesson in the divine
life. It is in this way our education for heaven is advanced: it is thus our
acquaintance with God is promoted. We only experimentally and closely know
God by personal relationship. A theoretical or intellectual religion is of
little or no practical avail. We must know God, not by hearing and reading
merely, but by personal understanding and feeling; the emotional, as well as
the thinking, faculty must be brought into play: the heart must, so to
speak, discourse with the head- there must be a communication, a harmony of
the intellect and the affections in the religious training of the soul.
Perhaps we conceive of God as so infinitely great that He can only deal with
us- and we with Him- in the greater events of our history; while the smaller
incidents- the little affairs of daily life- are left to the government and
molding of blind chance, or fortuitous circumstance! But this is practical
atheism of the worst description. It is the privilege of the believer to
recognize and practically act upon the truth that, there transpires not an
event or incident in his history but marks the hand and echoes the voice of
his Divine Shepherd. The Lord is in it. "The very hairs of your head are all
numbered"- Christ thus teaching us that our Heavenly Father takes cognizance
of the minutest event and circumstance of our individual history, and that
there is nothing too trivial or common to be beneath His interest and
control. And thus, although the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain
Him, yet He seeks a dwelling-place amid the sighs and groans and desires of
a humble, broken, and contrite heart; and all the interests of that heart-
its faintest desire, gentlest sigh, and softest prayer- are entwined with
the purposes, thoughts, and affections of His. "You are NEAR, O Lord,"
should be the consciousness of every believing mind: You, God, see me! You,
God, hear me! You, God, shield me! Jesus meets us in every bend of our path,
and speaks to us in every circumstance of our history- in the cloudy pillar,
as in the golden beam; in the soft, 'still small voice,' as in the roar of
the tempest and the vibration of the earthquake- and thus, were there less
atheistical unbelief in our hearts- alas! so natural and so strong- we
should feel that God has to do with us, and we with God, in the most
infinitesimal event and incident of our history. Oh deem nothing too small
for God! If it concerns you, it yet more deeply concerns Him; if it is your
care, it is still more His. "Casting all your care upon Him; for He cares
for you;" and how could He care for you, felt He not your care? You are His
child by adopting grace, and nothing that attaches to you as a child is
alien to Him as a Father. But let us now bend our ear to this pensive yet
triumphant strain of our song- "Yes, though I walk through the valley of the
shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for You are with me."
The course of the flock- as mapped in this verse of the
Psalm- is clearly that of THE VALLEY- and rich and holy is its teaching.
There are VARIOUS VALLEYS which trace the journey of the Christian- and in
each of which some especial blessing is found, and found in no other. The
first stage of the divine life commences in the valley- the valley of
repentance and humiliation for sin. All pass through this valley who are
called by grace, and have set out for heaven. It is, indeed, the first step
in real conversion. Until we are led down into this valley, we tread the
high mountain of self-righteousness and pride, in the self-inflated,
boasting spirit of Nebuchadnezzar, who walked in the palace of his kingdom
exclaiming, "Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of
the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honor of my majesty?"
Alas! there are many heights, each one more elevated than the other,
traversed by the natural man, from the towering summit of which he fondly,
yet vainly, hopes to reach heaven, as easily and surely as Moses from the
top of mount Pisgah! But, from all these elevations, divine grace, by a
descent gradual yet effectual, removes him, leading him down into the valley
of his own sinfulness, emptiness, and poverty, extorting from him the only
prayer expressive of his felt condition- "God be merciful to me a sinner!"
Oh, blessed valley of death is this! There is something more than shadow
here- there is reality! -it is death itself! The sentence of death is now
written upon all imaginary holiness- imaginary merit- and spurious hopes of
salvation by the works of the law. The "commandment" has been applied by the
Spirit to the heart and conscience- 'sin,' that lay dead and dormant, is
'revived,' quickened as into new life; and we 'die' to all our own
righteousness, false hopes, and vain expectation of mounting to heaven from
the Babel we had so zealously, yet so foolishly and fatally, reared. And now
the lofty look and the proud heart are brought low, and with the hand upon
the mouth, and the mouth in the dust, the humbled soul exclaims, "I abhor
myself, and repent in dust and ashes."
In this valley of repentance, self-renunciation, and
godly sorrow for sin, Christ is found- and found only here! This that was,
in a sense, the valley of death, now becomes the valley of life! It is here
our first discovery of Christ is made. Where else should we look for Him but
"outside the camp," and in the valley- the scorn of the Pharisee, and the
rejected of the worldling- but the attraction and the treasure, the Savior
and the Friend of every poor, penitent sinner; who, feeling the plague of
his own heart, and casting away the leprous-tainted, sin-soiled, worthless
garment of his own righteousness, comes to Jesus, and accepts Him as all his
salvation and all his desire? Oh how real and precious does Christ now
become! and how true and glorious does the gospel appear! Truly it is a new
creation within; and the old and material creation outside is now clothed
with a beauty and a charm unseen, unfelt before; for lo! "old things are
passed away; behold, all things are become new!" Every object in nature- the
flowers of earth, and the stars of heaven- as now seen with a spiritual and
new-born vision- bloom with a beauty and shine with a splendor, the
most brilliant imagination could never have conceived; and, recognized as
the work of the Incarnate God- of Him who died upon the cross- appear as
though the universe had but just sprung from chaos at the fiat of its Maker,
clothed with the splendor, fragrant with the perfume, and vocal with the
song of its first-born creation! It is only to the Christian's eye- and as
seen to be the work of Jesus- that this world appears, even in its
sin-tainted and curse-blighted condition, to be surpassingly beautiful. It
is true, the painter, the poet, and the philosopher may revel amid the
sublimities and wonders of 'nature'- portraying them upon canvas,
chanting them in song, and illustrating them in science- but, until there is
a new visual faculty of the soul, a veil conceals even from the most
artistic eye, and the most brilliant fancy, and the most learned mind, more
than half the grandeur and splendor of the universe. Creation, recognized as
the handiwork of Christ- God seen in it- oh then it is the sentiment comes
with a power perfectly irresistible- "He has made all things beautiful!"
"How great is His beauty!"
Study Creation with the Christian's eye- not with the eye
of a Byron, dimmed with the mist of an atheistic philosophy, but with the
eye of a Milton, lit up with the noontide splendor of the Sun of
Righteousness! And when you look down at the flowers- those stars of earth,
and up to the planets- the jewelry of heaven, and when you gaze upon the
rainbow, kissing the valley, then springing to the sky, arching and tinting
hill and cloud with its mysterious beauty- and when you gaze upon the
cloud-piercing Alps, capped with its eternal snows, inaccessible to the foot
of man- oh let the devout thought, the rapturous feeling, leap from your
adoring soul- "My Father- my Redeemer made it all!" -and lo! the curse will
seem to have rolled from creation, and "instead of the thorn will be the fir
tree, and instead of the brier, the myrtle tree; the mountains and the hills
will break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field
shall clap their hands."
My reader, have you been brought into this valley of
humiliation? and have you there found- where alone it can be found- the
"Rose of Sharon" -the "Plant of renown" -the "Lily of the valley" -the "Tree
of life" -even the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners, discovered
alone by the soul led down into the depths of its own conscious sinfulness.
There is the valley of affliction which lies in our
pathway to heaven, along which all the sheep travel, and was trodden by the
Shepherd of the flock Himself; for, "though He was a Son, yet learned He
obedience by the things which He suffered." Thus the valley of sorrow is the
royal road through which all traveling to the delectable mountains are led
by the Shepherd. It is an essential part of our education for heaven- our
learning of the New Song- that we should pass through this valley- often
profoundly deep and densely shaded. Our descent into it may be singularly
mysterious. We are, perhaps, led down by the Shepherd from some verdant
hill-side, where we fed so luxuriantly- or from some silvery stream, upon
whose soft bank we reclined so peacefully- into the loneliness and gloom of
the valley of tears, to learn some new lesson, to experience some new truth,
to taste some new spring, found only there. It is not always upon the
consecrated heights of devout communion, Christian joy, and entrancing song,
that we find the richest fruit, the sweetest flowers, the purest streams of
the divine life. All no! "He sends the springs into the valleys, which run
among the hills;" and so He fulfils the precious evangelical
promise- "I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of
the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land
springs of water." And so it is when God brings us low, we discover the
springs of life and grace and truth, found nowhere so full, so sweet, so
refreshing, as in the valley winding among the 'hills' of difficulty and
doubt, weariness and neediness, which lie in our path to glory. Oh there are
blessings found in the shaded valley, that are not on the sun gilded height;
even as there are sublimities seen by night, invisible to the eye by day! It
is here the character of God is unfolded- the compassion of Christ is felt-
the consolation of the Spirit is experienced. We have found it good to be in
the valley. Almost paralyzed with wonder, and overwhelmed with emotion, in
the shaded valley into which the Shepherd has gently led us we have plucked
our ripest fruit, cropped our richest pasture, and drank our purest spring
of divine truth, sweet peace, and holy joy! The discipline of sorrow thus
hallowed, we have echoed the lofty note of our sweet-singing Psalmist-
"Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept Your word. It is
good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn Your statutes."
Shepherd of my soul! if this be the pasture, these the blessings, found in
the valley of sorrow, the valley of tears- my rebellious will disciplined-
my heart's idolatry surrendered- my worldly-mindedness removed- and You made
more precious to my soul- then,
"Your way, not mine, O Lord,
However dark it be!
Lead me by Your own hand,
Choose out the path for me.
"Smooth let it be, or rough,
It will be still the best;
Winding or straight, it leads
Right onward to Your rest.
"You take my cup, and it
With joy or sorrow fill,
As best to You may seem;
Choose You my good or ill."
But the most solemn valley we have yet to pass- "the
valley of the shadow of death." "It is appointed unto men once to die," and
even the believer is no exception to this divine appointment. The Shepherd
Himself was not exempt. He must pass through the valley of death before He
could " open the kingdom of heaven to all believers." We must keep in view
the essential distinction of Christ's death and ours. Christ suffered death
as the Substitutionary Offering of His Church; consequently, death was to
Him not what it is to us, (a covenant blessing), but an unrepealed,
unmitigated curse. He met, not the shadow, but the substance of death; not
the phantom, but the reality- suffering countless million deaths in one! If
it is an appalling event for one individual to die, what must have been the
"bitterness of death" to Christ, dying the death- the sting of each buried
in His heart- of every individual sheep of His flock? Oh, had He not been
God, as He was man- and had not His love been equal to His Deity- infinite,
boundless, fathomless- how could He have drank and exhausted that tremendous
cup of death's unmingled bitterness? Consider its ingredients- all the sins
of His Church- the curse entailed by those sins- the condemnation involved
in that curse- yet all this He endured in the sacrificial, sin-atoning
sufferings and death through which He passed.
Turn we now to THE DEATH of those for whom He thus died.
Christ's death has essentially and entirely changed the character of ours.
The believer, in the words of Jesus Himself, "shall not see death."
Literally, it is death- symbolically, death is a shadow. Poetically, death
is a sleep. "Those who sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him." And what is
this sleep? It is not the sleep of the soul- the soul loses not for a moment
its consciousness. It is the sleep of the body- an euthanasia- in which the
mortal part of our nature only reposes in unconsciousness until the trumpet
of the Archangel wakes and bids it rise a "spiritual body" 'the body of our
humiliation fashioned like unto Christ's glorious body.' Banish from your
mind and your creed the freezing, cheerless idea that the soul of the
believer sleeps until the resurrection morn! No! the soul- even of the lost-
in its transit to eternity is not the subject of a moment's insensibility.
'Absent from the body'- that instant the believer is 'present with the
Lord.' The moment that the body closes its eyes upon all the sin and
suffering of earth, the ransomed soul opens its rapt vision upon all the
glory and splendor of heaven- and JESUS is the first Object which meets,
fastens, and feasts its ravished and wondering gaze!
"I will fear no evil!" An elevated note of our song is
this! What! "no evil" in the approach of the 'king of terrors'? "No evil" in
the assaults of the Evil One? "No evil" in the near prospect and realities
of eternity? "Yes," responds the dying believer, "I fear no evil! Death
cannot sting me- Christ has died! The grave cannot hold me- Christ is risen!
Sin cannot condemn me-Christ has atoned! Satan cannot touch me- Christ has
conquered! The fetters I wore so long and so wearily, now fall broken and
shattered at my feet- and I am free!" What, in reality, has the believer to
fear in death? When Christ passed through the valley, He destroyed the
substance of death, and left nothing but its shadow- its phantom- its dream!
Oh, believer in Jesus! are you afraid of a shadow? And have you forgotten
the exceeding great and precious promise- "As your day, so shall your
strength be"? "As your day" -and not before your day! The grace laid up for
a dying hour is wisely reserved by God for its 'day,' and never given ahead
of time. Oh, how prodigal we should be of the precious treasure were the
deposit entrusted to our own keeping! It is the prerogative and design of
faith to live upon God by the day. This is evidently His purpose and
arrangement. "As your day, so shall your strength be." We have daily demands
for grace quite enough, irrespective of anticipating our reserves, and
antedating our need. We need living grace for life's daily duties and
responsibilities, temptations and trials- and we have it all in Christ, our
Depositary and Head, and it is ours- affluently and freely- by pleading the
promise- "My grace is sufficient for you." Our dying grace will come at the
appointed time, and when most we need it; and as we experienced the grace of
Jesus all-sufficient for life- its deepest sorrows, its sorest trials, its
strongest temptations, its greatest difficulties- so shall we find it
all-sufficient for death- its fears and doubts, its tremblings and
faintings- once more, and for the last and closing scene, presenting the
precious promise- "My grace is sufficient for you." Wait, then, trustfully,
calmly, hopefully, God's appointed time for the divine strength, grace, and
comfort, that will bear you safely, yes, triumphantly through the shaded
"His wisdom is sublime,
His heart profoundly kind;
God never is before His time,
And never is behind."
No! "I will not fear" -why should I, with such a Father-
such a Savior- such a Comforter at my side, as I traverse the swellings of
Jordan, my foot of faith firmly planted upon the precious promises that pave
my pathway to glory? Oh, what must be the power of the blood and
righteousness of Christ, which annihilates every fear at that dread moment
when the "King of terrors" brandishes his uplifted dart, prepared to strike,
but powerless to sting! Where this boldness at a moment when the stoutest
heart might quail- this calmness, when the most sublime heroism might
succumb- this smiling at the pale messenger, when nature is dissolving, and
loving watchers are weeping and sobbing?
"Come, death, shake hands!
I love your bands;
It is happiness for me to die!
What! do you think that I will flinch?
I go to immortality!"
Where, we again ask, does this sublime victory over death
come from? Our sweet Songster shall supply the answer.
"For You are with me." The presence and power of the Savior in the hour and
point of death, alone explain the phenomenon. There is no fact in the
believer's history more certain, as there is not one more precious, than
that the Divine Shepherd walks side by side with each departing member of
His flock. If ever the Savior is manifestly and sensibly with His saints, it
is then. Never did He permit one of His sheep, not a lamb of His fold, to
pass down the valley unsustained by His arm, uncheered by His voice, unblest
with His smile. It may be that the loved ones who shared and soothed our
earthly pilgrimage are absent now; or, if present, we may be unconscious
that they are at our side. A fond parent may watch in silent agony the
closing scene- a devoted husband, a loving wife, may tenderly wipe the cold
death-damp from our brow- an affectionate child may bend to catch the last
sigh from our lips- and yet we are utterly unconscious of their presence and
their love! But of one presence- of the nearness of one Friend- your
departing spirit is fully, blessedly sensible. "You me with me!" breathes
from the dying lips- resounds through the valley! Hell trembles! Heaven
rejoices! And all the saints and angels shout for joy!
"Death comes to take me where I long to be;
One pang, and bright blooms the immortal flower.
Death comes to lead me from mortality
To lands which know not one unhappy hour.
I have a hope, a faith- from sorrow here
I'm led by death away- why should I flinch and fear?
"A change from woe to joy- from earth to heaven
Death gives me this- it leads me calmly where
The souls that long ago from me were riven
May meet again! Death answers many a prayer.
Bright day, shine on! be glad! Days brighter far
Are stretched before my eyes than those of mortals are!"