A Guide to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

 

Notes and Commentary on
The Pilgrim's Progress

by Ken Puls

Valley of the Shadow of Death

53. Into the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Now, at the end of this valley was another, called the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and Christian must needs go through it, because the way to the Celestial City lay through the midst of it. Now, this valley is a very solitary place. The prophet Jeremiah thus describes it: "A wilderness, a land of deserts and of pits, a land of drought, and of the shadow of death, a land that no man" (but a Christian) "passed through, and where no man dwelt."

Now here Christian was worse put to it than in his fight with Apollyon, as by the sequel you shall see.

I saw then in my dream, that when Christian was got to the borders of the Shadow of Death, there met him two men, children of them that brought up an evil report of the good land, making haste to go back; to whom Christian spoke as follows:

Christian: Whither are you going?

Men: They said, Back! back! And we would have you to do so too, if either life or peace is prized by you.

Christian: Why, what's the matter? said Christian.

Men: Matter! said they; we were going that way as you are going, and went as far as we durst; and indeed we were almost past coming back; for had we gone a little further, we had not been here to bring the news to thee.

Christian: But what have you met with? said Christian.

Men: Why, we were almost in the Valley of the Shadow of Death; but that, by good hap, we looked before us, and saw the danger before we came to it.

Christian: But what have you seen? said Christian.

Men: Seen! Why, the Valley itself, which is as dark as pitch; we also saw there the hobgoblins, satyrs, and dragons of the pit; we heard also in that Valley a continual howling and yelling, as of a people under unutterable misery, who there sat bound in affliction and irons; and over that Valley hangs the discouraging clouds of confusion. Death also doth always spread his wings over it. In a word, it is every whit dreadful, being utterly without order.

Christian: Then, said Christian, I perceive not yet, by what you have said, but that this is my way to the desired haven. Men: Be it thy way; we will not choose it for ours. So, they parted, and Christian went on his way, but still with his sword drawn in his hand, for fear lest he should be assaulted.

I saw then in my dream, so far as this valley reached, there was on the right hand a very deep ditch; that ditch is it into which the blind have led the blind in all ages, and have both there miserably perished. Again, behold, on the left hand, there was a very dangerous quag, into which, if even a good man falls, he can find no bottom for his foot to stand on. Into that quag King David once did fall, and had no doubt therein been smothered, had not HE that is able plucked him out.

The pathway was here also exceeding narrow, and therefore good Christian was the more put to it; for when he sought, in the dark, to shun the ditch on the one hand, he was ready to tip over into the mire on the other; also when he sought to escape the mire, without great carefulness he would be ready to fall into the ditch. Thus he went on, and I heard him here sigh bitterly; for, besides the dangers mentioned above, the pathway was here so dark, and ofttimes, when he lift up his foot to set forward, he knew not where or upon what he should set it next.

 

Notes and Commentary

No sooner did Christian come out of one difficult valley than he went down into one much worse. In the Valley of Humiliation Christian faced the reality of his own neediness and sinfulness. He confronted the enemy, Apollyon, the accuser of his soul, and he fought valiantly for truth. But now in the Valley of the Shadow of Death the way has become dark and clouded. The enemy is less clear. In the midst of trial and temptation Christian must face his doubts and fears and uncertainties. This second valley represents the struggles and oppression we face in our pilgrimage when we can no longer see clearly the light of the gospel. Truth is shrouded in darkness. Temptation and sin threaten to cast us down.

As Christian crosses the boundary between the valleys, he meets two men whom Bunyan describes as descendents of the ten spies in Numbers 13 who lacked faith and gave a bad report.

And they gave the children of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, "The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature" (Numbers 13:32).

Moses had sent twelve to spy out the Promised Land and only Joshua and Caleb had faith that God would conquer the inhabitants and give the land to Israel. The remaining ten were fearful and doubted God's promise. Their lack of faith infected Israel and for forty years Israel wandered in the wilderness and was prevented from taking possession of the land.

Like the faithless spies, the two men fleeing the valley had turned back in fear and they encourage Christian to do the same. But Christian had learned perseverance on his journey. He saw the lesson in the House of the Interpreter of the Valiant Man determined to gain entrance to the Stately Palace. When he was climbing Hill Difficulty, he met Timorous and Mistrust who were running from the lions. They also encouraged Christian to turn back, yet Christian persevered until he came to Palace Beautiful. Christian understands that if he is to attain eternal life, the way at times will be hard and trying. And now the way has brought Him to the Valley of the Shadow of Death. There is no way around it. "The way to the Celestial City lay through the midst of it" and so "Christian must needs go through it." There are more lessons for Christian to learn, even as he faces dark and difficult days.

Bunyan describes the valley as "a very solitary place." Here we feel alone, isolated and even abandoned. No one can possibly understand what we are going through. It seems like God Himself has hidden His face. It is a wilderness full of danger—a place where we are spiritually parched, dry, drained and unsatisfied. Bunyan quotes from Jeremiah's description of the wilderness where Israel wandered:

Neither did they say, "Where is the LORD,
Who brought us up out of the land of Egypt,
Who led us through the wilderness,
Through a land of deserts and pits,
Through a land of drought and the shadow of death,
Through a land that no one crossed
And where no one dwelt?"
(Jeremiah 2:6)

The path through this valley is narrow. The rocks and cliffs rise up all around blocking out the light. Spurgeon, in his message on Psalm 23:4, offers this description:

Get the idea of a narrow ravine, something like the Gorge of Gondo or some other stern pass upon the higher Alps where the rocks seem piled to Heaven and the sunlight is seen above as through a narrow rift. Troubles are sometimes heaped on one another, pile on pile, and the road is a dreary pass through which the pilgrim, on his journey to Heaven, has to wend his way. Set before your mind's eye a valley shut in with stupendous rocks that seem to meet overhead, a narrowing pass, dark as midnight itself. Through this valley, or rocky ravine, the heavenly footman has to follow the path appointed for him in the eternal purpose of the Infinite mind. Through such a dreary rift many a child of God is making his way at this moment—and to him I speak (C.H. Spurgeon, "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" a sermon delivered on August 12, 1880, Metropolitan Tabernacle #1595).

It is a place covered in darkness (Job 3:4-5; 10:21-22); a place of misery and danger (Psalm 44:19); a place of bondage and affliction (Psalm 107:10). Bunyan describes some of his own experiences in this valley in Grace Abounding:

Again, as I was at another time very ill and weak, all that time also the tempter did beset me strongly, for I find he is much for assaulting the soul when it begins to approach towards the grave, then is his opportunity, laboring to hide from me my former experience of God's goodness; also setting before me the terrors of death and the judgment of God, insomuch that at this time, through my fear of miscarrying for ever, should I now die, I was as one dead before death came, and was as if I had felt myself already descending into the pit; methought, I said, there was no way, but to hell I must; but behold, just as I was in the midst of those fears, these words of the angels carrying Lazarus into Abraham's bosom darted in upon me, as who should say, So it shall be with thee when thou dost leave this world. This did sweetly revive my spirit, and help me to hope in God; which, when I had with comfort mused on a while, that word fell with great weight upon my mind, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1Corinthians 15:55). At this I became both well in body and mind at once, for my sickness did presently vanish, and I walked comfortably in my work for God again.

At another time, though just before I was pretty well and savory in my spirit, yet suddenly there fell upon me a great cloud of darkness, which did so hide from me the things of God and Christ, that I was as if I had never seen or known them in my life; I was also so overrun in my soul, with a senseless, heartless frame of spirit, that I could not feel my soul to move or stir after grace and life by Christ; I was as if my loins were broken, or as if my hands and feet had been tied or bound with chains. At this time also I felt some weakness to seize upon my outward man, which made still the other affliction the more heavy and uncomfortable 'to me.

[Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, par. 260–261]

Bunyan notes that the path through the valley is hemmed in by a ditch on one side and a quag on the other. The ditch represents falling into sinful error. We stumble into its deep chasms when we are blind to the truth and believe what is false, when we fail to recognize and acknowledge sin as sin, when underestimate the power of temptation and treat sin lightly and casually. The quag on the opposite side of the path represents our being overtaken by sin and overwhelmed with doubts and fears and guilt. We sink in its mire when we are beaten down by temptations; when we are weighed down with despair and excessive sorrow; when we feel defeated by struggles and laid low by setbacks. When we try to avoid falling into the ditch by exposing our sins with truth, we are in danger of the quag, being overwhelmed with our exceeding sinfulness. When we try to avoid the quag by silencing our sins with hope of forgiveness, we are in danger of the ditch, being careless in our walk and presumptuous in our obedience. The only safe path through this dark valley is Christ. He is the way and the truth and the life. He keeps us from falling to the right or left. In Him we find forgiveness; the Law no more condemns us. And in Him we find strength to walk in newness of life; the Law is our delight.

David once fell into this quag. He prayed in Psalm 69 when his soul was overwhelmed:

Deliver me out of the mire,
And let me not sink;
Let me be delivered from those who hate me,
And out of the deep waters.
Let not the floodwater overflow me,
Nor let the deep swallow me up;
And let not the pit shut its mouth on me.
(Psalm 69:14-15)

And yet David learned to trust and rest in God, even in dark times. He prayed in Psalm 23:

Yea, 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.
(Psalm 23:4)

We must learn to have faith as David did. We must readily repent of sin and anchor our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We must receive the guidance and discipline of our kind Shepherd. Our path at times can be dark and uncertain. But it is God's will and purpose that we walk such paths and learn more deeply to trust Him. Though the way may be clouded and unclear, we must press on to glory. Though we may not be able to see even where our next footstep will land, God is faithful and He will lead us safely home.

Continue Reading 54. Christian Confounded
Return to 52. Battle with Apollyon

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The text for The Pilgrim's Progress
and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2015 Ken Puls
"A Guide to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress"
was originally published from January 1993 to December 1997
in "The Voice of Heritage," a monthly newsletter
of Heritage Baptist Church in Mansfield, Texas
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from
the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
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