They tell Christian of the terrible things ahead and of the “hobgoblins, satyrs, and dragons of the pit.” (Hobgoblin is an elf or a sort of boogeymen; satyr refers to a mythological creature that has the head, arms, and torso of a man but the body and legs of a goat; and dragons traditionally referred to a large reptilian monster with wings and claws that breathed out fire and smoke.) Christian, however, displays his courage again and resolves to go on. He draws his sword and ventures into the valley.
To the right of the pathway is a deep ditch into which many pilgrims have fallen. To the left of the path is a quagmire (swamp, possibly with quicksand), the very one into which King David once fell. And the path between these two dangers is very narrow.
In the middle of the valley is what seems to be the mouth of hell. (Note that it only seems to be hell.) Smoke, sparks, and hideous noises come belching from the pit. Christian soon realizes that his sword will do him no good against such things, and he puts it away and turns to a different weapon—all prayer. He travels for a great while, and then fiends rush at him. When they get almost to him, he cries, “I will walk in the strength of the Lord God,” and they withdraw from him.
Christian becomes so confused in this place that he cannot distinguish between his own voice and those of the demons flying about him. They whisper blasphemous words in his ears, and he thinks that they have come from his own mind. This confusing situation makes him feel even worse, especially the thought that he could blaspheme the very One who loved him so much and whom he loved so much before.
Soon, however, he is encouraged when he hears the voice of another pilgrim: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.” The voice thrills his heart as he suddenly realizes that (1) he is not alone and that other Christians have gone through the same things before him; (2) God is with him; and (3) eventually he will have company.
The day eventually breaks, and the sun rises. Christian looks behind him to see what he has passed during the darkness. Then he understands and sees more clearly. The sun also makes it easier for him to continue through the rest of the valley, which is filled with pits and traps.
Near the end of the valley lies blood, bones, ashes, and the mangled bodies of earlier Christians who were slain for their faith. Passing a cave, Christian sees their murderers, two giants, Pope and Pagan. Both of them are old men, and their power is gone. Pagan is said to be dead, and Pope is too old and stiff in his joints to do little more than sit in the mouth of the cave, grin at the passing pilgrims, and bite his fingernails in frustration because he cannot get at them.
This part of the story is an allegorical account of Bunyan’s own personal experiences as a young Christian, and it is vividly portrayed in his autobiography, Grace Abounding.(TCA 12) 1 2
The Meaning of the Valley of the Shadow of Death
The Valley of the Shadow of Death represents Satan’s mental and emotional attacks on believers. These attacks include depression, doubt, and loneliness all heaped together. The phrase shadow of death occurs twenty times in the Bible, most notably in the following passages.
Read this verse aloud. Here we see an allusion to the loneliness of the valley.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
Job 10:21, 22
Read these verses aloud. Here we see the confusion of those who enter this mental state, and the darkness shows the afflicted person’s helplessness to see the way out.
Read this verse aloud. Again, darkness describes the place, but David adds that the people in this valley are “afflicted and bound in irons.” They are sick in spirit and are captive to their mental torments.
Read this verse aloud. This verse compares the children of Israel in the wilderness to the shadow of death.
Thus, we see the shadow of death as an experience of doubt, confusion, and loneliness that Christians encounter.
John Bunyan’s Experience in the Valley of the Shadow of Death
Bunyan’s autobiography describes in vivid detail his own personal experience with the demons of doubt. The following excerpts have been paraphrased from his book Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978).
Read these excerpts aloud to the students without comment. Ask them to listen for parallels between what Bunyan is describing here and his description of the valley in The Pilgrim’s Progress. (Be sure to read with enthusiasm and voice inflection so as to maintain the students’ interest and attention.)
About a month later “the great storm” arrived and mauled me twenty times worse than anything I had met with before…. First, all my comfort was taken from me and darkness seized upon me. After this, whole floods of blasphemies against God and Christ and the Scriptures seemed to pour into my spirit, to my great confusion and astonishment. These blasphemous thoughts were stirred up by questions in me against the very being of God and His only beloved Son, whether there were really a God or Christ…. The tempter also struck me heavily with this question, “How can you tell that the Turks may not have as good Scriptures to prove their Muhammed as the Savior as we have to prove our Jesus?” …Everyone thinks his own religion is right, whether he is a Jew or a Muslim or a pagan, and what if all our faith in Christ and the Scriptures were just our imagination?
I felt nothing else but these from morning to night, and I concluded that God had in very wrath against my soul given me up to them to be carried away with them as a mighty whirlwind…. I often found my mind suddenly begin to curse and to swear, or to speak some grievous thing against God or Christ, His Son, or against the Scriptures.
Now I thought, Surely I am possessed of the devil. And at other times I thought I had become insane…. I often compared myself with a child who had been kidnapped and carried away from friend and country, kicking and screaming. Kick I did, and also shriek and cry and yet I was bound in the wings of the temptation and the wind carried me away. I thought also of Saul and of the evil spirit that possessed him, and I greatly feared that my condition was the same as his (1 Sam. 16:14).
During those days, when I heard others talk of the sin against the Holy Spirit, the tempter would make me want to sin that sin, and want it so much that I felt as though I could never be quiet until I had committed it. If the sin were by speaking some word against the Holy Spirit, then my mouth seemed ready to speak that word whether I would let it or not. The temptation was so strong upon me that often I pressed my hands under my chin to hold my mouth from opening; at other times I leaped head down into some mudholes to keep my mouth from speaking.
This temptation lasted for about a year, and all this time I had to give up Bible reading and prayer, for it was then that I was most distressed with these blasphemies…Sometimes I have felt Satan behind me, pulling my clothes. He would also continually be at me in the time of prayer to “get it done, break off, make haste, you have prayed enough, stay no longer.” Sometimes also he would cast his wicked thoughts into my mind; for instance, that I ought to pray to him.
After a while a good word came to my mind: “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39).
Another help I had during this temptation, even though it was a support that I doubted was in Jeremiah 3. This also was a help to me: “Because I live, ye shall live also” (John 14:19). But these words were but hints and tiny visits. Even though very sweet when present, they never lasted. Suddenly they were gone again.
But afterward the Lord showed Himself to me more fully and graciously . . . and I was put into my right mind again even as other Christians. . . . The Scriptures came to my mind which says that he hath “made peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). And by this I was made to see again and again that God and my soul were friends because of His blood. This was a good day for me; I hope I shall never forget it.
At this time I sat under the ministry of dear Mr. Gifford, whose doctrine, by God’s grace, was exactly what I needed. . . . And now my soul was led along by God from truth to truth, all the way from the birth of the Son of God to His ascension and second coming from heaven to judge the world.
But before I had finally gotten out of these temptations, I began to long greatly to see the experience of some godly men of former years. Well, after I had talked to the Lord about this, He caused to come into my hands one day a book of Martin Luther’s—his Commentary on Galatians . . . Martin Luther discussed carefully the rise of temptations such as blasphemy, desperation, and such like. He showed that the Law of Moses, as well as the devil and earth and hell, had a very great hand in bringing them about. . . . I prefer this book of Martin Luther’s on Galatians above all other books that I have ever seen.
The tempter came upon me again, this time with even more terrible temptations than before.
This time the temptation was to part with Christ in exchange for the things of this life. This temptation lay strongly upon me for an entire year and followed me so continually that I was not rid of it a single day. . . . I had almost no other thoughts about Him except blasphemies, and neither my hating these thoughts nor my resisting them helped me in the least to keep them away. . . . When I ate my food, when I stopped to pick up a pin, when I chopped a stick of wood or looked at this or that, the temptation would come: Sell Christ for this, or sell Christ for that: sell Him, sell Him.
And for whole hours at a time I have been forced to stand guard, leaning and forcing my spirit against it for fear that before I was aware of what was happening, some wicked thought might arise in my heart that would consent to this temptation.
. . . During this time, I could not eat food peacefully, but as soon as I sat down at the table I had to go away and pray.
One morning as I lay on my bed, I was, as at many other times, fiercely assaulted with this temptation to sell Christ: Sell Him, sell Him, sell Him, sell Him, sell Him. As usual, my mind answered: No, not for thousands, thousands, thousands, thousands. Twenty times together I repeated it, but at last after great struggle I felt this thought pass through my heart: Let Him go if He will, and my heart agreed.
. . . Satan had won the battle and down I fell, as a bird that is shot from the top of a tree, into mighty guilt and fearful despair. There for about two hours I was like a man bereft of life and past all recovery.
This Scripture seized my soul: “Profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:16–17).
Months went by, and the sound of that verse concerning Esau went continually through my mind. But about ten or eleven o’clock one morning as I was walking under a hedge, full of sorrow and guilt . . . suddenly this sentence came rushing in upon me: “The blood of Christ remits all guilt.” . . . and this wonderful verse took hold upon me: “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son, cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Peace began to steal into my soul, and I thought I could see the tempter stealing away as though ashamed of what he had done.
But it was chiefly that Scripture about Esau selling his birthright that lay all day long on my mind. . . . This made me fear that my sin was the unpardonable one. . . . And now I was both a burden and a terror to myself. I was weary of life and afraid to die. . . .
One day, while walking back and forth in the shop of a Christian . . . suddenly there was a noise of wind rushing in through the window upon me, . . . and I seemed to hear a voice saying . . . “Did you ever refuse to be justified by the blood of Christ?”
In one moment my whole life was open before me, and I was made to see that I had never willingly refused Him. So my heart answered with groans, “No, this I have never refused.”
Then there fell with great power that word of God upon me: “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh (Heb. 12:25). This word made a strange seizure upon my spirit; it brought light with it and commanded a silence in my heart.
I do not know what actually happened, though twenty years have now gone by for me to think about it. I thought then what I hesitate to say now—that that sudden rushing wind was as if an angel had come upon me. . . . I do not base my salvation upon this experience, but upon the promise that the Lord Jesus gave me.
The glory of this experience lasted for three or four days, and then I began to lose my trust again and to enter into despair.
I found it hard to pray to Christ for mercy, because of the way that I had sinned against Him so vilely.
Now the tempter began a new attack by telling me that Christ pitied me and was sorry for my loss, but was helpless to save me from my sins, for they were not the kind for which He had bled and died.
This thought—that I was guilty of a sin for which He did not die—so tied me up that I did not know what to do.
[One day] while I was musing [on this fact] I lifted my head and thought I saw the sun shining in the heavens begin to hate to give me light, that the very stones in the street and tiles on the houses bent themselves against me . . . . I said to myself, with a terrible sigh, How can God comfort such a wretch as I? I had no sooner said that than there came to me, as an echo answers a voice: “This sin is not unto death.”
The next day at evening . . . I cried out to Him with strong cries, “Oh, Lord, I beseech Thee, show me that Thou has loved me with everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3). I had no sooner said this than there returned sweetly to me, like an echo, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love.”
As I strove to hold to this good word, . . . Easu would fly in my face like lightning. Sometimes I would be up and down [from bed] twenty times in one hour.
Another good word came to me at this time: “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared” (Ps. 130:3–4). . . . I was refreshed and sustained by Ezekiel 16:63 [also] . . . But later I began to be full of despondence again.
So I went over the same ground again, to see whether one who had sinned as I might still trust in the Lord. . . . There was Esau who . . . “found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:17).
And now it seemed that there was no promise of the gospel that was left for me anywhere in the
Bible. . . . I could not find peace again for almost two and a half years. I could never quite get rid of it, and every day it would come in upon me. . . . So now I went to work another way. I would try to find hope by looking squarely at what I had done, examining every part of the situation, and seeing exactly where it left me. When I had done this, I found that I had clearly left the Lord Jesus Christ to His choice as to whether He would be my Savior or not; for these were the wicked words I had said: “Let Him go if He will.” But this Scripture gave me much hope, because the Lord Jesus said, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5) . . . For this I thanked God.
The Scripture that helped me most was in Joshua 20, where it speaks of the slayer who was to flee for refuge.
Yet, there still remained one question, and that was whether it was possible for anyone who had sinned the unpardonable sin to be able to have any hope. . . . I felt that at last I could look more carefully at those terrible Scriptures which had frightened me so much.
And when I did, I found they were not as terrible as I had thought.
At last I came to Hebrews 12:17. It almost killed me to look at this verse, but now I saw that his [Esau’s decision to sell his birthright] was not a hasty thought but a deliberate one (Genesis 25). Second, it was a public and open action . . . and this made his sin more terrible than it otherwise would have been. Third, he continued to slight his birthright. . . Even twenty years later, he still despised it.
The thunder was gone now, and only some small drops remained that now and then would fall upon me.
One day, as I was passing into the field, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul: “Thy righteousness is in heaven.” And I thought that I could see Jesus Christ at God’s right hand.
Now indeed the chains fell off my legs: I was loosened from my afflictions and irons. My temptations also fled away so that from that time forward those dreadful Scriptures terrified me no more.
I have given you a taste of the sorrow and affliction my soul went through, and of the sweet and blessed comfort that came to me afterward. And now, before I go any further, I will tell you what I believe was the cause of this temptation, and also why it was good for my soul.
The Cause of Bunyan’s Temptations
This part of the lesson is the point of application; this information will be required on the test, so remind the students of this fact and encourage their undivided attention.
Not Praying About Future Temptations
. . . when delivered from an earlier temptation, I did not pray to God to keep me from later temptations . . . I only prayed for the removal of present troubles and for fresh discoveries of His love in Christ . . .
I should also have prayed that the great God would keep me from the evil that was before me. . . . This truth means so much to me, right up to this present day, that I dare not, when I come before the Lord, get off my knees until I have entreated Him for help and mercy against the temptations that are to come. I plead with you, dear reader, that you also learn through my negligence and my afflictions. . . .
Thus, a man who went through years of mental anguish and constant temptations from Satan tells us the secret that he learned for victory over temptations: pray for victory over temptation before it comes. Every morning, pray not just for your current problems but that God will protect you from Satan’s future temptations and give you victory over any attacks that Satan might be planning to launch against you that day.
Trusting His Experience More than God’s Word
Note Bunyan’s words:
It was at a time when my wife was great with child, but before her time had come to be delivered . . . great pains came upon her . . . at this very time that I had been so strongly tempted to question the existence of God. So as my wife lay there crying, I said . . . secretly, only thinking in my heart: Lord, if you will remove these pains from my wife . . . then I will know that you can understand the most secret thoughts of the heart. I had no sooner said this in my heart than the pains were taken from her. It was about a year and a half afterward that there went through my wicked heart that terrible thought about which I have spoken when I said, “Let Christ go if He will.” When the terrible guilt of that thought was upon me . . . I remembered that other secret thought concerning my wife, and my conscience cried out, Now you know that God knows the most secret thoughts of your heart, and knows that you thought: “Let Christ go if He will.” . . . So it was also with me, and justly so, for I should have believed His word and not have put an if upon all–seeingness of God.
Similarly, people today tend to trust an experience over God’s Word. The Word says that we are saved forever, but someone argues, “I knew a man who was saved and then started drinking and so on. Surely he did not go to heaven.” We do the same with our own lives. God gives us promises, and we say, “But my experience has been different.”
Remember: no experience that contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture is a true experience!
The Advantages of Bunyan’s Trials
Bunyan lists four advantages to which his doubts and trials brought him.
1. They made him more aware of the blessedness and glory of God and Christ.
2. The temptations helped him see more clearly the nature of the promises of God. He claimed every promise that he read in the Bible, regardless of to whom it was originally intended. Whether the promise was made to Israel, David, Abraham, or Daniel, Bunyan claimed it as God’s promise to him personally. Dawson Trotman had the same notion about the promises of the Bible.
3. The Scriptures became very wonderful to him. We can see how the Word and prayer were his only weapons during these times of trial.
4. He saw new heights and depths of God’s grace, love, and mercy.
John Bunyan concluded his discussion of his experiences in the Valley of the Shadow of Death with the following words:
Of all the temptations that I have ever met with in my life, the worst is to question the being of God and the truth of His gospel.
It seemed very strange to me that though God sometimes visits my soul with wonderfully blessed things, yet sometimes afterwards, for hours at a time, I have been filled with such darkness that I could not even remember what the comfort was that had refreshed me before.
Sometimes I have gotten so much out of my Bible that I could hardly stand it. At other times the whole Bible has been as dry as a stick to me; or rather my heart has been so dead and dry to it, that I could not get the least drop of refreshment out of it though I looked everywhere for it.
I find to this day seven evils in my heart. [We list them as follows in our own words.]
1. Not believing
2. Forgetting the love and mercy that Christ gave
3. Depending on the works of the Law
4. Allowing thoughts to wander and being cold in prayer
5. Forgetting to watch for answers to prayer
7. Failing to do what God wants because my sins keep interfering
Q: Do you have any of these problems? Why not be honest enough to admit them to God and ask Him for victory over them? Some people in the class might have filthy thoughts. You hate yourself for it, but they persist. You might have doubts about your salvation. You might have doubts about the truthfulness of God’s Word.
This lesson is for you! Only God, through His Word and much prayer, can give you the victory. You are in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and God alone can give you victory. Learn to trust Him today.
Refer to the last page of this chapter in the student textbook for a list of optional application activities that may be used in conjunction with this lesson.