Monday, February 28, 2022

Psalm 18

Psalm 18: The LORD is My Rock and My Fortress

The prologue to this Psalm says,

For the director of music. Of David the servant of the LORD. He sang to the LORD the words of this song when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. …

What’s interesting to me about that—before we even get into the psalm itself—is the fact that David is calling out that he wrote this because the LORD delivered him from the hands of his enemies and from the hand of Saul. When this song/psalm appears in 2 Samuel it comes right near the end of the book (with very similar wording about being delivered from the hands of his enemies and from the hand of Saul), at which point David had not only succeeded Saul as king he’d also overcome his own son Absalom’s treachery as well as another man named Sheba trying to overthrow him. And yet, after all of that, and after all of David’s trials and tribulations, it was the threat from Saul that stuck with him.

If you’d asked an Old Testament Israelite to “prove” the love of the LORD for His people that person would have probably pointed to God delivering them from Egypt; if you’d asked David, he would have pointed to God delivering him from Saul.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s move on to the rest of the Psalm…

1 I love you, LORD, my strength.

Despite what I wrote above about this being adapted from a song that was recorded in 2 Samuel 22, this first verse doesn’t appear in that version. As this song was adapted for use in public worship, it seems that the people adapting it—perhaps David himself—decided that they wanted two points to come out right at the beginning:

  1. Start off with the love of the LORD. Don’t focus on all that He has done for us—though He definitely has done a lot for us!—but start off with love.
  2. We should draw our strength from Him.

Christians don’t always think of the Old Testament as focusing on loving God or the love of God, but it’s there and it’s no less important than it is in the New Testament. Similarly, we might get tempted to view the Old Testament as being very transactional (if we do these rituals for God He will bless us), but even in the Old Testament Scriptures people like David recognized that God is the source of their strength; He enables us, and we worship Him—not the other way around.

2 The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
    my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

Building on the previous point, God isn’t just our source of strength He is also our source of safety and protection. Even if terms like “rock,” “shield,” and especially “horn” don’t resonate with 21st Century Christians, we can recognize what David is saying here: when I’m in danger, I go to the LORD for protection, rather than trusting in my own strength. Unless we’re very careful, our instincts are usually to rely on our own strength—which we feel is in our own control—rather than trusting in the LORD to protect us.

3 I called to the LORD, who is worthy of praise,
    and I have been saved from my enemies.
4 The cords of death entangled me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
5 The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

6 In my distress I called to the LORD;
    I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came before him, into his ears.
7 The earth trembled and quaked,
    and the foundations of the mountains shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
8 Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
9 He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The LORD thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, LORD,
    at the blast of breath from your nostrils.

We’re obviously getting into poetic language here, but this is a dramatic portrayal of God delivering David from his troubles. David was threatened? God scorched the earth in His zeal to smite David’s enemies! While David’s troubles were more dramatic than mine ever will be—I doubt I’ll ever be on the run, in the desert, fleeing a murderous king bent on killing me—it’s also true that I often fail to view His deliverance in this manner. Quite the reverse, in fact!

For me, what typically happens is that:

  1. I’m going through trials that are trivial in comparison to David’s and yet crying out to God as if the world is ending;
  2. He delivers me from those trials;
  3. I immediately lose all of the drama, hopefully remembering to squeeze out a quick “thanks” before moving on to other things.

The trials seem important while I’m in them, and then immediately seem trivial once I’m delivered from them. There’s an old joke in Christian circles about non-believers crying out to God, being saved by God, and then deciding, “the problem is gone, I guess I didn’t need saving afterall,” but the sad fact is that Christians can fall into this kind of thinking, too.

David did better: yes, when he was in trouble he went to the LORD for help, but then when he was out of trouble he went back to the LORD in thanks with just as much zeal as he’d initially prayed for deliverance.

We sometimes feel like God isn’t present in our lives, but I wonder how much of that is because we’re not appreciating the things He constantly does for us…

16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
    from my foes, who were too strong for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
    but the LORD was my support.
19 He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me.

I see David getting more personal in these verses. In verses 3–15, above, he is focused on the ways in which God delivered him from his dangers and troubles: “People threatened me, but God dealt with them.” But here in verses 16–19 it feels more inward, to me: “I was threatened but God comforted and supported me.”

20 The LORD has dealt with me according to my righteousness;
    according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.
21 For I have kept the ways of the LORD;
    I am not guilty of turning from my God.
22 All his laws are before me;
    I have not turned away from his decrees.
23 I have been blameless before him
    and have kept myself from sin.
24 The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
    according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

This is one of those passages we need to be careful with; we don’t want to create a one-to-one relationship between “I am good” and “therefore the LORD blesses me.” This is the mistake Job’s friends made; making life too simplistic, and going under the assumption that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This is a song—poetry—and should be read as such.

That being said, David was a man after God’s own heart. In general, he did try to obey the LORD almost all the time, and when he failed he recognized his failures and trusted his God to deal with him appropriately. So, while we don’t want to get too simplistic in our thinking of “do good and be rewarded, do bad and be punished,” it is worth asking myself: would I be comfortable saying these words to God? If not, where are the areas of my life I should improve? Not to gain His approval, but because I already have His approval and want to live worthy of it.

25 To the faithful you show yourself faithful,
    to the blameless you show yourself blameless,
26 to the pure you show yourself pure,
    but to the devious you show yourself shrewd.
27 You save the humble
    but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.
28 You, LORD, keep my lamp burning;
    my God turns my darkness into light.
29 With your help I can advance against a troop;
    with my God I can scale a wall.

30 As for God, his way is perfect:
    The LORD’s word is flawless;
    he shields all who take refuge in him.
31 For who is God besides the LORD?
    And who is the Rock except our God?
32 It is God who arms me with strength
    and keeps my way secure.
33 He makes my feet like the feet of a deer;
    he causes me to stand on the heights.
34 He trains my hands for battle;
    my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
35 You make your saving help my shield,
    and your right hand sustains me;
    your help has made me great.
36 You provide a broad path for my feet,
    so that my ankles do not give way.

David turns his attention from what God has specifically done for him to who God is and what He does in general. In a sense, Christians know more concretely something that David knew only instinctively: God doesn’t protect us and help us and give us comfort because we are good, He does it because He is good: we worship a loving, caring, compassionate God. But He is also holy. On this side of the cross we can see specifically how God brought those two things together, saving us from our sin out of His compassion while still punishing that sin out of His Holiness. David didn’t have the details, but he could still grasp that his God loved him, that his God was compassionate, and that his God was omnipotent.

37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them;
    I did not turn back till they were destroyed.
38 I crushed them so that they could not rise;
    they fell beneath my feet.
39 You armed me with strength for battle;
    you humbled my adversaries before me.
40 You made my enemies turn their backs in flight,
    and I destroyed my foes.
41 They cried for help, but there was no one to save them—
    to the LORD, but he did not answer.
42 I beat them as fine as windblown dust;
    I trampled them like mud in the streets.
43 You have delivered me from the attacks of the people;
    you have made me the head of nations.
People I did not know now serve me,
    44 foreigners cower before me;
    as soon as they hear of me, they obey me.
45 They all lose heart;
    they come trembling from their strongholds.

46 The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock!
    Exalted be God my Savior!
47 He is the God who avenges me,
    who subdues nations under me,
    48 who saves me from my enemies.
You exalted me above my foes;
    from a violent man you rescued me.
49 Therefore I will praise you, LORD, among the nations;
    I will sing the praises of your name.

As David turns his thoughts back to his own situation—how he has overcome his own trials, as opposed to how God acts in general—the words are slightly different. In some of these verses David is talking about what he has done, whereas previously it was all what the LORD had done. Obviously David isn’t changing his mind mid-song! As if he’d started writing a song about the deliverance of the LORD and then halfway through thought better of himself and said, “well, actually, God did some things but I also saved myself in some cases…”

This is one of those teachings of the Bible that seems contradictory, but is true nonetheless: God is in control of everything, at all times, and, at the same time, I’m responsible for my own actions. It’s not contradictory for David to look back on an event and praise the LORD for delivering him while looking back at that same event and remember how he himself acted. Both are true.

But this is a song of praise, and David remembers that even when he’s recalling his own actions, he acted in the strength of the LORD. Going back to what I said before, God is in control of everything at all times, and I’m responsible for my own actions, and when my own actions are driven by knowledge that I act in God’s strength, things will typically go much better (for me and for everyone else involved). Think about it: if God puts me in a situation where I have the opportunity to do good for Him, one of two things could happen:

  • He could accomplish His will through me, or
  • He could accomplish His will despite me

As a Christian, I would prefer it to be the former rather than the latter. And, if I have the same heart David had, after the fact—after God has acted through me, and I’ve acted in His strength—I’ll look back and praise God for what He has done.

50 He gives his king great victories;
    he shows unfailing love to his anointed,
    to David and to his descendants forever.

There was a period of time when Israelites might have doubted this last verse; was God really showing His love to David’s descendants during the exile? Or even after the exile, when the Jews returned to the Promised Land but were still under the rule of foreign nations? But that entire time He was preserving the line of David, until his greatest descendant appeared: Jesus Christ, who now rules as the final, and ultimate, king of God’s people.

What is different now, however, is that all of God’s people are spiritual descendants of David; the New Testament doesn’t just portray Jesus as our king—though He definitely is that—it also portrays him as our brother. We aren’t just God’s subjects, we are now His adopted children.

Praise God for what He has done, and His goodness to us!

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