May 29, 2005

The Lord Encamps Around Us
Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24

I was hiking last week near Pine Grove Furnace, and I came upon a large tree standing beside a stream. What fascinated me and those with me the most about the tree was the unusual fact that it was growing on top of and clinging to a large rock protruding just above the water. “That rock is not going anywhere,” announced a fellow hiker. “Then again,” he added as he thought further, “neither is the tree.”

Think for a moment about various other images. A commuter hanging onto the pole in the middle of a rushing subway car. A group of workers, scurrying for cover when an air raid alarm sounds. A thrill-seeker—of any age!—squeezing the safety bar on a screaming roller coaster. A child clutching a parent’s leg in a crowded shopping mall. What do these and related images have in common? Two things, at least. First, they presuppose the presence of instability and danger in all areas of life. And second, they depict the innate urge for safety and security that we all feel when such danger arises. Psalm 31 vividly portrays both of these elements.

Psalm 31 is, in form, a lament—a heart-felt cry in the middle of some sort of crisis. Laments, as you well know, often swell up in the hearts of individuals who experience pain and suffering—illness, death in the family, financial setbacks, inescapable predicaments. Laments also arise within entire communities during times of attack, famine, or other corporate tragedies. Laments are part of life, if for no other reason than distress is often a part of life.

The precise reason behind the Psalmist’s distress here in Psalm 31 eludes even the most careful reader. We simply cannot associate this Psalm with any known event recorded elsewhere in the Old Testament. The images are broad and the language inclusive, so much so that any one of us is immediately invited to insert ourselves and our own difficulties into the Psalm itself. What is clear, however, is that the Psalmist finds himself in the middle of a prolonged and deteriorating crisis. In his mind—note the depiction in verse 4—an enormous net lies hidden beneath the grass, ready to grab him the moment he steps on the trigger.

The Psalmist’s distress seemingly stems from multiple factors that have apparently converged at this point in his journey. He is ill and has been for a considerable period of time (vv. 9-10). He feels shunned by his friends (v. 11), ridiculed by his acquaintances, and persecuted by his enemies. Certain people have gone so far as to lie and to plot against him, stirring up so much trouble that he feels himself completely isolated from his surrounding world. My sense from the entire Psalm is that the poet’s anxiety level has reached such proportions that he is totally overwhelmed by his situation, obsessed by it. “I have passed out of my mind like one who is dead,” he cries (v. 12). “I hear the whispering of many—terror all around!”
What is also telling about the Psalmist’s predicament is a factor that we might miss with just a casual glance. If you have ever found yourself caught in the middle of such distress, you’ll recall how absolutely inconsistent and unpredictable your emotions can be. While certain commentators on the Psalms have unfortunately concluded that Psalm 31 is a rather haphazard collection of unrelated lines, the organization of the poem rather well captures the sheer emotional imbalance that someone in such a predicament can all too well relate to. One moment you are up. The next you are down. So it is here. One moment the Psalmist is encouraged—“Lord, you have redeemed me. I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love. You have set my feet in a broad place. I trust in you, Lord. Into your hand I commit my spirit.” The next moment, he is caught in despair again—“Lord, rescue me. There is a net all around me. I’m overwhelmed with grief. Everyone is mocking me.” That is how it often is, isn’t it, when you find yourself in the middle of a difficult and trying situation. Your feelings are all over the board, and they often shift without any advanced notice! That, as you can see, is where the Psalmist finds himself. He is being pushed around in a crowded subway car. He is on a roller coaster, and as the car crests the hill, he is unable to see the ground below. He needs something to hold on to, like that stone near Pine Grove Furnace supporting the tree. Or a pole. A shelter. Something to provide stability in the middle of crisis.

And so he cries out to God—what a wonderful thing to do when we are in trouble!—and he asks for divine assistance to help him through this crisis. He asks, first of all, that God would be for him a rock of refuge (vv. 1-2). 37 times in the Old Testament this word “refuge” appears, and in 35 of those instances God is the reference. He is a rock (Deut. 32:37), shield (Ps. 144:2), and mothering bird with outstretched wings (Ps. 57:1). In a world where even his friends are deserting him, the Psalmist longs for stability and strength.

He asks further that God would be for him a strong fortress (v. 2). In the face of opposing enemies and escalating threats, what the Psalmist needs here is not only strength and stability, but protection. After all, his own resources are running frightfully low, and his ability to resist the forces working against him is waning. “My life is spent,” he admits. “I have become like a broken vessel.” “I have nothing left, Lord. Please, protect me.”

And finally, the Psalmist in desperation asks that God would not let him be put to shame, but would instead deliver him (v. 1). “Give me strength. Protect me. Deliver me.” Twice in the Psalm the poet—and in turn the entire congregation—asks that God would keep him from being put to shame (vv. 1, 17). Shame, as you might know, typically comes upon us in one of two primary ways. We sometimes bring shame upon ourselves as a result of things that we do. We think outrageous thoughts or commit sinful deeds and feel shame as a result. Many of us have looked in the mirror on occasion and asked ourselves, “How could I have done such a thing?” And you don’t want to show yourself in public again—you feel shame.

But in various cultures, including to some extent ancient Israel, shame is a programmed deterrent that the society applies to certain individuals who have failed to meet the expectations of that society. In such cases, shame is more tangible or ritualistic and is levied on people to encourage conformity. In various cultures, criminals are put on public display in order to “shame” them. Supposed deeds are broadcast, and a person’s life is opened like a book for everyone to see. Imagine how you might feel if, in order to promote godliness here at the church, we projected your shortcomings and sins up on our screens for everyone to see! That is, among other things, what the Psalmist is so desperately concerned about here. He feels no personal shame, for he has done nothing wrong. Instead, lying lips, false accusations, and belligerent neighbors have put him in a
position where he anticipates being publicly humiliated—being made a spectacle. “Don’t let that happen, Lord. Please, deliver me from this predicament. Lead me safely out of this overwhelming situation.”

What a powerful and relevant prayer this is. “Give me strength and stability in the face of this crisis—my own resources are running out and I don’t want to fall. Give me protection from these assaults—my defenses are frighteningly low. And deliver me—help me to come out of this mess whole.” And in the Psalmist’s case, note the concluding lines. “Blessed be the Lord,…for you heard…when I cried out to you (vv. 21-22). “Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful,…” (v. 23). The Lord, the Psalmist realizes again, encamps around us. He is the pole, the shelter, the rock in times of trouble.

Psalm 31 is, as you have perhaps already recognized, strikingly current. And if it isn’t “applicable” to you at this moment, it no doubt will be at some point in the not-too-distant-future. Crises are, quite frankly, a part of life—life is a roller coaster ride at times, and occasionally the lows—the drops—seem overwhelming, don’t they. Like the Psalmist here, we may be caught in distressing health issues. I visited Nikki Keyser a few days ago—remember that she joined the church in April and we showed her testimony on the screen. She is not well at all physically. Her cancer continues to worsen, and her days, barring a miracle, are few. It is a scary and mysterious time for her. She needs a rock. A shelter. A place of refuge. Perhaps some here are, like the Psalmist, feeling as though you are the target of ridicule and false accusations. You’ve been deserted by your friends or perhaps even your family. But perhaps your crisis—your struggle—seems different from any mentioned here. You are battling temptation, struggling again with thoughts and sins that just won’t seem to go away. You feel caught or trapped in a seemingly inescapable predicament. You are overwhelmed by responsibilities at home or at work. You’re weary and depressed. The cries of Psalm 31 could very well be your own, even if the circumstances are different.

For all of us who share humanity in common, Psalm 31 offers us hope and encouragement. This Psalm invites us to do at least these things:
Go directly to God in the face of crisis. We so often drown out our troubles with other stuff. We substitute hyperactivity, drugs, unhealthy relationships, food and possessions—you name it—for God, and we never get at the real heart of the matter.
When you go to God, imagine him as a source of help. In our despair, we are inclined to view God either as unresponsive, uncaring, or even part of the problem. This, I believe, is of fundamental importance for all of us. The Bible in general and Psalm 31 in particular emphasize this point—God is on our side. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals,” we read in Psalm. 118:8.
Name the underlying causes of your distress as specifically as you can. Why are you so anxious? What factors have led you to this point?
And when you go to God, ask him for strength, stability, protection, and deliverance. Perhaps you want even to pray the very words of Psalm 31, particularly the opening several lines. “Lord, give me strength to stand in the face of trials and temptations. Lord, protect me from harm and evil. And Lord, help me to come out at the other end in safety.”

I never want to minimize the complexities of the many struggles that we face, nor would I ever tell you that those struggles quickly fade away. There is a rightful place for therapy, medication, support groups, and on and on. But I do believe this, and I think this truth lies at the very heart of Psalm 31. True hope and healing begins with a shift in our theological imaginations, in our views of God. God, the Psalmist assures us here in Psalm 31, is our rock, our fortress, our place of refuge. “If God be for us,” the Apostle Paul asked his audience in Rome, “who is against us (Rom. 8:31)?” “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” he continued. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

A tree clinging to a rock just beside a stream. A commuter in a subway car hanging on to the pole for dear life. A roller-coaster rider squeezing the safety bar. A child clutching the leg of mom or dad. Followers of Jesus putting all of their hope and trust in God. The Lord, Psalm 31 assures us, encamps around us. He is our strength. Our protection. Our eternal hope.