The Lord is my Fortress

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What have Sheffield and Jerusalem got in common?  Could it be the weather? No!  The architecture?  No!  The number of tourists? No!  But think again.  There are two things that they share.  They both have an efficient tram system, and they are both built on hills.  Hills and slopes and steps dominate the geography of Jerusalem.  From the Mount of Olives you look across the valley to the old and new cities. In the foreground are 1000s of graves of Jews, Christians and Muslims.  Today the Old City is dominated by the Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock.  By its location and design was a statement opposing both Judaism and Christianity.  Built on the site of the Temple it displaced the Jewish faith, and inside the dome is a text that vehemently denounces the Christian faith.  It declares that God is one, that Jesus is not his Son but is merely a prophet.

If you were transported in the Tardis, back 700 years before the Dome of the Rock was built, the view then would have been dominated by Herod's Temple; and back another 1,000 years  and the view would have been dominated by Solomon's Temple. For the Jews there were ten degrees of holiness.  Starting with the holy land, the holy city, the holy platform upon which the Temple was built, the holy courts, the holy Temple itself and culminating with the inner sanctuary, the holy of holies.  That brings us neatly to v.2 of Psalm 28.  The Psalmist said,

I lift up my hands towards your most holy place

holy land, holy city, holy temple, holy inner shine.

I've recently been reading a commentary on the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134).  They are so called because they are the  songs of the pilgrim people of God.  The pilgrims ascended the steps up to where the Temple stood, and the worshippers stood  and raised their hands, and faced towards the most holy place.  This represented the heart of their faith – where covenant love and shed blood brought for them redemption.  And the author of the commentary said this.  'They built the temple by command so that the Lord might come to them; we have our church buildings so that we might come to him.  Oh, yes, we worship in Spirit and truth, but they worshipped also in a wondrous consciousness of his real, near and actual presence.'  I wonder do we come too casually into the presence of the Lord?  Do we prepare ourselves for worship.  Do we ever expect him to speak to us?  And what would be our response if he did?

Too often today I think that our worship is too bland, too clinical, it lacks passion and warmth, it is a duty rather than a joy and delight.  We may go through the motions, and the prescribed order of service, but do we during an hour together ever touch base with God?  Are we ever humbled by his presence?  Perhaps we need to rediscover some of the first principles set out for us in the book of Psalms?  In Psalm 28 notice what the Psalmist was doing:

He lifted up his hands (v.2).

He opened his lips in prayer (v.2).

His heart leapt for joy (v.7).

He opened his lips in song (v.7).

How does that chime with your own experience of worship?  Think about it.  It's Sunday.  It's 6.30pm.  It's time for church.  But why have you come? And what are you doing as we spend time together?  We may not lift up our hands (we are far too inhibited for that)!  But do we genuinely open our lips in confession and praise, and experience a heart-warming, joyful encounter with the living God?  Sometimes I think we are playing a sort of game, rather than wanting to meet with God.  We would much rather keep him at arm's length.

Psalm 28 is a prayer.  A prayer of king David.  A prayer of an individual.  A prayer of the people of God.  And these ancient words can become our prayer too.

1          The petition

The psalmist's petition was simple and direct.  Notice, first, that it was addressed to Yahweh (five times the Lord is mentioned by name in v.1, 5, 6, 7, 8).  Notice, second, that the request in v.2

Lord, hear my cry for mercy

is matched by the acknowledgement in v.6

the Lord has heard my cry for mercy

Verse 2, Calvin tells us, is 'the sign of a heart in anguish'.  His was the earnest, fervent, humble cry of a believer who wanted to engage with the Lord.

The Psalmist asked for mercy, and the Lord heard him.  Why?  Because his plea was heartfelt.  It was genuine.  It was no pretence.  And what then follows?  'Turn to page 200', 'we will now stand and do this or that'.  'We sing the next hymn'.  No!  What followed was praise and thanksgiving and joy.  That is the true response of the heart to the Lord.  That should be the response of the believer.  That should be your response and mine too.

Would that our prayer requests were as simple and as straightforward.  And that it would evoke in us a true response of praise and thanksgiving and joy!  Far too often, I fear, we do not really engage with the Lord.  Our prayers  may be word perfect.  They are balanced and broadly based and don't just sound like a shopping list.  But do our heads and our hearts engage in prayer as we pray?  Sometimes of course we can't find the right words to pray.  We feel tongue tied in the presence of the Lord.  Then what can we do?  The answer is easy.  Use the words of the Psalms.  Adapt them and make them your own.  Take a verse and turn it into a simple prayer.  In Psalm 28, the petition is that the Lord might show mercy.  Remember the words in Hebrews? Heb. 4:16

Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need

That's part of the secret of trusting, confident prayer.

Grace and mercy poured out upon us.  Grace and mercy in abundance in our time of need.  The needs of the psalmist.  Your needs, my needs.  The needs of the suffering Christians in Syria and Egypt.  The needs of the despairing and the dying.  And, in the case of king David, I wonder what those needs were? V.2

Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help

The precise situation and circumstances are not given.  We can only speculate.  The request for help might well suggest deliverance from his enemies, or strength to stand up to his adversaries.  There is certainly more than a hint here that the psalmist was conscious of a battle with professing believers.  Like him, their hands might well have been lifted up in worship, but their hands were also tainted hands, unclean hands, hands that had done wrong (v.4).  Hands that were unholy hands.

These people did evil.  They disregarded what the Lord had done.  Self was number one.  Outwardly they spoke well of people, but inwardly they bore malice in their hearts.  Their veneer of respectability was only skin deep.  From the NT we know all about hypocrites, religious play actors.  They said one thing and did or spoke another.  Such people are attracted by the magnet of formal religion – whether 1,000 years BC or 3,000 years later for us today.

The psalmist prayed very specifically, 'don't drag me down ... don't raise them up' ... but tear them down ... (vv.3, 6).

'Deliver us from evil' is how we pray in the Lord's Prayer.  And we should man it!

2          The response

The Psalm moves on from v.2

Hear my cry for mercy

to v. 6

the Lord has heard my cry for mercy

The Psalmist called upon the Lord – and he heard his prayer – and he responded to his prayer.  Would that all prayer was like that!  Prayer is our talking and reflecting before the Lord.  It represents our response to his word of truth and inspired by the Spirit of truth.  God speaks to us in his Word, and we speak to him in prayer.

But did you notice what was said in v.1?  It's quite direct, isn't it?

Don't turn a deaf ear to me

'Don't remain silent and ignore me'.  'Listen to me'.  'Hear my prayer'.  If the Lord failed to hear his servant and ignore his prayer, he would be no different from a dead person.  Living his life in sheol, the place of the departed.  A shadowy existence, the abode of the dead, and cut off from God.  But the psalmist was not dead, but very much alive.  He wanted to see a clear demonstration of the Lord in action.  Changing a situation, responding to an immediate need,  raising up the fallen and bringing down the proud and ungodly.

I said just now that the name 'the Lord' occurs five times in the Psalm.  But what sort of God is he?  And what sort of relationship did the psalmist enjoy with his Lord?  These are still two important questions for us today.  What sort of God is revealed to us in Jesus and what sort of relationship can we have with him.  And how can that relationship be deepened and enriched?  We may enjoy the cut and trust of theological debate and discussion.  We may like to demonstrate our superior theological knowledge.  But what of personal faith, and trust and obedience?  What of our pursuit of becoming more Christ-like?  More like Jesus?

In Psalm 28 we learn four simple truths about God:

1          He was like a shepherd who cared for his sheep (v.9).  In Psalm 23 king David had penned the well-known words, Ps. 23:1

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing

He is the Lord who leads and guides, restores and comforts.  Do you need to know and to trust that the Lord is indeed your shepherd?

2          He was like a solid rock (v.1).  As we know from the parable, it's no use building a house on sand, for when the winter rains come it will not stand against the flood, but will be washed away.  But the house, the life, the career, the marriage, the faith, the church, built on solid ground will stand and last.  Firm and secure, confident and steady.  Do you have that sort of confidence in the Lord?

3          He was like a fortress (v.8).  Walled cities like Jerusalem were built so that the inhabitants could live safe and secure lives.  Built as it was on a series of hills Jerusalem was safe on all sides (apart from the north where there had to be extra defences).  The king, the anointed one, was safe in the city - and we would perhaps add that the anointed One (the Messiah) who was to come - is the strength and security of those who believe and trust in him.  Is your security as a believer firmly rooted and grounded in Christ?

4          He was like a shield (v.7).  Again this is a picture of protection against the assaults of the enemy.  The soldier's armour in Ephesians 5 included both a sword and a shield Eph. 6:16:

the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one

Remember too, that it says, flaming arrows not paper darts!  The devil's assaults are real, not imaginary.  So hold up the shield of faith to protect you from the evil one.

So then, in Psalm 28 what sort of God is revealed to us?  The Lord is a shepherd, rock, fortress and shield.  He was all of these things to king David.  I wonder, though whether we take them as being true for us today – when we face difficulties and problems within our families or at work?  When we may be at the end of our tether.  Frustrated and isolated.  We feel alone, misunderstood and helpless.  Is it our first response to cry out to the Lord, 'Wake up Lord, can't you see what's going on?  Don't you care?'  Act swiftly and act soon.

And then, when he does act, are we ready for what he does – through the unexpected, the new, the fresh, the challenging?  I end with further wisdom from Calvin:  'Let us remember that David is like a mirror, in which God sets out before us the continual course of his grace'.

So hold up the mirror, and what do you see, and how content are you with what you see?

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