Trusting God in Testing Times

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Well, to kick off, let me ask you: if you're a Christian, what are you afraid of as a Christian living in this country? And if you're an international, what are you afraid of as a Christian about returning to your home country?

I, for example, am afraid of how the new legislation on Sex and Relationships Education may be used to push LGBT ideology at our children; and of what may happen to us when we oppose that. I'm afraid that church children's and youth work could come under OFSTED inspection for compliance with so-called 'British Values'. And I'm afraid, in the long term, of the Islamification of Britain.

If I was in China, in some places, I might be afraid of police watching my church, or even closing it down; or afraid of losing my job if it was known by the Party that I was a Christian. If I was in a country where Islam is strong, I might be afraid of violence against churches, or of Shariah law being imposed.

On the other hand, if I was from some African country with a strong Christian heritage, I might think there's nothing like that to be afraid of. But Christians would have said that here a generation ago, and the same anti-Christian influence that's changed Britain over 50 years could easily change your country in just five or ten.

Well, God gave us Psalm 56 for when we do feel afraid as Christians – especially, afraid of what our society and the authorities might do to us. And in fact, many Psalms are about that (which is why they can seem 'samey') – which is because they were collected together into the Book of Psalms after God's Old Testament people, Israel, had been invaded and sent into exile. And from then on, God's people no longer had the freedom to rule themselves and shape their own society. Instead, they were surrounded by totally different beliefs and lifestyles, and ruled by foreign authorities who could be hostile to their faith. Which is why, in words from Psalm 56, they felt 'oppressed', 'attacked', 'afraid'. And the people who collected the Psalms together included number 56 because it's about a time when King David felt afraid – for his life.

So look first at the heading to the Psalm – which is the bit in capitals next to the big number 56 (in the church Bibles) – because that's part of the God-given text of the Bible. The bit above the big 56 isn't – where it says 'In God I trust', that's just a title the English translators have stuck in. But the heading, in capitals, is part of the God-given text. And sometimes the heading gives the background against which the Psalm was originally written. So it says:

"To the choirmaster:"

Which shows that the Psalms were not just used for individual reading, but by God's people together in the Old Testament equivalent of church. Then it says:

"according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths."

Which was presumably a tune by the Stuart Townend or Rend Collective of the day. Then it says:

"A Miktam"

And that's completely lost on us – no-one knows what that means. And then it says:

"of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath."

And that's the big background clue, because David was the man who became Israel's second king. The first was Saul, who ignored God and so as a result God told him, 'I've rejected you as king, and chosen a replacement.' And the replacement was David. That all happens in the first half of the book of 1 Samuel. And from then on, David was king-in-waiting – chosen by God but not yet on the throne – while Saul clung to power by trying to kill David. So the second half of 1 Samuel is like a game of cat and mouse, where Saul plays cat and David plays mouse. And David became so afraid for his life that, like our Old Testament reading said,

"[he] rose and fled that day from Saul and went to Achish the king of Gath." (1 Samuel 21.20)

Which shows how desperate he was, since that was basically jumping out of the frying pan into the fire – because Gath was one of the Philistines' cities, where David would have been notorious for killing their top soldier – a big guy called Goliath. And after David had killed Goliath, the rest of the Philistine army had taken a beating, so Gath would have had other families than Goliath's where husbands and brothers and sons had never come home. So David would have been public enemy no.1 and someone they would gladly have lynched. So no wonder, like the Psalm heading says,

"the Philistines seized him in Gath."

And 1 Samuel 21, verse 11 picks up the story:

"And the servants of Achish [the Philistine king] said to him, "Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances,
'Saul has struck down his thousands,
and David his ten thousands'?"
['And don't forget, sir,' they'd have reminded him, 'A lot of them were your people.']
And David took these words to heart and was much afraid of Achish the king of Gath. So he changed his behaviour before them and pretended to be insane in their hands…" (1 Samuel 21.11-13)

And the idea worked, they let him go, and he escaped. And somewhere between being afraid in 1 Samuel 21, verse 12 and playing mad in verse 13, David prayed Psalm 56 – at least just the gist of it in the heat of the moment; or maybe he did have time under arrest to pray it more fully right then (and then remembered and wrote it down sometime later?).

So that's the background. It starts with David afraid for his life, and it ends, verse 13:

"For you have delivered my soul from death"

And God did that because he had to, because he'd promised that David would be king, and promised that his kingdom would last forever.

So if we had been Jews reading this after the exile, we'd have said to ourselves, 'And that promise still applies – so even though, humanly speaking, we're afraid for our very existence as God's people, we're going to trust God for our future, like David did in Psalm 56.'

But we're not Jews reading this after the exile. So, what if we're Christians, reading it after Jesus' first coming? Well, we need to look for two things. One is: what it shows us about Jesus, because what King David went through was designed to point forward to what King Jesus would one day go through. So Psalm 56 will shed fresh light on how Jesus faced suffering and fear, and yet trusted his Father throughout it – Jesus would have prayed Psalm 56 with the cross in mind. And the other thing to look for is what it shows us about being Jesus' people – which is that it includes suffering for him, and following his example of trusting our Father in heaven for our future. So let's dive into verses 1-4 which say:

1. Trust that You're Ultimately in God's Hands, Not Man's (vv1-4)

Look down to verse 1:

"Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me;
all day long an attacker oppresses me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
for many attack me proudly.
When I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can flesh do to me?"

So remember: David had escaped from Saul because Saul was trying to kill him. And now he's in the hands of people equally keen to kill him. So the obvious answer to the question, 'What can flesh do to me?' is: 'They can kill you, David. You're entirely in their hands and at their mercy.'

But that's not how David sees it – nor how he encourages us to see any similar situation when we're threatened as God's people. So he prays, verse 1:

"Be gracious to me" [other translations say 'be merciful']

So he doesn't see himself at the mercy of the people of Gath, but at God's mercy. And in verse 4 he paints that massive contrast between God and man:

"In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can flesh do to me?"

'Flesh' being the Bible word which emphasises how weak and small and entirely dependent on God human beings are.

So David isn't being naïve – as if he thinks no-one in Gath can swing a sword. He's just reminding himself that they can only do to him what God allows them to, and that he's not in their hands and at their mercy, but that he's in God's hands and at God's mercy – as we all are, all of the time. And trusting that enables you to say, verse 3:

"When I am afraid… [Verse 4:] … I shall not be afraid."

Which reminded me of Jesus on his way to the cross, because in a way that David's experience only partly foreshadowed, Jesus lived his whole life not just under the threat of being put to death, but under the certainty of it. And in Mark 10 it says:

"And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid."

And they were afraid for Jesus – because they were beginning to see that he was walking into certain death at the hands of the Jewish leaders. And afraid for themselves because they could see the risk of being associated with Jesus. But Jesus was walking ahead of them calmly and unafraid, because he was trusting that he was ultimately in God's hands, not man's – not Judas's, not the Jewish leaders', not Pontius Pilate's, not the Roman soldiers, but God's: doing what God had purposed him to do for us and our forgiveness.

And whenever we're threatened or afraid as Christians, we need the same attitude. We need to get our eyes off the people who are against us, and onto God, who is allowing them to be against us for his purposes – whether that's to refine us, or bear witness to them, or whatever (we may not know). And we must never think of those who are against us as falsely powerful and the inevitable 'winners'. Because they're only flesh. And even if, humanly speaking, it looks a dead cert that the Philistines will kill you, you need to repent of thinking humanly, and to remember: there are no dead certs except the ones God has planned.

So let's move on to verses 5-9, which say:

2. Trust that God Will Ultimately Work Justice for You (vv5-9)

Look down to verse 5:

"All day long they injure my cause;"

And the little number 3 there means, 'Look down to footnote 3 at the bottom of the page' – where it says, 'Or 'they twist my words.' I had an injustice done against me last year, which I still feel. And it basically hung on twisting my words. And David knew all about that. Because once Saul had decided to kill him, it must have been easy for Saul to misrepresent David as a rival, a traitor, an enemy of the state. It's horrible when people misrepresent you and get away with it, isn't it? Read on in verse 5:

"all their thoughts are against me for evil.
They stir up strife, they lurk;
they watch my steps,
as they have waited for my life."

And that's probably more about Saul & his men than the Philistines. But verse 7 includes everyone who's been part of the injustice against David:

"For their crime will they escape?
In wrath cast down the peoples, O God!"

But David was confident that God knew all about the injustice against him. Because look at verse 8:

"You have kept count of my tossings,
[Footnote 4 says 'wanderings' – which makes more sense for someone on the run. You have…]
put my tears in your bottle."

Which is an amazing picture of how God knows everything that's caused you grief; and of how seriously he takes it because he's your Father – so much so that he bottles your tears. I guess most of our tears from being hurt are shed in private, aren't they – u nshared, unappreciated, unnoticed? 'Well, except by God,' says David. God bottles them, remembers them and doesn't ultimately let anyone get away with mistreating his children. Read on:

"Are they not in your book?
['They' being all the injustices against me, all recorded so that you can work justice for me in your time.]
Then my enemies will turn back
in the day when I call."

And the point of all that is that we need to trust God to work justice for us. So David knew he'd been unjustly treated. And he wanted justice – he wanted people, in the words of verse 7, to be 'cast down' by God's wrath, in other words by God swinging into action to right wrongs. But he knew he ultimately had to leave that to God.

Which again reminded me of Jesus on his way to the cross, because the apostle Peter wrote:

"For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly." (1 Peter 2.21-23)

So Jesus knew he was called to go through the injustice of death on the cross, and that he had to trust his Father not for deliverance from that death, but for vindication by being raised out the other side of it. And for us, following in his steps, sometimes there will be human means of justice – laws and appeal processes – that we can use when we're wronged; sometimes there won't be. But either way, we need to trust that God will ultimately work justice for us – whether through human means of justice, or whether through his quiet working to bring consequences down on those who've wronged us, or whether, ultimately, in the final judgement.

And that doesn't just apply to being wronged for being a Christian. It applies to being wronged in any way as a Christian – from being wronged by an unfaithful spouse, to being wronged by a bad employer or nasty neighbour. We need to trust that God will ultimately work justice for us.

Then verses 9-11 say:

3. Trust God's Word When He Says He is For You (vv9-11)

Look down to verse 9 again:

"Then my enemies will turn back
in the day when I call.
This I know, that God is for me."

Isn't that a remarkable thing for David to say in the circumstances? Saul is trying to kill him and has closed in on him so successfully that David's only option is to escape into enemy country. Once there, he's recognised and arrested and his life is under threat more than ever. And he can still say,

"This I know, that God is for me."

And he can't be reading that fact off his circumstances, can he? And yet that's the classic thing we try to do, isn't it? So if things are going well, we read it as God being for us. But if things are going against us, we read it as God being against us – at least, as God being uncertain, questionable. So how on earth, with apparently everything against him, does David say:

"This I know, that God is for me."

Well, read on, verse 10:

"In God, whose word I praise,
in the LORD, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid."

And that's an almost straight repeat of verse 4, if you look back to that:

"In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid."

And where the Bible repeats itself, it's to make a point. And the most repeated point of Psalm 56 is that the way you trust in God is to trust in God's Word. So in Psalm 56, David is not trying to read off circumstances what God is like – because circumstances are always unclear and ambiguous to us. Instead, he's reading off God's Word what God is like. And it says: God is for him – in other words, committed to him and his ultimate good.

And this side of Jesus' first coming, we have even stronger reason to trust that, like we heard in that New Testament reading from Romans 8:

"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?"

To which the answer, at one level, is a very long list. For example, people using the Equality Act to enforce LGBT ideology are against us. For those of us going back to China, the Communist Party may be against us. For those going back to Muslim-majority places, Islam may be against us. And many other things can seem to be against us – maybe, for example, the exam results you've just got – and the way they've re-routed your university options. And so on and so on. But Paul isn't being naïve about that. After all, a few verses later in Romans 8 he says:

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?"

So he had his eyes wide open to what Christians might suffer.But he could still say in Romans 8, verse 31:

"… If God is for us, who can be against us?"

In other words, who or what can do us any ultimate harm, even if they can hurt us? And he could say that because of verse 32:

"He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?"

In other words, in the middle of any suffering, but especially suffering for being a Christian, we're to read God's love for us off the cross. And we're to say to ourselves, 'If he gave what was most precious to him for my deepest need, it doesn't make any sense to doubt that he's for me in any of my lesser needs.'

So, when we're suffering as Christians, Psalm 56 says:

  • Trust that you're ultimately in God's hands, not man's;
  • Trust that God will ultimately work justice for you; and
  • Trust God's Word when he says he's for you.

But as well as praying in that desperate corner he was in, David must also have vowed that, if God did get him out of it, he'd re-commit himself to the Lord in response. Because look at verses 12 and 13 –
which I take they weren't part of the original prayer, but are like a 'P.S.' added after it had been answered:

"I must perform my vows to you, O God;
I will render thank offerings to you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
yes, my feet from falling,
so that I may walk before God
in the light of life."

So why has God spared him? Not just so that he can live to see another day. But:

"so that I may walk before God
in the light of life."

And the lesson is that whenever God delivers and protects us as his people in this hostile world, it's not just so we survive. It's so that we walk before him, as an ongoing witness to the world, that there is a God whose approval matters more than theirs, and that there is a life beyond this world that matters more than anything.

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