Some psalms get very personal. And Psalm 54 is one of them. It was for David, the writer, and I pray that it will affect you and speak to you personally as we learn more about our God, the rescuer, and two of his titles: Elohim, God the Helper – indeed my helper; and Adonai, the LORD the upholder and sustainer of our lives (v4) and how difficult, dark and hurtful situations – and we all face them - should be faced with him.
One U.S. church leader said the other week, "I almost can't turn the news on anymore, especially with my two small kids in the room. The recent tragedies in California, Texas, and Ohio remind us that the world is dark, people are hurting, and the Lord and his Church are needed more than ever." Here in the UK, a 17-year-old threw a 6-year-old off the Tate's viewing gallery the other Sunday. David, in the original events behind this psalm, faced darkness, desolation and hurt as people he thought he could count on turned against him. If you ever find yourself in real trouble through the ill will of someone you'd assumed was a good neighbour or friend, this psalm would be the psalm for you. It's certainly one for the families of two people conned, exploited and murdered by an evil and cruel churchwarden who posed as their friend and lover, which you may have seen on the news the other week.
Perhaps what David was facing has already happened or is happening to you and you don't know how to face it. You've been let down by those you thought were your friends, relations, loyal colleagues, neighbours, supporters or at least those you thought would be on your side. Perhaps you were even betrayed by them, which must have hurt, perhaps very badly. Especially so if you're in the midst of troubling times yourself, which can feel overwhelming and don't seem to end, and after you'd been there for them in their crisis. And you're asking, 'How should such a situation be faced'?
Well Psalm 54 is a great help in answering that question. David wrote this psalm facing a very similar situation, only far worse and far more intense. You can see from the heading to Psalm 54 that it was written when the Ziphites went and told Saul, "Is not David hiding among us?" They betrayed David, the future king, to his nemesis, Saul, the current titleholder, who was out to kill him. Which takes us to 1 Samuel 23. What was happening?
David's still on the run from Saul. His life is always at risk. Saul sought him every day. It was relentless. It was intensely exhausting and draining, rather like it was for the Fugitive, played by Harrison Ford in the movie of the same name, if you've seen that. And David's also betrayed and deserted by those he saves at Keilah. The persecution of God's elect king continued. Yes, these were desolate and trying times for David. And there was hardly anyone he could trust. Now we may not be David but perhaps we too are facing a degree of persecution and betrayal. Times which can be lonely and painful. Christian ministry can sometimes be lonely and painful. Going the way of the cross is not easy.
And David finds himself in the wilderness of Ziph. It belonged to the tribe of Judah. David was therefore in home territory. He might have expected his own people to support and help him. But (v3) "strangers" have risen against me. The Ziphites had betrayed David's whereabouts to Saul. It must have been a deeply hurtful thing to David to find his own people turned against him.
And in this psalm David takes the opportunity to record how such situations should be faced. Now, and I want to stress this because often we forget, at the heart of how these situations should be faced and at the heart of the psalm is the Lord God, the One to whom even in the darkest times David always looks (v4) and to whom we should look too. And first David does this
1. By Prayer (v1-2)
David brings his need to God, the rescuer, in prayer. Do we do so first? Do we do so believingly – in faith? David brings his need to the One who can save. O God, save me by your name. What does 'by your name' mean? Well, the name of the Lord is the manifestation of his character. Of course, it has no separate existence apart from the Lord but is synonymous with the Lord himself in his graciousness and accessibility to his people. So, David could and we can pray to him by calling on his name. The name of the Lord protects, the Lord saves by his name, and his saving acts testify that his name is near (Psalm 52). So, we are to trust in his name, hope in his name, sing praise to his name and rejoice in his name. And there is [ultimate] salvation in no-one [other than God the Son, Jesus Christ] for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4.12)
Our problems, our needs, our worries, our foes who perhaps we thought were our friends can seem very big. But God is bigger. And he is gracious, and he is near. We can bring our requests to him and know his peace. (Philippians 4.6-7) Who needs to be reminded of that this evening?
I used to visit someone in hospital with dementia, which can at times be quite distressing. Because of the nature of the disease the friend often presented as being foe. So, I prayed, calling on the name of the Lord very calmly, for his help, upholding and peace.
How is your prayer life? Are you praying for those who are troubled? Are you praying for those believers who are being persecuted here and around the world? Are you praying for those who persecute them? The evidence is that God is at work mightily in those situations, especially in the Muslim world. God answers prayer. The Lord is near. The Lord is the rescuer and is mighty.
So, David also prays, "Vindicate me by your might". Being saved from being hunted down by Saul and from the betrayal of his own people was the immediate threat. But the fundamental issue was that David was being wrongly regarded and treated as a treasonous person. The reality was that he was God's elect king. The so-called strangers in verse 3 who have risen against him are the real treacherous ones – ruthless men who seek his life – men who actually have no regard for God, who don't set God before themselves.
And isn't that true today? In some areas of China church leaders are seeing their buildings demolished and themselves imprisoned, no doubt seen as traitors, hostile to the Communist Party and therefore to the state. They may have been betrayed by their neighbours or even family members. But it is their betrayers and the authorities who are the ruthless ones, who commit real treachery and who have no regard for God. David's future and that of imprisoned Christians is secure. But unless the betrayers and accusers repent and trust Christ, they have everything to fear about the future, which is a message of Psalm 53 as well as Psalm 54. But it's not just happening out there in the rest of the world. It's also beginning to happen here. The thought police are here. True Bible-believing Christians are starting to be seen as traitors to the state as our views clash with the new so-called British values, especially over ethics. So we're to pray for those who stand up for God's name and ways, to be vindicated by God's might. We can't do it by ourselves, but God can.
Recently a committed Christian, who was thrown off his university course for posting privately against same-sex marriage, has won an appeal against the decision. Felix Ngole, 39, was removed from a postgrad social work course at Sheffield University after posting on Facebook. Judges overturned a previous court ruling stating that "the disciplinary proceedings were flawed and unfair". Ngole had argued that throwing him out breached his rights to freedom of speech and thought. He said he'd been expressing a traditional Christian view during a debate on Facebook about Kim Davis, a state official in the U.S. state of Kentucky, who refused to register same-sex marriages. Ngole said: "As Christians we're called to serve others and to care for everyone, yet publicly and privately we must also be free to express our beliefs and what the Bible says without fear of losing our livelihoods."
Prayer is powerful. David knew it. Verse 2: "O God hear my prayer; give ear to the words of my mouth." Do we know it? Are we calling on the name of the Lord asking for faithful Christians to be vindicated by his might and for his glory when they're being wronged? As well as praying for their persecutors who have no regard for God? Secondly we're to face such situations
2. By Recollection of the Truth (v3-5)
Why don't we first bring such situations to the Lord in prayer? Because we forget who he is and his love, his justice and his power. We forget that he is the rescuer. When it comes down to it, we don't trust him. We don't believe he will answer our prayer. Maybe sometimes we ask is he really there? Is he my helper? Is he really sustaining me? So, we need to face it by a recollection of the truth about God and also about those (v3) who betray us and want to harm us and who have no regard for God.
We've already looked at the truth of the character of David's opponents. David's fellow Judahites were acting like ruthless aliens, because where there is no regard for God there can be no reckoning on fidelity or humanity. But what about the truth of the character of his and our God? Have a look at verse 4, which is at the core of this psalm:
"Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life."
God is good. David here testifies to God's goodness to others in his day and to you and me today. God is good – all the time as they say in Africa. Can you testify to that? David could amid being betrayed and hunted down. God is our rescuer. His proper name tells us so – the Lord or Yahweh (v5&6). The Ziphites betrayed the name of their tribe in betraying David, its most distinguished member, to his arch-enemy Saul. Perhaps they thought they should have a higher loyalty to King Saul but everyone, even Saul, knew that his days were numbered, and that David was God's choice for the future. In contrast, the Lord would never betray his name. The name by which he makes himself known to his people – Yahweh or 'I am what I am' meaning that if he's told them he's their rescuer then he will be their rescuer. He keeps his promises. Surely God is my help. God brought David through all of that. Surely God is our help too. One of God's titles is Elohim which in Hebrew means the helper. It doesn't mean in the sense of Santa's little helper – where we humans are bigger than God and so he's our little helper but rather that he is God, he is bigger and far more gracious than us and so he can and will help us. He loves us and cares for us. The Lord is Adonai, which in Hebrew means sustainer or upholder. He's the one who sustains you – who keeps you going through dark and desolate times.
Sometimes you may feel like giving up the Christian life, when it just seems too hard or painful but he keeps you going. As one pastor says, 'It's always too soon to quit.' In 1940 Winston Churchill gave a school assembly as WW2 began to intensify. He stood up and said just 15 words. "Never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up." And then sat down. If you're a believer God will uphold you. And God is good – it is worth it! We might face opposition from colleagues or family or even friends and they might even let you down or stab you in the back but God is faithful. As the writer to the Hebrews (13.5-6) reminds us. God has said:
"'I will never leave you; nor [or never will I] forsake you.' So we can confidently say: 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear, what can man to do me?'"
Do you believe that? If not – and please, I say this lovingly and humbly - what aspect of the word "never" don't you understand?
And (v5) justice will be done. That's another truth we need to remember in facing such a situation. What does David ask the Sovereign Lord to do in verse 5?
"He will return the evil to my enemies; in your faithfulness put an end to them."
Now you might be thinking is David praying for justice or vindictiveness? But you need to notice three things.
a) David's prayer actually hands over to God the responsibility for punishing David's enemies. And we can trust that God is perfectly just, never arbitrary and doesn't make mistakes.
b) It therefore asks God to do what's in line with his own faithfulness and truth, meaning the right thing. And
c) It recognises that unchecked evil has a way of recoiling on itself. Do you see? This is what's known as the 'boomerang' aspect of sin, in other words, a retribution that's built into the nature of things. You see it in some of the cases brought by the 'Me Too' movement or where greed has been considered to be good. And, of course, in what people were doing to David in the backdrop to this psalm.
So, we're not to fear. Leaving the matter in God's hands means that David and we too in such circumstances, can have confidence that God's people do win through in the end. The Lord Jesus Christ, who himself, God's chosen King, was betrayed by one of his own disciples and deserted by others, and who we often deny, has won the victory over sin, death and the devil. And we can share in his victory through faith in him. He will return to judge the living and the dead. So thirdly we're to face such situations
3. By Commitment For the Future (v6-7)
"With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you;
I will give thanks to your name, O LORD, for it is good.
For he has delivered me from every trouble,
and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies."
These verses are not to be understood as bargaining with God – if you do this for me I promise to… - but as a response to God's goodness and deliverance. Yes we can have confidence, in circumstances like David, that God's people do win through in the end (v7), not gloating, but thankful for God's help and upholding, his love and justice, and can promise the Lord our grateful sacrificial obedience (v6), praising and praying to the Lord who never lets his people down.
I must finish. So let's remind ourselves what David himself learned from his experience in Ziph from Psalm 54. Firstly, we need to look to God. He's in control and trustworthy. He's the rescuer and sustainer, verse 1 and 4. Rather like the persecutions or trials we face Saul isn't yet gone for good. David's distress isn't over. But the Lord upholds us and gives us what we need in the middle of our trials (such as a faithful friend for David in Jonathan, Saul's son, 1 Samuel 23) so we can withstand the pressure of them. Secondly, God answers prayer, verse 2. Thirdly, justice will be done in the end by the Lord, verse 5. And fourthly, through faith in Christ he has delivered us, he does deliver us and he will deliver us. His death at Golgotha is our Rock of Escape (1 Samuel 23). In response, we're to praise him with our lips and our lives, verse 6 and 7.