I read this week of a man who went to his doctor, complaining of daily headaches. The Doctor asked him if he smoked. Yes he did. "Well stop smoking" suggested the Doctor. So he stopped, but the headaches persisted.. He went back. The Doctor asked him if he drank. Yes he did – quite a bit actually. "Well stop drinking" advised the Doctor. So he stopped, but the headaches persisted. He went back again. The Doctor asked if he was engaged in any physical labour that would put pressure on his back. Yes he was. "Quit your job then" said the Doc. He gave up his job and took another position, but the headaches still persisted. Every day the pain pulsed through his head. Finally, they discovered the problem….he was wearing a size 15 collar on a size 16 neck! His shirt was too small, restricting the flow of blood to his head! No wonder he had a headache! All he needed to do was get some new shirts, because superficial problems call for superficial solutions. But sadly real life isn't like that is it? – Its headaches and stresses go deeper, right to our core.
The Psalm before us this evening is written by a man called David – a man who knew all about real stress! David you will probably recall was the 'pebble throwing giant slaying hero' who went on to become King of Israel at just 30 years old. But throughout his life, David had to deal with an awful lot of stresses and crises (some of his own making, some not). He had to deal with relational breakdown, multiple attempts on his life, slander, he was despised and hated by those who were jealous of him, he made some pretty awful decisions with his love life, he was a weak Father, and he was often racked by doubt…yes, he knew all about the real stresses and headaches of life. And this Psalm that he wrote demonstrates a truly godly response to trouble, that as one commentator notes, takes David from a point of anguish to a place of assurance. My prayer tonight is that God would use it to do the same with us as we encounter life's trials.
As we journey with David through this Psalm we're going discover the predicament facing David, an example to follow in response to that, and lastly assurance to the faithful for the future.
1. A PREDICAMENT
What do we do when life gets us down?
I'm not talking about the kind of temporary depression I had recently on holiday. In Pembrokeshire I walked into Fat Face looking for a new shirt, I saw one I loved and exchanged 35 of my hard earned pounds for it. I enjoyed wearing it at a family gathering…only to then walk into Hereford's Fat Face a week later to see exactly the same shirt on sale at £20. Man I was hacked off! My wife had to put up with a very grumpy and depressed husband for a little while! But that's not the kind of depression I'm talking about here.
I'm thinking more of the things that steal our sleep and our joy, and captivate our thoughts for far too long, the things that make the pits of our stomachs hollow, the things that wipe the smiles of our faces and replace them with frowns and emptiness. I wonder what it is in this category that is troubling you guys this evening.
It's very easy in a church like JPC to look around and think that everyone has got it all so together. That you are the only one that is struggling. But the truth is we all struggle, albeit at different times in and different ways. You may be surprised to learn that the great 19th C preacher Charles Spurgeon struggled with severe depression. He wrote this to his students….
Fits of depression come over the most of us. Cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy.
There may be here and there men of iron to whom wear and tear work no perceptible detriment, but surely the rust frets even these;
Spurgeon Lectures to My Students Lecture 11 accessed at http://www.onthewing.org/user/Spur_Lectures1.pdf
If all you remember about David from Sunday school is his stone slinging antics, then you'll likely think of David as one such 'man of iron.' But in his cry for help here in v.1-2 he doesn't sound much like a man of iron…"O Lord….deliver me" he cries in v.1. "Rescue me speedily….save me" he pleads in v.2. No, this man of iron knows all about the rust that is affecting him and making him fret. And I think we'd be right to read a tone of desperation into David's voice here.
Let's look at David's predicament. What does he need saving from? We see it in verse 4: "take me out of the net they have hidden for me," he prays "for you are my refuge." This net is his predicament and initially at least, we don't know what it is. And in a way that is more helpful for us. Because what he goes on to record are the details of how he feels in response to his plight. We could say he describes what his rust looks like. Track through it with me as I highlight some of them to you – I wonder how many you identify with.
David is suffering both internally and externally:
In verse 7 he talks of "the distress of his soul". In v.9-10 we see that his crisis has drained him "…my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing;"
Also in v.10 there is the acknowledgement of ill health as his "bones waste away" In v.11 we see that he knows how it feels to be ostracised and deserted: "those who see me flee from me." In v.12 he feels like a hopeless nobody: "I have been forgotten like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel." And in v.13 he lives in terrifying fear of his life: "they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life." And lastly he's not afraid to admit to a bit of panic in all this: v.22 "I had said in my alarm, "I am cut off from your sight.""
Why? Well, towards the end of the Psalm we get the reason for his predicament. v.21 "I was in a besieged city."
Interestingly commentators are divided on whether David speaks of a literal or metaphorical siege. But by this point in the Psalm it doesn't really matter, because David has used language that enables all believers to appropriate the Psalm for themselves. God is saying, through David, whatever it is that is bothering us/stressing us out/causing angst – bring it to me in prayer.
So maybe this evening your life is full of grief and sorrow.
• Maybe your soul is distressed and you are struggling with depression.
• Maybe you are at rock bottom, drained because of ill health or a relational breakdown.
• Maybe you are grieving the passing of a loved one or staring death in the face yourself.
• Maybe you are in a bit of a panic over the uncertainties of future employment, exam results or
• Maybe you are living with the fear of being cut off from your friends and work colleagues as you seek not to give into peer pressure…..
Well, allow the Holy Spirit to do his work in your life tonight and appropriate this Psalm for yourself. Because secondly David gives us…
2. AN EXAMPLE TO FOLLOW
And this example consists of three things – prayer, trust and praise! PTP – prayer, trust and praise:
Note that David's immediate actions are to talk to God and tell him how he feels. David is crying out for rescue and refuge – for safety. And as David prays one of the things we see is his initial desperation settle. The panic of v.1-2 "Be my refuge…be…a strong fortress…..deliver me/rescue me/save me" transitions to calmer waters in v.3 as true perspective is regained: For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name's sake you lead me and guide me; you take me out of the net they have hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. One of the things I love about the Psalms is the striking honesty with which the authors write. Likewise, God longs for us to be honest with him also and we see it's better for us too! It's just like the old hymn says:
Oh, what peace we often forfeit, -- Oh, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry -- Everything to God in prayer!
J M Scriven (1819-1886)
The second part of David's example to follow (after prayer) is his resolve to trust God:
v.5 "Into your hand I commit my spirit"
v.6 "but I trust in the Lord."
Again in v.14 "I trust in you O Lord"
And v.15 "My times are your hand"
This is conscious decision making. It is a resolve/ a determination/ a commitment to think and act in a way that David knows is right and best…even when he may not necessarily 'feel' like acting that way.
It's a principle that was literally drilled into me during my time in the Royal Air Force. We learnt and practiced and refined and practiced and practiced and practiced our SOPs. That's our Standard Operating Procedures – a range of drills designed for every high pressure situation we were likely to encounter on board the aircraft. And we were to know them inside out, back to front and upside down. So when those adrenalin pumping moments came – loss of engine power, fire and fumes in the cabin, flying too low or too close to land – we knew what our initial actions should be. We knew our Standard Operating Procedures. The last thing we needed to do was panic and let our feelings dictate our actions! So we resolved and were determined and committed to do what we had learnt and prepared for.
I honestly believe it is no different in Christian discipleship. In effect what David is advocating here is that prayer and determined trust (and praise as we shall come onto see) – these things become our standard operating procedure. We resolve and determine and commit to them now – recognising that otherwise, in the heat and pain of the moment, we wouldn't.
I don't know about you, but I've found myself contemplating recently how I would respond if someone pointed a gun at my head and told me to renounce my faith. How would I respond if I were living in and amongst our brothers and sisters in Iraq right now? You see they know, in a way that we currently don't, they know the reality of the way David feels in v.13 "Terror on every side" as people plot to take their lives.
But here's the point again. The time to decide how I'm going to react is not in the panic and pain and confusion and terror of that moment – otherwise I'm likely to crumple and be unfaithful. And we need to pray for ourselves, for each other and for our brothers and sisters the world over - that God would give us the strength and grace never to renounce him in 1001 different areas of our busy lives.
David is teaching us an SOP to trouble and stress here. His Psalm is a statement of determination, expressing assurance for the future. "I will trust in you Lord – no-one else." But this isn't a blind trust. This isn't a "vaguely hoping everything will turn out all right" kind of trust.
David locks on to the past to give him assurance for the future. He reminds himself of God's faithfulness in the past… v.7&8: "you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul, 8 and you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place."…to give him confidence of God's faithfulness in the future…v.5 "Into your hand I commit my spirit" v.15 "My times are in your hand" Oh that we may do the same! Are you struggling this evening? Then look back and remind yourselves of all the ways that God has seen you through in the past. And resolve to trust him for the future.
Interestingly this Psalm has inspired others in Scripture who have been facing their own crises. They quote this Psalm because they get this very point. Jeremiah, Jonah and, as we heard in our New Testament reading, Jesus. On the cross Jesus chose to quote this Psalm to express that perfect trust he had in the Father. Jesus sought his Father to be the refuge and fortress and rock he needed him to be as he took on the sins of the world, saying "Father into your hands I commit my spirit." And on that cross Jesus was dealing with the ultimate predicament David had. He was dealing with the ultimate predicament we all have. I don't know if you saw it, but it's there in v.10: "My strength fails because … of my iniquity"
You may be here this evening, listening to me going on about predicaments and trials and trust and so forth, but you actually you wouldn't call yourself a Christian. Well if that is you, please understand that this point is so vital for you. You see the Bible teaches that our ultimate predicament is our sin, what David calls here his iniquity. And by that he means our total disregard for the living God, our natural desire to say we don't need you God, we're going to live our lives our own way. But the problem with that is that it separates us from God – both in this life and the next.
But God in his mercy, and his love and grace (and this is the heart of the Christian faith and what it means to be a Christian) took the initiative, sent his perfect sinless Son to die on a cross instead of us - paying the price that our sins deserve. This is the ultimate rescue, deliverance – this is salvation – but you need to respond, ask for forgiveness and accept what Christ did for you by faith.
David, of course, lived before Jesus. He couldn't understand fully the rescue plan that God had set in place before the foundation of the earth. But he had faith that God would bring about ultimate rescue from the ultimate predicament of sin, because he knew his God. And truly knowing God causes David to praise Him, the third and last part of his example to follow.
v.19 Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you, v.21 Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love
David knew that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty. And he can't help but praise him for it.
I remember hearing someone counsel a young Christian in a predicament of his own making with the following advice, "you got yourself into this mess, you need to praise your way out of it!" Now he may not have won the 'Pastoral Carer of the year award' for his tone, but in a way he was right. Praise is the response to everything because it ensures that our perspective about God and ourselves is right.
My eldest son Nathan has just come back from his first House Party – good time – and I asked him what his highlight from the teaching had been. Psalm 103 was his response. And I'll paraphrase him here so I don't embarrass him, but he said "Dad I had a bit of a moment when I realized how much I have to be grateful to God for." Praise God! Praising God gives us the right perspective.
So our immediate actions to trouble. Our SOPs. Our discipleship SOPs - Prayer / Trust / Praise
Finally, and briefly, David wraps up this Psalm with wonderful assurance.
3. AN ASSURANCE
Love the Lord, all you his saints! The Lord preserves the faithful but abundantly repays the one who acts in pride. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord! (v23)
What is the assurance? That the Lord will preserve and strengthen you as you wait for him. There is not a promise here to remove you from the trial of the predicament in the short term. But rather it is the strength to meet it. A bit like young Christian in John Bunyan's classic tale "Pilgrim's Progress". The story, in case you have never read it (which you should!), follows Christian on his treacherous journey from the City of Destruction to his heavenly destination, the Celestial City. Near the start of his journey Christian falls into the Slough called Despond – or if you prefer the modern version the Bog named Misery. Here he wallows for a while, stuck in this muddy hole until a man named help – the Holy Spirit – kindly pulls him free from this pit of despondency and sets his feet on solid ground (akin to our verse 8). Christian asks Help why this dangerous plot of land has not been "mended that poor travellers might go" on heaven's journey "with more security?" To which Help tellingly replies; "This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended."
How true this is in real life! No matter how hard we try or how spiritually mature we are, miry sloughs are inevitable. Not because we have failed somehow, but because no-one is immune to despondency from time to time: it is "such a place as cannot be mended" – only travelled through. And David wants us to know through this Psalm, the assurance that the Lord will preserve you.
So saints of JPC: Be strong, let your heart take courage and wait for the Lord!