We're a week away from the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two. Time of war puts many people into extreme situations. 1940 was an extreme time for this nation, with the threat of invasion after the calamity of Dunkirk, and apparently little hope of avoiding defeat.
This summer I've been reading a biography of Winston Churchill. After the war he wrote, "Nothing surpasses 1940". It was a time of extremity. Nothing normal about it. When the situation had eased somewhat at the end of the year, Anthony Eden, the Minister for War, wrote in his diary:
"Winston was tired but cheerful. We spoke of the dark days of the summer. I told him that Portal and I [Portal was chief of the Air Staff] had confessed to each other that in our hearts we had both despaired at one time. He [Churchill, that is] said, "Yes, normally I wake up buoyant to face the new day. Then I awoke with dread in my heart."
And the biographer comments:
"Yet nothing any of those men did or said in public, to the press, in Parliament or to their own staffs, or even to their wives, let slip for one minute that they had the slightest doubt in victory."
How we react in extreme times reveals not only our character but our faith. In the spiritual war in which we're engaged as disciples of Christ, our response to extreme pressure reveals the nature of our faith in God. Extreme times are exactly that. Not normal – thankfully. Most of us this evening will not be in a period of extremity. Some may be.
In our series on the Psalms, we've reached Psalm 55. And you'll see my outline at the back of the service sheet. That'll also help you see where we are.
Psalm 55 is a Psalm of David, the king of Israel. We're told that at the top:
"To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A maskil [that's a musical term of some kind] of David."
This, then, is a song written by David. And it was written in time of extremity in his life. The Psalm itself makes that clear, as we'll see in a moment.
My five headings are there on the outline. I'll read the verses that relate to each section as we go through – but you can see the references there on the outline.
First, David's Situation
Someone has described the opening verses of this Psalm as displaying (I quote):
"… the great distress of a sensitive soul which breaks down under the weight of its agony."
What is it that's causing David such distress? There are two aspects to his situation. First, the wicked are rampant in the city which is his home. It's not named, but we can assume that he's talking about Jerusalem, his capital. But that's not all. In fact the second thing if anything is even harder to deal with. It's that a one-time close friend has become his enemy.
You can see the situation in the city from the second half of verse 9 down to verse 11. Take a look:
"for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they go round it on its walls,
and iniquity and trouble are within it;
ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud
do not depart from its market-place."
This is beyond the usual activities of the criminal element that hides in the shadows of any city. In our own unsettled times, there's much talk of a wave of knife attacks. There was an unprovoked murder in the centre of Newcastle last week. That kind of thing makes people more than usually anxious when they're out and about.
But here there is strife out in the open in the light of day. Its agents don't even try to hide. They're up on the city walls for all to see. Destructive forces are at work. This bears the hallmarks of a brash and brutal insurrection.
So the wicked are rampant, but what's much worse for David is the betrayal of a friend. He is being kicked when he's already down. Look at verses 12-14:
"For it is not an enemy who taunts me—
then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
then I could hide from him.
But it is you, a man, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to take sweet counsel together;
within God's house we walked in the throng."
You expect an enemy to be hostile and aggressive. That's what an enemy is like. You don't expect it of a friend. Least of all do you expect it of a close friend. There's a terrible poignancy about the way David remembers better times – times of shared spiritual fellowship worshipping God together amongst the crowds. But this one-time friend's betrayal is cynical and brutal. Look on to verses 20-21:
"My companion stretched out his hand against his friends;
he violated his covenant.
His speech was smooth as butter,
yet war was in his heart;
his words were softer than oil,
yet they were drawn swords."
To David's face, this friend's conversation has been 'smooth as butter' and 'softer than oil'. Superficially charming and on David's side. But oil in the wrong place is slippery and perilous. And under the surface, he had the daggers out. There was a violent hatred in his heart. And not just hatred, but an intention and a plan to do something about it. 'War was in his heart.' His words are 'drawn swords' and he has every intention to use them to draw blood. He wants David dead.
We don't know the particular set of circumstances that gave rise to this in David's life. But there is a clear example of him going through this kind of thing. It's the time when his own son rebelled against him and sought to kill him. It's the most amazing story, powerfully and movingly told. I recommend it for your own study. You can find it in 2 Samuel 14-19.
It tells how Absalom, David's son, openly and brazenly sets up as a rival for his father's throne. He is young, charismatic and persuasive. He talks down his father and talks himself up. The people are taken in, and flock to his cause. David is forced to flee from his capital, his life under threat.
And not only has his son turned against him, but one of David's closest friends and most highly regarded advisors abandons him and goes over to Absalom's rebel camp. His name was Ahithophel. 2 Samuel 15.30-31 describes David's dangerous flight from the city. I quote:
"But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered. And all the people who were with him covered their heads, and they went up, weeping as they went. And it was told David, 'Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom.'"
That must have been like a dagger to David's heart. And it goes on:
"And David said, 'O Lord, please turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.'"
Which is what ended up happening, in a dramatic way. Read it for yourself.
It's worth noting that there is a great irony in all this. David was himself capable of the same kind of betrayal. Many years before this David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, and had her husband Uriah killed in battle. Uriah was a friend and ally to David. David betrayed him.
There has only ever been one man who is completely innocent when he is betrayed – and that is Jesus. We all, in our own ways, betray him. He died forsaken so that we could be forgiven our betrayal. As and when we experience anything like king David, we need the humility to remember that. But none of that is to deny the desperate times David went through. So we come to:
Secondly, David's Experience
Whatever the particulars of what gave rise to it, what was the experience and what were the feelings that David went through as a result of this double-whammy of disaster that he describes in Psalm 55? Well, he lays his soul bare to God, and through this Psalm to us, from the second part of verse 2 down to verse 8. Let me read that section:
"I am restless in my complaint and I moan,
because of the noise of the enemy,
because of the oppression of the wicked.
For they drop trouble upon me,
and in anger they bear a grudge against me.
My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, 'Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
yes, I would wander far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter
from the raging wind and tempest.'"
He finds himself being battered by a terrifying storm, at the mercy of the anger and fury of his enemies. He is anguished, afraid, trembling and overwhelmed. He knew he was teetering on the edge of the abyss of death.
David went through his trauma 3000 years ago, but his feelings cross the millennia to us as if it was yesterday. If you yourself are going through one of these extreme periods of life at the moment, those may well be feelings which are all too familiar to you.
And how easy it is for us to identify with his longing for it all just to go away.
"Oh, that I had wings like a dove. I would fly away and be at rest."
But he knows, of course, that he hasn't got wings. He can't fly away. That's just a fantasy. There's no easy way out. But one thing he can do. The one thing on which he has always relied. He can cry out to God. And that brings us to:
Thirdly, David's Prayer
We can see what David actually asks God for in this supremely stressful situation in three different places in the Psalm – in verses 1-2, then verse 9 and again in verse 15. Right at the start of the Psalm he prays this:
"Give ear to my prayer, O God,
and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!
Attend to me and answer me …"
Don't hide yourself from my plea. It's interesting that the same phrase is in God's Law, in Deuteronomy 22, which says that if you see your brother's sheep straying, you're not to "hide yourself", but instead you're to put yourself to the trouble of taking it back to him.
So this is a bold prayer of faith from David, as if he's saying to God, "You tell us not to duck out of the way when we see other people in trouble – so please don't disappear off round the corner as if you haven't seen mine!" But it's not irreverent and cheeky, because he knows that God wants to hear him cry out to him when he's in distress.
Then in verse 9 we get the substance of his prayer:
"Destroy, O Lord, divide their tongues;
for I see violence and strife in the city."
And after he's spelled out the treachery of his friend, he follows that through in verse 15:
"Let death steal over them;
let them go down to Sheol alive;
for evil is in their dwelling place and in their heart."
So this is a prayer that what his enemies say will be disrupted, and that they will be destroyed. Why does David want that? Is this just self-serving? No. It's because, as he puts it, "evil is in their heart." It's evil he wants God to deal with. Because the alternative to the destruction of evil is the triumph of evil. Those who are evil are God's enemies, not just David's, and in the end God and evil cannot co-exist.
So is this a model for how we should pray? Jesus said we should love our enemies – but that does mean we will have enemies. The apostle Paul said in Ephesians 6.12:
"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood [that is, we're not looking for the destruction of those who hate us but rather their salvation], but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."
We are in a spiritual war and it is a fight to the death and we should pray for the utter destruction of Satan and evil. So prayers like this in the Psalms can be transposed and we should direct them against all the powers of evil which are so rampant all around us. And how will God answer? That brings us to:
Fourthly, God's Response
It's there in verses 16-19. Take a look:
"But I call to God,
and the Lord will save me.
Evening and morning and at noon
I utter my complaint and moan,
and he hears my voice.
He redeems my soul in safety
from the battle that I wage,
for many are arrayed against me.
God will give ear and humble them,
he who is enthroned from of old,
because they do not change
and do not fear God."
It's striking to read in 2 Samuel 17 about how David's treacherous advisor Ahithophel is thwarted in his rebellious ambitions. We saw how David prayed then:
"O Lord, please turn the counsel of Ahithophel in to foolishness."
In other words, disrupt what he advises. And that's what happened. Ahithophel gave a key piece of advice to the rebel Abasalom, but he didn't take it. Why Absalom didn't take Ahithophel's advice is a story in itself – read it later! Suffice to say now that 2 Samuel 17.14 sums it all up in these words:
"For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom."
When his advice was ignored, Ahithophel knew that would be fatal for Absalom's cause, and that David would triumph in the end, and that he was done for. So he hanged himself. His advice was disrupted, his plans were thwarted, and he was destroyed by his own hand, all under the sovereignty of God.
David knows, even while the storm rages around him, that the Lord will hear and answer. God saves his people from trouble. He doesn't give them wings so they can fly away. But he protects them in the battle and brings them through. And in the end he will destroy all evil.
David has a confident faith. He knows his God. He's seen him work again and again. He believes his promises. When he's in another storm, it's as if he sees God's answer to his prayers even before it's arrived.
And what is more, he wants us to do the same. In the end, this is a teaching Psalm. It's not just a personal outpouring for David's private prayer journal. It's intended as a lesson for the people of God across the centuries. And the lesson is spelled out for us right at the end of the Psalm. So lastly and:
Fifthly, David's Final Words
Look at the end of the Psalm – verses 22-23. Here's the lesson for us:
"Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.
But you, O God, will cast them down
into the pit of destruction;
men of blood and treachery
shall not live out half their days.
But I will trust in you."
So there's an exhortation, and a promise, and a commitment. We need to take on board the exhortation, and believe the promise, so that we can share in the commitment. Cast your burden on the Lord. He will sustain you. But I trust in God.
What's your burden as we meet here this evening? You may not be in an extreme situation. But maybe you are – like Britain in 1940. Either way, the remedy for what burdens us is the same. Cast it on the Lord.
Pray this Psalm for those you know and for your brothers and sisters around the world who are under extreme pressure from the powers of evil. And pray this Psalm for yourself. The apostle Peter knew a thing or two about betraying Jesus and being rescued out of trouble by him. Peter learned the same as King David. 1 Peter 5.7:
"Humble yourselves, … casting all your anxieties on [God], because he cares for you."