Save Me, O My God
Today we begin a new series in the book of Psalms which will take us through the spring and summer.
I have loved the Psalms for years, and hope to preach through each one of them one day. That’s not going to happen this year: there’s 150 Psalms and we’re only going to cover 20 or so of them this spring and summer. So this is likely not the last time we’ll visit the Psalms together as a church.
For the past several months I’ve been drawn to the Psalms as I’ve thought about what I’ll preach on next. And I want to share with you some of those reasons why the board and I have decided that this is where we’ll be going next.
Applying the Series
First, the Psalms are a wonderful place for us to apply many of the things we learned in the “You Are Here” series. I’ve mentioned more than once that one of the goals in that series was to help us learn how to appropriately read and apply the Old Testament. And the Psalms are great place to do to do that.
The book of Psalms was Israel’s hymnbook. These were the songs that God’s people sang for centuries. And so the Psalms are rich in the theology of the Mosaic covenant.
The Psalms are also bursting with the truth of God’s covenant with David. If you’ve read any of the Psalms before, you’ve probably noticed David is all over the place. About half of the Psalms are attributed to David himself, and when we step back and look the book of Psalms as a whole, we see that one of the purposes of the Psalms was to orient the hope of God’s people on the promise of the coming son of David.
So the Psalms are easy to misinterpret and take out of context if we don’t appreciate the big story of the Bible and how the covenants fit together. But now that we’ve covered that ground, we’re in a good spot to dig into the Psalms and apply these Old Testament Scriptures to our lives as New Covenant believers.
Learning to Pray
Second, I’m drawn to the Psalms because they are prayers. The Psalms can be described as a collection of prayers. And I don’t know about you, but I want to keep learning how to pray better. When I preached on prayer a few weeks ago it felt like I just scratched the surface in terms of appreciating everything the Bible tells us about prayer. And so I’m looking forward to the Psalms guiding us deeper into an appreciation of what prayer is and how to pray.
A Personal View
Third, the Psalms are very personal. You could even say they are intimate. So many of the Psalms are written in the first person and they take us close to the action, showing us how the human heart interacts with God and His truth in the real world. And I think it will be good for us, after several months of a lot of big picture ideas, to zoom in and spend some time in a part of Scripture which takes these big ideas and applies them to our hearts in the personal way that it does.
When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll
Fourth, and this is building off of the idea of the Psalms being personal, the Psalms are intensely realistic. When we think about the Psalms, we might be tempted to think that the Psalms are all about praise and worship and joy and celebration.
Many of the Psalms are. And throughout the book, worship always has the final answer. But it might surprise you to know that, depending on how you count it, at least a third of the 150 Psalms are classified as Psalms of lament. These Psalms deal with themes of pain and suffering and struggle and sadness, and they show us what it looks like to express sorrow or grief to God.
And I think that this language of lament is something we need to rediscover. Because life is hard. Life is painful. Life gives us reasons to lament. And if we don’t know how to vocalize those experiences, if we don’t know how to express our sorrow to God, or worse, if we think that being a Christian requires that we feel happy all the time, then what happens to us when we’re not?
What can happen is that your faith in God and your real life end up being separated off from each other. Being a Christian slowly becomes a performance, something you do, something you put on, instead of who you are. And eventually, keeping up that performance might become impossibly hard.
But it shouldn’t be this way. One third of Israel’s hymnbook tells us that life is difficult, and this is normal. One third of Israel’s hymnbook shows us how to lament, how to communicate and walk with God in the middle of our grief and sadness and suffering.
And for this reason, the Psalms have a lot to offer to us today in our particular moment in history. You maybe have’t noticed, but our Western culture is going through a bit of a crisis right now. People in our country, both in and outside of the church, are struggling with sadness and depression at unprecedented rates. Recent data tells us that Canadians are the third greatest users of antidepressants in the world.
I read an article1https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/psychiatrist-warns-against-trying-to-cure-ordinary-sadness-as-canadians-among-top-users-of-antidepressants this week in which Dr. Joel Paris, one of Canada’s top psychiatrists, commented on this trend, and he stated that many Canadians taking antidepressants are not, in fact, clinically depressed. What they are is sad. They are experiencing sadness or grief. And the problem is that we don’t know how to be sad anymore. We expect to feel happy all the time, and when we feel sad the only thing we know how to do is ask our doctors to make it better.
Dr. Paris did stress that clinical depression is a real thing and he believes that anti-depressants are necessary in cases of “severe, debilitating and life-threatening depression.”2https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/psychiatrist-warns-against-trying-to-cure-ordinary-sadness-as-canadians-among-top-users-of-antidepressants But he and other top psychiatrists believe that clinical depression is being seriously over-diagnosed these days, and what’s to blame is the “trend in Western societies to expect the right to happiness.”3https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/psychiatrist-warns-against-trying-to-cure-ordinary-sadness-as-canadians-among-top-users-of-antidepressants
So I was thinking about all this from the perspective of the Psalms. I believe that mental illness is a real thing—that there are times when our brains are simply not working the way they are supposed to, and they take everything else down with them. And I believe that the Psalms can help people walk through the pain of mental illness, as they show us how to relate to God in the middle of our suffering.
And on the other hand, the Psalms also help us for those times when what we are struggling with is sadness, or grief, or spiritual despair. The Psalms might be one of the only places in our world today where we can learn how to properly process those experiences. How to understand them. And most of all, how to walk with God in the middle of them.
One third of the Psalms are there to pop the bubble that says we should expect to feel happy all of the time. And one third of the Psalms are there to give us a voice in our sadness and in our suffering.
The Psalms have such potential to orient us towards a realistic Christian life, shaping our expectations and reactions and helping us learn how to fight for hope and joy in the middle of our difficulty.
Now there’s a lot more I want to say about these matters, and I’m hoping they’ll get a chance to come out in this series, either here in the pulpit or on the blog. But hopefully this sneak peak shows you some of the reasons why I am drawn to the Psalms. The Psalms have been such a help to me throughout the years and it’s a joy to lead us into these next four months where we’ll get to explore some of them together.
So today we begin with Psalm 3, which we’ve read together already. You will notice that this Psalm has a title: “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” These titles are a part of the original Scripture text, and give us the background to the Psalm’s composition.
If you’re interested in learning more about the whole story of David and Absalom, you can read about it in 2 Samuel 14-19. This event happened later on in David’s life. After all his years of being chased around by Saul. After conquering Jerusalem and being established there. After God’s covenant with him in 2 Samuel 7, where God promised to give David rest from all his enemies.
And after all of this, an enemy arises from within David’s own house. His son, Absalom stole the hearts of the people through a long and deliberate process, so much so that one of David’s closest advisors gave his loyalty to Absalom. And now Absalom has launched a military coup and plans to kill David and take the throne for himself.
This was betrayal of the highest order. And it wasn’t just treason against David. It was treason against God. See, David was the Lord’s anointed. God had chosen him and promised to establish him and give him rest from all his enemies (2 Samuel 7:11). This is a truth that was just celebrated in Psalm 2. Listen to these words from Psalm 2:1-6:
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed [that’s referring to David], saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill’” (Psalm 2:1–6).
That’s the vision of the Davidic kingship that opens the Psalms. God laughing at puny humans who would try to unseat His chosen king and His royal Son whom He had established in Jerusalem.
Bur right after Psalm 2 is Psalm 3: “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.”
What is going on? The Lord’s anointed king, on the run from one of his own sons, with his own nation turned against him? How is this happening?
Well, that is exactly what David must have been asking. What’s going on here? How can this be possible? This must have felt like David’s worst nightmare coming true.
So how does David respond to his worst nightmare? What does David say to God in the middle of this impossibly terrible situation? That’s what we’re about to find out as we dig into this Psalm together.
Telling God What He Sees
The first thing we see in verses 1 & 2 is that David simply tells God what is going on. “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God’” (Psalm 3:1–2).
David just tells God what he sees. This is a theme we’re going to see come up multiple times in the Psalms: the idea of complaining to God. Telling God what’s going on.
And as David does this, what he’s also doing is facing the facts. He’s not trying to put a bright face on it. “Oh, it’s ok, things aren’t all that bad.” Yes, they are all that bad, and David isn’t afraid to say so. His foes are many and they are saying horrible things about him, and in his honest prayer, David faces these facts head on.
Choosing to Trust
But David faced all of the facts. David knew that there were more facts in play than simply what he could see with his eyes. And so in verse 3, he reminds himself of the greatest and most important fact of all: God. “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head” (Psalm 3:3).
Now just stop and take this in for a moment. Thank about what David is saying here about God. And think about how he knows this. Does he know these things about God just by looking around him? Are his circumstances telling him that God is his shield and glory and the lifter of his head?
At that point in the story, absolutely not. All of his circumstances were pointing in the opposite direction. Everything looked like David was defenceless and ashamed.
But David chooses to remember who God is. He chooses to remember that God had given him specific promises to make him a great name and deliver him from his enemies (2 Samuel 7:9, 11). He chooses to remember the truth of Psalm 2. And he’s choosing to remind himself of these promises and even praise God for them right in the middle of his nightmare.
So David probably felt defenceless, but he chose to remember and worship God for being His true shield. By all appearances, David running away from his own son looked shameful, but David chose to remember and worship God for being his glory and the one who would remove this shame and lift up His head.
He chose to remember that God lives and that God had not changed and would not turn back on His promises. And so he keeps praying. And as he prays, he experiences God’s grace, as verse 4 tells us, “I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill.”
There’s some question as to exactly what is going on here when David speaks about God answering him. Did God literally speak to David, giving an verbal answer through a prophetic revelation? That’s possible. It’s also very possible that what David is expressing here is absolute confidence that the living God will answer Him. And it’s such a complete confidence that he can speak about it in the past-tense. “God answered me. He’s not ignoring me.”
But in the context of the Psalm, it appears that the answer God gave David was the experience of peace that we see in verses 5 & 6: “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.”
This is just astounding. I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a tough spot, when my worst nightmares are unfolding around me, one of the hardest things in the world to do is sleep.
But David—away from Jerusalem, no walls between him and his enemies—is able to lie down and sleep. His enemies are still arrayed against him but he’s not afraid of them.
And the secret to this experience is there at the end of verse 5—“For the Lord sustained me.” God has not yet taken away David’s difficult circumstances. His enemies are still there. But in the middle of his difficult circumstances, God is sustaining David. Helping him. Supporting him. Giving him peace and taking away his fear and enabling him to rest.
Isn’t this the experience of Psalm 23:4? “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). God does not promise to deliver us from the valley of the shadow of death, but He does promise to be with us in that valley. And that’s what David is experiencing here in Psalm 3. God’s sustaining grace in his suffering.
A Final Prayer
And yet, David knows that it’s not over. His fear is gone, but the enemies aren’t, and they do need to be dealt with. And so in verse 7, David prays again. “Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God!” (Psalm 3:7a). David is asking God to deal with his enemies and to save him from them.
Now you’ll remember that God had promised David in the Davidic covenant to do this very thing: to deliver him from his enemies. And so David is doing here what we learned about biblical prayer a few weeks ago: he’s asking God to do what God has promised to do. That’s what he’s pointing to in the last half of verse 7: “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.” (Psalm 3:7b).
“This is what You do; this is what You’ve promised to do. So come to it now for me. Do what You’ve promised.”
As the Psalm draws to a close, he makes one more statement of confidence at the beginning of verse 8. “Salvation belongs to the LORD.” David’s salvation does not depend on David and it certainly does not depend on his enemies. David’s salvation belongs to the Lord. And if God wants to save David, He’ll do it, regardless of how many thousands of enemies surround him.
And then the Psalm ends with one more prayer: “Your blessing be on your people” (Psalm 3:8b). Wow. David could be asking God to curse His people for their rebellion against him. But instead he asks God to bring this rebellion to an end and to bring the people back under David’s rule so they can experience God’s blessing again. And when we read the story in 2 Samuel we see that this did, in fact, happen.
And with that, Psalm 3 is done. And what a journey it is. From the cries of “O Lord, how many are my foes!” to the confidence of “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”
What can you and I learn from this Psalm? A lot, actually. More than we’ll have time to consider this morning. But what we are going to do this morning is focus on David’s example, and see how we can learn from his example when we find ourselves in our own impossibly difficult circumstances.
Whatever those circumstances are, whatever our worst nightmare is, when it’s exploding all around us, what should we do?
David shows us that we should begin with honest prayer. Just start talking to God about what’s going on around you, and what’s going on in your heart. Tell Him.
I’ve talked with people in the middle of difficult circumstances and they’re kind of freaking out and I’ll ask them, “have you talked to God about this?” And it’s surprising how often the answer is “no.” And I wonder if the problem is that we feel like we need to get ourselves together, get a handle on things, before we can talk to God in prayer.
But that’s the wrong way to think about it. The way we get a handle on things, the way we get ourselves together, is by talking to God about it. He’s big enough for us! He’s big enough for our emotions and our struggles. We can start talking to Him right in the middle of our pain. And just doing that will begin to orient our souls in the right direction and begin to push us towards faith and confidence.
Remember What’s True
The second thing we should learn from David is how he reminded himself of what was true and what was real.
Don’t we so often read into his circumstances and listen to our own feelings? When things look bleak, we give in to the bleakness. When things feel hopeless, we listen to our feelings and give up hope. When we feel abandoned by God, we assume that we must be abandoned by God.
But David shows us the better way. He chooses to remember that what he sees with his eyes and feels in his heart are not the final measure of truth in the universe. He chooses to remember that God is alive, and he chooses to remember who God has promised to be for Him.
So if you’re in an impossible situation right now, what are the messages you’re hearing? Who have you been listening to? What have you been telling yourself?
And have you stopped to ask yourself, “Who is God, and who has God promised to be for me in this?” Have you opened up the Bible to a place like Romans 8, and reminded yourself of all that God has promised to be for you?
I had a friend a couple of years ago who was seriously depressed. And to this day they don’t know what combination of physical or emotional or spiritual causes were behind their depression. But they do know that one of the most helpful ways they fought back at their depression was by meditating on the attributes of God.
As they were falling asleep at night—one of the hardest times of the day—they would pick a word and go through each letter and think of an attribute of God that began with that letter. And over the days and weeks this had a massive effect on them.
That’s what David is doing here. “God is my shield. God is my glory. God is the lifter of my head.” He’s speaking the truth about God and worshipping Him for it. And this will have a powerful effect on us when we do the same.
Sleeping on the Battlefield
Third, let’s follow David’s example of resting in God's sustaining grace while we pray and ask for His final salvation.
So often, when things are hard, we want God to fix them now. But when we read 2 Samuel 14-19, we see that David’s situation didn’t get fixed right away. It took a while. But David was able to experience God’s peace in the middle of the storm.
And so that is so very often our story, isn’t it? We walk with God and experience His grace in the suffering. In the trial. In the fire. Remembering His promises and asking Him to fulfill them as we patiently trust Him here and now, today.
And as we do that, we remember the ultimate way that this Psalm will be fulfilled in our life. Jesus, the greater Son of David, who Himself was so often beset by enemies, will return in triumph. All of His enemies will be placed under His feet. And like Hebrews 9:28 tells us, when He appears this second time, He will “save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).
Our salvation is coming, and that salvation gives us hope today. And this isn’t just pie-in-the-sky stuff. We’re about to sing a song written by a man after he lost his four daughters to a shipwreck. That was his worst nightmare exploding all around him. And yet listen to the words of this song. Listen to the promises that helped this man say, in the middle of his heartbreak, “It is well with my soul.” It’s the death and the return of Jesus Christ. It’s the final salvation we’ve been promised. It’s all that God has been for us and all that God will be for us, forever.
I don’t know what all you’re going through today, but I know that it can be well with your soul in the middle of your pain. So let’s ask God for the faith to believe this and to experience His sustaining grace today.