St Michael’s 17th July 2016
Readings – Psalm 3, Matthew 14:1-12
There are two things you need to know about King David.
First of all, he was the greatest king in the Old Testament. He was the one who united the nation of Israel and brought peace and stability to the land. His wise and godly leadership became the standard for all future kings, and he had a deep love for the Lord, reflected in the psalm we are reading today.
But secondly, for all his virtues as a king, he was a lousy parent. His absence of discipline and his inability to see any faults in his children caused all kinds of issues, including incest, murder and civil war. David, it seems, could lead an army and inspire a nation, but he definitely never won an award for Parent of the Year.
Matters came to a head when his son Absalom revolted against him. You can read about the whole sorry affair in 2 Samuel chapters 13-19, which ends in Absalom defeated, David weeping for his dead son and Joab the army commander doing all he can to avoid a full scale mutiny.
And it seems that our psalm, Psalm 3, was written some time during this revolt. If you look closely at the text, you will see it is subtitled, A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom. We don’t know who wrote this title or whether it was added later, but what David says seems to perfectly fit the circumstances. David is under threat to his life. Other people have joined Absalom in his revolt, and David feels isolated and vulnerable. He doesn’t know if he is going to make through to the next day. It only a little exaggeration when he talks in verse 6 about the tens of thousands drawn up against him, and besides, when you’re in that much peril, the opposition can seem overwhelming.
So from a military and political point of view David’s position appears pretty hopeless. What then can he do? The short answer is, he can pray. Now I guess to many people that seems rather a cop-out. The word on the street is that you pray when you’ve tried everything else and it’s all failed. But that is to misunderstand completely what prayer is all about and why we pray. Prayer is about coming before a God who has all the power, all the wisdom and all the love. When we pray, we are doing nothing less than turning to the Maker of the heaven and earth, the one who as we saw last week is enthroned in heaven, with authority over every person and every nation. So David doesn’t pray as a last resort, but as the first and most logical thing to do when all the odds are stacked against him.
What, then, can we learn from his example of prayer?
First of all, David is completely open and honest before God.
Listen again to verses 1 and 2: O Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.” In other words, help!! Now sometimes people tell me that they find prayer difficult. They don’t know how to pray and they don’t know what words to use. Well, the best way to start praying is by simply laying out your situation before the Lord. Because, you see, the Lord is interested in who you are and what is happening in your life. So you don’t have to come to Him pretending that somehow life is wonderful when it isn’t. You don’t have to use long, old-fashioned words as if God hears us better when we speak the language of Shakespeare. You don’t even have to speak in complete sentences or with the right accent. You simply have to give the Lord your heart.
“Oh Lord, it’s been a terrible day. My boss has been horrible to me and the dog’s been sick again. I don’t know how to pay the bills and I’m worried about my friend”. If that is on your heart, then that’s what you need to pray about. Because actually prayer always starts with giving the Lord our heart, giving him our deepest hopes, fears, joys, concerns. Giving God our heart is the first stage in having a meaningful relationship with Him, and there is surely no greater peace than knowing we can talk to Him about absolutely anything.
As it says in Philippians 4:7: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Or in the words of the old, old hymn: Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged, take it to the Lord in prayer. Because we have a God who hears and answers our prayers, and is more ready to listen than we are to ask. So let me ask you, when was the last time when you prayed like this? When you simply stood before the Lord and laid out your requests before Him? If you’ve never prayed like this, or haven’t prayed like this for a long time, then this morning, it seems to me, is a good time to start.
So David is completely open and honest before God.
Secondly, he draws strength from the God he knows.
Listen again to verses 3 and 4: But you are a shield around me, O Lord; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head. To the Lord I cry aloud, and he answers me from his holy hill.
In the situation David was facing, this is a remarkable prayer. His life is in danger, his enemies are increasing and everyone is saying he is a lost cause. Yet despite all this, David expresses the faith and confidence that the Lord will not let him down.
You see, right from his youth the Lord has been his God. David has walking with the Lord for many years, and what he is saying are not the words of an optimist, or someone who has lost touch with reality. Listen to the words he spoke to King Saul as many years earlier he prepared to go out and fight with the giant called Goliath. 1 Samuel 17:37: The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine. That is some expression of confidence from someone still working as a part-time shepherd boy! Yet the Lord delivered him then, and many times since. And David knows the Lord will not change. So if the Lord has protected him and answered His prayers in the past, then He will protect him and answer his prayers in the present and the future.
So he says in verses 5 and 6: I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me. I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side. In the world’s eyes such confidence might seem like complete folly. But David had every confidence that when he cried aloud to the Lord, He would answer from His holy hill.
And the question I have to ask is: do you have a similar confidence in the Lord? I guess the answer depends on how well you know the Lord I have been talking about this morning. David had a living relationship with the Lord which grew year by year. This didn’t mean he was a saint. He got involved with a lady called Bathsheba, got her pregnant and arranged for her husband to be murdered. The writers of the history of Israel were very careful not to airbrush this particular incident out of his life. But despite his faults and failings – particularly as a parent and in his personal life – he could share testimony of how the Lord had kept him by His grace and mercy. What about you?
John Newton was a slave trader who was dramatically converted at sea and wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. Later on, he became a vicar who served faithfully for many years in Buckinghamshire and then in London. Towards the end of his long life as he was getting more and more infirm, he said these words: Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour. That to me seems the testimony of someone who has lived most of their life through faith and trust in the Lord, and I very much hope and pray that at the end of my days, I too will be able to remember these two key facts: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour. Because, ultimately, my confidence before the Lord comes not from my own works or my own achievements, but on the total and undeserved mercy that He shows to all who call on His name. It was in this mercy that David found his security, and it was this mercy which enabled him to lie down and sleep even with armies marching against him.
However even as we reflect on the wonderful and undeserved mercy of God, it’s important not ignore David’s sudden outburst in verse 7: Arise, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked. Now at first glance that seems rather out of place in a psalm like this. It seems to go against all we have said about finding confidence in the Lord, and reveals perhaps a rather nasty streak in David’s character.
Or does it? You see, the third point I want to draw out of this psalm is that David gave the Lord his hurt and anger. Yes, it does seem sadistic asking for the Lord to break all the teeth of the wicked, but again David is simply being honest and open with the Lord about how he is feeling.
Now of course we don’t know if the Lord acted upon David’s prayer. Certainly his son Absalom was defeated and the rebellion put down. But whether this was the right thing to pray is in many ways beside the point. You see, too many of us hold on to our anger and our hurt. Instead of handing it over to the Lord, we store it up tightly in our heart. It becomes part of our identity and who we are. And when that happens, our anger affects and poisons our relationship with other people. Our anger affects and poisons our relationship with God. That’s why Paul says in Ephesians 4:26-27: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Unconfessed or unrecognised anger is a sin, and given a choice between holding it in, or asking the Lord to strike your enemies on the jaw, the Bible is pretty clear which we ought to do. Only the point of the prayer is not necessary to see your enemies struck down, but to ask the Lord to test and examine you at the deepest level.
And for us for who call ourselves Christians there is only one place where we can offer such a prayer and that is at the foot of the cross. Because the cross teaches us two important truths which have to shape and mould our inmost desires and attitudes. For, first of all, on the cross we see the perfect justice of God. Jesus’ death on the cross gives us the proof that one day all of us who believe in Jesus will share in His victory over sin and death and evil. So when we find ourselves surrounded by enemies, when we are afraid what they might do to us, we can find security in the knowledge that – to quote Romans 8:39 – nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But secondly, and just as importantly, we have to recognise Jesus willingly went to the cross in order to take the punishment I deserved for all that is wrong in my heart. Because no matter how right my cause, or how undeserved seems the opposition, each one of us are frail human beings who fall short of the glory of God. Yes, David’s anger in this verse may have been justified but if he had been a better parent, if he hadn’t got mixed up with Bathsheba, then almost certainly his situation would have been very different. And so even as we ask God to act on our behalf, we need to recognise that we too deserve His righteous anger and are only saved by His undeserved, unmeasurable grace poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Lord.
That is why I believe that our daily life of prayer and Bible reading needs to be shaped constantly and consistently in the light of the cross. We must never make the mistake of thinking, “Yes, Jesus died for me” and then switch our focus away from Him. Day by day, hour by hour, we are called to come back to the cross as the place where our attitudes, our motives and our deepest desires are all tested in the light of God’s mercy. Because that’s what it means to walk in the light – to allow yourself to be tried and tested by the Holy Spirit so that nothing remains hidden before the Lord.
And notice one more thing about the psalm. Verse 8: From the Lord comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people. That surely is a remarkable verse. We have seen how David is isolated. He is in fear of His life. His enemies are increasing almost hourly. Yet he prays for God’s people to be blessed. From a human perspective that makes no sense. Yet here is the final proof that through the words of this prayer David had come to see the depths of God’s grace and forgiveness. And so his words point forward to the remarkable teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:43-45:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.
Now you might ask how is it possible to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you? The answer comes in this psalm – by being completely open and honest before God, by drawing strength from the God you know, by giving the Lord whatever hurt and anger you have in your heart. For by doing these things you will find yourself once again drawn back to the cross where you discover the immense power Jesus revealed in forgiving you, and you learn to live and love in that same power of the Holy Spirit. I’m not saying that this is easy. But I know that it is by rediscovering the power of forgiveness, individual relationships are changed, churches are revived, communities are won for the gospel. That’s what the Bible teaches us. That’s what church history shows us. Our calling is to be the people of God who know the forgiveness of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit offer and receive that same forgiveness to and from others.
So as we reflect on this psalm, I’m going to read it once again, and as I do so, allow the Lord to minister to you by His word. Let us pray…