[adapted from a sermon for St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Sunday, June 19, 2016]
I had a great opening illustration for this sermon all set last week, about a missionary who died of starvation after a shipwreck in 1851. I had some stellar exegesis on Psalm 31 all prepared, . . . Then death came to our town – on June 10th a sweet young sister in Christ, Christina Grimmie, was gunned down at the Plaza Theater a few miles from here. Then 48 hours later more death came to many more people last Sunday morning at Pulse . . . and everything changed . . . Then still later a young boy is killed by an alligator at a Disney resort.
But as I meditated on Psalm 31, reading it each day, I thought “The Scriptures are true – the grass does wither, flowers do fade, people die and awful things happen; but the Word of our God stands forever . . . it remains unchanged, true, and a balm for us in times of pain, confusion, loss, and desperation. Psalm 31 still speaks to our cultural moment.
Before we dig in a bit it’s worth noting that in Psalm 31 David gives words to the emotions we all have felt at one time or another. He articulates the stresses we feel. In fact, so genuine is David’s expression, that numerous other biblical writers found these words appropriate for them in their own time. First, Jeremiah borrowed a phrase from v. 13 “terror on every side” six times in his writing (along with other allusions to this psalm) to describe his own experience. Second, Jonah, in his prayer of repentance from the belly of the great fish quoted words from v. 6 (“those who pay regard to worthless idols”). Third, the writer of Psalm 71 (perhaps David himself?) uses most of the first three verses nearly verbatim to open that psalm. Finally of course, the words of v. 5 are some of the final words Jesus uttered from the cross: “In to your hands I commit my spirit.”
So let’s look together at what this psalm may say also to us in our day and in our situation.
A Prayer for Help: vv. 1-5
The opening prayer in vv. 1-5 revolves around God being the “Rock of refuge.” David often calls God a rock or a refuge, but here, David combines the two. This word refuge is the word from which the name Masada is derived. If you are familiar with the geography of the near east, Masada is a strong, secure, high, safe place of hiding.
Some might say there seems to be an illogical leap from v. 2 to vv. 3-4. In v. 2 David asks God, “Be a rock of refuge for me.” Then in v. 3-4 he says, “For you are my rock and refuge.” How can God be his refuge when he has just asked God to be this for him? This teaches us to ask God to show Himself to us as He is, so that we may experience in reality what we grasp by faith. We know by faith that God is many things because the Scriptures tell us so. But proving these things true through our personal experience can a very different thing.
Do you believe God is all powerful, omnipotent? Of course you do! Then the psalmist’s example says we should pray that God will prove His strength to us in our weakness. Do you believe God is wise, omniscient? Then ask Him to display His wisdom by ordering your life and giving you needed insight.
Such should be the prayer of believers: “God you are . . . : so now be . . . in my life!” And ohhh, don’t we need God to be such a safe refuge for us in our times? This week has shown us beyond doubt that we might not be safe anywhere.
And more difficult, what about those who have died? Was God a refuge for Christina Grimmie? Listen carefully: . . . for those who trust Him, God is a refuge even in death.
Through the ages, since our Lord used the words in v. 5 “into your hands I commit my spirit,” many believers have used these words to ask God to receive their souls in death, to bear them safely into His glorious presence. It is said these were the final words or St. Bernard, Jan Hus, Martin Luther, Melanchthon, and many others. Luther said, “Blessed are they who die not only for the Lord as martyrs; not only in the Lord as all believers, but likewise with the Lord, breathing forth their lives with these words” from Ps. 31.
So there is a prayer for help, followed by a confession of trust in vv. 6-8.
A Confession of Trust (vv. 6-8)
In the Old Testament and in life there is a deep connection between the concepts of refuge and trust. One in whom we take refuge must also be one in whom we can place our trust.
In Scripture we see many examples of false objects of security: fortified cities and walls, strongholds and fortresses, horses and chariots, wealth and power. None of these is sufficient to give ultimate security, much less to save. Of course the things we trust in today are more refined than horses or fortresses. We trust in our cars and savings accounts, our IRAs and securities. But these also can supply only passing peace.
When we cannot trust things, we turn to trust people. But of course Scripture shows abundantly that our trust cannot be in man either. As soon as we trust in someone, that person shows their “clay feet” – imperfections and shortcomings that cause our trust to disappear in disillusionment. Finally, perhaps, we trust ourselves. But Prov. 28:16 reminds us, “he who trusts in himself is a fool.”
In times of need, the only security, the only refuge is the Lord God. Yet how human of us to fall on Him most fully, most completely, only when all other things fail – how much better to say when things are good, “In you, O Lord, do I trust”? But when things are good, we easily drift back into depending upon self.
Why can we trust in the Lord? Because in v. 7 His חסד [hesed], His covenant faithfulness, lovingkindness, mercy, unfailing love. Because God is one defined by His חסד, He sees our afflictions, He knows the anguish of our souls. He has not handed us over, but instead has set our feet on a solid place. This is the reason we can trust in the Lord, Yahweh. He is not a refuge that will collapse or crumble, that will betray or leave us hanging with unfulfilled longs. He is trustworthy.
But what does it mean to trust? The church has often said there are three levels of biblical faith: knowledge, belief, and trust (Notitia, Assensus, Fiducia). Since we do not have a blind faith, we begin with information, data (notitia). Our faith is based on things seen, heard, and experienced. But information does not save. We have to believe that the information is true (assensus – we must assent to its truth). But this also does not save – James reminds us even the demons believe the truth! Finally, the biblical saving level of faith requires trust, surrender. Like knowing about aerodynamics of flying, believing that the plane can get you to Pittsburgh, but then actually surrendering by entering the plane. Fiducia means staking your life on something.
Do you trust God? I fear many in our land know about Him, even believe that what they know is true. But do you trust Him? Have you surrendered all you are to Him? He is the only rock of Refuge.
A Lament of Distress (vv. 9-13)
David’s language in these verses is deeply emotional, describing his precarious situation. David begins with his personal stress and works on to its cause. We see the causes in v. 13: he is surrounded; in vv. 11-12 he is receiving scorn of those who oppose him, and finally, in vv. 9-10 we read of his personal grief and its physical effects: his bones are weak, his eyes fail, the affliction weighs heavy on him, body and soul. Then it gets worse because there is rejection from people, a sense of worthlessness like a broken vessel, with people scheming and plotting, accusing and rejecting.
We have been experiencing a time of corporate, community grief these days in Orlando. But sadly, and I say this with utmost humility, perhaps like me you have seen a growing animus – I have been seeing it all over the media – toward historic Christian belief in the wake of Pulse. Some people have been quick to point fingers. “It’s all your fault, you Christian people, you intolerant people.” And I fear that this will only increase with time. We have seen a massive, tectonic cultural shift in the past few years with respect to sexual expression and the acceptance (even legislation) of new “norms.” To be a follower of Jesus today, to hold to and humbly support and proclaim that which has been handed down to us and that which is so clearly spoken in Scripture – is to be regarded with disdain and anger by those who believe differently.
I have been glad to see the church in our city respond with compassion and mutual mourning with those who believe radically different things about life and truth. But friends, if you believe to be true what the Scriptures say, you will find yourself open to the kind of rejection and vilification that David experienced and speaks of here. You may become a reproach to your neighbors and an object of dread to your acquaintances and even to family. But this is not something new, beloved. The early church was castigated as cannibals, the Romans believed, since Jesus’ followers rescued abandoned children, that they were using these in their so called “blood feasts” – how drastically acts of love and mercy can be misconstrued by those who are lost. It may not be much different for you and me today if we hold to the biblical models of life, love, and family.
In fact, The New York Times printed an editorial opinion piece this week saying that Christians want homosexuals executed! Really! See here:
Luther said, “Peace if possible, truth at all cost.” Paul (in Rom 12:16-18) said, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Note, it will not always be possible, but we do all we can to live humbly and to live in harmony. But truth is a costly thing – and may bring you to be shamed by others, to become even a reproach and an object of dread to people you hold dear. This is not your fault. This is the distorting deception of sin in our broken world.
To disagree with someone because you love the truth is not to hate the person with whom you disagree – no matter how many time they may allege that this is so. And truth is not a cultural construct (as much as our culture may say so). I have often said that even if 99% of Frenchmen said 2+2=4.5 “because we like it that way” such an assertion does not change the truth. God is true – He does not lie, or change His mind like humans; in Him there is no shifting shadow of uncertainty. As you humbly and faithfully hold to the biblical teaching on creation order, man and woman, you will increasingly be an object of scorn in our land. But this is why the object of our trust is so crucial. Look at the next stanza.
A Second Expression of Trust (vv. 14-18)
This psalm, like others, like our lives in fact, rises to crests of satisfaction and joy, and falls into troughs of weakness, despair. Verses 9-13 are just such a trough. And the verses that follow in 14-18 come back toward a crest. May it not be said of us what was said of Israel in Isaiah 30:15
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
“In repentance and rest is your salvation;
in quietness and in trust is your strength.”
But you would have none of it”
Rather may we be like those referred to in Isaiah 50:10
“Who among you fears the Lord,
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness and has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord, and rely on his God.”
As we live in strange, sad, challenging, confusing, and even dark times, let us say with David in Psalm 31:14-15 that “we trust in you O Lord; You are our God, our times are in Your hands.” He is the only worthy object of trust. And what many of us experience today – whether financial hardship, faltering self-confidence in your abilities, personal and relational struggles, anxiety about the future, distressing loss as so many have experienced recently – these experiences are coming from the hand of a loving Father who is causing you to lose faith in yourself, in your stuff, and perhaps even in your friends – in order that you might lean wholly and solely on Him.
This week I heard a worship song “Edges” by the group This Hope. The title comes from Job 26 where Job says in verse 14 “Indeed these are but the mere edges [or outskirts] of His ways, and how small a whisper we hear of Him! But the thunder of His power who can understand?” Even when we acknowledge the sovereignty of God over heaven and earth, life and death, we often question the equity or fairness of His actions. Job questioned God’s actions, but says, “Who are we to question when all we see are the fringe or outskirts of His ways?” Corrie ten Boom described this equally well saying that God is weaving a beautiful tapestry; but we, in these shadow lands, can only see the lower side – and there are knots, hanging threads, things that seem a mess and disconnected. But when we get to the other side . . . oh my, then we will see the design in all its glorious beauty.
This is not to say – don’t miss hear me on this – this is not to say that what has happened this past week is not plainly wickedness and evil. Nor are we saying anyone “deserved” what happened. Indeed, friends, we all know that in our sinful state we all – each and every one of us sinful people – deserve far worse. But we are saying God is not surprised. God is sovereign, but humans are responsible . . . and we see only in part Paul says; and Job goes further and says, no, we only see the mere outskirts, fringes of His infinite and majestic purposes.
Is this hard teaching? Certainly. But far more frightening is the prospect that God is not sovereign and we are left to fend for ourselves in this chaos.
A Prayer of Praise (vv. 19-20)
Here is another crest in the psalm. We began with a prayer for help, followed by an expression of trust, a deep lament, and another expression of trust. Then David moves on to praise God – and for what? For God’s great goodness and for His sheltering presence. And note that the goodness is shown in the sight of men. In the sight of antagonists and enemies. But even if His goodness is reserved just for you to see, still it is great goodness! And His sheltering grace keeps us no matter what the outward circumstances may be. May we, in the face of such unspeakable evil and tragedy as we have seen this week, weep and mourn with those who weep . . . but not as those who have no hope.
A Concluding Application (vv. 21-24)
Listen to the imperative verbs in this brief application section: Love the Lord. Be strong. Take heart. How can we be strong and take heart? Because the Lord preserves. And who can do this? Only those who hope in the Lord.
Love the Lord, be strong, take heart, you who put your trust in the Lord. Bow to Him, or receive from Him the fill payment of what we deserve. May we be of those who take refuge in One in whom we can trust. His refuge is unshakable, He alone is worthy of our trust and our worship.
Last week Kyle Stewart asked people at St. Paul’s to recognize that we are on a journey – hard and long. Search your soul, he challenged us – are you ready for the trial when they come? Think about the Grimmie family, the Graves family and the families of 49 others killed and 50-some scarred for life. About 85 years ago Frank Hougton wrote a hymn “Facing a Task Unfinished” – “We go to all the world with kingdom hope unfurled; no other name has power to save than Jesus Christ the Lord” – He alone is the rock of refuge upon which we must place our trust in life and in death.
This truth came home to us in new ways this past week as lost souls pass into night in great numbers in our midst. We can go, though danger is undiminished, with courage knowing we are held in a refuge that does not fail. Young Christina Grimmie was killed two days prior to the awful events at Pulse – one news story conjecturing that she was killed by a deranged man who attacked her precisely because she was a vocal follower of the Lord Jesus. Two days prior to her death, she posted a picture on her facebook page that said, “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” Hope drives out fear. But not just any hope; not the type of hope that says “I hope my favorite team wins.” But the type of hope that anchors the soul; biblical hope, like an anchor, firmly grounded in the promises of God. Only biblical hope can drive out fear
Finally, I was reminded by my colleague, Sarah Madsen, this week of a line from Tolkien that fits us as we close. After the death of Gandalf, when the company is in despair, they heard this encouragement: “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” I pray as we move forward in our city, in our church, and in our families, we can say with David, “I trust in you Yahweh; my times – however long or short by our reckoning they may be – our times are in your hands.” May God give us grace so to live, knowing that He who holds time also holds those who trust in Him.
O Lord, Whose power is infinite and wisdom infallible, order things that they may neither hinder, nor discourage us, nor prove obstacles to the progress of your cause in our day. Stand between us and all strife, that no evil befall, and no sin corrupts. Let us dwell in your most secret place under your shadow, where we are protected from arrows that fly by day, from pestilence that walks in darkness, from the strife of tongues, the malice of ill-will, the hurt of unkind talk, the snares of company, the perils of youth, the temptations of middle life, the mourning of old age, and from the fear of death. We are entirely dependent upon You for support, counsel, and consolation. Uphold us by your free Spirit, and may we not think it enough to be preserved from falling, but may we always go forward, always abounding in the work You give us to do. Strengthen us by your Spirit in our inner selves for every purpose of our Christian life. All our jewels we give to the shadow of the safety that is in you—our bodies, souls, talents, characters, successes, our spouse, children, friends, work, our present, our future, our end. Take them, they are Yours, and we are Yours, now and forever. Amen.