I mentioned a while back that I had heard an excellent talk on Psalm 59 by Christopher Ash and I hope to give you some highlights today.
Psalm 59 is a prayer to the God of safety. Our God is a God of safety – just typing it that is a delight. But what really makes Psalm 59 wrap its arms round me in a big bear hug is that it isn’t a prayer to the God of safety from a lovely coffee shop or while chilling on a beach – no it is a prayer to the God of safety written by David as he sits basically besieged in his house. Saul’s men are waiting, their instructions to watch and kill.
As with many Psalms there is a repeated faith theme – in this case it bookends the Psalm as well as appearing in the middle – God is David’s fortress.
But more unusually there is also a refrain of fear and threat – you’ll see it repeated word for word in v6, and v14. “They return at evening; snarling like dogs, and prowl about the city.”
And I came away feeling cheered?!
Yes! Because my expectations of what a healthy spiritual life looks like had been shaped by God’s word. When we read the Psalms we see relationship with God in action in a broken world. We see the faith of those who worship the same God that we worship and trust AND we see them operating in the same broken world that hates him and his people.
In other words we see reality. Let’s face it – the dogs do return. We haven’t reached the happily ever after yet. We know it is coming. David knew he would be King – God had clearly promised it. We know that Jesus will return as King – God has clearly promised it. But God has made equally clear that until that time we live with an ever lurking threat of evil – a threat that we should shiver at.
Jumping on in the Psalms to Psalm 106, the following verses really leapt out at me. The writer has been looking back on the marvellous deeds God has done for Israel – in particular the rescue from Egypt and the drowning of their enemies in the Red Sea. He writes:
“The waters covered their adversaries; not one of them survived. Then they believed his promises and sang his praise. But they soon forgot what he had done AND DID NOT WAIT FOR HIS PLAN TO UNFOLD. In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wilderness they put God to the test.
Psalm 106:11-14, capitals added.
God’s plan is still unfolding and for now the dogs return again and again. We are surrounded within and without by the world, the flesh and the devil. We have a mortal enemy who is out to destroy us.
The language of Psalm 59 is expansive. Arise (v4) is the language of the Ark of the Covenant going out to battle, the scope of the battle is ALL the nations, and the echoes of Psalm 2 extend things well beyond Saul’s jealousy of David.
We are not the anointed King as David was, but we do serve great David’s greater son. We don’t pray these words as the King, but we can pray them with the King – we can pray for the visible victory of God’s anointed King as we serve him in a world that continues to arrogantly think “Who can hear us?” (v7).
Our enemy, like David’s, is not quick to give up. Saul would not be satisfied until he had David’ life, and our enemy is certainly no less determined. Hence the repetition in v14. Our enemy lurks. Remember him leaving Jesus for an opportune time…
Again you may be asking: “This is helpful and encouraging how?” Because it teaches us to expect a struggle between fear and faith. The Psalm reflects the Christian life. The psalmist rests on the promises of God then shivers at the prowling, snarling dogs, and then re-expresses his faith in God. So far so normal – but read on. In a way that is possibly unique to this Psalm, David allows us to linger with him as he experiences the return of the snarling dogs the next night, and as he yet again grips hold of (possibly with trembling, white knuckles) the God in whom he trusts.
What a privilege to be able to accompany him through that.
Over the past week, my depression dogs have reconvened to snarl and scratch at my door. The dogs have returned! What an encouragement to know that finding them there again fits with the pattern of normal Christian experience*. It does not call into question the victory of God’s anointed one, or my faith in him. It is OK to shiver at the threats, to cling to what we know of God and to keep putting one foot in front of another as the Lord enables us. In fact it is more than OK – it glorifies Jesus.
* I use depression as an example of something that returns to me – but I don’t mean to limit application to it. There is clearly a bigger picture going on. I also do not mean to imply that I shouldn’t seek treatment and help!
And so, by his grace, I can say:
“But I will sing of your strength, in the morning I will sing of your love; for you are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble. You are my strength, I sing praise to you; you, God are my fortress, my God on whom I rely.” (Psalm 59:16, 17).
And I can say this not because the dogs will not return tomorrow, but because no matter how many times they return they will never succeed, they will never be satisfied. And one Day, when God’s plan has fully unfolded – they be truly and completely outside – not outside my door – but simply outside – Rev 22:15.
With thanks to Christopher Ash who opened up God’s word so clearly and winsomely for us back in May.