Today, we often say “praise the Lord” when He does amazing work in our lives. When He gives us favour at work. When we are blessed with the gift of children. When we are provided for materially.
Yet, how often do we still praise Him when we are in the midst of difficult circumstances? When there is a re-structuring in my firm and that I am re-directed to a team that I have no expertise in? When my supervisor is potentially demonised? When my financial obligations outweigh my income? When there is severe illness in the family?
We often look to Job as the forebear, as it were, of the generations of Christians who have suffered and yet looked to the Redeemer: Job 19:25.
Whom we do not often associate with such praise in the midst of suffering is a man like David. Whilst in the 1st few chapters of the book of Job we learn some facts about the faithfulness of the eponymous hero, the reader is not familiar with him as we are with David, whose generational, familial, military background are laid out in the course of various books in the Old Testament. Clearly, Job teaches us a lesson on God’s sovereignty in the midst of unjust suffering. It is a parable for us that even in the most extreme forms of suffering, God’s answer is in the sacrificial lamb: Job 42.
David, on the other hand, teaches us our interaction with the politics of the world as a man who grew from a mere shepherd boy to become a king setting a new precedent (since he likely drew limited inspiration from Saul’s leadership when he took over the reins to lead Israel) of what it means to shepherd a uniquely, unparalleled, theocratic kingdom.
It is within such context that we approach this psalm, which David wrote when he was still but a soldier, fleeing and hiding in a cave from Saul’s wrath: 1 Samuel 21, 24.
David starts not with self-justification, but with humility: “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge.” Indeed, our source of refuge is in God, because our security lies not in our education, not in our accumulated life experiences, not in our accolades. Those are measures of how the world values us. God, however, values us simply as His beloved children. David thus yearsn, “I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.” Yes – let your will be done, not mine; let your purpose be done, not mine. Yet this purpose is one that is for me; it is one in which I have the privilege in partaking.
Shortly before the pensive Selah, we are told that God will send from heaven to save David; he will put to shame him who tramples on David. It is then clarified that God will send out “his steadfast love and his faithfulness“. How exactly is this played out? We see this in 1 Samuel 24:
12 May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. 13 As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes wickedness.’ But my hand shall not be against you. 14 After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! 15 May the Lord therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand.”
16 As soon as David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. 17 He said to David, “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. 18 And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. 19 For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. 20 And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.
This is a turning point for David. He could have very well set a wicked example of murdering the Lord’s anointed. He could have uprooted the person whom the Lord, and Samuel, had appointed as the 1st king of Israel. Instead, David exercised mercy; he repaid wickedness with love. Why? This could only be due to the revelation that David received in the cave, in hiding, in the storm. Instead of justifying himself, instead of finding his comfort in his friends, in his band of brothers, he found comfort in knowing that the Lord sent help in the form of steadfast love and faithfulness. David therefore approached Saul in the confidence that the Lord is the just judge who would deliver David from Saul’s hand.
The story of David’s mercy is told in generations to come. David’s rise to kingship was not due to Saul’s own demise. That was happening concurrently. The Lord has already been preparing David’s heart to take the role of the anointed king, and this is one of the crucial moments beautifully juxtaposing the persecuted shepherd who exemplifies the meaning of mercy, against the wrathful king who exemplifies the meaning of self-justified vengeance and Pharisaic achievement.
That this happens in a cave is almost, itself, a commentary that this is the spiritual battle which we face in the dark of our hearts. Do we walk the path of Saul in pursuing every end and strategy to achieve political and economic might? Or do we allow God to balance the scales of justice because we trust that He will deliver us from “the midst of lions, fiery beasts, children of man whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords“, as David goes on to describe in this chapter? David’s goal was not even to exalt himself; he merely set his eyes on Him who provides our refuge; yet, in doing so, we learn from 1 Samuel 24 that he exudes the qualities of a king that Saul does not have.
Much like the story of Joseph and his brothers, Haman and Mordecai, so also the enemies’ plan to dig a pit in David’s way would only end with the pit being the enemies’ ultimate destination. Satan’s attempts to lure us into death is itself converted into an opportunity for the Lord to save us through death into re-born life. That is the Selah that David invites us to ponder. That is the extent of God’s faithful love, that He can transform even the darkest circumstances into the source of our everlasting joy.
As Spurgeon comments on the whole chapter:
Mystically this hymn may be construed of Christ, who was in the days of his flesh assaulted by the tyranny both of spiritual and temporal enemies. His temporal enemies, Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and people of Israel, furiously raged and took counsel together against him. The chief priests and princes were, saith Hierome, like lions, and the people like the whelps of lions, all of them in a readiness to devour his soul. The rulers laid a net for his feetin their captious interrogatories, asking (Mt 22:17), “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?” and (Joh 8:5) whether the woman taken in the very act of adultery should be stoned to death or no. The people were “set on fire, “when as they raged against him, and their teeth and tongues were spears and swords in crying, “Crucify him, crucify him.” His spiritual enemies also sought to swallow him up; his soul was among lions all the days of his life, at the hour of his death especially. The devil in tempting and troubling him, had laid a snare for his feet;and death, in digging a pit for him, had thought to devour him. As David was in death, so Christ the Son of David was in the grave. John Boys, 1571-1625.
The Lord’s faithfulness and love in the first half of the chapter are then the cause of David’s gleeful response in the latter half. “I will sing“, “I will awake the dawn“, “I will give thanks to you“, “I will sing praise to you” – why? “For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.”
David’s preparation for the throne does not require academic excellence, military might, or political savvy. His preparation was simple. He turned to God’s steadfast love. He knew that such love had the power to transform his circumstances. It was not a distant, impersonal love which would only lift one’s emotions; it was a real, tangible, force personified and exemplified in the work of Christ on the cross. It is that grace and mercy which drove David to take the high road, and which grew him into a person that he never imagined he would become. This was his spiritual marker, his milestone, and arguably one of his most important moments in consolidating his kingship. Oftentimes we face similar dark circumstances, and write them off in hopes that the Lord would give us favour in better times; yet it is in these dark circumstances that we need to find refuge in Him to consolidate His purpose in our lives.