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God Our Refuge: The Gift of Desperation
Psalms 3:1 - 3:8
July 31, 2022
Reverend Chris Hildebrand
Psalm 3 offers us the first prayer by King David. It is a prayer of desperation—the kind of prayer that we tend to avoid. But in putting this Psalm at the beginning of the Psalter, we learn that our cry of distress is an opportunity to acknowledge our need for God and to find him ready to defend, comfort, and save us.
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We are continuing our summer sermon series on the Psalms, entitled God our Refuge: Finding and Delighting in the God Who Saves Us. It is my hope that as we give ourselves to the Psalms we will learn more about who God is, about our world, and about who we are, as we turn to the Psalms. The hope is that if we take these Psalms into our daily lives and practice them, repeat them, pray them, and take them with us in the midst of our joy, sorrow, confusion, indifference, and our boredom, they will become the soundtrack of our lives. We will rely on them to help interpret all the circumstances that come our way—all the circumstances that we find and face in our world. It would be these words, these truths, the images that would fill our minds, our mouths, our hearts, and our imaginations.
A few sermons ago we looked at Psalms 1 and 2. We saw that both of these Psalms serve as an introduction to the rest of the book of the Psalms. They really don't address God directly. They're more of a user guide for prayer, a user guide for laying out what the world is, how God has made the world, and how we ought to be offering ourselves in prayer. It's a little bit of, here's what to expect as you work your way through the Psalms. Here's what to expect if you begin to pray like this. In this sermon, we get into it. I find it rather curious and very important for us that the tone of this psalm is one of desperation. It is a desperate Psalm. David is in a desperate spot. Even though the psalm is brief, I want you to listen as we read it, listen to the desperation in David's voice, the desperation of his prayer and see if you can relate to it in any way. Let's give our attention to Psalm 3.
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
1OLord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
2many are saying of my soul,
“There is no salvation for him in God.”
3But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
4I cried aloud to the Lord,
and he answered me from his holy hill.
5I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
6I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.
7Arise, O Lord!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
8Salvation belongs to the Lord;
your blessing be on your people!
This is the word of the Lord. It's absolutely true. And it's given to us in love.
Would you pray with me?
Our great God, as we give ourselves to this Psalm, read it, listen to it, and meditate upon it, we ask that you would help us to understand what it means to pray our desperation. Oh God, you know that oftentimes we run and flee from any idea that we might be desperate. We ignore the fragility in our own lives, but here David calls us to pray and to admit our desperation. I pray that you would help us to do that. We can only do that if we have confidence that you are the God you claim to be. You are the God who rises. You are the God who sustains. You are the God that protects. Stir our hearts so that we would see and know that this is exactly who you are, that we would have courage to follow after you. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.
I'm sure some of you have taken some long road trips, maybe even this summer. We still have a few weeks left of summer, so maybe some of you still have planned a long, epic road trip in the coming weeks. If you have small kids, and you're planning on taking a road trip, you know there's something that you have to plan for. It’s the cries of desperation. The pleas of desperation from the backseat. This is one of the great challenges of enduring a road trip with little kids. It's learning how to gauge their desperation.
When my kids were much younger, the question I would always have as we were driving on one of these really long road trips—and we took some long ones—was how bad is it? How hungry are you? How badly do you have to go to the bathroom? We just stopped six hours ago, can't you wait a little bit longer? How bad is that wound? How bad is the spill in the backseat? You're always gauging, so you're in this constant state of assessing desperation, because if you stop every time you have a request or every time there is one of those cries of desperation it seems like you will never get to where you're going. No matter how long or short the trip was, you'll never make it. I was always having to bargain. Can we wait? Can we go a little bit further? Can we wait one more exit, 10 more minutes, five more miles? Can we just wait? Can you just hold off a little bit longer? I wanted to avoid those cries of desperation so badly, so desperately, that for several summers we did our long road trips through the nights, which is its own act of desperation on behalf of parents. Anytime you find parents driving through the night, you know that they are in a desperate spot as well, but at least even if you were completely exhausted and completely wasted for the next two days upon arrival at your destination, you were able to avoid the desperate pleas for food, bathrooms, and boredom. The kids, at least, were supposed to be able to sleepthrough this road trip.
I tell you all that because Psalm 3 is all about praying our desperation. This is what David is doing in the Psalm, whichI find very interesting. It's an interesting way to start the first prayer of the Psalms. There's no warm up. David, or Israel later, could have arranged the Psalms to sort of ease us into prayer before we hit total desperation. Maybe they could have started off with a praise or perhaps something a little bit more toned down. Lord, thank you for this great day. Help me, David, to be a better King. Give me some wisdom. I've got a busy schedule in front of me. Help me navigate my day. I need your help. Or they could have started off, maybe, with something even more accessible for this situation that he's dealing with. Lord, things are not going well with my son, Absalom. Lord, move in his heart. That would have been a little bit gentler, a little bit easier to navigate. But no. We jump right into the deep end with this prayer of desperation by King David.
I find it a little unnerving to start like this. This is like the road trip equivalent of kids crying out of desperation before you get to the Holland Tunnel. You're not even out of the city and the pleas in the back are coming for stopping and coming for hunger. You're not even out of the city and the pleas come. Here, we're barely into the Psalms, and we're faced with David's desperate situation. I think this Psalm is put in the front, early on in the Psalter, intentionally to show us this one fact: God welcomes our desperation. He welcomes our desperate pleas, our cries for help. He wants all of it. Unlike me, who is willing to drive through the night like a crazy person to avoid my children's cries for help, the God of the universe wants to hear yours. He wants to hear your desperate cries. That's what I want you to see and understand in this sermon as we work our way through Psalm 3. What I want you to see is that Psalm 3 teaches us to pray our desperation, not to ignore it like I try and do with my kids, not to bury it away, or just to try and survive, but to acknowledge it, and then to own it, and then to see our desperation as a gift. Again, this is incredibly difficult to do, and it's completely unnatural when we are left to ourselves. We don't do this well. We don't see desperation as a gift. Desperation is something to be avoided, or endured, and ultimately to be overcome, but David finds as he prays his desperation that God welcomes his cries, he gives him rest, and he promises him a victory. That's what I want to look at in this sermon.
God Welcomes His Cries
The subtitle of this Psalm is “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” Here's the background. Absalom, David's son, tried to seize the throne from David through a military coup and put David on the run. David has armies after him. His world is coming undone, and he is very desperate. His enemies are growing. They want to drive him into the wilderness, and they want to kill him—and that's just v.1. In v.2, we see that David says, “many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’” You can read all about this account in 2 Samuel 15-18. It gives an account of this. David's opponents are not just trying to harm him physically, they're also challenging his identity, calling his identity and his calling as God's anointing into question. His opponents are saying, “Look, God has left David. God has nowhere to be with him. David has done all these terrible things, and God has left him, and, therefore, David has no right to be king. He has no right to the throne. He has no right to lead Israel in any way.” This is why David is in such a desperate situation. While we can't resonate exactly with David's situation, since we are not kings living in the ancient Near East who are about to be overthrown by our own son, there is this desperation that if we're honest with ourselves, we have all felt to one level or another. The tendency here might be, “OK, great. I'll remember this song when I'm in a real bind. When I'm really struggling, I'll remember this Psalm. Maybe it'd be nicer if we, on a Sunday morning, stick to the uplifting songs.”
What I want you to see is that David was in a desperate situation long before he ever had his son trying to kill him, long before his own nation was rising up to overthrow him, long before the speculation that God's presence had left him. David was in a desperate situation before he had sinned against God by sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed. David was in a desperate situation because he's human. This is what the Psalm is getting at. Our lives are so fragile and so weak, and we're not in nearly as much control as we'd like to think we are. Oftentimes, it's only the news that we receive about our failing health, or some global conflict that seems to hit home, or a tragedy that drives us to desperation. It's that news that unveils this deeper reality. It's uncovering the situation that we're all living with because we're human, which makes this Psalm a psalm that we ought to turn to all the time.
As we'll see through the Psalm, meeting our desperation and coming to grips with our fragile condition is not something to be avoided. It's something to be embraced. It is a gift that God gives to us. It’s a gift that we can actually give to one another, to our neighbors, and to this city. It's only as David prays v.1-2, and admits his situation, and cries out for help, that you get v.3-8, which displays a God who can handle our desperation, and that is the gift. That's the gift we receive. The beauty of this psalm is for David and for us to admit our desperation, and then, to come clean about our limitations, our fears, and our inadequacies before God. It actually opens us up to a God who welcomes us because of those very things.
First, David cries out for help. He acknowledges his desperation. The enemies are rising, like a tidal wave that is about to overwhelm him. That's what he says in v.1. His enemies are rising up against him. In v.4 David says, “I cried aloud to the Lord.” Some translations put it this way, “With my voice to you, Yaweh, I kept crying. And he did answer me.” This is important because when David says, “with my voice to you, Yahweh, I kept crying,” he's describing his deeply personal crying out to God. David is laying out before the Lord, in detail, what he is facing. This is a model for us in prayer. Praying our desperation means spelling out our prayers, our predicament, in our own words, coming personally to God and telling him the whole story as we understand it. We tell him the whole mess, all the sort of details, part of the mess that perhaps you made, the mess someone else has made, your fears and concerns, and the fears and concerns you have for others. You put it all out there. David holds nothing back: “with my voice, oh Lord, to you I cried out,” and God welcomes all of it. First, God welcomes our prayers of desperation, but then we see how God answers this prayer.
God Gives Him Rest
Look at v.3, “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.” Notice that David even though he's on the run, he is not really retreating. What is one of the first things we do when we face our desperation, no matter how it comes about? As our world closes in, we immediately move to some sort of self-protection. Then we go into fix it mode: “How am I going to fix it? How am I going to recover from this? How can I manage it? I can't appear desperate. There must be another way. I’ve got to get through this somehow.”
David is not looking for a way to manage his crisis. When he says, “but you, O Lord, are a shield about me,” he's using battle imagery. Notice, he says “you are a shield about me.” Many commentators suggest David is referring to a special kind of shield that would offer protection not only in the front, like a smaller shield, but one of a larger shield that offered protection from above from arrows, and from the sides for enemies that he might not see.The shield was used for moving into battle, not for retreat. For David, the reality of his desperate condition is not a reason to retreat and go into self-preservation mode. Rather, it is an invitation to see that God is leading him, and that God is protecting him—and he's not just protecting him physically.
What David finds is that God is also restoring his identity. Remember, many are saying that he has lost his identity as a king, that God's presence had left him. Here in v.3, he says, “You are my glory, you are the lifter of my head.” David's desperation has led him back to a God who defines who he is. David can say, “Lord, if I lose everything else, I still have you, you are my glory. My glory is not in my kingship. My glory is not in the armies. My glory is not in being the leader of Israel. You are the glory of my head. You are my glory.” Therefore, David raises his head with hope not because of what others might say of him, but because of who God has called him to be. It is so easy to lose our identity when we find ourselves in some sort of predicament, some sort of desperation that is completely overwhelming us. This is oftentimes how people discover that something is going on, that we're actually in a desperate place. People will say, “you don't seem like yourself. What's going on? Something's not right with you. What is happening? What happened to the person I knew?” It's so easy to become disoriented with even our own selves when we face desperation, but this psalm can be a guide for us. David, in his desperation, instead of losing his identity, losing the assurance that God was for him and that God was with him, he is finding it again, not in his ability to navigate his desperation and to get out of it, but he is finding it in a God who actually welcomes his desperation.
Look, again, at v.4. when David says,” I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill.” Once again, we have David, and we have God hearing the desperate cries of David. Remember, David, even though he's on the run, is still a strong and mighty king, and if anyone should have it together, if anyone should be able to offer sensible, logical prayers with proper language fit for King to God, it's David. But not here. David just cries aloud, and the Lord answers him. David's desperation has opened him up to see God's provision in a new way. This is the gift of desperation because listen to what he's thankful for in v.5, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.”
At this point in the Psalm, you might be asking, “really, that's what you're thankful for, that you slept? The world's after you, these armies are coming after you, and you're just thankful for a good night's sleep? How can we thank God for that?” Those of you who do find yourselves in despair and desperation know that sleep is most definitely an answered prayer. If you read through the Psalms, you will find a surprising amount of references to thanks and praise for being able to lie down, being able to sleep, and the continual thanks and praise for sleep. It's all over the Psalms. Partly, because David was exhausted most of the time, so he was always so grateful when he got to sleep, and he thanked God for it.
David's desperate state has also opened him up to seeing God in ways that he hadn't seen before. David knew God's provision for battle. David had watched his God deliver him from Goliath and the Philistines. David had watched his God give him victory over nation after nation in mighty ways, all the big stuff, all the big heroic Bible stories that you might be familiar with, but now as David faces his mortality, as he faces his own failures, he can thank God for something as basic as rest, as basic as sleep, and not just thank God for that rest, but actually see it as a provision. David made it through another day and another night, and he knows that it's only by God's grace that he's been given this.
But David is also looking back. You can see that this night David is referring to, this night of sleep in Psalm 3 that he got, was the same night that Ahithophel, Absalom’s counselor, had wanted to send 12,000 men after David. This was the night Ahithophel knew that David was weary who would be tired, “let's go and get him now. Tonight is the night to strike.” However, one of David's men who made it back to Absalom, Hushai, had actually convinced Absalom to wait longer, to gather a bigger army, and then go after David, not to attack David that night, which of course gave David more time. It gave David this night of rest. It's an amazing story. It's an amazing turn of events, but this is the answered prayer David is talking about in the Psalm. In the story, David, when he was on the run, took action. He's sending Hushai back to Absalom, and then he prays. He prays his prayer of desperation, but in his desperation, he can see how God was orchestrating all these events to rescue him.
God Promises Him A Victory
When we pray the Psalms and when we pray our desperation, we begin to have eyes for the ways that God orchestrates people, events, and circumstances in order to rescue us. Psalm 3 is intended for you and for me to consider how God protects us, in the big and mighty ways that are obvious for you and for other people in your life to see, but also for the small ways, like a night's rest when you're in the midst of chaos. It is for us to see how he has sustained us. It also invites us to ask ourselves, “OK, what might I be missing? What am I not seeing that God is actually doing for me?” In our desperation, in our exhaustion, when we are weary in our fears, we can easily miss all the ways that God protects us, all the ways he sustains us, all the ways that he rescues us. David is teaching us to open our eyes to see God's provision.
Lastly, David receives this promise, and he gets a courageous heart. David's desperation and his prayer lead into true courage. In v.6, we read this, “I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.” Again, as far as we know, nothing really in David's circumstances changed from v.1-6. David made it through the night. He survived that night, but these armies are still after him. David still has thousands wanting to kill him, but his desperation has stripped him of all trust in his own strength, all trust in his own armies. David isn't taking comfort in any power of his own, which is why David doesn't summon armies or forces he still has at his disposal. What does he do? He summons God. Look at v.7 and v.8, “Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked. Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people!”
We have this pattern in the Psalm. In the beginning, in v.1-2, David's enemies are rising. Then, in v.5 , in the middle of the Psalm, David can lay down and rest, which is unthinkable given his circumstances, but he can do that knowing that God rises, that he will rise higher than even any of the enemies will rise. David's courage in the face of many thousands trying to kill him only comes with the courage to summon the God of the universe to bring justice against his enemies. It's so telling that David isn't devising a plan here for a counter attack, but summoning God to protect him.
At last, then, his desperation has led him not to fear, not to retreat, but to face his enemies with great courage because he knows that God is with him. This is how the reality of our desperation can lead us not to retreat, not to fear, but to true courage because in the midst of our desperation, we acknowledge our weakness, and our helplessness, and then we ask God to rescue us. Then, we get to watch. We get to watch as God rescues us. This is the great gift of acknowledging our desperation. That is the prayer of a desperate people. It is also a prayer of a courageous people because desperation when rightly acknowledged, and then directed at the God who saves, leads to courage, and it leads to hope. What hope this must have given to Israel, over the life of Israel, as they would sing and pray this Psalm, knowing that their king knew what it was like to face desperation. David was such a great example for ancient Israel, and for us, as we face the reality of our desperation.
We can only follow David's example if we remember that he was the anointed king. He was the one who was foreshadowing the true King to come, and the fulfillment of all God's promises. Those promises weren't going to be for Absalom who was trying to take the throne. They weren't even going to be fulfilled in Solomon who is far greater and far more powerful than David ever was. The Anointed One who had finally come was Great David's even greater son, Jesus. Like David, Jesus knows what it is to be desperate, but unlike David, Jesus’ desperation didn't come from his own doing. It didn't come from the mess that he had made like David's did. Jesus’ desperation came from his love for the world. That's why he shares in our desperation. Jesus willingly became desperate by taking on flesh, so that we might now know the heart of God. He has come to rescue the world, so that we might know that we now have a high priest who is able to sympathize with us in everything, in every circumstance, in our desperation, even in our most desperate moments, but also in Jesus we have a king who rises.
In his resurrection, we now have one who not only sympathizes and hears, but actually overcomes, who breaks the teeth of the wicked, who renders the most powerful forces that stand against us harmless by his death and by his resurrection. He is the one who finally strikes all the enemies on the cheek, those enemies that lead us into desperation, and he renders them harmless. Jesus, the greater David, is our shield, our glory. He is the lifter of our heads. He's a man of sorrows and like us, he shares in our struggles, but he also offers us his victory, too.
Now, he invites us to this table, where we acknowledge our desperation, but we also are offered this rest in the midst of the chaotic world. Later, in Psalm 23, David will even say, “Oh Lord, you offer, you set a table in the presence of my enemies.” Here is a table of rest for those who are desperate, but also a table that provides for us the courage we need to pray our prayers of desperation, but also the courage to rest and rely upon the one who rescues us, and, then, to move out into the world with great hope and great assurance that with the Lord there is salvation. This is the courage that is offered here at this table. This is the table of our Lord Jesus, so come with your desperation, come with your sorrow, come with your state of being overwhelmed and find rest and true hope here at this table.
Our gracious God and Heavenly Father, we thank you for the Psalms and for the way they give us a voice even when we can't describe our situation and our circumstances fully. I pray that you would make us the people who learn how to pray our desperation, who see our desperation not as something to be avoided, but something that is a gift, because when we offer our desperation to you, we actually get to see you rescue us, save us, and restore us. Would you make that happen, even today, by the power of your Spirit? May we then offer that hope to one another, to our friends, to our neighbors, and to the city? We pray this all In Jesus’ mighty name. Amen.