(This is the first in a series of four transcripts of homilies on Psalm 57)
“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.” ~Ps. 57:1
She had buried her husband only a few, short weeks earlier. Now she was standing on hot Palestinian sands next to the wife of a young bedouin shepherd. She watched as the shepherd marched his flock up a rugged hill and plunged them, one by one, into a pit which he had hewn and filled with antiseptic.
The sheep kicked and mewed and bleated as the cleansing liquid burned their cuts and scrapes. It seemed almost cruel but it was necessary. If this were not done they would likely become infected and die from their wounds. She watched as one clamored to get out of the pit, only to have the strong hands of the shepherd lay hold upon it and force it back down into the burning bath.
She turned to the shepherd’s wife and said, “Do they not know that it’s for their own good.” “They don’t have a clue” she said sorrowfully. “They fight against him because it seems painful at the moment. They have no idea that he is saving their lives.”
The woman said, “They remind me of me. I too have fought the Shepherd when he has put me in painful places, not realizing that He was only doing it for my good.”
That woman’s name was Elisabeth Elliot. She had just buried a husband whom she had lost to cancer. And this wasn’t the first time she had buried a husband. She lost her first husband Jim on January 8, 1956. He was martyred for the faith in the jungles of South America as he sought to bring the gospel to the Auca indians for the first time. She said that upon hearing the news a great shadow swept over her soul and she was nigh unto despair. But in those moments of despondency and anguish she found that shadow to be the shadow of the Almighty where she would ultimately find true peace and rest for her soul.
Such shadows aren’t a rare thing in the fallen world in which we live. The sunshine of comfort is often eclipse by the shadow of calamity. Some of you are acquainted with those shadows all too well. Psalm 57 gives us a look into the life of David, a look into the shadows that had engulfed him, and shows us how to trust God’s ways in the darkest of days.
Although we can’t be sure exactly when this Psalm was written, David does give us a few clear markers and subtle hints that point us in the right direction.
You will notice the inscription which the Holy Spirit has included at the beginning of this Psalm. “To the Choirmaster, according to DO NOT DESTROY. A Miktam of David, when he fled from Saul, in the Cave.”
David wrote this song when he was fleeing from Saul and his men. The only two possible references that this could be alluding to are found in 1 Samuel 22 and 24. I believe that this Psalm was written during the period mentioned in 1 Samuel 24 when he was hiding in the cave at En-gedi.
But this was not the way it was supposed to be, was it? David had been appointed by God and anointed by the prophet as King of Israel. Now he is running scared, fleeing for his life. He wasn’t supposed to be running, he was supposed to be reigning! God had promised him a crown but instead he finds himself in a cave.
He’s a fugitive with a price on his head. The King and 6,000 of his fiercest warriors have set out to track him down and kill him. This was not the life that he had expected. But God never gives us what we expect; He gives us what we need. And at this juncture in David’s life, he needed the cave more than he needed the crown. He needed the shadows of adversity in order to learn to rest under the shadow of the Almighty. And so it is with us…
Psalm 57 is simple in its structure but profound in its implications. It can be divided neatly into two halves: Verses 1-6 provide for us David’s Prayer, verses 7-11 provide for us David’s praise.
In verses 1-6, he is deep in the darkness at the back of the cave, in verses 7-11 he comes to the mouth of the cave and stands in the sunlight.
Consider for a moment,
I. David’s Prayer
Over his head hangs the dark cloud of calamity. His friends are few and his foes are innumerable. His name has become a byword among the people. His reputation has been sullied by accusation and disapprobation. The light of hope is nothing but a flickering flame in the wind, nigh unto being totally extinguished. He languishes deep in the darkness of a damp and lonely cave.
If you listen closely you can hear his sighs. Then from the shadows you can hear his sobs. In heart-wrenching torment he cries. But these cries are not turned inward in self-pity, these cries are turned upward in supplication. Soon they find their way to the ear of a God who draws near to those of broken spirits and never despises contrite hearts. Soon these cries come near to the God who comes near. The God who is always standing somewhere in the shadows.
Listen to his two-fold cry. LORD HELP ME! “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me.”
David knew the secret of hidden blessing. He did not plead his own merit, he plead for the mercy of God. If help was going to come it would have to come from heaven. Men had failed and would fail. He would have to rely on the God who cannot fail, the God who delights in mercy the God who makes new mercies for every new morning.
He comes boldly to the throne of Grace, a throne higher than that of Saul, to seek mercy for his time of need.
Listen dear people of God, when the shadows of life have fallen over your soul there is no other remedy. Flee to the throne of grace and find mercy! We have a faithful high priest who has been touched with the feelings of our infirmities. He knows our anguish. He knows are heartaches. He knows the weaknesses of fallen flesh. He is accessible. He is available. But most of all, He is able to help us in our time of need.
Let those words be your way into heaven’s throne-room, “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me.” Lord, help me.
I said that he had a two-fold petition. His first cry was Lord help me. His second cry was LORD HIDE ME!
David knew that those who sought his soul were crafty and bloodthirsty men. He knew that the hounds of hell would not be outwitted but is own wit or ingenuity. He knew that the cave would not be enough to hide his life from the destruction that was haunting his steps. He knew that cave was not a sufficient refuge.
So he cries to the Lord, “For in you my soul takes refuge…” David understood something of the truth that would later be penned down by King Hezekiah in Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” That word which is rendered “trouble” literally means, “tight places.” When we find ourselves in trouble, when we find ourselves in tight places, when we find ourselves with our backs against the wall with no where to turn and no where to run, then we say, “Lord hide me.” God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Sometimes we feel just like David did, don’t we? We feel like the whole world is against us. We feel like every imp in hell has our number and is hot on our trail. It’s in those moments that we need to remember that our lives are hid with Christ in God. We are safe and secure in His everlasting arms. He are held tightly in His grip and no one can pluck us from His omnipotent hands.
Then David goes on to say, “In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.” David was in the shadows but then he runs to THE shadow, the shadow of His wings. He is learning that the shadows can be a blessed place to be if they be the shadows of His Lord’s own choosing.
The imagery here is as breathtaking as it is beautiful. David pictures himself as a little bird, a young chick, caught in an awful storm. The tiny bird is no match for the giant tempest. It would surely be swept away if left to its own devices. But the little chick scurries over to his mother and boroughs its way under its mother wings and finds a place of quiet rest.
This is what the hymn writer had in mind when he penned these words:
There is a place of quiet rest,
Near to the heart of God,
A place where sin cannot molest,
Near to the heart of God.
O Jesus, blest Redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us, who wait before Thee,
Near to the heart of God.
I remember reading once of a farmer who lost his barn in a fire. Lighting struck and in a few moments the whole thing was engulfed in flames. It was a total loss.
The next morning he went out to see if there was anything among the ashes that could be salvaged but it seemed that the fire had consumed everything. His tools were gone. His cattle were destroyed. Everything was dust and ashes. And then he saw what looked like his laying hen sitting right in the middle of the debris. She was burned to a crisp but sitting upright. It was like a sculptor had made a statue out of ash. He took his foot and gently pushed her aside, and to his amazement, four little chicken ran out unharmed at all from the flames.
Listen to me dear saint, that same thing is true of us as well. On the cross of Calvary, the burning fury of the the wrath of God descended on God’s well-beloved Son. This was the penalty for our sins and our trespasses. But like that mother hen, He had gathered us up under the shadow of His wings, and when the fires had gone out we were left untouched by the flames without even the smell of smoke upon us. He consumed our hell and all the while we were safe under His wings. If he has already preserved us from that awful wrath then there is nothing in this world that can touch us as long as we rest under those mighty wings.
But the imagery is even more wonderful still. We have noted that it was for mercy that David was pleading. We have every reason to think that these wings speak about more than just the protection of God, they also speak of the very presence of God in all His glory. These wings are not the wings of chickens but the wings of the cherubim. Those cherubim who guard the glory of God in the tabernacle and temple and rest upon the mercy seat atop the ark of God!
To be under His wings is to be at the place where heaven touches earth. To be under His wings is to be at the place where the blood testifies on our behalf. To be under His wings is to be at the very place where God has chosen to meet with men in His fullness. In the shadow of those wings you find the protection of God, the propitiation of God, and most of all you find the presence of God. Whether that place is a cathedral, a cave, or a cancer ward, it is transformed into the Temple of God Most High!
When David cries, “Lord help me,” he discovers that his shadowy cave is tempered by God’s purpose. Without the cave there would never be a crown.
When he cried “Lord hide me,” he discovers that his cave of shadows is transformed by God’s presence. The shadows become his sanctuary. That dark hole became for him a little piece of heaven on earth. He’s hidden from his foes and his fears. That great shadow over him is not cast by his adversaries; it’s the shadow of the Almighty.
And there’s no brighter place to be than under His shadow.