It terrifies us when our lives are in danger. It frustrates us and angers us when enemies oppose us. It breaks our spirit when those whom we thought we could trust betray us.
That’s the situation David finds himself in as he writes Psalm 54. It is identified as “A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites went and told Saul, ‘David is in hiding among us.’”
What is a person to do in the face of such terror, frustration, anger, betrayal and despair? David makes a conscious decision to turn to the One whom he knows is dependable. Thus Psalm 54 begins with this prayer: “Save me, O God, by your name.”
When David refers to the name of God, he is not referring to a title by which God can be identified. “Name,” in this context, has to do with a person’s (or God’s) nature. David is praying, “Save me, O God, by your character—save me in keeping with the nature of who you are.”
David had tried turning to the Ziphites, but their character had proven to be opportunistic, fearful, conniving, betraying, and untrustworthy. He turns now to God, trusting that God’s more honorable character will come through for him.
The Hebrew Scriptures include many names for God—all of which speak to the reliable character of God:
- El-Shaddai: God who is all-sufficient (Genesis 17:1)
- El-Roi: The God who sees me (Genesis 16:14-15)
- Jehovah-Jireh: God will provide (Genesis 22:13-14)
- Jehovah-Rapha: The God who heals (Exodus 15:25)
- Jehovah-Shalom: God is peace (Judges 6:24)
- Jehovah-Shammah: God is there (Ezekiel 48:35)
- Yahweh-Tsuri: The Lord is my rock (Isaiah 26:4)
When David is struggling with fear, betrayal and discouragement, he cries out to God not as a philosophical or theological exercise, but in personal, genuine, desperate need for what God alone could give to him. Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars but in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world. It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but the experience of God’s presence. That is the miracle we are really after, and that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get.”
That is the miracle David sought (“Save me, O God, by your name”), and that is the miracle David got: “But surely God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life…. I will give thanks to your name, O Lord, for it is good. For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies” (verses 4 & 6-7).
Psalm 53 opens with a contrast between foolishness and wisdom. Verse 1 addresses foolishness: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” Verse 2 addresses wisdom: “God looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.”
According to the psalmist, foolishness is associated with a denial of God and wisdom is associated with seeking God.
St. Augustine and F.F. Bruce offer one reason why it is wise for us to seek God. St. Augustine writes, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” F.F. Bruce adds, “The soul’s deepest thirst is for God himself, who has made us so that we can never be satisfied without him.” It is wise for us to seek God because closeness with God is what our hearts most deeply long for, leaving us perennially dissatisfied until we find him. This is why Bertrand Russell, who spent his life denying God, shared this confession: “The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains.”
The search for God is this world’s best hope for peace. Thomas Merton suggests, “Man is not at peace with his fellow man because he is not at peace with himself. He is not at peace with himself because he is not at peace with God.” Marilyn Monroe’s life gives sad evidence of this truth. Arthur Miller, one of Marilyn’s husbands, shares in his autobiography Time Bends, “One night, as I looked down on her, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, ‘How I wish I still had my faith and she still had hers. What if I could say to her, “Darling, God loves you,” and what if she could believe it?’ I wished so much that some miracle could happen for her. But I had no saving mystery to offer her.” When they lost their faith, they lost their peace.
In his novel Life After God, Douglas Coupland presents further reason why the search for God is life’s deepest wisdom. A young man named Scout and various other characters have numbed themselves with drugs, stupid jobs, and empty sex while searching awkwardly for meaning. But Scout comes to this conclusion: “Now here is my secret: I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I am no longer capable of giving; to help me be kind as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.” We need to search seriously for God because it is God who is able to supply us with the resources for life that are otherwise in short supply in us.
Be wise; seek God.
Three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites had been through a lot—all of which was aimed at deepening their faith. He led them through the desert by a cloud that went ahead of them. When they came to bitter waters at Marah, they cried out to God for help, and God made the water drinkable. They became hungry and complained, and God sent them manna from heaven. They grew thirsty again, and Moses cried out to God, and God brought forth water from a rock.
After all of this—and before giving the people the Ten Commandments—God swore His love to the people of Israel. God instructed Moses to tell the people, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself” (Exodus 19:4).
This verse presents a fascinating image of God’s care for Israel. In the 1937 edition of the Smithsonian Institution Bulletin, Arthur Cleveland Bent reports that when a baby eagle is hatched, its eyes are too young to distinguish objects by sight, but it chirps incessantly, expressing it needs and longings. By the end of a week, the chick can see well, move its head about, and bite at things. By two weeks it can crawl. At even at seven weeks of age it can barely maintain its balance when placed on a limb. Not until it is about three months old does it gain the strength it needs to fly. During the early months of its life, the eaglet’s parents bring food to the young chick and watch over their child until the young eagle is able to hunt for itself.
For the first three months away from Egypt, the Israelites have been like that baby eagle, incessantly chattering to God about their needs and longings. God has patiently provided for them and protected them. It is as though God has been carrying them on his wings.
In his article in the Smithsonian Bulletin, Arthur Bent shares a story Dr. Loye Miller published in 1918 from one of his students: “Last summer while my father and I were extracting honey at the apiary about a mile southeast of Thatcher School, Ojai, California, we noticed a golden eagle teaching its young to fly. It was about ten o’clock. The mother started from the nest in the crags, and roughly handling the young one, she allowed him to drop, I should say, about ninety feet, then she would swoop down under him, wings spread, and he would alight on her back.”
W.B. Thomas shared a similar story in Yeoman’s England in 1934: “Our guide was one of the small company who have seen the golden eagle teaching the young to fly. He could support the belief that the parent birds, after urging and sometimes shoving the youngster into the air, will swoop underneath and rest the struggler for a moment on their wings and back.”
Modern ornithologists argue that eagles do not actually carry their young in this way, but the spiritual reality remains: God lovingly carried and provided for and protected and cared for the people of Israel.
One of the most wonderful aspects of an eagle’s wings is how those wings can lift the bird up to the great heights of the sky. In his article in the Smithsonian Bulletin, Bent quotes the account of Seton Gordon from the Scottish Highlands in 1915: “Then one day the north wind crossed the sea, and arrived at the eagle’s home. And the eagle felt the cool arctic breeze and sailed out from his giant rocks…. With his pinions wide outstretched he leaned on the refreshing wind, which bore him strongly upward, without a single stroke of his wings to help him on his way. So he mounted higher and higher till he had risen far above his native hill-top, and was outlined, a mere speck, against the dark blue of the sky. Still upwards he sailed, and for some time longer the watching stalker kept him in view, in the field of his glass. But at length he reached a point at which he was invisible, even by the aid of a telescope. From that point what a gorgeous panorama must have been laid out before his sight in the light of the summer sun. Even the highest tops were now far, far below him, and the river in its windings down the great glen must have appeared as a thin silvery streak.”
Truly in this way God carries us on eagles’ wings, for God lifts us up to the heights to behold God for who He is so that we can discover the wonder of His love and grace and peace and strength.
Things were going very badly for David when he wrote Psalm 52. He was being chased around the country by King Saul’s army. The priests of Nob sheltered him for a brief time. But after he left, Doeg the Edomite betrayed them to Saul, who then commanded Doeg to slaughter the eighty-five unarmed priests. David begins Psalm 52 lamenting the evil done by Doeg: “Why do you boast, O mighty one (or “O tyrant”), of mischief done against the godly? All day long you are plotting destruction. Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery. You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth.”
Nevertheless, David has confidence in God’s work in his life. He declares, in verse 8, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.”
What did it mean for David to consider himself “like a green olive tree in the house of God”? And what might it mean for us to see ourselves “like a green olive tree in the house of God” during our own times of struggle?
Susan Barnes comments, “Olive trees are very resilient. They can survive and produce fruit even in harsh conditions.” God is able to supply us and to grow within us the strength and resilience we need to get through the tough times. Indeed, God is able to produce within us the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control even in harsh conditions.
The olive tree has been a symbol of peace and reconciliation and hope since the account of Noah’s dove returning to the ark with a “freshly plucked olive leaf” in its beak. That olive leaf represented new life sprouting again on earth. You may feel that you are going through an unprecedented and impossible situation. It may seem to you that all you knew before has been washed away. You may feel like you are stranded at sea with a boatload of grouchy animals. But the God we worship is a God of new life and new beginnings. He is making you like a green olive tree with reasons for renewed hope.
Derek Kidner stresses, “The olive is one of the longest-living trees.” That is an understatement. The “green olive tree” of Psalm 52 is not just long-living but eternal. David goes on to say, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. I will thank you forever, because of what you have done.” God gives to us eternal life in Jesus Christ who conquered death.
David likens himself (and us) not just to a green olive tree, but to “a green olive tree in the house of God.” The emphasis here is that we are planted in the presence of God and we live our lives in the presence of God. That is great news for us. Someone has written, “Peace is not the absence of trouble; peace is the presence of God.” No matter what troubles we face, we continue to be “like a green olive tree in the house of God.” Therefore we are always in the presence of God. Therefore God’s peace and strength and love are always close to us.
As God led the Israelites out of Egypt, Exodus 14:2 reports that God instructed the people to “camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon.” Chuck Swindoll points out, “At this location they would be just south of several massive Egyptian fortresses, north of the barren Egyptian desert, west of the deep Red Sea, and east of the approaching Egyptian army. In other words, God led his people into a geographic cul-de-sac—the most vulnerable spot they could be in militarily.” (Moses: God’s Man for a Crisis, p. 64-65)
The people are in for a great challenge…and it’s about to get worse! Exodus 14:9 reports, “The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.”
The Israelites are hemmed in with a large, well-equipped, angry army pursuing them. The people grumble to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:11-12).
But God led them to that seemingly God-forsaken-place to do a miracle. Actually God led them there to perform two miracles: a lesser miracle and a greater miracle.
The lesser miracle would be the parting of the sea for the Israelites to walk through. This is a lesser miracle in that it is less taxing on God and could be accomplished by good civil engineers with the right supplies. (I, for example, have taken a train underneath the English Channel, from London to Paris, so it would not be too difficult for God to part some water.)
The greater miracle would be to build a heart of trust in doubt-filled people.
To accomplish the greater miracle, God would work to move people to focus less on the problems that surround them and to focus more on the God who cares for them. When they looked around, they saw a vast desert on one side, an impassible sea on another side, and a superior army in the only remaining direction. What they saw filled them with terror and despair. But Moses said to them, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today” (Exodus 14:13).
Like the Israelites, when we focus on the problems that surround us, we are often filled with terror and despair. It would be better for us to focus our attention on the God who cares for us..
Donner Atwood writes, “During the terrible days of the Blitz, a father, holding his small son by the hand, ran from a building that had been struck by a bomb. In the front yard was a shell hole. Seeking shelter as quickly as possible, the father jumped into the hole and held up his arms for his son to follow. Terrified, yet hearing his father’s voice telling him to jump, the boy replied, ‘I can’t see you!’ The father, looking up against the sky tinted red by the burning buildings, called to the silhouette of his son, ‘But I can see you. Jump!’ The boy jumped because he trusted his father.”
Atwood adds, “The Christian faith enables us to face life or meet death, not because we can see, but with the certainty that we are seen; not that we know all the answers, but that we are known.”
The greater miracle is accomplished when God moves a person to focus less on the troubles that surround us and more on the God who cares for us. Catherine Pulsifer puts it this way, “Faith is strength when we feel we have none; faith is hope when all seems lost.”
To accomplish the greater miracle, God would work to move people to grumble less and to practice being still before the Lord. The people grumbled about dying in the wilderness, but Moses said to them, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:14).
When troubles confront us, we tend to do what the Israelites did. We grumble. We complain. We run from our troubles. Or we try frantically to fix things our own way.
But God invites us to be quiet before him so as to take in the resources that God would pour into us. Leighton Ford has observed, “When I am overtired, it is usually because I have tried to do it all myself and not trusted God’s strength fully enough. When I am apathetic, I have not trusted his grace enough. When I am anxious, I have not trusted his goodness and power enough. When I am afraid—especially of failure—I have not trusted his love enough.” (The Attentive Life, p. 127)
The greater miracle is accomplished when God moves a person to wait quietly and trustingly on him.
It has been said, “Conscience is God’s built-in warning system. Be very happy when it hurts you. Be very worried when it doesn’t.”
King David sinned. He manipulated his position as king to take sexual advantage of Bathsheba. He did his best to cover up his evil and thought that he had gotten away with it. But the prophet Nathan confronted David over the wickedness of his actions. From his place of power, David could have squelched Nathan and continued to cover up his evil, but his conscience kicked in. He began to hurt inside over what he had done.
In Psalm 51, David expresses the remorse of his soul:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” – Verses 1-3
Remorse is what we experience when the pain over what we have done is so sharp that we can no longer endure ignoring it, defending it, or covering it up. Remorse is when it hurts more to keep our sin a secret than to confess what we did. Remorse is when we’d rather clear our conscience than to go on protecting our image. Remorse is when we can no longer bear feeling estranged from God. Remorse is a critical step toward restoration.
Remorse is what led David to plead, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.” (Verses 7-8) And remorse is what filled David with hope: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Verse 17)
A fable is told about the angel Gabriel calling the angels together and instructing each of the angels to visit earth and to bring back to heaven the one gift each angel thought would be most pleasing to God—the gift that would make God most happy. One angel saw a martyr dying for her faith; the angel brought back a drop of her blood. Another angel brought back a small coin that an old destitute widow had given to the poor. Another returned with a Bible that had been used by an eminent preacher. Still another brought back dust from the shoes of a missionary laboring in a remote wasteland.
Another angel noticed a man sitting by a fountain in a town square. The man was looking at a child playing nearby. The man was a hardened sinner, but, looking at the little child playing, he remembered his own boyhood innocence. As the man looked into the fountain and saw the reflection of his hardened face, he realized what he had done with his life. Now, recalling his many sins, he felt guilty about them. Tears of remorse welled up in his eyes and began to trickle down his cheeks. At that point, the angel took one of those tears and brought it back to heaven.
According to the fable, it was the gift of the man’s tear of remorse that God chose above all the others as the gift that was most dear to him.
Perhaps this is why Scripture refers to David as “a man after God’s own heart.”
One of the most critical questions in life is this: Do I matter? Does anyone care about me?
If you can answer yes to the question—if you know that you matter to someone—there is joy. Victor Hugo recognized, “The supreme happiness in life is the conviction that we are loved.”
What happens, though, in the human soul that lacks the conviction of being loved?
In his novel, Chasing Fireflies, Charles Martin tells the story of an abandoned young boy searching for his mother and searching for a sense of his own identity and worth. After a visit from a woman who was looking for her missing son, the abandoned boy, Sketch, writes a question in a notebook to his temporary guardian, ‘Unc’:
“Sketch shuffled out of the house wearing his Spidey pajamas. He sat down next to me, his notebook on his lap. He scribbled quickly and held it up for me.
“WHO WAS THAT LADY TODAY? [He wrote in his notebook.]
“‘She’s a momma…looking for her son.’
“DID SHE THINK I WAS HIM?
“He wrote without looking at the page. AM I?
“His question pressed me against the railing. Men spend their lives asking Who am I when the real question is Whose am I? I don’t think you can answer the first until you’ve settled the second. First horse, then cart. Identity does not grow out of action until it has taken root in belonging.” (p. 233)
After living for numerous generations in Egypt as slaves, it would have been easy for the Hebrews to wonder whether they, as a people, mattered, whether anyone cared about them. We know that God sent a variety of plagues on Egypt to get the people out of slavery, yet the question lingers: Did God do all of this simply to strike a blow against the arrogance of Egypt and the evil of slavery? Or does God care about the people of Israel?
In Exodus 12, God instructs the Israelites to make bread without leaven because they will not have time to wait around for leaven to rise. They are instructed to eat the Passover meal with their cloak tucked into their belt and with sandals on their feet and with their walking staff in their hand. They are told to eat the meal “hurriedly.” Everything is presented is a rushed manner so that the Israelites can get away from Egypt as quickly as possible!
Then we come to chapter 13, and in the first 16 verses of chapter 13 everything seems to slow down. God takes time to talk to describe a custom he will implement for them when they arrive in the land of Canaan: “When the Lord has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your ancestors, and has given it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb…but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.”
Rather than hurrying the Israelites out of Egypt, God stops to tell the people that he will claim for himself the life of the firstborn son in each family. By doing so, God will be establishing his ownership over the whole of each family. In doing so, God will be declaring, “Yes! You matter immensely to me. That is why I claim you for my own!”
As this custom is practiced today in Jewish families, thirty one days after the birth of the first baby boy in a family, the father brings his son to the Kohen (the rabbi), in the presence of a minyan (at least 10 Jewish men). The father will respond to ritual questions indicating that this is a Jewish mother’s firstborn son and that the father has come to redeem the son as commanded in the Torah. The Kohen asks the father which he would rather have, the child or five silver shekels which are to be paid for his redemption. The father states that he would rather have the child than the money, then he recites a blessing over the child and gives the five silver shekels to the Kohen. The Kohen holds the coins over the child and announces that the redemption price has been paid in full and has been accepted in place of the child. The Kohen then blesses the child and returns the baby to the custody of his family. Following the ceremony, a festive meal is shared, with cloves of garlic and cubes of sugar given to the guests to take home with them to be added to dishes that can be shared with others so that the blessedness of the birth of this child extends to others.
God wants us to know how deeply we matter to him!