Monday, April 6, 2020

"Psalm 57 And Those Persistent Anxious Moments"


          We live in a significant time in history—not only for our country but for the whole world. COVID-19 has no boundaries. It is left up to us individually and nationally to establish boundaries wherein we say “This far and no farther.” And yet even this is a guess, informed perhaps and effective maybe, but a guess nevertheless. Time will tell. Such uncertainty creates anxiety for all and fear for many.
 
          In a previous sermon I developed Psalm 93 that speaks of the storms of life we are now experiencing and what we need to do to live calmly and peacefully by trusting in the sovereign God. To a degree we are helped when we allow our minds to focus on the attributes of God. He comes to us through the Holy Spirit to calm our anxieties, and for a little while we experience peace—until the next thunderous boom that refocuses our minds and emotions once again on the realities raging all around us.
 
          This article was to be a sequel to the previous sermon, but circumstances halted the preaching for now except from those churches that minister through the internet to their home-bound congregations. In this posting my would-have-been-preached sermon is presented in a teaching format being careful to maintain exposition, interpretation, and applications. Welcome to my “in home” class! It is my prayer that you will find help in Psalm 57 during these “Persistent Anxious Moments.”
 
          In Psalm 57 we find freedom to be human as well as freedom from incapacitating anxieties. King David reveals his emotional ambivalence, bouncing back and forth from fear to faith and back again as he struggles through life-threatening circumstances. He also points us to a way to minimize the incapacitating effects of our own troubles.
 
The superscription of Psalm 57 takes us back to a time when David was fleeing for his life from King Saul and hiding in a cave. Without discussing the details of the historical background here[1] I simply point out the level of emotional distress imbedding in the Hebrew words Al-tashheth meaning “Do not destroy!” David’s anxiety was justifiable.
 
In reading the Psalm we can easily identify where David’s emotional ambivalence in verses 1-6 changes to emotional stability in verses 7-11.[2] The change is dramatic. Verse 1 makes a plea to God, “Be gracious[3] to me, O God, be gracious to me.” Verse 7 makes a similar but positive dramatic declaration, “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast.”[4] The general outline of the Psalm is clear.
 
1      Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me,
        For my soul takes refuge in You;
        And in the shadow of Your wings I will take refuge
        Until destruction passes by.
2      I will cry to God Most High,
        To God who accomplishes all things for me.
3      He will send from heaven and save me;
        He reproaches him who tramples upon me. Selah.
        God will send forth His lovingkindness and His truth.
4      My soul is among lions;
        I must lie among those who breathe forth fire,
        Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows
        And their tongue a sharp sword.
5      Be exalted above the heavens, O God;
        Let Your glory be above all the earth.
6      They have prepared a net for my steps;
        My soul is bowed down;
        They dug a pit before me;
        They themselves have fallen into the midst of it. Selah.
7      My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast;
        I will sing, yes, I will sing praises!
8      Awake, my glory!
        Awake, harp and lyre!
        I will awaken the dawn.
9      I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the peoples;
        I will sing praises to You among the nations.
10    For Your lovingkindness is great to the heavens
        And Your truth to the clouds.
11    Be exalted above the heavens, O God;
        Let Your glory be above all the earth.
 
Emotional Ambivalence, 1-6
 
1        Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me,
 For my soul[5] takes refuge in You;
And in the shadow of Your wings I will take refuge
Until destruction passes by.
 
          Throughout these 6 verses David leaps back and forth from “Woe is me!” to “But God . . . .” We do the same thing when facing personal crises praying the only words that come to our troubled minds, “God, Help!” In verse 1 David cries out for God’s help twice, perhaps psychologically seeking assurance that God will indeed hear. The verse also exhibits a chiastic pattern (ABBA), a common feature of Hebrew poetry wherein A corresponds to A in some way and B corresponds to B, more often than not the second element extends the thought of the first element.[6] The ambivalence moves from the distress plea, lines 1 and 4, to focusing on God, lines 2 and 3. The repetition of the verb “refuge” and the dramatic imagery clearly shows the interconnection between lines 2 and 3. This is called parallelism and is a pervasive feature of Hebrew poetry where one line is expanded in a subsequent line.[7] Line 4 presents the occasion for the cry for help in verse 1, a cause and effect pattern.
 
2        I will cry [keep crying out] to God Most High,
To God who accomplishes all things for me.
 
Parallelism here extends beyond two lines. Verse 2, line 1, further personalizes the plea, “Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me” (verse 1, line 1). The repetition in verse 1, line 1, is repeated by “I keep crying out”[8] in verse 2, line 1. The second line of verse 2 shows David’s emotional bounce back to God.  He had previously experienced God’s help and cries out for it again.
 
3        He will send from heaven and save me;
          He reproaches him who tramples upon me. Selah.
          God will send forth His lovingkindness and His truth
             [faithfulness]. [9]
 
David continues his thoughts of God in verse 3, “He will send from heaven and save me . . . .  God will send forth His lovingkindness and His faithfulness.” His expectations are high but the middle sentence intrudes into his positive thoughts, “He reproaches him who tramples upon me. Selah.” Ambivalence! But then David casts himself upon God’s lovingkindess and faithfulness.
 
 
4      My soul is among lions;
        I must lie among those who breathe forth fire,
        Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows
        And their tongue a sharp sword.
 
          As soon as he has he found some measure of emotional relief by thinking about God in verse 3, David is brought back to the impending dangers, “My soul is among lions; I must lie among those who breathe forth fire, Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows And their tongue a sharp sword.” This whole verse is parallel to and illustrative of “him who tramples upon me” in verse 3. The poetic pattern and imagery is striking. The lions of line one are identified as the sons of men in line 3, and the fire-breathers of line 2 use their tongue as weapons of destruction in line 4. This is an ABAB pattern with the parts corresponding to one another. David cannot even lie down and sleep without fear. Insomnia takes over as a natural consequence of intense anxiety. We’ve all been there!
 
5      Be exalted above the heavens, O God;
        Let Your glory be above all the earth.
 
The only solution to regain some measure of peace is to reflect once again on God. This time he focuses on God’s greatness in verse 5, “Be exalted above the heavens, O God; Let Your glory be above all the earth.” Contextual interpretation—Show forth your greatness in heaven as well as on earth by acting on my behalf in accordance with your character and promises. This is not so much a statement of praise as a plea for God’s help amid the trying circumstances. “It is the psalmist’s way of asking God to bring to nothing the plans of evil men.”[10] But then there is verse 6—Ambivalence!
 
6      They have prepared a net for my steps;
        My soul is bowed down;
        They dug a pit before me;
        They themselves have fallen into the midst of it. Selah.
 
          “They have prepared a net for my steps; My soul is bowed down;[11] They dug a pit before me;” David cannot even safely walk around outside the cave without being in danger from his enemies. Insomnia at night; fear during the day! But, again, a good thought invades his mind reminding him that God’s retributive justice surely will be at work, “They themselves [will] have fallen into the midst of it. Selah” (verse 6).[12]
 
Emotional ambivalence is normal but should not incapacitate us. David was familiar enough with God’s word to be able to restore some peace for himself even while the danger persisted. Yet, like us, ambivalence, bad and good side-by-side, is part of life, but it does not have to render us unable to function adequately. One of the keys, therefore, is to familiarize ourselves with God through the reading and study of his Word. Then when troubles come our way, the Holy Spirit can draw upon Scripture and encourage our hearts and minds as it did in David’s case.
 
Emotional Stability, 7-11
 
7      My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast;
        I will sing, yes, I will sing praises!
 
          Verse 7 begins with repetition as in verse 1, “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast!” Emotional stability! Whereas verse 1 was a frantic cry for help from God, verse 7 is a dynamic, repeated cry awakening his praise to God, “I [must] sing, yes, I [must]sing praises!”[13]
 
A connection with God occurred between verses 1-6 and verses 7-11 that changed the mood from emotional ambivalence to emotional stability. This connection, called an “oracle of salvation,” depicts that point when the Holy Spirit reminds and confirms the truth of God’s word encouraging the heart and turning the emotions from gloom and despair to hope and confidence. “Oracles address individuals in a specific and present need, comfort them with a message of God’s presence, and promise of deliverance in the future.”[14] Sometimes the oracle appears in the text as in Psalm 60:6-8 (Hebrew 8-10) or implied as here.
 
8      Awake, my glory!
        Awake, harp and lyre!
        I will awaken the dawn.
 
          In David’s experience, the night was a mixture of hope and danger, sleeplessness and anxiety (verses 4-6). In verse 7 he cannot wait until dawn when he is determined to praise God for the “middle of the night” encouragement and the promise of deliverance. For David worship and music are in concert.
 
The verse begins with repetition as in verse 7, a repetition that summons him to praise. Line 2 is parallel to line 1 and interprets his musical creations as representative of his glory, the “God-given faculty of worth and praise, that aspect of human personhood which responds to God . . . .  The worshiper’s whole being is filled with the thought of God; and this state of mind is his ‘glory.’”[15] For David a fitting response of praise to God involves the “harp and lyre.”
 
9        I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the peoples;
         I will sing praises to You among the nations.
 
          The essence of David’s musical praise is thanksgiving for deliverance, assured but not yet realized.[16] Line 2 parallels line 1: to “sing praises” is his way of giving “thanks,” and “the peoples” and “the nations” are synonymous. He determines to give testimony of God’s deliverance “far and wide” to include both Israelites and non-Israelites.[17]
 
10      For (B) Your lovingkindness is (A) great to the heavens
         And (B)Your truth [faithfulness] (A) to the clouds.
 
          This passage exhibits an ABAB pattern seen in the original order of the text. Also, line 2 makes line 1 more specific: “lovingkindness parallels “faithfulness” and “the clouds” parallel “the heavens.”
         
11     Be exalted above the heavens, O God;
         Let Your glory be above all the earth.
 
          Verse 11 repeats the thoughts of verse 5 but with a subtle change based on the changed emotions. Whereas verse 5 is a prayer for God to reveal Himself  verse 10 is an exclamation of certainty that God will bring the much-needed help, “Be exalted above the heavens, O God; Let Your glory be above all the earth.”
 
Each of us can identify with “Psalm 57 And Those Persistent Anxious Moments.” The world-wide COVID-19 epidemic has elevated the “flu season” to extreme levels. Anxiety and fear leads to anger and recriminations. What we really need are reflections on Psalm 93 that encourages us to look upward beyond our immediate circumstances to our sovereign God who controls all things, pestilences included.[18] Similarly, Psalm 57 recognizes our humanness, our anxieties and our fears, without apology. But it also shows us how we can alleviate these natural and possibly incapacitating human emotions by frequently turning to genuine worship of God in whatever manner consistent with our personalities. It is possible to say with David, “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast.” For David, worship and music were synonymous; for me, worship and reading and studying the Word of God are one and the same. Whatever form genuine worship of our sovereign God takes, it has the capacity to elevate our emotions from the darkness of despair to the full light of God’s abiding presence!
 


[1] Taken from the superscription as a plausible historical context for this Psalm. “THIS psalm—the “twin psalm” with the last—has also an elaborate “title,” which runs thus: “To the precentor (or chief musician): destroy not; David’s; Michtam; when he fled from Saul; in the cave.” The meaning of the second and fourth headings is doubtful. Some explain the second as “musical;” others as an allusion to David’s words when he bade Abishai not to kill Saul. The last two clauses give the place and occasion of the composition. It was written “in the cave”—probably the cave of Adullam (1 Sam. 22:1)—when David was flying from Saul. No valid reason can be urged against these statements.” Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). Psalms (Vol. 2, p. 6). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
[2] In the Hebrew Bible (BHS) the superscription is verse 1 making 12 verses for the Psalm.
[3] The Hebrew word can also be translated as “mercy” seen in many English translations.
[4] For this exercise I employ the New American Standard Bible, but, as I interpret the text, I occasionally insert some bracketed changes to the NASB based on the Hebrew grammar and on my interpretation. In this article I target the readers of the English Bible, minimizing technical descriptions except in these endnotes.
[5] “My soul” is metonomy for the individual himself as seen in the NIV and NET. “Metonymy is a figure by which one name or noun is used instead of another, to which it stands in a certain relation. . . .  Metonymy of the Subject is when the subject is put for something pertaining to it: as the possessor for the possessed; the thing signified for the sign. (Bullinger, E. W. (1898). Figures of speech used in the Bible (p. 538). London; New York: Eyre & Spottiswoode; E. & J. B. Young & Co.) Metonymy appears in verses 4 and 6 as well.
[6] “This is by far the most stately and dignified presentation of a subject; and is always used in the most solemn and important portions of the Scriptures. Bengel observes with regard to this form of the Figure, that ‘its employment is never without some use: viz., in perceiving the ornament and in observing the force of the language; in understanding the true and full sense; in making clear the sound Interpretation; in demonstrating the true and neat analysis of the sacred text.’” (Bullinger, Ibid, 394)
[7] Parallelism, however, is not limited to two lines of poetry. For an extended venture into this topic see Berlin, A. (2008). The dynamics of biblical parallelism. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK; Dearborn, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Dove Booksellers.
[8] The continuousness of the translation is based on the Hebrew Imperfect verb. (Gesenius, F. W. (1910). Gesenius’ Hebrew grammar. (E. Kautzsch & S. A. E. Cowley, Eds.) (2d English ed., p. 314). Oxford: Clarendon Press.). See also Ronald J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline, 2nd ed, 1988, p. 31.  
[9] Translated as “faithfulness” in ESV, NIV, NET.  See Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1994–2000). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 69). Leiden: E.J. Brill. The context suggests that the “faithfulness” translation is to be preferred over “truth.”
[10] Tesh, S. E., & Zorn, W. D. (1999). Psalms (p. 398). Joplin, MO: College Press.
[11] Taken literally and applying it to David’s circumstances as he looks out for pits and traps:to bend, bow down (one’s head)” (Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1994–2000). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 493). Leiden: E.J. Brill).
[12] The Hebrew verb system typically relies on the context for the time element rather than the verb form as it is in English which explains why various translations often differ in their interpretations. In this verse the perfect verb form is used to express the psalmist’s certitude of the enemies’ ruin so he can speak of it as already accomplished. See Gesenius, F. W. (1910). Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. (E. Kautzsch & S. A. E. Cowley, Eds.) (2d English ed., p. 312). Oxford: Clarendon Press—“(b) To express facts which are undoubtedly imminent, and, therefore, in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished (perfectum confidentiae), . . .  This use of the perfect occurs most frequently in prophetic language (perfectum propheticum).”
[13] A Hebrew cohortative form conveying a personal exhortation. Also, the two different words for “sing” may be synonymous although the second word extends beyond the vocal aspect to the instrumental (NIV “make music”) which corresponds well with the mention of the harp and lyre in the next verse.
[14] D. Brent Sandy & Ronald L. Giese, Jr., Cracking Old Testament Codes, p. 141. Obviously Psalm 57 was composed after the event but they certainly reflect the experiences, convictions and emotions of David during the event.
[15] Quotation from Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, p. 428, in Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, p 79.
[16] The Psalm was undoubtedly composed after the event but surely accurately reflects David’s emotions while the event was unfolding.
[17] “In light of the certain destruction of the wicked, David vowed to sing a song of victory. With his faith established in the Lord, he could praise Him early in the morning in anticipation of what God would do. David said he would praise the Lord’s love (ḥeseḏ, “loyal love”) and faithfulness (cf. 57:3) where others would hear him.” (Ross, A. P. (1985). Psalms. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 836). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.)
[18] You can read this sermon at https://denniswretlind.blogspot.com.

 
 
 
 
 


 

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