Wednesday, 21 March 2018

When all seems lost

Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.” But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. Psalm 3:1-3

Have you ever noticed how important the little word “but” can be?

Just three letters, but they have the effect of turning things round: “We thought he wasn’t going to pull through, but the doctors did a wonderful job”. “At first she saw nothing in him, but look at them now - thirty happy years of marriage!” “It rained most of the day, but then the sun came out and we got a couple of hours’ cricket”. It was abc; but now it’s xyz.

This happens a lot in the Bible, not least in Paul’s letters. A good example is where Paul writes grimly about the spiritual deadness of everyone who is still in their sins: “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath...” Grim indeed! But then he goes on: “But... God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ...” (Ephesians 2:1-5)

That’s surely the greatest turnaround in the Bible. (What a wonderful expression that “rich in mercy” is!)

And here it is in Psalm 3.

The psalm is traditionally linked with King David, and to a time of great trouble in his reign. And there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be so. For the full story you need to go back to 2 Samuel 13-19, but the essence of it is this...

One of David’s sons, Absalom, has rebelled against his father and wants to be king. He wages a campaign to get support from the people, both great and small, till it reaches the point where David thinks it’s all over. He says to his officials, “Come! We must flee, or none of us will escape from Absalom” (2 Samuel 15:14).

And so we get the pitiful spectacle of the great King David, no less, the triumphant man of war, scurrying out of his capital city like the proverbial rat leaving a sinking ship. Surely the lowest point in his reign.

Going back to Psalm 3 (this time using The Message translation), he is overwhelmed by a sense of utter helplessness: “God! Look! Enemies past counting! Enemies sprouting like mushrooms...”  He has to endure their cruel mockery: “Hah! No help for him from God!” You’re finished, David!

But then comes the but... “But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the one who lifts my head high.” That’s verse 3 - and it’s a verse worth reading over and over again, a verse, as I once heard it put, worth sucking slowly like a sweet.

How has this transformation come about? We aren’t told. But David has certainly been praying, and he gets a wonderful assurance that his prayers are not wasted.

Look at the three aspects of this assurance.

First, God is his protection - “a shield around me”. Yes, he has felt outnumbered and fatally exposed; but now he sees that his loving God is far greater than all his enemies.

We too as Christians sometimes feel that we are outnumbered by our spiritual enemy, the devil. The church seems so feeble and small. Our faith is dismissed, if not actually mocked, by clever unbelievers. How good it is, then, to know that God is in fact a shield around us. He will protect and keep us as we hold on to him.

Second, God is his “glory”. You can take that in different ways. One commentary says: “My glory is an expression to ponder; it indicates the honour of serving such a master; perhaps, too, the radiance he imparts.”

Personally, I like that second thought; it links beautifully with another psalm attributed to David: “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame” (Psalm 34:5). David has reason to reflect that, for all the shallow glory of his earthly kingship, his true glory is what God imparts.

And it’s a deeply humbling thought for us, too, that as we go about our business day by day we can actually reflect the glory of God.

Lord, make me a mirror of your splendour!

Third, God is “the one who lifts my head high”. That’s a great expression! - especially if you compare it with 2 Samuel 15:30: “David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered (was he hiding his face?) and he was barefoot.” A picture of humiliation, if ever there was one - tears; bowed head; bare feet.

And God will, in time, “lift the heads” of all his suffering, humiliated, outnumbered, downtrodden people.

Are you going through a particularly tough time? All I can say is: pray - of course; read those chapters from 2 Samuel; read these beautiful verses.

And then look out for that wonderful “but”!

O Lord, in your kindness and mercy be my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head. Amen.

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