Psalm 16 A
A Miktam of David
Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
Last week we heard the psalm of David when his son Absalom was forcing him to flee his throne and his city. David then spoke of imminent danger from many thousands of people, and we don’t think this was hyperbole.
Our psalm today – called a Miktam, no one’s sure what that is, probably a musical designation – has a similar request for safety but seems much scaled down: David asks that God preserve him. This is a more general request for ongoing safety: perhaps there’s no danger on the horizon, but David has come to realize that even ordinary life is beset by troubles, accidents, threats. So, preserve.
Yes, even in the most tranquil of eras, the devil walks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour. Christians are holy, and that often means strange: we always find solid reasons to rejoice evermore AND we never forget that life is always under threat.
In all the kinds of danger we face, we ask God to preserve me. It’s a temptation for the child of the heavenly Father, instead of praying, to constantly entertain a vague anxiety, especially about physical safety, which I think becomes the focus of this psalm. You might always be scanning yourself for ailments or pains that will end up putting you under the earth. My throat hurts – is this the end? Thus, we soak in this vague worry.
But children of God, learn from David the Son of God and from Jesus the preeminent Son of God, about prayerful, deliberate trust in the Father…the God who is for us and has committed himself to the care of our bodies and souls.
So David’s request is that God would preserve him. The reason he offers for God to take the trouble to preserve him is that he takes refuge in God. Help me because I’m coming to you for help.
Now, that’s a phrase – take refuge in God – we’ll find often in the psalms. This psalm is helpful in that it unpacks for us what it looks like to take refuge: that’s what vv. 2-8 are about. And then vv. 9-11 detail how this taking refuge presents, how it shows up in our bodies and souls.
So to summarize: David asks for everyday, general help – preserve me. (You’ll recall our Lord taught us to bring those everyday matters before God, every day. Give us today our daily bread.)
And God should help him because David takes refuge in him. Here’s what that taking refuge looks like:
V. 2. I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
David addresses the LORD, Yawheh, Jehovah. He does not appeal to a general spiritual bent he has or to a generic Deity. This is the God of the covenant. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who has made His will known in words now written down: nouns and verbs and adjectives.
You see the difference between taking refuge in a vague spirituality and taking refuge in Jehovah? Jehovah might direct you in nouns and verbs: “Do this and you’ll be safe.” A vague and trendy spirituality might not give you that specific instruction, but instead give you a feeling that you should light a candle or chant a phrase over and over. Well, you might enjoy the trendy spirituality more, but will you be safe?
David says to Jehovah, “You are my Lord.” You see the first LORD is in all caps – that’s how the English translations designate “Jehovah.” The second Lord is Adonai – the Master, the Boss, the Head of the House.
Taking refuge in God starts with submission to the God who has made himself known in the Bible, the God who speaks.
To say the same thing, negatively: when a person or family or society comes out from under the rule God in the word of God, they are no longer living under his protection.
We might first imagine: refuge, safety is when I’m free to do whatever I want to do. But actually this kind of freedom breeds nervousness and is corrosive.
(Not to mention that this freedom to do what I want usually ends up as doing what either the majority or the powerful is compelling me to.)
Taking real refuge – REAL here meaning ultimate refuge, refuge in God, starts with submission to God.
Let me ask you a subtle question: what’s the difference between David saying, You are my Lord AND David saying, I said to the LORD, you are my Lord ?
When David says I said this to the Lord, and then tells us what he said, he emphasizes that he didn’t arrive at this submission by accident. This was a deliberate, self-conscious, commitment of David to align himself under the speaking God.
Brothers and sisters, have you said to God: you are my Master? Said that to God, officially, not just that something approximating that thought floated over your consciousness.
Of course, a primary way that is given to us to say that very thing is baptism: in going down into the waters we are identifying ourselves as being dead to sin and alive to God in the way of Christ Jesus.
My mom is 75 and can be a little feisty, a little blunt. About a month ago we were at some friends in Denver having a Sunday lunch that doubled as a farewell dinner. Most of their children were either in college or completely out of the house but they still have one boy, James, who is a junior in high school.
Well, I asked this boy if he’s going to the Christian college that his sisters were attending. He said emphatically that he wasn’t. Well, about five minutes later, the conversation had turned to other things, but my mom was still working this over in her head. And my mom suddenly turns to him and says, James, have you told God that you’re not going to that school? The table went silent and awkward…
Hey Creature: do you tell the Creator what’s up, or do you ask Him for His leading? Among other considerations, your answer to that question implies whether you’re safe, taking refuge in God, or not.
And your answer to that question implies whether you’re living a coherent – we could even say – truly human life.
Because this is true: one created to bear the image of God is only truly himself when he or she is close to God and self-consciously submitting to His leading. …I have no good apart from you.”
That’s the big claim I’ve been trying to make these last weeks: humans were created for God! Away from God they eventually become – functionally – sub human. Here’s how C.S. Lewis expressed that in Mere Christianity:
“God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.”
So just as much as the Gospel is a summons back to God, it is also a return to ourselves. We have no goodness apart from God.
I’m guessing that, so far, this psalm has made a lot of sense. But now it takes a surprising turn:
V. 3 As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.
Taking refuge starts with submission to God. Then taking refuge in God entails delighting in the people of God, here called saints, or holy ones : : Those who have been marked by their relationship to the Holy One, the God who is unlike all others.
Again, we’ll make a similar point as we made before: David hasn’t just drifted into this position. He hasn’t stumbled over some Christians and found them to be cool people that he easily connects with. So now, hey, turns out I really like saints.
No, there’s some resolve in this sentence: I’ve settled in my mind who I will admire – they are the excellent ones; and in whose company I’ll enjoy – in whom is all my delight… Allmy delight.
There’s a tight connection between I say to the LORD, you are my Lord AND the saints are the excellent ones…. When you submit to the LORD, you are acknowledging the force and implications of His decisions. These saints are just the ones he has brought into covenant, he has bared his right arm to save them, he has committed to shepherd them forever.
So we, responding to Jehovah, submit to Him in our commitment to them.
Meaning, for instance, they, the saints, Christians, have first dibs on our charity: Let us do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith.
Indeed, in a sense we interact with fellow Christians as if they were our Lord Himself. You remember the parable of Jesus about the final judgment. The sheep were on the right hand; the goats were on the left. How were the sheep identified? – the sheep were those that when they saw one of the least of Jesus’ people in need, in trouble, they moved to help them. And Jesus said, you were feeding and clothing and helping me when you helped my people. Those made holy by my blood and love. Holy ones.
Taking refuge in God involves binding ourselves to His people! Taking refuge in God involves binding ourselves to His people! Not just prioritizing them in divvying out aid and comfort, but prioritizing them in receiving aid and comfort for ourselves. Yes, brothers and sisters, in 2 Corinthians Paul speaks about the comfort of the heavenly Father flowing down to his people through His people.
Now, these words of David – the saints are my delight – might ring hollow in your ears. When could they ring hollow in your ears? When you meet some of the people of God.
Ok, they’re holy ones in some legal or official or heavenly reality. But excellent? Delightful?
Try abrasive. Petty. Small-souled. Boring.
Well, I have to admit that you will find Christians meeting some or all of these descriptions. Far less often you might even find a group of Christians who are characterized by some of this ugliness.
But taking refuge in God means choosing to live besides, among His people, and strugglingto delight in them, even the work of bringing out from them the fragrance of Christ that is somewhere there among the stink. Rusty Reno said something pretty profound many years ago (before he became a RC):
“We need to draw ever nearer to the reality of Christian faith and witness in our time, however burdensome, however heavy with failure, limitation, and disappointment. The reason is simple. Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us in the flesh. We can draw near to him only [well…] in his body, the church. Loyalty to him requires us to dwell within the ruins of the church.”
Yes, brothers and sisters, fulfilling our calling to live besides each other often takes work and a strong stomach:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
Remember, every body of every Christian is a dwelling place of God’s Spirit. And also, every Christian church in its local expressions is the temple of God’s Spirit. The encouraging, warm-hearted, wise Spirit. The Spirit who warns and instructs. The Spirit who is a refuge.
Are you deliberately cultivating friendships with fellow believers? Are you taking refuge in the dwelling place of God, the church? Are you where God is? Of course, by asking the question I mean so much more than do you have a decent record of attending church on Sunday mornings!
I mean, are you committed to the people of God? Do they have your loyalty? Do you watch out and care for them? Is your relationship on the ground with God’s people real, significant?
In pondering those questions let’s note the phrase in David’s couplet that might seem like a throwaway one: As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones….
In the land: I gather that even as early as David’s time, you could find worshipers of Jehovah, saints, genuine holy ones, outside the promised land. So there were saints in the land and saints outside the land. Saints inside and outside the land David could commit himself to in the abstract. Theoretically.
But it was only to the saints in the land, among whom he lived, to whom David could work out his loyalty, who could receive David’s aid, by whom he could receive comfort.
So with us: it is not enough to theoretically pledge a commitment to God’s people in the abstract. The genius of the local church is that it circumscribes the particular Christians you will delight in: through whom you will obey God’s commands – weep with those who weep…live in harmony with one another…etc.
A specific congregation to whom you will commit to watching out for them…and they for you.
To say it simply: taking refuge in God which involves delight in his people, takes concrete and local expression within a local church.
So may I ask again: are you committed to a local church? Do these people have your attention and your care? Are you working at delighting in them, finding traces of the excellency of image bearing in them, even when that gets very hard?
I’m still a young man of 47, but through the years I’ve seen repeatedly that there is uncommon protection and grounding and maturity that happens within a solid relationship to a local church.
Conversely, I’ve seen Christians – for all I know genuine Christians – who remain wanderers through various churches, who are loathe to commit to a people, whose Christianity thus must be nebulous and individualistic and uncertain – and these brothers and sisters and their families are vulnerable, in an important sense unstable.
Brothers and sisters, It doesn’t have to be this way. Take refuge in God.
Jesus, the preeminent Son of God, the King of Israel, King of Kings, the Christ – He modeled for us how children of God take refuge in God. He constantly was talking with God, saying, in effect, you are my Father. I’m taking direction from you. The Son can do nothing apart from the Father.
He showed us: What we can’t do is go quiet before the heavenly Father. The Spirit in us trains us to say Abba. Not just on Sunday. As you drive. When you wake up. When you receive bad and good news.
That’s the place and privilege we’ve been given: children of God who rightly are constantly communicating with their Father. Children of God. Trusting sons and daughters. Who in every sphere and in many ways say to Him: you are my Lord.
We have the authority to call ourselves children of God not because we’re clever or uncommonly sincere or spiritual. Not because we’re born in a lineage of good people, Christians.
No, we are children because we have become children in believing that Jesus the preeminent Son has died, and in his broken body that was crushed under the weight of punishment for sins, we are reconciled to the Creator of sun and sand and stars.
Reconciled to your Father! The Creator God is for you! We say that not because your life is going well or because you feel peace or for any other reason other than that He has given His Son, and that His Son trusted Him to the point of death, even death on a cross. And that cross was unlike any other cross, in that it was a judgment upon our sin, and the judgment was fully carried out.
So you are children of God. Act like children. Entrust yourselves to your heavenly Father like children. Keep talking to Him. Take refuge.
The Christ who rose up after the judgment carried out in his body is on a mission to reconcile sinners back to the Father. Sinners, plural. Sinners of all types, from all nations. He is bringing them all down the same path, through the same door to the Father. And he is giving them all the same life- His life. He Himself is the life, and the way and the door.
In reconciling us together to the Father, in Christ we are each reconciled to one another.
And so the path that Christ leads us down in this age winds through the church of other redeemed sinners. The door that the Shepherd brings each one of us through leads into the common life of the church. The life with Christ is also a corporate life with other sharers in the Messiah.
Brothers and sisters, take refuge in this God. In word and baptism and truth proclaim yourself as the servant of the Lord. It’s what you were made for! And when you find yourselves alongside other redeemed sinners, commit to loving these saints. And not just theoretically: find yourselves a specific congregation, join them, and commit to the hard task of doggedly loving and caring for them in the name of Jesus Christ.
Adjust your life, dive into the reality that God has constructed in the Gospel of his dying and resurrected Son. Take refuge in God that way.