I don’t think there’s a more beautifully written book of the Bible than the Book of the Psalms. When you read the Psalms, you’re reading the only divinely inspired songbook in existence. It’s essentially a collection of Hebrew poems and anthems that were used in public worship services. These are “God’s songs.” The Psalter is a remarkable assortment of worshipful lyrics, each with varying themes and contexts. But the through-line in all of these ancient poems is God’s “faithful love.” The thread that runs through each and every psalm is the abiding, enduring grace of God. Come what may, his mercy endures forever.
King David, the most celebrated and revered of the psalmists, writes with gritty, unvarnished vocabulary. All senses of regality and sophistication are left to fall away as we read line after line of this royal monarch coping with some of life’s severest stresses. I think that’s what makes the Psalms so appealing. They’re authentic in their approach to the Christian life. These “name it and claim it” pseudo-preachers who are proclaiming this “prosperity gospel” (which is anti-gospel, by the way) that promises a shiny, happy life once you believe in Jesus (and/or give financially to their ministry) lose all credibility and authority when you come to the Psalms. There’s no support in the Psalms — let alone the Bible — that faith in God equates to life’s problems getting erased. Actually, it’s often quite the opposite of that. Many times our problems and pressures are enhanced after our allegiance to Christ. And I think David’s the quintessential example of that, who after receiving the anointing of the prophet Samuel that marked him as the next in line to the throne of Israel went on the run for his very life from the incumbent king, Saul. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I think we have to stand in wonder at the arduous lines of the Psalms. This entire book — not just the Psalms of David — is decidedly real about the missed expectations and abject exhaustion we all feel in this life. The veneer that David was this super-spiritual “man after God’s own heart” type of Christian who was always up fades away as we read about his insecurities, doubts, and misgivings when it comes to the things of God. David was a man who doubted God, often. He struggled with feelings of isolation, loneliness, fear, and regret. And even though many of the psalms are exuberant in their language, I get the sense that oftentimes those are the words that David wants to believe, and by writing them down, he’s trying to convince himself to believe them.
A rhapsody in verse.
With those thoughts in mind, we come to, perhaps, the most magnificent of all the Psalms of David, that is, Psalm 18. From just a purely lyrical perspective, the song is a masterpiece. Its stanzas are rhapsodic, expertly composed and crafted. It contains some of the most breathtaking images of the God of the Bible, detailing his gracious deliverance in vivid relief. For the Christian, though, this psalm takes on even more meaning.
It’s easy for me to see why Psalm 18 is so frequently quoted and referenced in Christian circles. It’s one of the older psalms, written most likely when David was in his late-60s. In fact, Psalm 18 appears to be a repeated copy of a previous song David wrote that’s recorded for us in 2 Samuel 22. The words in both Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22 are nearly identical, with only slight variations throughout, which are probably due to inspirational changes made when this prayer was made for use in public worship. As is noted in the prescript before the text, David’s writing these words “on the day the Lord rescued him from the grasp of all his enemies.” Of course, “day” isn’t singular in this context. It’s not referring to a specific or particular day when David was rescued. Rather, he’s looking back on all the great deliverances in his life at the hand of his great Deliverer.
For 50 verses, David’s pen beautifully recounts God’s incalculable grace and glory in all of the mess and mayhem of life. But more than just the psalmist’s deliverance, this psalm gives us an unbelievably accurate portrait of our own lives. David’s distress is much like our own. His deliverance, too, is much like our own. In that way, Psalm 18 gives us an incredible portrait of God’s hand of delivering grace, which we’re made to see throughout both the life of this king and in our own lives.
A truth about grief.
David was never one to disguise his distress or conceal his grief. He was open and honest with where he was and what was happening in his life. He aired his grievances to God. He was vulnerable with God, divulging his innermost feelings and experiences. (Ps 6:6–7) If he felt as though God had abandoned him, he let that be known. (Pss 27:9; 69:17–18) If he felt as though God wasn’t listening, he cried even louder. (Ps 102:1–2) When life sucked, he let God know. Such is what we find here, where David discloses the torment he’d endured. “The ropes of death were wrapped around me; the torrents of destruction terrified me. The ropes of Sheol entangled me.” (Ps 18:4–5) There’s no mistaking what’s going on in David’s heart and life. He felt death all around him. Like a noose that was tightening around his neck, it was as though he was being strangled by life itself. Death was his only reality.
The word “ropes” ought to convey another picture for us, though, one that might further heighten the dismay our psalmist is feeling. The portrait that’s being suggested, here, is in reference to an ancient mode of hunting, wherein long ropes or cords would encircle plots of land where the prey was grazing. These cords, then, would be progressively tightened, making the circle of land increasingly smaller, thereby making the prey that much easier to kill. In this instance, they were literally “the ropes of death.” (Ps 18:4) I imagine David writing these words and being transported back to all those times when he narrowly escaped with his life. The feelings of isolation and loneliness no doubt reared their ugly heads and reminded him of all the harrowing near-death experiences he’d suffered. Perhaps his mind went to the time he was forced to take refuge in the cave of Adullam, one of the darkest seasons in David’s early life.
If you’re unfamiliar with this story, let me set up the course of events for you. In 1 Samuel 16, David gets anointed by Samuel. He’s immediately thrust into a royal life, working in the courts of King Saul. In 1 Samuel 17, David defeats Goliath. Then in 1 Samuel 18, we read of brewing resentment in Saul over David and all his successes. “Saul was furious and . . . watched David jealously from that day forward.” (1 Sam 18:8–9) This jealously boils over in 1 Samuel 19 with Saul hurling a spear at David and David fleeing for his life in the middle of the night. (1 Sam 19:9–10) The ensuing chapter, 1 Samuel 20, tells us of David’s friendship with Saul’s son, Jonathan, who stands in defense of him. (1 Sam 20:27–33) And in 1 Samuel 21–22, we see David on the run, once again. “So David left Gath and took refuge in the cave of Adullam.” (1 Sam 22:1) To some, this cave has become known as David’s “cave of emotional darkness.” This is due to the psalm that many believe he wrote while huddling in that cave, that is, Psalm 13. Listen to the excruciating words of that psalm:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long will I store up anxious concerns within me, agony in my mind every day? How long will my enemy dominate me? Consider me and answer, Lord my God. Restore brightness to my eyes; otherwise, I will sleep in death. My enemy will say, “I have triumphed over him,” and my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. (Ps 13:1–4)
David’s language is fraught with despair. He feels forgotten, unheard, and alone. Put yourself in his shoes, though. He goes from a simple farm boy to a fugitive of the king with a price on his head. His life has been turned upside-down. The dad of his closest friend literally tried to pin him to the wall with a spear. If that’s not enough to rattle your psyche, I don’t know what is.
David felt death closing in on him countless times throughout his life. But I imagine as he wrote, “I called to the Lord in my distress” (Ps 18:6), he went back to those nights in the cave. Those long, cold nights of isolation and hopelessness, where it seemed as though he was living on the precipice of death. When life’s calamities terrified and overwhelmed him like a torrential flood. (Ps 18:4) When he was at the limits of his physical and spiritual endurance.
A lesson in vulnerability.
I think King David’s vulnerability ought to be an example to us of the kind of honesty and humility we ought to have when we come to church in worship and come before God in prayer. Oftentimes we put up really good, really spiritual religious fronts when we come to church. “How are you?” “Great.” “Fine.” “All good.” When inside, we’re struggling, barely surviving. Our faith is despondent. We don’t feel like worshiping at all. Our lives haven’t turned out the way we thought. They’re rife with unmet expectations and unanswered questions. We’ve just trudged through another week of promising ourselves that we’d get better, only to end up failing again, falling into the same old sin. We lost our temper with our spouse, with our kids, with our co-workers, sometimes even right before we walk in the doors of the sanctuary. We feel defeated and discouraged and distressed. But we hide those griefs behind a smile and a handshake.
Stand-up comedian Chris Rock once said, “When you meet somebody for the first time, you’re not meeting them. You’re meeting their representative.” And though he meant that in a joking way, it’s often quite true in churches across the country. We shake hands with people whom we call our “church family” but they don’t really know us. They don’t know what’s grieving us or terrifying us or discouraging us. And that’s because Christians are oftentimes master con artists. We’re so concerned with making sure people see us as having it all together, that we often fake it. It’s okay to admit it, I’ve done this too. I’ve smiled and small-talked and kept up the spiritual masquerade in order to impress people, but internally, my soul was raging. I felt forgotten and alone and overlooked. “I’ve got to be the only one struggling with this sin, or dealing with this heartache.” Such thoughts, though, are absolutely false, and are the very reason the church exists.
A church of the ailing.
What I pray for is that we’d operate more like the psalmist. That we’d feel the comfort and confidence to be open about our struggles, knowing that God has taken them as his own and died for them already. I pray that we’d lay down our polished personas and be okay with not being okay. Or, as the reformer Martin Luther puts it:
May a merciful God preserve me from a Christian Church in which everyone is a saint! I want to be and remain in the church and little flock of the faint-hearted, the feeble and the ailing, who feel and recognize the wretchedness of their sins, who sigh and cry to God incessantly for comfort and help, who believe in the forgiveness of sins.
That’s what church ought to be like. The church ought to be a place where griefs can be openly shared and spoken about because it’s a place where the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and pronounced. And what’s realized in the sharing of griefs and afflictions is that you’re not alone. There are scores of people, even Christians, who are in the trenches with you, dealing with the same doubts and fears and regrets you do. That’s what the church is: a place to cry out to God in our grief in unison.
A truth about grace.
It wouldn’t do us any good if we were here sharing our griefs and heartaches with one another if there wasn’t a greater hope we were trusting in. And that’s when we read these absolutely marvelous words: “I called to the Lord in my distress, and I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.” (Ps 18:6) David’s desperate pleas for grace didn’t go unheard. Our cries for mercy don’t fall on deaf ears. His ears aren’t shut to our desperation. God is always listening. And it’s not just that God listens, he acts on our behalf, too. David’s cries reach the ears of the Lord and look what happens next:
He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he pulled me out of deep water. He rescued me from my powerful enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too strong for me. They confront me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out to a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. (Ps 18:16–19)
These verses are chock full of grace. Notice, though, who’s performing all the actions. God reaches down and takes hold of him, and pulls him out of the flood. God rescues him and brings him to a safe place, a “spacious place.” God exercises absolute sovereignty in the salvation of his children. Nothing is left undone. Your Heavenly Father hears your cries of desperation and takes matters into his own hands. He reaches down to rescue us from drowning in our own sin. (Ps 18:16)
Our heavenly lifeguard.
Have you ever felt like you were really drowning? I have. To be honest with you, I’m not a natural swimmer. I’m not afraid of the water, mind you, but let’s just say my 18-month-old daughter Lydia is already more natural and comfortable in the water than I am. I have this vivid memory of a pool party at my cousin’s house in South Carolina where I nearly drowned. I was probably five to seven at the time. And as I played too close to the water’s edge, I just fell in. I was swallowing lots of water, and it was my cousin who pulled me up out of the water, spitting and choking and coughing. That’s kind of what I picture here.
“He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he pulled me out of deep water.” (Ps 18:16) David felt as though he was drowning. But in grace, God rescued him and pulled him out of the waters of discouragement. God acted like a heavenly lifeguard, reaching down and pulling David up to safety. And if that weren’t enough for you, David goes on to exalt the reason why God did all this for him.
He rescued me because he delighted in me. (Ps 18:19)
Let’s just pause and wonder at that truth! David was delivered because he was delighted in by God. Despite all his fears and questions and anxieties, David was delivered by the very God he doubted. God took it upon himself to rescue the one he loved. And that’s what God has done for all of us.
Grace illustrated, love perfected.
God acts on our behalf to redeem us from death and destruction. He reaches down and rescues us, because he delights in us. This is the unexplainable mystery of the gospel. It doesn’t make sense that God would love this sinful world to such a degree that he’d send his Son to die for it. (Jn 3:16) It’s illogical to us that God would delight in us, his enemies, so much so that he’d take our place of punishment, take our place of death, and bleed for us the very blood that that serves as our salvation.
But God proves his own love for us in that while were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8)
I don’t understand it, nor can I comprehend it. But this is the truth of God’s grace. I have no idea why God would love me and show such grace as he’s shown me. But I do know that I am fully known and fully delighted in by God. This is love perfected. This, too, goes back to the futility of hiding our griefs. God knows everything about you — all your sins, all your struggles — and even still he is forgiving and gracious towards you. God the Father sees all my faults and failures, and yet still reaches down to save me and make me one of his own. This is what God does.
A truth about God.
As King David has described the incredible grief and incalculable grace he’s witnessed firsthand throughout his life, it leads him to worship the almighty God behind it all. Again, put yourself in David’s position. Think about the things he’s done, the atrocities he’s seen, and the heartache he’s endured. As he reflects on the course of his life, all he can do is praise the God who delivered him out of it all.
I love you, Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock where I seek refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I was saved from my enemies. (Ps 18:1–3)
I get the feeling that David’s almost running out of words to describe his Lord, here. He’s pushing the limits of human language to express all the ways God has sustained and supported him throughout his whole life. He’s confirming his resolve in his love for God. “I will love you, Lord,” he’s saying, indicative of a very affectionate, passionate love. In Psalm 18:1–3, it’s evident that David was more in love with his Deliverer than merely the idea of being delivered. He understood that his salvation might not come in this life, but his Savior had still promised to rescue him. Therefore, he’s worthy to be praised.
A rock-like God.
Notice, too, the words used to illustrate who and what the Lord is to him: “strength,” “rock,” “fortress,” “deliverer,” “rock” (again), “refuge,” “shield,” “salvation.” (Ps 18:1–3) The theme in all these descriptions is the absolute solidity and unchangeableness of God. Throughout the ebbs and flows of life, the lone constant that David could rely on was his rock-like God. The God who never moved. The God who never faltered, never failed. In a world that’s defined by change, where nothing ever lasts or stays the same, there’s only one place you can go that’s solid, that’s abiding. And that’s the Lord Jesus Christ. Such is why David begins and ends this song by depicting his God as a rock.
The Lord is . . . my rock where I seek refuge . . . blessed be my rock! (Ps 18:2, 46)
He was signifying the unshakable nature of God who gave him comfort in those dark seasons. When David was hiding in that cave of “emotional darkness,” God was there with him, huddling close to him. That cave he fled to as an escape from the terrors that pursued him proved to be a place of refuge, which now, in his old age, he ascribes as something God did. God was his fortress, his stronghold. There’s nothing that can give you the peace and comfort that God can. David testifies to this when he says, “For who is God besides the Lord? And who is a rock? Only our God.” (Ps 18:31)
I think about my own life and the storms I’ve endured, and I, too, can testify to God’s enduring love for me. When I’ve struggled and felt like giving up, when I’ve felt like quitting on this whole religion thing, God was my refuge. That’s who God is, our unchanging confidence. He’s our place of security and strength and solace. (Ps 18:32–36) In this life that’s filled with disheartening story after disheartening story, that’s riddled with despairing season after despairing season, we can trust in the God of the Bible, because he’s a God of the oppressed. “For you rescue an oppressed people,” the psalmist exclaims. (Ps 18:27) He comes to the aid of the weak and persecuted. (Lk 4:18–19) And to them he serves as a light in the darkness. (Ps 18:28–29)
A dramatic prophecy.
But I think the penultimate truth of this psalm comes as we read verses 7–15, where David gives a dramatic picture of God’s intervention on his behalf. He remembers those awful cries for help and he’s reminded of God hearing them and acting on them. And this inspires him to render in poetic detail the way God delivered him.
Then the earth shook and quaked; the foundations of the mountains trembled; they shook because he burned with anger. Smoke rose from his nostrils, and consuming fire came from his mouth; coals were set ablaze by it. He bent the heavens and came down, total darkness beneath his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew, soaring on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his hiding place, dark storm clouds his canopy around him. From the radiance of his presence, his clouds swept onward with hail and blazing coals. The Lord thundered from heaven; the Most High made his voice heard. He shot arrows and scattered them; he hurled lightning bolts and routed them. The depths of the sea became visible, the foundations of the world were exposed, at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of the breath of your nostrils. (Ps 18:7–15)
These verses are full of powerful imagery, describing the awesome fury of the Lord as he delivers one of his children. David’s not necessarily relaying history in verses, rather, in a picturesque way, he’s worshiping God for his rescue of him. But these words aren’t just poetic, I think they’re actually prophetic. As we read how David illustrates his deliverance, we have to read with an eye to the Lord Jesus Christ, because then we’re made to see how these words aren’t just indicative of what God did for David, they’re what Jesus did for you! I can’t help but read these lines and think of another time when the earth quaked, the mountains shook, and darkness covered the earth. It was on a hill far away, at a place called Golgotha.
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over the whole land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Elí, Elí, lemá sabachtháni?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling for Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and offered him a drink. But the rest said, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” But Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit. Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, and the rocks were split. The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many. When the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mt 27:45–54)
These verses call to mind the One who was beaten and bruised and buried in our stead. David’s not just recounting the miraculous ways God intervened for him, he’s also foretelling a day when a true and better David, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, would come and complete our true and better deliverance. We’re told of a King even greater than David who would come from the lineage of David and not just feel as though the cords of death were wrapping around him, he wouldn’t just be aware of the sorrows of hell that permeated his life. But this One would actually descend to death for us, wrapped in our burial clothes.
A God who comes down.
Through the psalmist’s pen, we’re given a graphic look at the plunge our Lord took in order to save us. Our monstrous sins required nothing less than the steep stoop of deity to secure our redemption. He doesn’t leave us here to wallow in our grief, he comes and takes all our griefs as his own for us! (Is 53:3–5) Jesus is sent from heaven above on a rescue mission to reclaim what’s rightfully his. The marvelous truth about God is that he condescends to us! We could spend an entire series of sermons exploring the reality that he came down. “He bent the heavens and came down . . . He reached down from on high.” (Ps 18:9, 16) The fact that God came down in the flesh is the fact that makes Christianity unlike any other religion in the world. While other systems of faith tell us how we can be like God — often through rigorous, painful, strenuous labor — the gospel tells us of a God who became like us.
The good news of the Word of God is that it tells us how God himself made the ultimate condescension by emptying himself, as it says in Philippians, and “assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.” (Phil 2:7) The God who created dirt and dust and flesh comes down and takes on dirt and dust and flesh for himself. The Creator of the heavens bends them to become a part of the very creation that rejected him. He acts as our Representative, our Substitute and dies the death we deserved on the cross. “And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.” (Phil 2:7–8) And he did this all in order to deliver you out of the waters of sin in which you were drowning. These are the lengths to which God descends in order to redeem you.
So you see, in that way, this song of David that praises the deliverance of God is your song. We who are the redeemed can join in this anthem exalting the Lord’s rescue of us because the same God that delivered David is the same God that’s delivering you. He never moves or changes. He never fails or falters. He’s always there. Blessed be our rock-like God.