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Unless I had believed.
God’s word of promise as the sufferer’s deepest solace and truest security.
There are good ways and bad ways to read and interpret the psalms, especially those that are attributed to King David. A bad way to read them is from the standpoint that David or whoever is writing from a place of having their spiritual life “all figured out.” As if when the psalmist says that he’s hid God’s Word in his heart so that he “might not sin” against him, he’s actually excelling at such an endeavor (Ps. 119:11). Reading the Psalter in that framework makes each song almost sound like a lecture, which isn’t at all how the psalms ought to be read. They are decidedly not academic lectures from some stuffy theological scholar. Rather, they’re the desperate and despondent cries of those who’ve “been there and back again.” A good way to read the psalms, therefore, is from the standpoint that David (or whoever) is convincing himself of what he’s writing about as he’s writing. Indeed, I get the sense that in King David’s darkest hours, he hurried to scribble down his thoughts and his prayers, out which were born many of the psalms that we know and love and cherish to this day. He was processing his struggles and his sorrows as he was writing about them. In many ways, then, the psalms are a believer’s griefs put to song, with the only solution to such grief being the Lord himself.
Psalm 27 offers a striking example of this, beginning with that very memorable refrain: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1). I take this to be one of those instances where the psalmist is reminding himself of who his God is: he is light, he is salvation, he is strength, he is life. Such titles betray the distress in which these lines were composed. Whatever circumstances in which the psalmist found himself, they were accompanied by darkness. There was what felt like an overwhelming “host” that was set against him, whose singular endeavor was to devour him (Ps. 27:2–3). His soul was besieged by an onslaught of untold difficult. And yet, even still, his heart was resolved to worship. In the midst of the war and the tumult that raged around him, he attests, “In this will be confident” (Ps. 27:3). In “what,” exactly? Namely, in the fact that this Lord who quiets his fears does so perfectly by reminding him of his presence.
One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple. For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion: in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock. And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me: therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord. (Ps. 27:4–6)
In the span of three verses, David makes reference to the “house of God” five times. Such was the “one thing” he desired above everything else. He yearned for those days of fellowship and worship in the Lord’s “pavilion.” There he would find confidence. There he would find refuge. There he would be stilled, settled, as “upon a rock.” Indeed, the “one thing” David knew he needed during these dark days was the Lord’s presence. “Time spent in the house of Yahweh and in the presence of Yahweh is never wasted,” Dale Ralph Davis writes, “it only tends to impress us more with His preserving and defending work” (57). For David, the place where that occurred was the tabernacle. For us, that’s the church. Which brings me to this question: When we are undergoing seasons of severe trial, is the church our first resort? Is the church the first place we turn to when days are difficult, bordering on unbearable? And if not, why? For the most part, I’d say that we don’t think of the church as a “first resort.” And I think it’s because we’ve associated the “house of the Lord” with the “place of lecturing.”
There is connotation some have when it comes to church that it is nothing more than the meeting-place you visit to receive your weekly lecture. It’s telling, to me at least, that when the average person thinks about the idea of “preaching,” their mind almost immediately conjures up images of scolding and reprimanding and berating. In fact, that’s how the dictionary defines it: to preach is to “give moral advice to someone in an annoying or pompously self-righteous way” — which, if I were a betting man, I’d wager was representative of the typical understanding of what occurs in churches all the time. The Scriptures, to be sure, call for “reproof,” for rebuking and instructing the church in the ways of the Lord (2 Tim. 3:16). But that’s not all they’re good for. Not by a long-shot. Listening to some preaching, however, might lead you to believe otherwise. The fact is, lectures can never inspire sinners to love their Savior. Only love can do that. I think Rev. Alexander Maclaren is right on the money when he makes that same assertion: “We cannot lecture men into the love of Christ. We can win them to it only by showing Christ’s love to them” (Expositions, 8:1.292).
King David couldn’t wait, so to speak, to get to church. Even in those dark and dim and difficult days, he saw the presence of the Lord and the company of the saints as his most urgent need. He eagerly anticipated escaping to the “house of the Lord,” where he knew he’d find covert and confidence and comfort from the storm. And I think all of that is true because he knew what he would hear when he got there.
Perhaps the most essential question we ought to answer, then, when it comes to the subject of church attendance is this: What are you expecting to hear when you sit in the pew each week? What are you hoping the preacher preaches about? Because if you go to church anticipating to hear messages on a specific topic, but don’t, you will very likely, and very quickly, become frustrated. Eventually, you might even be led to leave the church altogether. And would that be the fault of the preacher or the listener? It’s a complicated question, I won’t lie, as there are certainly times in which the needs of the sheep call for very specific messages from their under-shepherd. But, by and large, it isn’t advisable for preachers to primarily take their cues on what to preach about from the wants of their congregation. In fact, the Scriptures warn about the pitfalls of pastors “itching the ears” of their churchgoers (2 Tim. 4:3–4), speaking only “smooth things” to them (Isa. 30:10).
Instead, those who are called of God to shepherd the church are, likewise, called to singly, primarily, and chiefly “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2) — that is, God’s Word. There’s no other material that’s fit to be proclaimed in the halls of the church. “While the art of preaching can vary widely,” Lewis Allen says, “the science of preaching is far more fixed and should be far more settled” (40). Preachers who are faithful to God’s call have a fairly defined message they are commissioned and entrusted to proclaim. “He is there to deliver a gift,” writes Bob Hiller for 1517. He continues:
What must be emphasized is that the preacher is not there to give a morality lecture with recommendations on how to face unprecedented situations . . . We must work hard to save the idea of preaching from the all-too-common caricature of a Sunday-morning tongue lashing that harps on your failures. In the New Testament, preaching produces repentance and faith by delivering God’s law and gospel, not shame, for the purposes of manipulating behavior. Faith comes through hearing the message of Christ, says St. Paul (Rom. 10:17). Thus, the preacher has one job in these days of collective uncertainty: to fix your eyes on Jesus, the author, and finisher of your faith (Heb. 12:2). He is to stand in the stead of Christ, by the command of Christ (that is because Jesus put him there), to herald the good news of Jesus Christ that is certain: the Crucified One is Lord, and you are forgiven.
A preacher’s message is one that’s been given to him. And it’s one that is entirely absorbed in the glory of the Father and that seeks to enthrall others with that same glimpse of exquisite glory. Such is what David desired and expected to “behold” when he entered his Lord’s house. “One thing have I desired of the Lord,” he sings, “that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). The “beauty of the Lord” is a phrase which invokes God’s incandescent kindness and faithfulness. When he came into the Lord’s sanctuary, that’s what he anticipated to hear, with the primary means of encountering the Lord’s beauty through the Lord’s promises (Ps. 27:2; cf. 1 Sam. 17:44). The past-tense assurance of fallen enemies imbues David with present-day courage and confidence, ensuring him that his current onslaught of “foes” will meet the same fate.
It was God’s word of promise that offered David the deepest solace and truest security. In his time of greatest need, that’s what he needed to hear above else. Namely, what God has done and will do. Such is why the tabernacle was considered a joyous place. “I will sing,” he says, “yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord” (Ps. 27:6). That place of the Lord’s presence was the place of his promise. We’d do well to align our expectations for what we hear in God’s house accordingly. “We must not enter the assemblies of the saints in order to see and be seen,” Charles Spurgeon comments, “or merely to hear the minister; we must repair to the gathers of the righteous, intent upon the gracious object of learning more of the loving Father, more of the glorified Jesus, more of the mysterious Spirit, in order that we may the more lovingly admire, and the more reverently adore our glorious God” (1:2.3).
We ought to take note, though, of the shift in tone as we pass from verse 6 to verse 7, as the psalmist goes from rejoicing and singing “praises unto the Lord” to crying out for help and pleading for merciful ears to hear his cries. “Therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord,” he attests. “Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me” (Ps. 27:6–7). The stark contrast between the stanzas has led some Bible scholars to speculate that this psalm was originally two separate psalms that were, for some reason, forcibly sandwiched together at some point. This I take to be more than a little silly. In fact, I’d say it deludes the elemental beauty of this song. Old Testament professor Dale Ralph Davis explores this paradoxical note in exemplary fashion, arriving at the standpoint that the discrepancy between verses 1–6 and verses 7–12 is precisely the point (Davis, 60). And I agree. “The trauma of verses 7-12 doesn’t falsify the faith of verses 1-6 but deepens it,” Davis concludes (61). This I take to be indicative of King David stepping over the threshold of the Lord’s house, and now that he’s inside, he recognizes why he is there: to confess his weaknesses and worries.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me. When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek. Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation. When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up. Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies. Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty. I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord. (Ps. 27:7–14)
The worshipful confidence which filled David’s mouth in verses 1–6 morphs into desperation in verses 7–14. He cries for God to treat him mercifully, to not turn turn his back on him and his plight (Ps. 27:9), as he trustingly clings to the promise of God’s persistent presence (Ps. 27:10). In short, David’s confession doesn’t sound at all like it emanated from one who “had it all together.” His was a flummoxed faith, like that of a bruised reed that bends with every gust of wind (Isa. 42:3). The only thing that kept him from breaking? Holding on to the hope of the Lord’s goodness for him. “I had fainted,” he testifies, “unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13). David, to be sure, was well aware of how weak he was. Yet, he found strength in the presence of the Lord because he trusted in the promise and prerogative of the Lord to strengthen those who are weak, to lift up those who wait upon him (Ps. 27:6, 14; Isa. 40:31). “Faith does not falter, though it is keenly conscious of difficulties,” Rev. Alexander Maclaren comments. “It is not preserved by ignoring facts, but should be by them impelled to clasp God more firmly as its only safety” (Psalms, 267).
I am continually uplifted by the fact that David never shied away from sharing his deepest, darkest griefs with his Lord. Actually, I think that’s the point. He openly vented his frustrations, bearing his heart and soul to the only One who could truly heal him and put him back together. And that, I think, is what the church is for. The church isn’t for people who have it all together, or think that they do. The church is for those who know they don’t have it all together, who know they’re broken. The church is for those who readily understand that unless they had believed, they would’ve surely fallen. As the eminent Richard Sibbes explains, “The church of Christ is a common hospital, wherein all are in some measure sick of some spiritual disease or other” (42). The place where the Lord’s presence dwells is a place of relief and recovery. It’s a place of belief and unbelief at the same time (Mark 9:24). May we never shy away from acknowledging our weakness. That’s what makes us strong.
Lewis Allen, The Preacher’s Catechism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).
Dale Ralph Davis, In the Presence of My Enemies: Psalms 25–37 (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2020).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).
Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, Vol. I: Psalms I—XXXVIII (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1904).
Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, and the Smoking Flax (Parmouth: B. Gooch, 1818).
Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vols. 1–3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988).