Have you ever felt hemmed in? Your problems are so vast, there is no way out you can see, so that you just feel claustrophobic? Trapped. Squeezed.
If so, this Psalm is for you.
Under pressure. Pressure pushing down on me. Pressing down on you, no man ask for. Under pressure that burns a building down. Splits a family in two. Puts people on streets. It's the terror of knowing what the world is about. Watching some good friends screaming, "Let me out!" Pray tomorrow gets me higher. Pressure on people, people on streets.
This is a Psalm written by someone who was in dire straits.
Verse 1: “Give me relief from my distress”. That word “distress” literally means “constraint”, being “hemmed in”, “squeezed”.
If you’ve felt that kind of pressure, have you also felt the pull to look elsewhere for help? Have you wondered if your faith in God makes any difference? People who don’t put their trust in God seem to do just fine. If anything, their goals of money, financial security, career first, seem to have given them some security that you could only wish for?
There are several Psalms that reflect on that wistfulness. It’s a theme that first pops up here, in Psalm 4. The Psalm is written by David the king, and in verse 2 he addresses some of his people: “How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?” In this crisis, the people are beginning to panic. Israel’s God does not seem to be coming to their aid. So maybe another god can help.
We aren’t told the exact situation when this was written. That’s a good thing; it means it’s relevant for lots of situations, not just the one that first triggered it.
But we can reconstruct the kind of thing that may have happened. Verse 7 suggests that maybe their crops have failed. Perhaps a drought.
Drought was common in Israel. It was a hot, dry climate with only seasonal rain.
When the people first arrived in the land, they asked the previous inhabitants what they did when the rains failed. The Canaanites worshipped various gods, and they had a fertility religion. They had shrine prostitutes, and they slept with them as part of their worship. The thinking was that the gods rewarded this so-called worship by making the land fertile.
So the desperate, hungry, thirsty Israelites felt the pressure. The Canaanites sleep with the shrine prostitutes, and their ground sprouts with new growth. “We’re wasting our time here with our God. He doesn’t work.”
And pulled towards other gods, other sources of security.
Our situation is different. But this is something we can relate to.
The Psalm is slightly unusual. Like the other Psalms, it’s a prayer, it’s addressed to God. But only half of it is addressed to God. The rest is addressed to an imaginary audience. It’s as if the people of God are overhearing the king pray. Which, of course, we are. He pleads with them, he pleads with us, not to be drawn towards other gods, other places of security, but to come to the Lord.
So we’re going to look first at the middle of the Psalm, verses 2 to 5. The middle of the Psalm addresses us. Then we’re look at the parts of the psalm that address God, the outside: verse 1 and verses 6 to 8.
Don’t Chase after False Gods
So, firstly, verses 2 to 5: Don’t chase after false gods. Don’t chase after false gods.
David diagnoses what’s wrong with playing away from home when it comes to religion.
There are two fatal flaws. The gods are worthless. And you’re being unfaithful.
Firstly, they’re worthless. Verse 2: “How long will you people turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?”
If you look back to Psalm 3 verse 3, God is David’s glory. But the people have treated David’s glory shamefully.
The gods they run after are delusions. They’re not real. They’re a mirage. They look like they’ll provide relief, but they are powerless to help you.
Not only that, they’re also false gods. They’re a lie. The claim they can help you is a lie. The claim they even exist is a lie.
They’re worthless,… and you’re unfaithful.
Verse 3: “Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself”.
God looks after his own. God is faithful to his own. We’ll come back to God’s faithfulness in a second. But the point is that if you chase after other gods, you’re not being faithful to God. And God loves to look after people who respond to his faithful love by being faithful to him.
Those are the two flaws with chasing after false gods. If you do, they’re worthless, and you’re unfaithful.
And so David has two pieces of advice for us when we’re tempted to look in other places than God for our security and our help.
Number 1: Know that God favours the faithful.
“Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.”
God sets his people apart.
The word here is the word used in the book of Exodus when God sent plagues on Egypt. If you don’t know the story, the people of God were slaves in Egypt. God kept telling Pharaoh to set his people free, but Pharaoh kept digging his heels in. Pharaoh said no.
So God set about trying to persuade him. Intimidate Pharaoh into setting his people free, if you like. God sent 9 plagues on Egypt. And in some of them later ones God treated his own people differently, set them apart. There was pitch black darkness over the whole of Egypt, except for where the Israelites lived. The livestock of the Egyptians died in a plague, but not one head of cattle was lost to the people of Israel.
God set his people apart. And he still does that today.
If you feel the pull of other gods, that’s David’s first piece of advice: Know that God favours the faithful.
David’s second piece of advice is to trust God respectfully. Trust God respectfully.
Verses 4 and 5: “Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer the sacrifices of the righteous and trust in the Lord.”
Tremble I think means to have a reverent respect for God. Know who he is.
Tremble and do not sin. Stop turning elsewhere.
When you lie in bed, that’s when you make your plans, think your thoughts that you maybe don’t even dare to speak aloud to someone else. David says: “when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent”. Bedtime is time for serious introspection. Take a look at yourself, and stop this silly talk of other gods looking after you better.
Don’t offer sacrifices to the fertility gods. Or to whichever gods take your fancy. Offer the sacrifices of the righteous, sacrifices to the one true God. And put your trust in the Lord.
That’s David’s advice if your eye is being drawn away from God. Know that God favour the faithful. Trust God respectfully.
We’re not likely to be drawn after fertility gods today. Although modern Western culture has found equivalents that are far closer than perhaps we realise.
We’re also not likely to be drawn to worship literal other gods. If your career is falling apart I can’t see many here finding a Hindu temple to visit, just in case it does some good.
But we are all prone to lose our confidence that God is able to see us through.
One little example of this is how to fund our church hall. We had a discussion at the PCC whether we should apply to the National Lottery for funding. We could debate whether the National Lottery is a bad thing or not. I happen to think our country would be in better shape if it never existed. Let’s not get side-tracked onto that debate. But for the sake of argument, this illustrates the lure of other gods to see us through.
One god our society does worship is the desire to get rich. The view on much money we have defines whether our life is in good shape or not. The thirst for more. The greed to consume. That is the worldview that drives the Lottery. If that’s right, then the sparkle of Lottery funding is exactly the kind of thing this psalm is talking about. Looking over our shoulder, and noticing that people who live for the desire to get rich don’t usually seem to be short of a bob. So maybe their god could help us get our hall up.
As I said, the issue of the Lottery would be a distraction here. Because this all illustrates the kinds of alternative gods we may find ourselves drawn towards. We live in a society that idolises wealth, the security of owning your own home, a steadily progressing career.
And here you are, turning down a promotion because you want to have time for your family, and for your church family. Here you are, being passed by for promotion because you’re known to have ethical principles that could be awkward for your employer. Here you are, giving money each month so that others can hear about Jesus, rather than building that nest-egg. Then hard times come, and it’s easy to wonder if your principled loyalty to Jesus Christ was misplaced.
Don’t chase after false gods. They’re not real. It’s unfaithful. Instead: Know that God favours the faithful. Trust God respectfully.
Don’t chase after false gods.
Call on the Lord your God
Now let’s look at the rest of the Psalm, the beginning and the end, verse 1 and verses 6 to 8: Call on the Lord your God. Call on the Lord your God.
When you feel under pressure, here are 5 things to seek from the Lord in prayer. And they’re all things that we wonderfully have in the Lord Jesus.
Number 1, grace. Grace. Verse 1: “Have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” That word for “mercy” is the word for God’s undeserved kindness. His grace. David comes to God to seek grace. Not to seek the help that he deserves, but to have God take pity on him and pour out the relief that he needs, purely out of his kindness.
That’s the attitude we need to have as we come to pray. We’re not asking God’s help because we deserve it but because God is kind.
And as Christians, we are those who have received God’s grace. In the Lord Jesus, God has given us the free gift of being adopted as his children. Not because we deserve it. But because he is kind.
And so Jesus says: “My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”
Grace. Number 2, relief. Relief. Verse 1 again: “Give me relief from my distress.” We said the word for “distress” is a picture of constraint, being hemmed in and trapped. The word for “relief” is the opposite; It’s the word for having plenty of space. Loads of room.
When I was at college, we lived in a tiny little one bed flat. By the time we left, we were two adults and a 6 month old baby, with our stuff poked into every available crevice. What was my study had become a nursery. We could hardly move. Then we moved to Staffordshire, and we were given a four-bed house to live in. Oh, the space! Room to breathe. Room to stretch out. Room to live.
If your life is one big squash and squeeze, that’s your prayer. For relief. For room. For space.
Grace. Relief. Number 3, God’s blessing. God’s blessing.
Verse 6: “Many, Lord, are asking, ‘Who will bring us prosperity?’ Let the light of your face shine on us.”
Here’s the draw of the false gods again. The people were being purely pragmatic. “Who’s going to help in this crisis? Who can bring us prosperity? What’s going to work the magic?”
To which David responds with a prayer that draws on the blessing the priests were told to pronounce in Numbers chapter 6: “Let the light of your face shine on us.” Light signifies God’s blessing and his favour. It’s a prayer that God would turn his face towards you, and his favour, his goodness, his blessing, would shine in your direction, shine on you.
Don’t just remove the negative. Relief. Ask for the positive. Ask God to shower good things on you. Blessing.
Grace. Relief. Blessing. Then fourth, joy.
Verse 7: “Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound.”
The people who put their trust in the fertility gods may get a bumper harvest. They may get grain. New wine.
There’s something David wants more than grain and new wine. He wants joy in his heart. His contentment in God does not come from his circumstances. He does not only say that all is well when he has grain in his barn and new wine in his cellar. His joy comes from knowing that his life is in God’s hands, and so all is well regardless of what’s going on out there.
That’s an extraordinary prayer to pray, a bold prayer to pray. It’s so easy only to celebrate when times are good. Very bold to ask for God to make us content with the fact we have him, regardless of our circumstances. Very bold to ask for that kind of joy.
The night before Jesus died, he said to his followers: “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Much trouble in the world. But it’s a world Jesus has overcome, so even in the midst of trouble we can have peace, we can have complete joy.
The apostle Paul had got this straight. His letter to the Philippians is full of joy. Chapter 4, verse 4, he tells them: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!”. Then, chapter 4 verse 11: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty of in want.”
Grace. Relief. Blessing. Joy. And lastly, Security. Security. Verse 8: “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
We met the theme of sleep in Psalm 3 as well. The person who knows all is well, who knows that God has their back, can lie down and sleep, because they know God will watch over them and look after them. Like Jesus, who fell fast asleep in the midst of a storm.
Lie down and sleep. Not lie awake and worry. The moment your head hits the pillow, you’re fast asleep. Because God makes you dwell in safety. You’re secure.
And notice, this is not hedged bets. He’s not appeased every god from every religion, hoping that at least one can help. “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.” You don’t need every god. You just need the one that can help. And that’s what he’s got.
The Lord Jesus gives us security. Eternal security. The New Testament frequently uses language of “sleep” to describe death. Even when we sleep in death, we are secure, if we are in the grip of the Lord Jesus.
So here is counsel, wise advice, for whenever you find yourself squeezed, stressed, pressured, constrained.
Don’t chase after false gods. They may be very appealing, but they’re worthless, and God favours the faithful. Instead, come to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and call on him.
Seek from him grace, relief, blessing, joy and security.
All things he delights to give to his children.