Scandalous Faith (Psalm 3)
By Mike Ivaska
A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.
1 Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
2 Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”
3 But you, Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
4 I call out to the Lord,
and he answers me from his holy mountain.
5 I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
6 I will not fear though tens of thousands
assail me on every side.
7 Arise, Lord!
Deliver me, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked.
8 From the Lord comes deliverance.
May your blessing be on your people. (NIV)
At noon today, at the Vashon Theatre, was the annual National Day of Prayer service. Like many of my generation and younger I have often struggled with the apparent close connection between evangelical Christianity and patriotism. I and those younger than myself have never grown up in an overtly Christian version of America and so are very used to secularism and are very used to being a social minority among people our age. Christians are a strong presence still, politically speaking, mostly because of the older generations. Few people in their 20s-40s, especially on the coasts and in the cities, are Christian believers, with the numbers plummeting the younger you go. Even those who are Christian are far more diverse, politically speaking, than their parents and grandparents. So, few of us tend to connect Christianity and America the way our older brothers and sisters in the faith tend to. We are used to being strangers in a strange land. Because of this I have often had mixed feelings about the National Day of Prayer and have not always attended.
Today, at the beginning of the service, I was deeply moved by the opening prayer - a prewritten prayer composed for the event. It was a prayer of thanks to God for the heritage of our nation and a prayer of confession to Him for the moral declines that have taken place in the past decades. At first I listened along to the prayer just formally, which is easy to do in an event like this. As the prayer recounted the faith of various early Americans, I listened politely without being much moved. When the prayer moved on to confession of sin, at first I heard it as a thinly veiled listing-off of "other people's" sins. This is something far too easy for us to do as Christians. We talk about "those" people and their sins: those homosexuals, those liberals, those drug addicts, those pagans, etc. I sighed and listened, admittedly holding an unfair judgment in my heart against the event in which I was participating. But at some point during the prayer my attention was caught: This was a prayer of confession for our sins. Like the prophets in the Old Testament, the pray-er was identifying herself with the sins of her neighbors and admitting that we too are part of the problem. I don't know if this was the intention of the prayer's author, but that is what I heard when the prayer was read. It was the prayer of someone looking at a broken situation and asking God to forgive and restore.
Similarly, in our psalm today, we see David expressing faith in God during a broken situation. The title, which is part of the original text, identifies this psalm with David's flight during his son Absalom's rebellion (recounted in 2 Samuel 15-17). If you know the story, you know that Absalom's attempted takeover of the kingdom from his father had its roots in Absalom's bitterness over an unjust situation. Absalom's sister had been raped by another of David's sons (her half-brother). David, in his old age, did little to bring justice in the situation and in fact showed favoritism between his children. When Absalom took matters into his own hands and killed the rapist, David punished him for it by exiling him from the kingdom. Eventually David allowed Absalom to return to the kingdom, but said that he never wanted to see him again. After Absalom's return, in bitterness over David's poor parenting and kingsmanship, he began a coup that nearly cost David his kingdom and his life.
It is hard for us to understand ancient justice, but despite David's sin it was still an evil thing for Absalom to try and overthrow his king. Deeper still, David was not just any king. He was the Lord's anointed king over Israel. Absalom could have demanded justice from God, but instead he succumbed to bitterness and tried to take over the kingdom. David was experiencing the consequences of his sin, both against Absalom's sister and, earlier, against Uriah the Hittite whose wife, Bathsheba, he slept with and committed murder to cover up. David's situation was really David's fault. David was a sinner before God who deserved what he had coming to him. Nevertheless, David was also a forgiven sinner. He was God's chosen king. His sins were atoned for through the blood of sacrifices that pointed forward to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. He was God's child experiencing God's discipline but nevertheless forgiven and accepted. And, shockingly, in this psalm David confesses confidence that God will keep his promises and restore David to wholeness, delivering him from his enemies.
Praying this psalm for ourselves today puts our own sins in a new light. We like to think of our sins as "not that bad," and certainly not as bad as our unbelieving neighbors! We could pray Psalm 3 triumphantly for ourselves and not consider how bad the sins of the person who wrote these words actually were. That would be a mistake. We know from other psalms that David was a man who confessed his sins when he came to realize his guilt and who repented when he needed to. It was not that David, blind to his own wickedness, called upon God to smite "those bad people over there." He was a forgiven sinner who called upon his God to keep the promises God had made to him in spite of his sin. And that is who we are, too. So whether we come to God in prayer for personal circumstances or in heartbreak (and even anger) over injustice and sin in the world, we come to God knowing two things: "I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior" (John Newton).
I am not saying that every problem we face in life is the direct result of some sin we committed. And I am not saying that Christians are participants in every form of evil that takes place in society (though we certainly aren't innocent). What I am saying is that when we come to God in prayer, we should first of all know that it is only through the forgiveness of sins that we can even approach him. I don't think this should make us wallow in our guilt or be fearful before God. I think it should make us amazed at God's grace toward us in Christ! We truly do not deserve the love and grace we experience. It is scandalous. Truly scandalous! But God loves us anyway and has forgiven our sin through the sacrificial death of his Son, Jesus Christ. Knowing this, we can and should pray with the scandalous confidence of David in Psalm 3.
Reread Psalm 3 at the top of this page and consider David's guilt. Now realize it is not justice but grace that answered David's prayer.