God’s Bountiful Strength to His People
A long time ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote, They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint (Isa. 40:31). This is one of the best descriptions of the strength that God gives to his people in the entire Bible.
But if you’re like me, there are times when you don’t feel like your strength has been renewed at all. Mounting up with wings like eagles and running is about the last thing on your mind. You can barely crawl at a snail’s pace, and even that takes a lot of effort.
What do you do when you find yourself in this kind of situation? Do you give up in despair? Do you question God’s goodness or the truthfulness of his Word? Do you wonder whether God really loves you or is only playing some mean trick on you?
When David wrote the words of our text, he felt like he was at the end of his rope. He could not imagine his life getting any worse. He had complaints and problems coming at him from every direction. His spirit was overwhelmed. His enemies had laid a snare to catch him in his tracks. He could not find any one to lend a helping hand. Yet, even in the hour of his greatest affliction he never forgot God’s promise. In the midst of the worst affliction he could have imagined, he remembered that God was his refuge and portion. The Lord would deliver him. Of that he was absolutely sure.
David’s Plea for Help
When great problems arise, great men cry out to God in prayer. That’s what David did in verse 1. Twice he says that he cried out with his voice or, in other words, he prayed audibly. But this does not mean that he prayed aloud in order to garner the sympathy of men. If he had done this, it would not only have been a misuse of prayer, it would have rendered his prayer ineffective in the courts of heaven. Jesus said, When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward (Matt. 6:5).
To the contrary, David prayed aloud because he sought the attention of God. Only the Lord can keep a man from sinking in the midst of trouble. Only the Lord can keep him from being swallowed up in the sea of despair. Only the Lord can take a man’s soul out of prison and put a song of joy and deliverance in his heart. While there is no point in praying to be heard by men, there is great benefit in calling upon the God of heaven.
Karl Marx, as you know, did not have much use for religion at all. He once wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Likewise, many people think that prayer is nothing more than a crutch that people rely on when their lives are falling apart. Religion and prayer, they say, are for weak people — people who can’t stand on their own.
There is a sense in which these sentiments are correct. In fact, I would go even further and say that religion and prayer are for people who understand that they are totally helpless like a newborn baby. You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” But the truth of the matter is that God helps those who cannot help themselves. Isn’t that what Paul meant when he wrote, But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (Eph. 2:4–5)? And when God helps us in our helplessness, we become strong. Again, Paul wrote, And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong (II Cor. 12:9–10).
In Psalm 142 David confessed his frailty. We have a tendency to exalt the saints whose deeds are recorded in Scripture above other men, as if their faith were greater or their deeds more remarkable. But sometimes it’s good to be reminded that they were only men, struggling with the same temptations and problems as everyone else. When the priest of Lystra wanted to make a sacrifice to Paul after he had healed a crippled man, Paul said to the people, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you (Acts 14:15). And James wrote that Elijah, whose prayers stopped the rain for three and a half years, was a man subject to like passions as we are (Jas. 5:17). Even David, who in his youth killed Goliath and in his later years led the armies of Israel into battle, wrestled with his own weakness.
David’s Plight and Confidence
The superscription to this psalm says that David wrote it “when he was in the cave.” The problem is that there are two times in the Old Testament when David hid in a cave. In I Samuel 22 he was in the cave of Adullam, and two chapters later he was in a cave near En Gedi. Commentators are divided as to which one was intended, but it probably doesn’t make that much difference. The circumstances of both cave dwellings were basically the same and very little time had passed between them.
The details of David’s cave experience are not as important as the fact that he was in a cave. The cave was his trial, his affliction, his tutor. One commentator even says that the theme of this psalm is David’s cry for God’s help from the cavern of despair.
Even glancing over Psalm 142 quickly, we can hardly miss the constant repetition of David’s plea for God’s help. We see it in verses 1 and 2: I cried unto the LORD with my voice; with my voice unto the LORD did I make my supplication. I poured out my complaint before him; I shewed before him my trouble. His cry comes to the forefront again in verses 5 and 6: I cried unto thee, O LORD: I said, Thou art my refuge and my portion in the land of the living. Attend unto my cry; for I am brought very low: deliver me from my persecutors; for they are stronger than I. When God humbled David, he accepted it as a stroke from the hand of a loving heavenly Father. Although his enemies threatened his life, he never relinquished his faith in God. There were, no doubt, times when his faith was stronger than others, but he never lost it altogether. Neither did he whine and complain about the lot that God had assigned for his life. He simply took the matter to the Lord, knowing that God had already determined the outcome. He reverently expressed his request in a spirit of trust and confidence. When he was done, he left the whole problem in the loving hands of his heavenly Father. To put it another way, his concerns only drove him closer to the Lord, and not farther away from him. Every cry that swelled up in his aching heart reminded him that he belonged body and soul, both in life and in death, to Jehovah, who had promised to be his God throughout all eternity.
David’s immediate concern, according to this psalm, was his physical safety. He mentioned this in verse 3: When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then thou knewest my path. In the way wherein I walked have they privily laid a snare for me.
David was more than well acquainted with the snares of the ungodly. King Saul had not only threatened his life numerous times, but had even tried to assassinate him on several occasions. He knew, of course, that God had given him the kingdom. Samuel had already anointed him as Saul’s successor. There was, therefore, no doubt that God had great things in store for him. But this does not mean that David could just take it easy. Nor does it mean that the trials and afflictions that he experienced before coming to the throne were not real. Look at the suffering that Jesus endured before he took his seat at the right hand of God the Father. Hebrews 12:2 says that he for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. David had to take every precaution against Saul’s attacks. When we turn to the Lord for protection, we have the responsibility to do what we can to protect ourselves.
So, what did David do? Actually, he did quite a few things according to the account in I Samuel 21 and following. Sometimes, when men fear for their lives, they lose sight of other responsibilities. They become so concerned about their immediate needs that they forget everything else. But this was not true of David.
First, David went to the tabernacle and asked Ahimelech for the sword of Goliath. Remember that this was the sword that he had used to slay the giant who rose up against the Lord. It had been stored in the tabernacle since then, but now that he had to face another of the Lord’s enemies he asked to have it back. He took it and found a cave to hide in (cf. I Sam. 21:8–9).
However, David was not the only one whose life was in jeopardy. So also were the lives of the members of his family. David understood that he had an obligation toward them as well. Once he had his cave chosen and ready, his brethren and all his father’s house … went down thither to him (I Sam. 22:1). In fact, David was so concerned for the life of his aging parents that he took them to Moab and asked the king of Moab to protect them. This was just a temporary measure, as David told the king, until he could discern what God would do for him (I Sam. 22:3). This also shows his strong confidence in God’s protection.
And finally, David and his brothers established a small ragtag army of about four hundred men. This was definitely not a typical army. Every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented gathered themselves unto him (I Sam. 22:2). There wasn’t a single person known for his bravery in the whole outfit, but David couldn’t be very picky: all the brave men had already joined Saul’s army. So David took whoever was willing to lend him a hand — misfits, debtors and outcasts — and transformed them into an army that would fight the Lord’s battles.
Jesus did the same thing. He called twelve men, mostly fishermen with a few notorious sinners, and prepared them to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6). God uses means to accomplish his ends, but that means he chooses are not always the ones that we might think would be most helpful. In order to exalt his own grace and glory, he uses the weak things of this world and not its mighty things. Paul wrote, For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence (I Cor. 1:26–29).
David took precautions for his own safety and for the safety of others, but he did not trust these precautions to protect him. According to verse 4, even with his little army he felt alone and forsaken. He wrote, I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul.
In some ways, David was alone and forsaken. After word of Ahimelech’s kindness to David reached Saul, Saul dispatched a ruthless man named Doeg to murder all the priests. Only one man survived. This put everyone in such a state of fear that no one was willing to show David the least amount of kindness. No one would give him bread, lodging, or even speak a kind word to him. Like his greater Son, he was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isa. 53:3).
Relief at Last!
For a short time after David killed Goliath, Saul made use of his unique talents and gifts. But that refrain that the women sang was just too much. When they attributed the victory ten times greater to David than to Saul, his jealousy got the best of him. Pinning David to the wall with a javelin was not enough. Saul persecuted him as if he were the worst criminal in the history of the world, when he would have been wiser to have exalted him to a higher office.
The king was not David’s help. He was David’s enemy. The only comfort and help the David could rely upon was the Lord. And so in the midst of persecution, he confessed in verse 5 that God was his refuge and his portion in the land of the living. He turned to the Lord to give him safety and protection.
David’s example teaches us to do the same. We are also encouraged to find our help in the Lord in Psalm 91. There the psalmist wrote, Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling (vv. 9–10). There is no safer refuge than the Lord because there is no other refuge but the Lord. No one protects better than he because he is the only one who can protect us at all. His love and care for those who put their trust in Jesus Christ is unassailable. Listen to those powerful words that the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome: What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:31–39).
Although David was made very low by the circumstances that we have described, he knew that God would once again bring his soul out of prison and fill his heart with rejoicing. That’s what he asked God to do for him in verse 7. In that same verse he also expresses his confidence that the Lord would eventually allow the righteous to surround him again. The communion of the saints is not just a theological doctrine that we confess on Sunday mornings. It’s a statement of the life that exist within the body of Christ, the ministry that we all have one to another, and the sweetness of knowing that we have all been bound together by the cords of our Savior’s covenantal love.
David loved the fellowship of God’s people. The description of his army that we gave earlier makes it look like there wasn’t much to it at all. It was all just people who are unsettled and unstable. But that’s not really the case. Look who joined this army. First, we have the prophet Gad (I Sam. 22:5), who may have been a disciple of Samuel and probably had studied in Samuel’s school of the prophets. Think of him as David’s chaplain and spiritual advisor. Then there was also Abiathar the priest (I Sam. 22:20). Abiathar was the only priest from Ahimelech’s family who escaped Doeg’s ignominious massacre. Thus, the young King David had a prophet and a priest in his company of soldiers. All the various aspects of ministry were represented and functioning. The benefits of this can be seen in subsequent events, where it becomes clear that David and the others molded this army into something that truly served the Lord.
And what a glorious picture of Christ and his threefold office of prophet, priest and king!
Established in Divine Courts
The last line of Psalm 142 expresses David’s confidence that the Lord will deal bountifully with him. Actually, this psalm is full of God’s bountiful kindness. The Lord gives us prayer, so that we can cry out to him in our distresses. The Lord hears our prayers, so that we know that we will not be overwhelmed when the flood of affliction comes our way. The Lord makes himself to be our refuge, where we can hide to weather the storms of life. The Lord delivers us from the prison of affliction and brings us into the congregation of his people, where we can praise his name and be surrounded by the righteous. These are great and precious gifts that we ought never to take for granted.
Psalm 52 was written about the same time and in the same circumstances as our text. It was, however, written with a different purpose in mind: to denounce specifically the murder of the priests by Doeg. But verses 8 and 9 add a little more information about the bountiful blessings that God gave to David.
David wrote there that he was like a green olive tree in the house of God. In another place, he compared the wicked to a green bay tree (Ps. 37:35). The bay tree was known for having large, deep green leaves that were very deceptive. Going to it, one would think that such a lush tree would have plenty of wonderful fruit. But it never had anything but large, deep green leaves. In other words, sin looks enticing but there’s no real satisfaction in it. The olive tree, on the other hand, was always fat with fruit. Its small leaves looked pale and sickly by comparison, but what it lacked in beauty it made up for in productivity. So it is with Christians. In another place, David wrote that the righteous shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing (Ps. 92:14).
Hiding in the cave wasn’t easy for David. Before he hid there, he had to admit that he could not deal with his enemies himself. They were too strong for him, and he was too weak for them. No one likes to admit it when we have a problem that we cannot deal with by ourselves.
The fact is that the Lord makes all of us take refuge once in a while. He does this to teach us that he is our only refuge. He never said that our lives as Christians would be easy. To the contrary Jesus said, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9:23). There is no surer way to bring affliction into your life than to follow Jesus Christ.
But that’s only part of the story. We will never be able to manage our trials by ourselves. Psalm 142 teaches us to find our strength in the Lord.
Peter encourages you to cast all your cares upon him because he cares for you (I Pet. 5:7). Jesus endured every kind of trial that you will ever experience and he did it to take the venom out of your trials. As your merciful and faithful high priest, he hears your complaints and groans and sighs, just like he heard David’s.
Let us then heed the admonition given to us in the fourth chapter of the book of Hebrews: For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:15–16). Amen.