A Psalm for Understanding Psalms

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn, Speaker

Psalms 18 | June 2 - Sunday Evening,

Sunday Evening,
June 2
A Psalm for Understanding Psalms | Psalms 18
Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn, Speaker

I invite you to turn with me this evening to Psalm 18.  We’ve just had sung a preview of the psalm.  I’m going to read the whole of the psalm this evening.

My wife grew up in a home that held a portrait of a 19th century Christian named James Garfield.  Garfield had a complicated past but long before he sat for that portrait he had a moral reformation.  In fact, in 1881 he was elected to lead this country and at that time he was serving as an elder in his church.  As he prepared to move to Washington, he said these memorable words to his brothers and sisters in his church:  “I resign the highest office in the land to become President of the United States.”  It’s a striking comment, placing Christian service as a greater honor than leading a country.

I was reminded of President Garfield’s remark because of the little forward written for Psalm 18.  You can see it there in block print, if you have your Bible in front of you.  I’m not sure who penned these prefatory words to the choirmaster, to the Nathan George of Israel, but I find it striking that the King of Israel here is introduced as a mere servant of the Lord.  What better way to recalibrate our godly ambitions than to consider the privilege of serving the Lord, of honoring Him as our Lord.  We get a chance this evening to identify ourselves as servants by humbling ourselves under the Word of God, lots of God’s word, Psalm 18 is not a short psalm.

As you listen, I’m going to give you a little guide because this is also not an easy psalm.  Psalm 18 has five parts.  Look for them.  There’s a call to worship in verses 1 to 3, deliverance for David is celebrated in verses 4 to 19, a refuge for the righteous is discussed in verses 20 to 30, deliverance through David appears in verses 31 to 45, and then there’s the doxology in the closing verses.

After the Scriptures are read, we’ll look at each part in turn.  This is God’s Word, beginning at verse 1.  

“I love you, O Lord, my strength.  The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.  I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.  The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.  In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help.  From His temple He heard my voice, and my cry to Him reached His ears.” 

“Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because He was angry.  Smoke went up from his nostrils, a devouring fire from His mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from Him.  He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under His feet.  He rode on cherubim and flew; He came swiftly on the wings of the wind.  He made darkness his covering, His canopy around Him, thick clouds dark with water.  Out of the brightness before Him hailstones and coals of fire broke through His clouds.  The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered His voice, hailstones and coals of fire.  And He sent out his arrows and scattered them; He flashed forth lightnings and routed them.  Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at Your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of Your nostrils.  He sent from on high, He took me; He drew me out of many waters.  He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me.  They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support.  He brought me out into a broad place; He rescued me, because He delighted in me.”

“The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands He rewarded me.  For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God.  For all His rules were before me, and His statutes I did not put away from me.  I was blameless before Him, and I kept myself from my guilt.  So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in His sight.  With the merciful You show Yourself merciful; with the blameless man You show Yourself blameless; with the purified You show yourself pure; and with the crooked You make Yourself seem tortuous.  For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes You bring down.  For it is You who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness.  For by You I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.  This God—His way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; He is a shield for all those who take refuge in Him.”

“But who is God, but the Lord?  And who is a rock, except our God? — the God who equipped me with strength and made my way blameless.  He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.  He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.  You have given me the shield of Your salvation, and Your right hand supported me, and Your gentleness made me great.  You gave a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip.  I pursued my enemies and overtook them, and did not turn back till they were consumed.  I thrust them through, so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet.  For You equipped me with strength for the battle; You made those who rise against me sink under me.  You made enemies turn their backs to me, and those who hated me I destroyed.  They cried for help, but there was none to save; they cried to the Lord, but He did not answer them.  I beat them fine as dust before the wind; I cast them out like the mire of the streets.  You delivered me from strife with the people; You made me the head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me.  As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me; foreigners came cringing to me.  Foreigners lost heart and came trembling out of their fortresses.”

“The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation — the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me, who rescued me from my enemies; yes, You exalted me above those who rose against me; You delivered me from the man of violence.  For this I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations, and sing to Your name.  Great salvation He brings to His king, and shows steadfast love to His anointed, to David and his offspring forever.”

This is God’s Word.  Let us pray.  Our Father and our God, we come to You tonight.  We marvel at this psalm.  We thank You for its beauty, for its power, its fullness, for the way it sets forth You are God in all your wondrous majesty.  Give us a deeper sense of who You are, we ask.  As we now turn to reflect upon the psalm, help us by Your Holy Spirit as only Your Holy Spirit can.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Jesus once said to His friends, “If you don’t understand this parable, how are you going to understand any parable?”  I want to ask that question tonight about Psalm 18.  If we don’t understand this psalm, how are we going to understand any of the psalms?  Like all the psalms, Psalm 18 has a personal author and a historical context.  While that’s shrouded and clouded in some psalms, in this one it’s not.  David wrote this after he was freed from his foes.

Like all the psalms, Psalm 18 frequently uses poetic images that we must not use rigidly.  The Lord is a rock.  I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this does not mean that God is made of stone.  Like many of the psalms, Psalm 18 highlights key points through a careful structure.  While I’m a little nervous about introducing this imagery so close to suppertime, I cannot help but think about how this psalm is shaped a little bit like a hamburger.

At the center of the psalm, the meat of the psalm, there’s a point or a puzzle that we’re not supposed to miss.  Here in verses 20 to 30 we’re told the Lord offers refuge for the righteous.  Then on both sides of the center we see another pair of points, points that are similar but different.

I don’t want to get too cheesy here so I’ll let you imagine the next layer yourself, but the idea is that the psalmist has a message that gets repeated on either side of the center but with a twist.  Some of you are already onto onion rings, but the twist I’m thinking about is a shift in a theme.  In verses 4 to 19, God says that He provides deliverance for David.  But then on the other side of the center, in verses 31 to 45, God tells us that He works deliverance through David.  Similar, but different.

Finally, on the outside of our poetic hamburger, top and bottom, we have the bread.  Here we find an opening and a closing theme, that theme is shaped a little differently on these two ends.  On top, verses 1 to 3, the psalm gives us a call to worship, or an encouragement to worship.  Then in verses 46 to 50 we’re given a doxology, some final words of worship.

So let’s start at the top where you’ll notice a repeated phrase, a phrase that sandwiches the psalm as a whole – the Lord is a rock.

What that means, to replace poetry with prose, is that the Lord is the solid one, He’s the steady one, the ancient one, the one we can hold onto.  We need Him to be a rock and we can see reasons why Christians need God as their rock when we look at verses 4 all the way to 45.  Because the rest of this psalm is winding and reeling and swirling.  It’s a psalm that describes a world that never seems still, never certain, not quite safe.  But praise the Lord, David says at the beginning, and David says at the end, we have a rock.

This beginning to the psalm is a call to worship, like joyful bells on a Sunday morning.  Just listen to David.  He’s heaping up titles for God, ringing out one after the other.  He remembers places and times where God has helped him.  Although David sometimes hid in caves and castles, he sees that all along it was God who was his true fortress.  The Lord is a rock.

If these opening verses ring like church bells, perhaps the opening lines ring like wedding bells, because they offer a declaration of David’s ardent love for the Lord.  This is a psalm that’s modeling a heartfelt commitment to God.  If we can’t learn to love God with this psalm, how will we learn to do it with any psalm?  So let’s let David teach us how to love God and to see why we ought to.

The “why” behind David’s praises, behind his love, has to do with deliverance.  If you know your Old Testament well, you’ll be familiar with the history that gives some sense of David’s difficulties and of God’s kindness.  But it’s the poetry that says it all.  How desperate was David on his run from Saul?  Look here at verses 4 to 5 – Death tightened around him like a noose around his neck, like a cobra coiling around his body.  Destruction threatened him like a torrential storm. 

Maybe some of you know what it’s like to feel choked, chests tight with fear, that sinking drowning feeling, to live as though dying.  This is what explains David’s intense language, the terror and the noise in David’s life. 

If intense language describes David’s desperation and David’s prayers, immense language describes God’s answer, God’s deliverance, and David’s praises to God.  The Lord is presented in the psalm like an earthquake that morphs into a dragon that spins into a storm that erupts into a mountain on fire.  Images just rush from one into the other.  That, David is saying to us in verses 6 to 19, is what it’s sometimes like to be delivered by God.

Now by this point you like me might be thinking that the psalm is offering image almost too grand for what we know about David’s life.  I mean, wow, this is powerful language.  But sometimes we talk like that.

I remember a professor friend of mine who gave a lecture at a university and as sometimes professors do he threw together his lecture a little too quickly.  As he approached the Q&A, that dreaded question and answer time, he began to get nervous and by the time he was ready to take questions, he said his lecture was like a ship just dead in the water.  Then he saw the perfectly aimed question streaking towards him like a torpedo, targeting his academic paper at its weakest point.  When it was all over, he said, “All I could do was watch the two halves of my poorly constructed paper float away and sink.” 

It was just a lecture, but my point is that we sometimes use grand language to describe really difficult circumstances.

David’s personal deliverances are here portrayed using grand words, words so grand that they remind me and maybe you, of lines in the Bible used to describe the deliverance of the whole nation of Israel, our point to which we’ll return.

Well, after the call to worship in verses 1 to 3 and the description of David’s deliverance in the following verses, David says at the close of verse 19 that all this was done for him because God delighted in him.  This takes us to the center point of the psalm because in verses 20 to 30 David insists that the Lord offers a refuge to the righteous.

So how are we to understand David’s four announcements, that he was helped according to his righteousness or blamelessness?  How are we to understand his five claims that he did not break, or that he was keeping God’s law?  How are to understand the handful of statements that God gives people what they deserve?  For example, He’s merciful to the merciful. 

I ask that because this psalm was first recorded in 2 Samuel, a book which says that David lied, took extra wives, mismanaged his family, failed to punish murderers, committed adultery, and then killed a friend.  I ask this because we routinely call out to God not when we’ve been confident that we’ve succeeded but when we’re sure we’ve failed.  I ask this because these kinds of comments are common in all the psalms.  So if we don’t understand what’s going on in this psalm, how will we understand any of the psalms?   

One way to understand such statements is to think that in each psalm David’s claiming to be blameless about a specific point.  So for example here he could be saying that he didn’t commit any sin against Saul, which in fact is true.  But the problem with such a reading as a way of explaining the whole psalm is that David’s claims in the psalm are very wide.  He doesn’t appear to be claiming innocence in one or two matters only.

Another way of understanding David’s comments about law keeping is to remember that inside the Old Testament, which is sometimes called the Law, that we find news about the Gospel, that’s that the sacrifices, that’s what the tabernacle, were all about.  Maybe in saying that he’s keeping the law, David means that he’s not only faithful to God but he’s placed faith in God, as the Old Testament requires.

Well, that’s a more subtle answer, but it has a more obvious problem, and that is when the Bible speaks about law keeping, it rarely generalizes in that way.  The Bible doesn’t confuse the Law and the Gospel.  It makes key distinctions between faithfulness and faith and David here is talking about faithfulness.

I think the most intuitive way to understand what David is saying is that he’s generally following God and thus generally did not deserve to suffer.  As David says here, to the blameless man, God shows Himself blameless, but to the crooked God makes a way that this torturous.  David’s offering a general rule that God loves and cares for His children when they follow Him sincerely.

Now as I’ve already said, there are clear counter examples to such a general rule in David’s life.  There were hard times when he suffered in spite of doing well, and there were hard times when David’s sin resulted in unpleasant consequences.  At that time David couldn’t say words like this, he couldn’t speak about his blamelessness, although he knew that God would work even these things for his own good.

I certainly think it would be unfair to David to read his words as though he thought he was earning his own salvation.  David is describing the normal character of a child of God, which he normally did have and sometimes didn’t.  He’s not describing a method for becoming a child of God.  If David was to come into the palace one morning and a prophet was to ask him his morning Catechism question, “How do you become a child of God,” I’m not exactly sure what the holy city Catechism of David’s day would say, but it would be something like, “We become children of God by a substitutionary sacrifice, not by following rules and statutes.”  Or a Shorter Catechism of his day might say, “We become children by faith, not by obedience.” 

But once we are God’s children, then we must become more and more characterized by obedience, by holiness.  When we’re talking about those who are God’s children, one can say, “Blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the poor in spirit,” as Jesus says it, or “delivered are the clean of hands, rewarded are the righteous, rescued are the humble,” as David says it. 

It’s because God is faithful to His own pattern of promises that even today we should be quick to come to Him, these verses are telling us, with the things that encompass us, assail us, ensnare us, and confront us.  Because God will be a shield.  He will utter His voice, He will blast a rebuke, or He will pluck us out of the raging sea.  The Lord will present Himself as a rock in whom we can trust, the One who does what is best for His children.

So you see, understanding David’s claims in this psalm can help us to understand all the psalms.

Verses 20 to 30 are the high points of the psalm.  They remind us who our God is and how faithful He is to deliver. 

Beginning in verse 31 David returns again to a theme of deliverance but as advertised, there’s a difference between this and an earlier telling of his rescues.

First a crash and bang that you hear in verses 4 to 19, they’re not present in verses 31 to 45.  Gone are the Titanic images picturing David’s battles, remaining are recognizable pictures of normal warfare.

Second, we now see that God works deliverance not just for David but through David.  This was hinted at already in the middle part of the psalm.  We see it everywhere in this long section.  David was actively involved in the battle.  He didn’t just lie down in grassy meadows and watch the clouds.  He didn’t just let go and let God.  No, there’s deliverance for him but it’s a deliverance that comes through him.  God still often works in this way and we can ask Him to use us and to use instruments and other people in our deliverance.

When the Lord answers our prayers, always in His own way and in His own time, we have every reason to be thankful.  That’s the note on which David ends in verses 46 to 50.  The Lord lives, He’s the rock.  Everything that David has said only confirms that God is worthy of love, worthy of praise, and he says so here.

I think we can see why David begins and ends as he does, calling us to worship and sending an ending in doxology for the Lord, who is our rock.  This must have been one of David’s treasured psalms.

But as I consider this psalm with you tonight, I’m reminded of how something that is dear to one person can be something that becomes the property of all people, or many people.  Take Jackie Robinson as an example.  Robinson was a spectacularly good ball player and a man of good character, hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  He was the first black baseball player in the major leagues.  The number on Robinson’s jersey was 42.  In thankfulness for the end of decades of racial segregation in baseball, two traditions, a two-stage history, developed.

First, the league decided that no single player will ever again be given the number 42.  It’s Jackie’s number.  Later, the league decided that all players would get the number 42.  It’s every player’s number.  You see, on the anniversary of Jackie’s entrance into the big leagues, now called Jackie Robinson Day, every person on every major league ball field, from coast to coast, players, coaches, even umpires, wear the number 42 on their jerseys because something dear to one person has become the property of many people.

I mention this because the song we consider this evening has a two-stage history.  We first see this song actually in 2 Samuel 22 and later we find it in the book of Psalms.  Placed in 2 Samuel 22 we’re to learn from David’s song, but it’s David’s song.  It’s really about his deliverance.  But placed here in the Psalter, and numbered 18, this becomes our song.  Psalm 18 is every Christian’s number.  We’re to see something in this that’s good and true for all of us.

That’s how the Apostle Paul read Psalm 18, by the way.  In Romans 15, Paul was explaining how all the nations are to be welcomed into the Church and how that was always God’s plan.  And to prove his point, Paul quoted Old Testament prophecies, and his first is from Psalm 18, verse 49.  If you look at that verse, you’ll see David’s singing of God’s deliverance in the presence of all the nations.  The apostle realized that the voice of David in verse 49 becomes the voice of all believing people, but with a twist, for we’re no longer triumphing over the nations when we sing, we’re triumphing with them.

Through Christ, the experience of David and all the Israelites gets transformed and belongs to Christians and all the nations. 

So why did the Apostle Paul quote Psalm 18, verse 49?  The way I see it is that the Holy Spirit helped Paul, and is helping us tonight, to see Jesus’ work in verse 49 because he was reminded of Jesus’ person in verse 50.  Salvation for the King, for the anointed, love for the offspring of David, reminds Christians who read verse 50 of salvation through the King, through the anointed, love through the offspring of David.

It reminds us of Jesus and how what belongs to one person, David’s offspring, now belongs to all believers.

But maybe the Apostle Paul also saw that the psalm is for every believer because the Holy Spirit helped him to read the whole psalm carefully.  Remember a few moments ago when we saw David’s powerful pictures describing his deliverance.  David uses words for his rescue similar to the words used in the Bible for the rescue of all God’s people. 

In fact, many readers of Psalm 18 have noticed lines that seem to contain, in no particular order, echoes of the epic events of Israel’s national history.  The storms that God sent to deliver His people, the darkness of the ten plagues, cloud and fire, the sea laid bare, a mountain shaking.

Now read on its own terms, it does seem like David’s making too much of his own deliverance.  I mean, he’s using language from the history of the whole nation and applying it to himself.  What would we think if someone did that?  What if someone at Christ Covenant described his sorrows through a song about the Boston Massacre?  His tense moments in terms of Paul Revere’s ride.  Or his hope of overcoming his difficult people at work using the words of “The Star Spangled Banner”?  I mean, I think we’d think that was a little over the top, wouldn’t we?  Strange language to describe a personal deliverance.

But that’s the point.  David talks like this because as a prophet he does not merely have his own deliverance in view.  We can say more.  Why does he use language fitting for epic events and apply it to himself?  Because David’s not only a prophet, he’s also a type of Christ.  He’s a picture of the One who would come to save the nations as the King of Israel and the servant of God, as the anointed one, and the one through whom the offspring of promise would come, David was an image of the One to come, One who would take on the sufferings and work the deliverance.  Not just for a David here and there, but for all God’s people.

So the deliverance of a whole people can be described as one man’s because one man would come to deliver a whole  people.  Or can we not hear how the life and death of Jesus are echoed in this psalm?  After all, who was encompassed by the cords of death?  Assailed by torrents of destruction and the cords of Sheol?  Was it not Jesus?  Who in His suffering and death, having taken our sin, also took upon Himself what we deserve as natural enemies of the Lord.  Did not the judge of all bow the heavens and come down with thick darkness under His feet?  Did He not make darkness a covering and a canopy around the cross of Christ?  Did Jesus not bear the marks of hailstones and coals of fire, the arrows of God’s wrath against sinners, the blast of the breath of God’s nostrils?  Brought upon Jesus as all the horrors of eternity were rushed upon Him in time, surely our Lord bore more completely, more fully, the brunt of the fury of God than any enemy David or we will ever meet, and Jesus more than David experienced on our behalf a dramatic rescue, a rescue from death, a deliverance because God delighted in the person and the merits of His Son in a way and to a degree He could never celebrate the merits and the person of David.   

Truly did God not pluck His Son from the grave according to Christ’s own righteousness, His blamelessness, and there not as a general idea or principle but as an absolute rule, we see Jesus rewarded in His resurrection according to what He truly deserved.

Let us thank God this evening that David’s song has become our song, that number 18 is for all of us.  This is how we’re to read the psalms.  This is how we come to see that God is our rock, that He saves through Jesus all who turn to Him in their hour of deepest need. 

Is that where you are tonight?  Do you need deliverance?  Deliverance from your sin, from your foolishness, or perhaps just the troubles and sorrows of this life.  The Lord’s a rock.  This psalm is for you.  He helps people in crisis.

So let us learn to pray to Him and then say with David, I love you, O Lord.    

Let us pray.  O God, our refuge and rock, we thank You for Psalm 18.  We praise You for using this psalm tonight as the guide to Your Word, as a light to show us Your loving heart.  Thank you for the way in which this psalm shows us how the Savior sees us, saves us, leads us.  Help us by Your Spirit to make this psalm and its promises more truly our own, lead us to want nothing besides these blessings, to find satisfaction in Your mercies, to seek Your heavenly peace.  May we dwell in Your Son by faith and learn to echo the spirit of the psalmist who learned that whatever befalls us, You do all things well.  We love You, Lord, and we praise You in Jesus’ name.  Amen.