This summer I published a new book called “Risk: Living by Faith in the Face of Fear.” I thought I would give you a taste of it with one of the chapters from the middle of the book—the one, in fact that inspired the cover art for the book. The book is available in paperback and Kindle formats, and also in a new workbook format designed for intensive Bible studies. Enjoy!
One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock. [Psalm 27:4-5]
Have you ever felt attacked? Like people were slamming you behind your back, or perhaps even to your face? Like they would oppose your plans and suggestions, simply because you made them? Like all you said or did was twisted and re-interpreted in an evil way?
Have you ever felt rejected? Like you were the odd person out in every room you entered? Like nothing you ever did or said could make a particular person or group accept or like you? Like you were abandoned, left by the wayside, uncared for and forgotten?
Then you and the psalmist David have something in common.
Self-Talk in Strife-filled Situations
Psalm 27 doesn’t tell us the exact situation that David was facing—but it gives us a lot of hints. He talks about the wicked and my foes; he refers to the enemies that surround me. He mentions false witnesses… spouting malicious accusations. He uses a Hebrew metaphor of these people advancing against me to devour me—a graphically cannibalistic depiction of slandering someone.
What do you say to yourself in these situations? I can tell you what my tendencies are. Fear rises. I immediately feel abandoned, and tell myself I am all alone. I defend myself (at least in my own mind) against the criticisms of my accusers, recounting all the ways I have been right and all the good things I have done, and why this slander is unjust. (But at the same time, I take it to heart, listening to the little voice that whispers, “Maybe you are no good, after all…”) I worry about the impact that the malicious accusations will have on my friends—maybe they will believe the lies and reject me as well. Or maybe they, too, already see me this way, and are saying the same things behind my back. I am dejected, and discouraged, and defensive, and above all—alone.
I need to take a tip from David’s self-talk in this Psalm.
The whole tenor of the psalm is the opposite of fear; rather it shows assurance, confidence. Notice that almost the entire psalm is written in a future tense: I will… I shall… he will… He is telling himself that God is worthy of his trust, that God is his Defender and Deliverer. Even in the thick of the situation, David looks forward to God’s deliverance, and assures himself that it will come:
I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord. [v.13-14]
He does not justify himself, or defend himself. His self-talk is not mostly about himself, or even the situation, but about God. And since his self-talk is about God, it quickly turns towards God in prayer: Hear my voice when I call, Lord; be merciful to me and answer me [v. 7].
But is this just “positive thinking,” a visualization technique that makes it easier to deal with the difficulties he faces?
No. Because the foundation for this self-talk is Rock-solid.
The Stronghold of My Life
The Psalm opens this way:
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?
The foundation of David’s confidence—his reason not to fear in a dangerous and depressing situation—is that he is sure of who God is:
- My light: God is the Sovereign Guide, giving clarity, order and understanding even in the chaos of conflict. As we saw in Proverbs, his purposes will prevail both in the big scheme of things, and as he orders my individual steps. As David prays: Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path… [v.11]
- My salvation: God is the One who alone can redeem any and all situations; he is my source of rescue. As David remembers in prayer: You have been my helper [v.9].
- The stronghold of my life: God is my Rock, my protection, and my fortress. If I am defended by his walls, no one can truly harm me. As David tells himself: Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear… [v. 3].
These are all very strong metaphors, rooted in Gods omnipotence and transcendence. If God is in charge, if he is my defense, David asks—of whom shall I be afraid? No wonder he pronounces himself confident, even in his precarious situation. David very deliberately ropes himself into the Rock that is the Eternal God, banishing fear.
But David recognizes the immanence of God as well, the individual care God has for him. He looks for God in a personal way, for his smiling face, in the way encouraged by the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26) each time he sacrificed at the Tabernacle:
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, I will seek.
Do not hide your face from me,
do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
God my Savior. [v. 8-9]
Apparently he receives reassurance that God will accept him, for in the very next verse he makes one of the most powerful assertions of God’s personal care and affirmation one can find in the whole of Scripture: Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me [v.10]. For those of us whose father and mother would be the last people to reject us, we can take heart that God’s constant, unconditional love goes infinitely further. And for those of us who have experienced rejection and abandonment from our parents, this verse can be healing balm to a wounded soul.
The One Thing: Dwelling in God’s House
I don’t know about you, but when I am facing opposition and rejection, and I do remember to pray, my prayers are usually for the situation to end. I ask that God would convict my persecutors, and show them how wrong they are. I ask him to arrest the situation, and minimize its fallout. But that is not what David asks here.
Rather, he makes the remarkable request you can see in the verses quoted at the beginning of the chapter: that he would be able to dwell with God. He does not simply want to know God is among his people; he wants, personally, to live in his house, with him. This one thing David asks of God is far deeper than simply being removed from trouble and kept safe; it is a request to draw close to him, for intimacy with him. And yet at the same time, it is an admission that close to God is the only safe place to be. In this lovely passage, David paints five pictures of dwelling with God:
- The house of the Lord. The Hebrew word “house” here is beth, often used with a descriptor, as in Beth-El, “house of God.” In this way it is similar to the French word chez, meaning the home of someone; it is redolent of family. Here David longs to be part of God’s household, wishing that God himself would be his home. He identifies himself with God’s family, and with the sense of love, comfort and security that come with being a part of that family—even if his own mother and father would reject him. To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life means that he is always accepted.
- His temple. Heykal, the Hebrew word for “temple,” also means “palace,” and comes from a root word meaning “spacious.” You might remember that at the time of David the Temple had not yet been built. In fact, David felt uncomfortable about the situation, saying, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of the covenant of the Lord is under a tent” [1 Chronicles 17:1]. Though God did not allow him to build this temple himself, David knew that as Sovereign of the universe, God deserved a palace far more than he himself did. Here he imagines a spacious place where one could go to gaze on the beauty of the Lord, to contemplate his majesty, power, riches and might, to worship him as Ruler over all. And here, in the palace, as the vassal of the almighty King, he always knows who is in control.
- His dwelling. This word, sok, meaning a “hut” or “thicket,” probably refers primarily to the hiding place of a wild animal, where it would remain safe as the hunter passed it by. It is a word also related to the sukkah, the booths that the Israelites would dwell in once a year during the Festival of Sukkot. It is this flimsy dwelling—not the palace—in which he states that God will keep me safe. Perhaps he is remembering harvest festivals, gazing up at the woven roof of his sukkah and thinking how God had protected and provided for his people in the desert. Here, in God’s sukkah, he knew himself to always be secure.
- His tent. This is the Hebrew word, ohel, simply meaning a “tent.” (The descriptor “sacred” is an interpretation not in the Hebrew.) Here David talks about being hidden in the shelter (or secret) of this tent. In that time, a host that took someone into his tent was obligated to give him sanctuary against his enemies; so that even though the tent was a flimsy structure, it became a protection against attack, as the inhabitants would also fight for him.[i] Being hidden in God’s tent means he is always protected.
- A rock. The Hebrew word, tsuwr, or “rock,” indicates a fortified place high above danger where enemies could not come. David would have had experience with this, hiding out in the hill country on high ground that gave him the advantage against his enemy. Here, however, he does not have to fight to gain this high ground and hold it. God simply sets him on the rock, on high, out of reach. As David, like Moses, many times refers to God as “The Rock,” we must suspect this stronghold is identified with God himself. Being set up on the high Rock by God means he is always rescued.
A Tent on a Rock
A tent on a Rock: it is a picture of our strength even in vulnerability. As we live in God’s presence, without self-defense, we can trust his sovereign power and his loving protection to keep our eternal selves safe, no matter what.
David’s confidence comes from his knowledge of God’s smiling face, his assurance that he will be heard and answered. He is sure God will accept him, not reject or forsake him, or turn away from him in anger. He can rely on God to teach him his way, and not to turn him over to his enemies’ desires. He had taken to heart the blessing spoken each time the sacrifice was made, so that he could draw near to God: The Lord turn his face toward you, and give you peace. This shalom he could take even into this situation, with trust.
Then my head will be exalted
above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.[v.6]
How much more should we preach to ourselves with confidence in the face of opposition, we who have the sacrifice of Jesus and all the riches of his righteousness? How much more should we sing and make music, who have the opportunity not just to dwell with God, but to have him dwell within us?
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. [Ephesians 3:16-17]
As you face opposition from sinful men—attack and rejection—do not be afraid. What do you have to fear if you live by faith in God’s presence? One man or woman plus God is a match for any army. Pitch your tent on the Rock.
[i] David may also have been thinking of the time when the priest Ahimelek gave him and his men bread and a sword at the Tabernacle, when he was fleeing Saul [see 1 Samuel 21].