November 8, 2009

Help Is Near

Have you ever heard a conversion story that made you feel like less of a Christian or even doubt your own conversion it was so powerful? Perhaps the person was an alcoholic or drug addict and God miraculously called them away from that to the Gospel. Maybe it was the death of a loved one or a personal brush with death that they count as the moment “God got a hold of them.” Whatever the details of the story, almost without exception the nature of the story is one of deliverance. It could be deliverance from just about anything, but deliverance is the theme whether explicitly or not. I suspect most of you know the story of Paul’s trip down the Damascus road. The then-named Saul was walking with his companions along the road from Jerusalem to Damascus in order to find more Christians to persecute and hopefully put to death for their crimes against God. Saul had stood by watching when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death for his testimony that Israel’s history pointed to the fact that Jesus was the Son of God. While he was walking there was a bright light from heaven and he saw a vision of the risen Christ who asked Saul why he was persecuting Him. The light caused Saul to go blind for three days until a fellow believer healed him at God’s urging. That’s about as dramatic as they come, but if you look very hard you can find many stories of God saving this or that person from a steep road of destruction. It’s enough to make those of us with comparatively bland conversion stories wish we had gotten into a lot more trouble along the way so that we had a more powerful testimony. That may be one effect (and a tragically false one) of stories like this, but it usually doesn’t set in until after when the devil has a chance to tempt us away from the first effect. When we hear stories like this, and frankly when we hear any stories of God working powerfully in someone’s life, the natural response is to praise God for this. This is why we share praises along with prayer requests during our services so that we can together praise God for his work in the lives of fellow believers. Sometimes God’s work may not seem outwardly dramatic, but the change it brings in the person who experiences the deliverance is, for them, truly earth-shaking. The stories like you’ve heard this morning from Keith Temple speak of events of God’s saving power worth celebrating in this body. Stories like these cause us to praise God together. They also remind us that we need the deliverance of God in our own lives. We need deliverance from all kinds of things; some big, some small. The catch is that if they are keeping us from God then they are all big. And the fact is that deliverance only comes from God. Many times we forget this fact and seek deliverance from other places. These may provide some relief from whatever the issue is and might even help free us from it…but without God’s help one issue will always be replaced by another. The point is that we can only find real and lasting deliverance in God.

This month we are spending some time in the psalms in order that we might soak up some of their richness into our lives. Well, there are few places in the Bible as the psalms where we can find such a good collection of celebrations of deliverance of all kinds. One such celebration is found in Psalm 34. Here we find a celebration of deliverance intended to encourage us to praise the Lord and seek His help in our own lives as we have been talking about. But this particular story goes beyond this to talk about the kind of person that can experience the deliverance of God. The background of the story is from the life of David and we’ll talk about that in a minute, but the question David is leading us to ask in writing this psalm is: who may experience the glorious deliverance of God? For you see, while God accepts all those who come to Him, the help He offers is simply not for everyone. So turn in your Bibles with me to Psalm 34 and let us ask together the question to which David is leading us: who may experience the glorious deliverance of God?

The psalm itself begins with a call to praise: “I will praise the Lord at all times; His praise will always be on my lips. I will boast in the Lord; the humble will hear and be glad. Proclaim with me the Lord’s greatness; let us exalt His name together. I sought the Lord, and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to Him are radiant with joy; their faces will never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him from all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and rescues them.” Now, that’s a fantastic call to praise and there’s a lot of great theology there, but let’s talk for a minute about what’s behind it. If you look at the heading of the psalm in your Bibles you’ll see something along the lines of “concerning David, when he pretended to be insane in the presence of Abimelech, (probably the title for the Philistine kings and not his actual name) who drove him out, and he departed.” In other words, the context of this psalm comes from 1 Samuel 21. You see, in 1 Samuel 21 David was on the run from King Saul. He had already killed Goliath—the Philistine hero—and made Saul jealous to the point of murder. So when things heated up, David gathered the group of men loyal to him and they hit the road. The story told in chapter 20 is of Jonathan, Saul’s son, helping David to escape his father. It’s a tear-jerker of a chapter as these close friends realize the reality of the situation and come to grips with the fact that the next time they see each other might be on opposite sides of a battle line. As chapter 21 opens David has gone first to the place of worship at Nod to get food and weapons for his men and himself. The whole episode smacks of desperation and fear on David’s part. He beguiles the priest Ahimelech into giving him the sacred bread that was really intended to be for the priests along with the sword of Goliath which was kept there as a victory prize.

When we come to v. 10 David has fled to the one place the first-time reader would have never expected him to go: Gath, the capital city of the Philistine people. Those would be the people whom David had led Saul’s army in routing time and time again. They were the bitter enemies of the people of Israel. In his fear of Saul and the forces of this world David had run straight to the lion’s den. And in the shocker of the century David arrives and the king of Gath and his advisors ask: “Isn’t this the guy who’s celebrated as killing tens of thousands of our people?” David was hoping to capitalize on the idea of the enemy of my enemy being my friend (which he later does), and instead puts himself in an even more dangerous situation. So he does the only thing he can think of: he acts like he’s a loon. Apparently David was a good actor too because the Philistine king bought it and sent him packing. When he leaves Gath he takes his men and they go hide in a cave.

Well, we know from talking about Elijah a few weeks ago that hiding in a cave can be a good place to meet God. Filling in some of the gaps of the text with a bit of historical surmising, while David was in the cave he took some time to reflect on how close he had come to meeting his end; not only his but also all those who were with him. And while some in his position might have been tempted to proudly boast that their cunning in taking up the insanity defense is what got them out of the tight spot with the Philistines, David was a man after God’s heart and knew better. He knew that God had pulled him out of a truly desperate situation. This gave him great cause to praise. “I will praise the Lord at all times,” he said. “His praise will always be on my lips,” he exclaims. Instead of boasting in his own abilities as if they had somehow gotten him out of the situation he was in, David proclaims that his boast will be in the Lord. Then he says this weird thing about the humble hearing of this and being glad. The word “humble” can also be translated “the afflicted.” In other words those who are in the place David was will hear of David’s boasting that the Lord saved him from a rough spot and be filled with hope that He will do the same in their situation. The question we naturally ask is whether or not God does this for everyone. Is there a certain kind of person whom God will save? Who may experience the glorious deliverance of God?

Yet David doesn’t yet answer this question right away. Instead, he takes a minute to describe further this deliverance he’s experienced. He talks about seeking the Lord and being answered. This isn’t a seeking that comes from not knowing where someone is, but instead like seeking an audience with someone. Incidentally, the Bible makes plain the kind of people who can find the Lord when they seek Him: the kind who search with all their heart. When the Lord answered David’s seeking he was saved from all his fears. In other words, the first part of the answer to our question is that deliverance comes to those who seek the Lord. But David keeps going. He talks about these people who seek the Lord as never being ashamed. Well, when we are looking to God as our guide, then we are naturally going to be following His lead. His leading will never take us down the path of sin. Sin is what brings shame to our lives. Thus, if we are looking to the Lord for deliverance we are not ever going to be ashamed. The picture that is starting to form here is one that at first is a bit tough to swallow: help and deliverance from the Lord can only come to those who seek it. But wait, doesn’t God help everybody? The thing about God is that He’s a gentleman. He takes no for an answer. Perhaps you’ve heard a story about someone helping another person who didn’t want to be helped and who then sues the Good Samaritan. I believe the adage goes: no good deed goes unpunished. Now that’s a pretty cynical attitude towards doing good works, but there’s still a grain of truth here. It’s generally not a good idea to try and help when it’s not going to be helpful. Jesus instructed His followers to not cast their pearls before swine. He also didn’t perform miracles for people for whom miracles wouldn’t have changed their opinion of Him one bit (like the Pharisees asking for a sign). The thing is: God doesn’t force Himself on anyone. If we refuse His help and deliverance He’s not going to make us take it. Now the obvious question here is who in their right mind would refuse God’s help? Yeah, exactly. The sad answer is far more than you’d think. The reasons for people rejecting God and the deliverance He offers are more numerous than we could possibly enumerate this morning, but the sad truth is that folks who reject this offer of life have bought into some lie of this world and are in serious need of seeing the truth. Well, all this helps fill in the picture a bit more, but we still don’t have the complete answer so let us push forward: who may experience the glorious deliverance of God?

In the next section of this psalm, David gives readers a further description of and call to the kind of lifestyle that puts one in the place of receiving God’s deliverance. Hear these words first: “Taste and see that the Lord is good. How happy is the [person] who takes refuge in Him! Fear the Lord, you His saints, for those who fear Him lack nothing. Young lions lack food and go hungry, but those who seek the Lord will not lack any good thing. Come, children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Who is the [person] who delights in life, loving a long life to enjoy what is good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech. Turn away from evil and do what is good; seek peace and pursue it.” There are a couple of images here that are not immediately familiar to us so let’s talk about these first before getting into what David is trying to say here. The first image is that the worship of God can and should be a full-on sensory experience. David encourages us to taste and see that the Lord is good. Now, God doesn’t have a body with which we can physically interact and it’s probably anachronistic to see a reference to the Lord’s Supper in this, but the point here is that worshiping the Lord is a holistic venture. There is no part of us which is not able to worship God.

The next thing David says, though, is a bit harder to swallow. He says that those who fear the Lord will not lack anything. This sounds great but for many of us immediately throws up red flags because we all know believers who are struggling to make; we might even be those believers. How can David say that those who fear the Lord lack nothing? There are several responses possible to this but perhaps the two most important are that we have to make sure we are understanding the meaning of “lack nothing” just as David did and the purpose of this and the next verse is not about how much we have but about who provides it. For when we have the Lord, we truly lack nothing. When we look at v. 10 we see David talking about young lions. Young lions are among the strongest of the pride. They are the ones in the best place to able to provide for themselves. The problem with this is that there is simply no room for self-sufficiency in the kingdom of God. When a person is drowning, if we jump right in and try to grab them while they are panicking and flailing about the likelihood is that they are going to pull us under with them. Even though it goes against what we think we know, it is better to wait a minute longer until they have stopped struggling and then pull them to safety. If there is any glimmer in our minds that we can do any part of the salvation experience on our own, that we can see to it that we deliver ourselves—much like someone in David’s position would have been sorely tempted to do—then we’re not there yet. Young lions may think they are okay, but they when the weight of reality sets in they are going to be hungry while those who have sought the Lord will not lack any good thing. He will provide for them such that they have plenty. Now do believers still sometimes find themselves in places of need? Yes, and fortunately Psalm 34 is not so idealistic to forget that as we will see in a few moments. The blessing for those who fear the Lord is not an ability to be okay on our own, but rather a spirit of humility that recognizes more fully our position of dependency on God. Thus it would seem that another facet of the person who can receive
God’s deliverance is that they fear and depend on Him. But we want the full picture: who may experience the glorious deliverance of God?

Well, when we step back a bit and look at vv. 8-10 and vv. 11-14 from a thematic perspective, the first deals with our relationship with God and the second with our relationship with other people, both as a function of God’s deliverance. What trait have we talked about over and over that means “right relationships”? Righteousness. The answer to the question is those who are righteous and fear the Lord. In other words, the righteous can look forward to God’s deliverance. The final eight verses of the psalm, then, further unpack how and why this is along with giving some needed correctives to false thoughts about God’s deliverance. Listen closely as I read these words: “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry for help. The face of the Lord is set against those who do what is evil, to erase all memory of them from the earth. The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears, and delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is near the brokenhearted; He saves those crushed in spirit. Many adversities come to the one who is righteous, but the Lord delivers him from them all. He protects all his bones; not one of them is broken. Evil brings death to the sinner, and those who hate the righteous will be punished. The Lord redeems the life of His servants, and all who take refuge in Him will not be punished.” The picture is now made clear: the righteous can look forward to God’s deliverance.

Yet who are these righteous? Too often the picture we have in our minds of people who are righteous are those who are doing everything right and not experiencing any troubles. I mean, if we’re rightly related to God and other people then what trouble could possibly befall us? Why not ask that question of some of the tens of millions of Christian martyrs since the founding of the church. David himself was writing this psalm having just come through a situation in which he brushed close enough to death that he felt his breath. What was he doing in such a circumstance if he was righteous? Well, God certainly does deliver the righteous, but v. 18 gives an interesting description of these people. They are brokenhearted and crushed in spirit. That doesn’t sound terribly righteous. Not so fast. Verse 18 sounds an awful lot like another passage of Scripture that describes the kind of people who will inherit the kingdom of God (thus experiencing His deliverance): the Beatitudes. When you really think about the kind of people Jesus talks about in the Beatitudes it doesn’t sound like all that happy a bunch there either: people who are poor in spirit, mourn, are meek, hunger, and are persecuted, to name a few. Yet Jesus is clear that to these people belongs the kingdom of God. The righteous can look forward to God’s deliverance, but the fact is, being righteous is no guarantee of an easy life. If anything, the exact opposite is true. Hear v. 19 again: “Many adversities come to the one who is righteous.” Far too many people have bought the lie that this world is fair. If you are a parent you’ve surely said it to your kids, but do you really believe it? The world simply isn’t fair. People do face consequences for bad choices, but sometimes good people go through incredibly hard times because of the fact that we live in a world broken by sin and the justice of God has not yet made all things right. Being righteous, though, means that we have put ourselves in a place before God that we are depending on Him instead of our own strength to make it through this life. In this we are able to bring glory to Him and receive His blessing. The Bible is clear that God never promises to neither remove trouble from the world nor keep His people from experiencing what seems at times to be more than their fair share of it. He promises instead to be with us while we face it and to deliver us from the trouble. The righteous can look forward to God’s deliverance.

The final piece of this discussion of deliverance comes in the form of a warning. God unquestionably delivers the righteous from all their trouble, but for those who do evil, who persist in sin without heeding His call to life, He won’t leave them to work unhindered. He will in fact actively oppose them. God is gracious and gentle, but we do well to not mistake this for weakness. God hates sin and won’t tolerate it for long. Verse 16 does not mean that God is a big meanie, but rather stands as a proclamation of hope for the righteous. Those who oppose us without end will eventually meet their end and their influence on this earth will be gone forever. The righteous can look forward to God’s deliverance, the wicked have no such hope. You see, God is not near those who oppose Him. This is not because He doesn’t wish to be but because they have demanded that He leave them alone and so He does. Like a good parent God let’s His children experience many of the consequences of their decisions. This can happen actively—“those who hate the righteous will be punished”—or passively—“evil brings death to the sinner.” For those who pursue the way of death, eventually death is going to catch up to them. But, the righteous can look forward to God’s deliverance.

What we see in Psalm 34, then, is a reflection on reality deeper than many we will find elsewhere. It is a statement of the Gospel before the Gospel was first proclaimed. The deliverance of God is available and we should praise Him for it. Experiencing such a blessing means putting ourselves in a place of dependence on Him and seeking to do what is right. Finally, pursuing such a life doesn’t mean our road is going to be easy, but it does mean that we have the God of the universe in our corner and that one day He will make all things right. This is the story of conversion: the righteous can look forward to God’s deliverance. Flashy stories of God doing powerful things to save someone are encouraging and worth celebrating, but they don’t give a full picture of God’s deliverance. His deliverance is worked out and enjoyed over a lifetime of righteousness. Truly, the righteous can look forward to God’s deliverance.