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God is my Strength and Steadfast Love

Sermon passage: (Psalm 59:1-17) Spoken on: May 1, 2016
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Pastor Wilson Tan
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Psalms

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About Pastor Wilson Tan: Pastor Tan served as a youth executive at the Presbyterian Synod, and as a pastor in Jubilee Church. He continues to serve in church as a cell leader in zone ministry.

Title: God is my Strength and Steadfast Love
Date: 1 May 2016
Preacher: Ps Wilson Tan

Background - 1 Sam 19:11-17
The context of the psalm today was a story of David’s great escape found in 1 Sam 19:11-17. It details of how David had escaped from Saul’s messengers who were sent to his house to kill him. The night before the planned attack, Michal, David’s wife, told him that if he doesn’t escape that night, he will be killed tomorrow. So Michal let David down through a window and David fled and escaped to Ramah where prophet Samuel was at. Meanwhile, when Saul’s men entered into his house to kill David, they found that Michal had dressed up an image, probably a wooden figure and laid it on the bed and she had put a pillow of goat’s hair at its head and covered it with David’s clothes. Saul asked Michal why she had let his enemy escape, in which Michal replied, “He said to me, ‘Let me go. Why should I kill you?’” She implied that her life was in danger and she had no choice but to let David go. The story doesn’t tell us what happened to Michal but it tells us that Saul continued his pursuit to kill David at Ramah.

Ps. 59, is known as a Davidic psalm, but it may not have been written by King David himself. It was probably written by his subjects who were inspired by the events recorded in 1 Sam 19. It was probably written after David's coronation to the throne. [1] It was written from the perspective of David praying to God to deliver him from his enemies. His enemies were Saul's men who were outside his house one evening and plotted to kill him in the morning. Even though it was written from David's individual perspective, we also see the corporate nature of this psalm as David prays on behalf of Israel, his nation (v. 8). Throughout the centuries, the psalms have been used by Israel in private and corporate worship and prayer.

When we compare the prayer in the psalm and the story recorded in 1 Sam 19, we see an immediate contrast. Firstly, the most obvious, was that God was never mentioned in the original story. [2] Second, technically, it was Michal who warned David of his imminent danger, and thirdly, it was Michal who helped David to escape. Interestingly, when the story was adapted into the format of a prayer, the focus of the story changed from one between David and Michal to one between David and God. In the prayer version, the person Michal is evidently missing. Here, it was God who had protected David from his enemies. God is David’s fortress and it was God who had shown his steadfast love to David.

The contrast between the events in 1 Sam 19 and the prayer in Ps 59 need not be a contradiction. We can reconcile the differences by looking at it from two different perspectives. The former was recorded from the perspective of the relationship between David and his wife, while the other is a personal prayer between David and God. It doesn’t tell us why Michal was left out from the psalm but, it does tell us something interesting about how God works in our human lives. Let’s look at the prayer in greater detail.
The first two verses of Ps 59 is a short summary of David’s prayer.

1 Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; protect me from those who rise up against me;
2 deliver me from those who work evil, and save me from bloodthirsty men.

Here, David puts forth his prayer request right at the very start of this psalm. He prays for deliverance from his enemies. He prays for God’s protection. However, without the story recorded in 1 Sam 19, we might imagine a God who would sent a giant fireball to destroy David’s enemies. But instead, we read that it was Michal who was responsible for David’s escape. Even though, God was not mentioned in 1 Sam 19, God was clearly present in David’s mind.

1) The howling dogs outside his house.
In the prayer, we also see a stark contrast between the description of David’s enemies and description about God. After every 2-3 verses that describe David’s enemies, David breaks out into a form of praise to God. In v. 3, we read that David’s enemies have been lying in waiting to take his life. And David believes that this transgression was no fault of his own. He did nothing wrong to Saul and yet, Saul wanted him killed. David describes his enemies in vivid details, like howling dogs (vv. 6a, 14-15), prowling around the city (v. 6b), bellowing with their mouths with swords in their lips (v. 7). I call that an “evil tongue.” They were insistent in their threats and attacks against David as they come to him every evening (v. 14).

2) David sings of God's steadfast love.
In his hour of desperation, David calls out to God to “awake” and to “rouse yourself” (vv. 4 and 5). What an interesting way to call after God! Both active verbs imply that God seems to have been asleep while David was being pursued! Isn’t this reflective of our relationship with God sometimes? During our most difficult times, we think that God is asleep. Is God even listening to our prayer? Why is my life still in danger? Where is God when it hurts? God, if you are real, show yourself!

Yet, for David, God is real even though He may not appear to be so in his time of need. God is there even when we do not see him. Even though David calls for God to awake from his imaginary slumber, never once did David think that God was absent from his life. David’s confidence in God is clear; God in his steadfast love will meet him (vv. 8-10).

8 But you, O LORD, laugh at them; you hold all the nations in derision.
9 O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress.
10 My God in his steadfast love will meet me; God will let me look in triumph on my enemies.

Even though David was in grave danger, he was not afraid. David doesn’t give up! He prays to God for deliverance from his enemies. Throughout the prayer, David uses many terms in reference to God. Besides the usual “O God”(Adonai), and “O LORD” (YAHWEH), “LORD, God of Hosts,” (YAHWEH, Elohim, ṣĕbāʾôt) and “God of Israel” (Elohim yisrael), three other references stand out in particular: “Strength, Refuge, and Shield” (vv. 9, 11, 16, 17).

Strength (Hebrew transliteration: ʿōz) – power or might

Refuge (Hebrew transliteration: ănı̂y) – fortress

Shield (Hebrew transliteration: mâgên) - protection

Actually, all these three words carry very similar meanings. They convey a sense of safety, protection, refuge, and a safe place. Let’s take a look at v. 9 again.

9 O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress.

It is common to interpret strength as military power and might. But in this psalm, God’s strength is used differently. It entails a sense of protection rather than power. God’s strength is described as God’s presence which David is watching and waiting for. This presence is further described as his fortress, a refuge, a safe place where he is protected from his enemies. Some translators use the word, haven, or hiding place, to describe security. David is the victim here. David is not the one who is pursuing his enemies. David is the one running for his life. Thus, in this case, God’s strength is better understood as a form of protection rather than military power and might.

Even though the attacks come each evening, God's strength and protection is always there, and David is able to sing of God's steadfast love every morning. Another way to describe this steadfast love is “loyal-love”. [3] Steadfastness refers to God’s unwavering loyalty to David and also to us. This loyalty is not practiced out of duty but rather out of love. David’s relationship with God is very personal. It is real. It is honest. God is present in our world in ways we cannot fully comprehend. It is mysterious but not out of this world.

3) How does God deliver David?
From analysing and comparing between the story and the prayer, we realise that God’s deliverance can take form in humanly ways. This is the main point of my sermon today. Very often, when we pray, we only expect God to act in the most supernatural way. We always expect miracles that is out of this world. And when God does not respond in the way we expect him to, we either question God’s faithfulness or we question our own faithfulness. Sometimes, we hear Christians explain that miracles do not happen because we don’t not have enough faith. We claim Jesus’ words spoken to his disciples that if only we had faith as small as a mustard seed, we can move mountains. So, when things don’t happen when we pray, we conclude that our faith is not strong enough.

This is not how we should understand prayer and God’s steadfast love. Instead, more often than not, God’s activity in the world almost always involves the presence of humans. From the tending of the garden in Eden, to the building of the ark before the Flood, to the deliverance of the Hebrews from the Pharaoh, every event tells of a consistency between God and his believers. The steadfast love that David talks about in his prayer refers to God’s faithfulness to his people. Steadfastness is God’s character. It tells us that He will always be there for us when we need him. But He may not appear in how you imagine him to be. His steadfastness is of his presence, not that he will act in the same way from one story to another. In fact, his saving acts as recorded in the Bible is as varied as the stars! Yet, one thing is constant; that He is there. He is there even when He seems not.
This doesn’t mean that God cannot act supernaturally. Miracles are supernatural in its nature. The gospel stories are full of miraculous acts of Jesus. The virgin birth, turning water into wine, healing the blind, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead, the resurrection story. These are all supernatural interventions. But miracles cannot be demanded by us. God decides when and where miracles take place. We can pray for miracles but we must also believe in God’s sovereignty. In God’s time and in God’s place.

Now, I would like to share a story about a young German theologian who trusted in God to the day he died.

4) Conclusion: How can we pray the psalms in worship?
German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer believes strongly in both personal and communal prayer. He once wrote that “a day without [their] morning and evening prayers and personal intercessions was a day without meaning or importance.” [4] Bonhoeffer saw prayer as the “day’s first worship service to God.” [5] We ought to start and end each day with prayer! At the same time, we can also read a passage of psalms each morning as we begin our day.

In 1940, Bonhoeffer published a book in German translated as “Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible". However, the publication of this book had caused a major controversy in Germany at that time. Bonhoeffer was then a young German Lutheran pastor and an emerging young scholar. He was one of the few German theologians who stood against the ideals of Nazi Germany. Many German Protestants had given their support to the Nazi party during the elections of 1932 and 1933 which eventually brought Adolf Hitler into absolute power. Many Germans believed that Germany needed to regain its economic and political power and they were suffering greatly from the harsh penalty imposed on them by the Versailles Treaty after their failure from WW1. The hard-core Nazis in the German Reich Church had dismissed the Old Testament as a Jewish book already supplanted by the New Testament. [6]

The authorities rejected Bonhoeffer’s argument that the book was merely “scientific exegesis”. Bonhoeffer was fined 30 Reichmarks for violating the obligation already imposed on him to report his writing activity to the proper authorities. They also prohibited Bonhoeffer from publishing any more books. Later, Bonhoeffer was banned from teaching and preaching in the universities and the churches.

“It was in the context of the German church struggle, therefore, that Bonhoeffer desired to retrieve the Psalms as the prayerbook of Jesus Christ himself.” [7] Bonhoeffer believes that “the Christian use of the Psalms as a prayerbook goes back to the plea of Christ’s followers: “Lord, teach us to pray!”” [8] He believes that the essence of the Psalms is distilled into the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray the Psalms, Jesus prays alongside us.

Bonhoeffer, together with his brother-in-law, Dohnányi, was later arrested on conspiracy charges for his involvement with Abwehr’s operation of smuggling German Jews escape to Switzerland. During his imprisonment, Bonhoeffer prayed the Psalms regularly and drew on God's strength for comfort and support.
The conspirators were involved in the 20 Jul Plot, the infamous failed assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944. This story was retold in the 2008 movie, Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise playing Lieutenant Colonel von Stauffenberg who planted the briefcase bomb in the Wolf’s Lair. It was only after the failed assassination plot that Bonhoeffer’s involvement with the conspirators was discovered. It was this discovery that led to his expedited execution.

On 4 April 1945, the diaries of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, were discovered, and in a rage upon reading them, Hitler ordered that the Abwehr conspirators be destroyed. Bonhoeffer was led away just as he concluded his final Sunday service and as he stood at the gallows, these were his last words: “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.” [9]
For Bonhoeffer, God did not drop down from the sky to save him from the hanging. Yet, Bonhoeffer’s life was a testimony of God’s grace and mercy. Did God deliver Bonhoeffer from his enemies? No, He did not. But God delivered him into eternal life.
God may not always deliver us from our enemies (the howling dogs of our day) in ways we expect him to.
No matter how insistence their attacks may be, God will always be our fortress and refuge. For God’s strength takes a different form. It is power in weakness. It is peace within. Therefore, we can always sing of God's steadfast love every morning.
Let me end with these two verses from Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Let us pray.

“It seems most likely that the event mentioned in the superscription comes from the time prior to David’s accession to the throne, when he was an outlaw and continually harassed by Saul’s men. For examples of this type of continuous surveillance and pursuit see 1 Samuel 19:11 and the narrative in 1 Samuel 24.” [10]
“The background story in 1 Samuel 19:10–12 suggests a one night ambush at David’s house, but such a story is told only in its essentials and the whole period beginning at 1 Samuel 19:10 leaves plenty of time for the persistent threat of which the Psalm speaks (6, 14). At some point in his flight from Saul, David slipped through the watchers and home to Michal. Saul had to act with circumspection because of David’s popular repute but doubtless hoped at first to dispatch David by unattributable murder. When David’s escape made this impossible, the ambush was set.” [11]
“It is fitting that the last word of Ps 59 is “loyal-love” (חֶסֶד), a word which conveys the faithful commitment of Yahweh to the deliverance and protection of his people.” [12]

[1]Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Ps 58:11.
[2]D. A. Carson et al., eds., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 523.
[3]Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51–100, vol. 20, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 99.
[4]Geffrey B. Kelly, “Editor’s Introduction to the English Edition,” in Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, ed. Gerhard Ludwig Müller and Albrecht Schönherr, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, vol. 5, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (DBWE) (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 145.
[5]DBWE 5, 145.
[6]DBWE 5, 144.
[7] DBWE 5, 144.
[8] DBWE 5, 144.
[9] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, 927.
[10] Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Ps 58:11.
[11] D. A. Carson et al., eds., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 523.
[12] Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51–100, vol. 20, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 99.