"How Secure is Your Levee?"
Sept.7, 2008 Psalm 69[1-18]
Overwhelmed by Stormy Waters
We love to be warm, comfortable, and secure; but sin's damage and life's hazards threaten that security, and expose whether what we're taking refuge in is really as secure as it seems.
This past Monday on our Labour Day holiday, we watched awe-struck as Hurricane Gustav made landfall near New Orleans. One couldn't help but be impressed by the force of the gale - blowing a hefty reporter around as if he were an unbalanced toddler; knocking over trees and taking down power lines; driving water miles inland in a storm surge. One image I particularly remember was a stop sign in the water: the flooding was so deep you couldn't see any of the wooden support, just the octagon of the stop sign itself! Now that's getting to be a lot of water!
In New Orleans there was concern whether the levees would hold - the embankments that keep back the river from flooding that part of town which is below sea level. Especially the levees that had not been improved since before Hurricane Katrina - simple earthen levees without the reinforcing T-bars. Would the rising storm surge force its way through the protective mound and inundate so many homes and businesses?
The situation was even worse in Haiti, where Tropical Storm Hanna pounded away at the poor hilly country causing mudslides and fatalities. One low-lying city, Gonaives, was completely cut off by the storm surge, making it a lake dotted with islands of buildings. One escapee from Gonaives told of men, women, and children scrambling onto rooftops trying to escape drowning, some of them screaming to be rescued. But not even United Nations troops stationed there could help; they tried, but the waters were so strong that even the vehicles were starting to be swept off the road.
These situations carry strong echoes of Psalm 69. "Save me, O God, for the floodwaters are up to my neck...I am in deep water, and the floods overwhelm me.I am exhausted from crying for help...Pull me from these deep waters.Don't let the floods overwhelm me, or the deep waters swallow me..." (Ps 69:1ff,14f NLT) Yet there are hints the Biblical writer is not referring primarily to a physical flood or hurricane - yet something that is seriously threatening. Verse 14 says, "Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink; deliver me from those who hate me, from the deep waters." The parallelism of Hebrew poetry suggests "those who hate me" are in fact the "deep waters". Ah...So this Psalm isn't so much about danger from physical elements but from enemies - or whatever else may be threatening us. We can relate to the Psalmist if we've ever suffered on account of past sin, OR been picked on without cause by others, or been humiliated, or mad to feel shame. This truly is a Psalm epitomizing the pain of our human condition: how much more bluntly can you put it than v29, "I am in pain and distress..."? Laying the hurt on the line before God.
But a surprise awaits us. I'm calling this series "Meeting Jesus in Unexpected Places" - we see Jesus coming through in the Psalms hundreds of years (actually about a millennium) before He's born. This is a 'Messianic Psalm' in that it has foreshadowings of Christ throughout it; passages that are even quoted in the New Testament as applying to Jesus' physical life. He relates to us and identifies with us (amazing considering how holy and eternal He is); He comes into our painful situation when we invite Him and turns it around, redeeming it, giving it meaning, and ultimately rescuing us. He gives the solid ground at the base of our levee that provides true security. We are saved not because of our wealth or wisdom or status or anything folks commonly find their security in, but on the basis of God's favour, kindness, saving power, and tender compassion.
Subjected to Shame and Scorn
It's tempting to read this Psalm for ourselves with kind of a 'poor me' angle; but lest we read it simply as if we're being victimized, the Psalmist does see his troubles as part of God's discipline process. He acknowledges he's not perfect, he has sinned, and to some degree he deserves the pain as a result of his disobedience. V5, "You know my folly, O God; my guilt is not hidden from you." Then v6 suggests he may have acted disgracefully. It's more that the disciplinary hardship as a result of his sin is compounded by others' meanness - they're mocking him and attacking him besides.
Nor does the Psalmist see the bad things that happen as springing from some evil source beyond God's control. To some degree his pain is part of God's intentional discipline. V26, others "persecute those YOU wound and talk about the pain of those YOU hurt." God's sovereignty is not baffled by the hardships that are happening.
But people are being unnecessarily mean to the song-writer, worsening their condition without cause in at least 5 respects.
First, in v4, they "hate me without reason", they "are my enemies without cause." They are being mean without the slightest reason; at this time of year when school's back in after the summer, schoolyard bullies can gang up and make it tough on the new kids in the class. Grade 10s have been known to do mean things to fellow-students for no other cause than their being in Grade 9, and they pass on the humiliating rites of 'initiation'.
Second, also in v4, the enemies 'seek to destroy me': Is this about competition? Some people can't stand to see others prosper, or get ahead of themselves - so they start trying to undermine them, subtly attacking them.
Third, still in 4, he says "I am forced to restore what I did not steal." How unfair is that? Didn't take anything but you have to cough it up regardless, just because some liars SAY you took it? The NIV Study Bible comments that is a "way of saying that his enemies are spreading false accusations about him". Remember how in 1Kings 21 King Ahab wanted Naboth's vineyard, but Naboth wasn't willing to sell his inherited property? Queen Jezebel framed him by having some scoundrels accuse Naboth falsely of blasphemy and treason, so he was stoned; then Ahab took possession of the vineyard he'd been wanting. That sort of threat.
Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is outspokenly pro-life, having chosen to proceed with a 5th pregnancy even though she knew her son would have Down's syndrome. Unfortunately some in the media and bloggers seemed to jump on this and try to start a smear campaign. Standing for what's right can make you a target.
Fourth, in v7, "I endure scorn for Your sake, and shame covers my face." He's had scorn dumped upon him by his enemies. Vv10-12 talk further of this scorn: when he puts on sackcloth as a sign of humbling himself in repentance and seeking God, "people make sport of me", NLT "they make fun of me". "Those who sit at the gate mock me" (that would be the local leaders and officials), while at the other end of the spectrum, "I am the song of the drunkards." Everybody's ridiculing him, from big-shots to low-lifes. V19, "I am scorned, disgraced, and shamed"; 9 talks about 'insults'.
Fifth, v21 talks about real attack in a subtle form: "they put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst." (Gall is bitter fluid secreted by the liver.) Now they're trying to get rid of him by poisoning him!
In summary, the Psalmist finds himself utterly alone and under attack from every angle. V20, "Scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless; I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none." Has that been YOU at times? Are you relating to the opposition, the hatred, the attacks coming his way? Are things getting so bad you "can't find a foothold"? You may feel utterly alone - but wait.
Jesus Enters Into Our Pain in a Saving Way
It's just at that point, when we're feeling low, guilty, or down because we've blown it or others are just being downright mean, that the Lord speaks to us through Scripture and His Spirit to give us hope, realizing Jesus comes alongside us to change our future for good. Note the inscription or header of Psalm 69 says "To the tune of 'Lilies'": that's interesting. Lilies are associated with the Resurrection triumphing over death, hence Easter lilies. Jesus taught His followers to 'consider the lilies' - to be reminded that God knows our needs as He clothes the flowers; He will provide when we trust Him, we don't need to worry (Mt 6:28-34).
This passage foreshadows Jesus strongly, putting Him plonk in the context of our pain, in at least 4 places. First, v8, "I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother's sons..." Jesus experienced that cut-off-ness from family members who didn't understand or accept Him. John 7:5 records, "For even his own brothers did not believe in him." John 1:11 speaks more generally of Jesus' rejection by His own people, the Jews: "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." In fact, though He did no wrong, they would find themselves shouting violently, "Crucify Him!"
Another echo we find is in v9, "for zeal for Your house consumes me..." John 2(17) notes Jesus' disciples remembered this passage when Jesus cleared the temple courts of the money-changers and merchants. Jesus was passionate about living worship, religion that was not mechanical but real, not a business or performance. He was zealous that God's house should be accessible to all nations, and the poor not be excluded because they couldn't pay exorbitant exchange rates.
This past Wednesday Yvonne and I attended the funeral of Major Neil Voce, former Salvation Army pastor in Wingham. Neil was passionate for the things of God, and at the same time cared strongly for those who had a tough time making ends meet. I remember him giving me a tour of their new facility on the main street, particularly his enthusiasm for the way people in need could access the improved food cupboard. Zeal for God, compassion for people. His funeral was a fitting celebration with a truly joyful note befitting this faithful servant.
Third, the other half of v9 adds, "the insults of those who insult You fall on me." Paul quotes this very verse in Romans 15(3) to emphasize how Jesus didn't please Himself but bore the insults intended for others. He was mocked because He was godly. In Matthew 27(27-31) the Gentile soldiers mock Jesus while roughing Him up with hard knocks and a crown of thorns. Then later (Mt 27:39-44) the Jewish leaders and passersby "hurled insults at Him", mocking Him for saving others but not Himself. Yet Jesus was the only truly Righteous One there. Hebrews 4(15) expresses how Jesus relates to us, while at the same time maintaining His holiness: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-- yet was without sin."
And fourth, when He was crucified, Jesus fulfilled v21 very explicitly: "They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst." The gospel writers note the sponge offered Jesus on the cross was dipped in wine vinegar, mixed with gall (Jn 19:29; Mt 27:34). When He sampled the bitterness - when He cried out, "I am thirsty" (Jn 19:28) - Jesus was entering into the full experience of our human pain, taking our suffering on Himself. He experiences our brokenness along with us.
God's Character Our Assurance
When the floods come - when others gang up against us, when troubles threaten to swamp us - what do we trust in? What's going to keep us secure, in this life and beyond? The pump system in New Orleans is able to pump 50,000 cubic feet of water per second - but that's designed for massive rainfall, not a storm surge. A large enough hurricane crashes the system. In Matthew 7(24-27) Jesus likened those who reject God's teaching to building on sand: when the rain comes, the streams rise, and the winds beat hard, the house with no solid footing falls with a great crash. Instead, we can find true security in hearing God's words and obeying, trusting God is who He says.
Verses 13, 16, and 33 reveal some of God's key qualities which really undergird our existence. V13, "But I pray to you, O LORD, in the time of your favor; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation." Break that apart: "in the time of Your FAVOUR": Hebrew ratsown, God's pleasure / delight / favour / goodwill. Not a demanding ogre. Next, "in your great love": Hebrew checed, God's goodness / kindness / faithfulness. You can count on Him to be kind. "Your sure salvation": Hebrew yesha - deliverance, salvation, rescue, safety, welfare; hence Jesus' actual name Yeshua, for He saves His people from their sins (Mt 1:21).
V16, "Answer me out of the goodness of your love": love here again is checed; goodness (towb) - God's essential nature is pure goodness, there is no darkness or shadow in Him. Even when disciplining and testing us, He seeks our welfare, wholeness, and maturing. 16 adds, "In Your great mercy turn to me": racham is love, mercy, compassion, tender affection. God is caring, tenderly, not like unresponsive granite.
In August on holiday we got to spend a whole week with our 1-year-old grandson Isaiah. He's just started walking, so he still appreciates a hand to hold onto in order to steady himself. Two hands is even more secure; yet we recognize he needs to develop his balance so as to be able to learn to walk on his own. So I tended to let him hold one hand and keep an eye on him so if he started to lose his balance I could reach out with the other hand and steady him. I didn't want him to fall and bump his head, so I intervened. Likewise when I put him on my shoulders I would keep an eye out for the height of the doorway, so my passenger wouldn't get it in the forehead! God has great mercy, tender affection - He reaches out to help us.
And v33, "The LORD hears the needy and does not despise his captive people." He's 'got an ear out' for us; He doesn't despise us, doesn't hold us in contempt or treat us with disdain. Those who are His are precious to Him. This is not some distant, removed god of the deists. God values you - you are dear to Him.
Faith's Foothold through Painful Difficulty on the Farm
This summer our daughter Emily and son-in-law Trenton spent a month helping Trenton's folks on their beef farm in Northern Alberta. Emily wrote in a column in Christian week about how the Wierengas are finding a foothold in God despite the injuries and hardships that have befallen them. She writes: "Having farmed in Alberta for all of their lives, they've barely got a cent to show for it.Every year some kind of disaster lies in the shadows, waiting to jump on them. Most recently, the shadows brought a devastating blow to my father-in-law's back.He slipped a disc. The injury will likely seriously limit him for the rest of his life. He can still move about with a back brace but is unable to even shave his face for the pain in his arms. Nevertheless, his faith remains unshaken. Pumped up on pain killers, he continues to do what he can, trusting God with the rest. My mother-in-law cares for him tirelessly, shaving him, running him baths, helping him combine and calve. When I asked her how she still has faith despite the possibility of losing the farm, she turned to me thoughtfully and said, 'Emily, life is so short. We just have to be thankful for every moment we have. I look at us, and I see all of things we have to be thankful for. Family, food on the table, a roof over our heads. So many people have it worse. This too shall pass, and in the end, God will hold us accountable for how we handled what He gave us."
Emily adds, "I know my father-in-law loves his farm...He stays up all night nursing calves, in spite of his pain. And while it might not seem fair that he has to suffer, he knows it's only drawing him closer to the heart of God."
Thank God for understanding our pain, and using it to invite us closer to Him. Thank Jesus for hope, for entering into our suffering alongside us, and in the Father's great goodness, love, and mercy, bringing us through it. Let's pray.