Dragon Slayers

Original Date: 
Sunday, January 22, 2012

Psalm 3 Life Songs: Dragon Slayers

Serenity Now!
I am a Seinfeld fan. I’m not as obsessed as some people I know, but I watched the show pretty regularly when it was still in production and I don’t mind catching an episode in syndication every once in a while. It certainly is on TV often enough.

On one episode, George’s dad Frank is in the back seat of the car when he begins berating Estelle—his wife—to move her seat forward so he can have more leg room. When she seems unable or unwilling to cooperate, Frank suddenly yells: “Serenity now!”

Both George and Estelle are surprised by this new exclamation, so they ask him where it came from. Frank tells them that he went to see the doctor, and was given a “relaxation cassette.” Whenever he feels his blood pressure rising, he’s supposed to say: “Serenity now.” George asks: “Are you supposed to yell it?” And Frank says: “The man wasn’t specific.”

So, throughout the episode he repeats the high decibel mantra: when Estelle nags him to fix the front door, when George gets in an argument with a salesman, when Kramer is having eggs flung at him. Over and over Frank shouts: “Serenity Now! Serenity Now!” Until, finally, at the end, George gets him to replace his prayer with “Hoochie mama.”

Sometimes, we think prayer should work the way Frank thought it should: as a sort of mute button on life that makes all our problems go away. Eugene Peterson calls it “pseudo prayer.” We think that because we’ve prayed we ought to be on a higher plan, more in tune with the universe. Our stress should decrease, our problems alleviate, and we should have a generally more peaceful life.

The reality though, is that life doesn’t work that way. As Peterson points out, when we look honestly at our lives, sometimes we are going to find that things are pretty bad. Not everybody likes us. Even though we go to church, give a friendly wave to passing cars, and are generally polite at the grocery store—we still have enemies.

The Psalms recognize this. One of the things I’ve been saying throughout this series on the Psalms is that they deal with the real emotional landscape of life. They aren’t just super spiritual worship songs, written by monastic hermits locked away in some secluded wilderness retreat—but rather they deal with nitty-gritty life issues. And one of those issues is that we have foes.

In the Psalms there are usually three presences: the speaker, God, and the Enemy. Peterson puts it like this: in the Psalms God is the “primary subject…but enemies are established in solid second place.” He adds, “When we take the Psalms as our guide, we find that people who pray have a lot of enemies, and that they spend a lot of their praying time dealing with them.” (quoted by Kevin Adams, 150, pg. 20)

I could give a lot of examples, but let me name just a few. Psalm 143 contains eleven verses of beautiful poetry—the kind, CS Lewis says, “that brings tears to the eyes”—but then verse 12 is added, almost as an afterthought: “In your unfailing love...destroy all my foes.”

Psalm 139 is a celebrated Psalm of self-reflection, but in the middle of its song of praise it practically snarls: “If only you would slay the wicked, O God!” (v. 19) It’s as if, Lewis writes, “it were surprising that such a simple remedy for human ills has not occurred to the Almighty.” (Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 142)

Even in the best known and most beloved of Psalms, enemies make an appearance. Psalm 23:5, we looked at it last week, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” It is, says Lewis, as if “the poet’s enjoyment of his present prosperity would not be complete unless those horrid Joneses (who used to look down their noses at him) were watching it all and hating it.” (Lewis, p. 142-143)

Enemies lurk all around the Psalms—like dragons on the borderlands. And what is true of the Psalms is also true of real life: We will encounter opposition. We can shout “Serenity Now!” as often as we want, but the truth is life won’t always be peaceful. Things are not always going to go the way we prefer.

The question is: when the dragons intrude, what do we do? Our Psalm today is Psalm 3, and it gives us guidance for dealing with opposition. I’ll have three points, and then a conclusion.

Name It and Face It
So, first, we need to Get Real! The first thing we need to do is face the reality of our situation. We need to name and face our enemies. Look at the first few verses:

A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.

1 O LORD, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
2 Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”

The first thing we notice about Psalm 3 is the heading. This isn’t just an addition from modern publishers, it is a part of the ancient manuscripts. And these superscripts—as they are called--can help fill in the historical context for the Psalm.

In this case, we told this is a Psalm of David when he was on the run from his son Absalom. You can read that story in 2 Samuel 13 through 18. It’s really quite a soap opera, but I’ll try my best to summarize.

As you may or may not know, David was not that successful as a parent. After his sin with Bathsheba, he seems to have lost moral authority with his children. So when one of his sons—Amnon—disgraced his half sister Tamar—David did nothing about it. Absalom—Tamar’s full brother—took matters into his own hands and murdered Amnon. Then David and Absalom had a falling out.

But Abasalom was handsome, popular and ambitious. So he set himself up as the dashing, chariot riding prince of the people. He’d sit at the city gate and chat with people who were on the way to see the king; then he’d imply that David was too busy to deal with their problems, but he’d be more than happy to help. Finally, when he’d won the hearts of enough people in Israel, he led a coup against his father. Disgraced, David and a few allies were forced to flee Jerusalem; and Absalom very publicly moved into David’s palace and took up with David’s harem.

It was a real low point for David. As he made his sad retreat a man named Shimei—a relative of old king Saul—came alongside the road and began cursing David. He picked up rocks and dirt and began pelting David and his bodyguard. This went on for quite some time until one of David’s generals—understandably upset at being showered with gravel and insults—suggested that maybe he could go cut Shimei’s head off. David’s response was pretty much: “Leave him alone, I deserve it.”

2 Samuel 15:30 is a good summary of the situation:

But David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up.

This is the setting for Psalm 3. David has enemies. His own son is his enemy. People are coming out the woodwork to throw dirt on him. They’re already digging his grave, and he’s not even dead yet. The word on the street is that David is done.

So, what does David do? He brings his problems to God. He’s realistic about what he’s facing. He doesn’t sugar coat it. 1 O LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! 2 Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.”

The first thing we learn is that we have to confront the brutal facts. When tough times come our way, we have to be honest about what we’re facing.

I’ve heard it said that you should never “give the devil a sign.” That is, some preachers will teach that if you give any indication that the devil is getting to you, that the circumstances of life are pulling you down, then you are just opening the door for things to get worse. So they’ll teach that you’ve always got to put a smile on your face. That you’ve got to pretend that everything is fine.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think that kind of advice is ridiculous. You don’t see David doing that. Life is rough right now, and he’s not afraid to say it. He’s not afraid to go to God and say: “Here’s my problem, I need your help with it.”

That’s what I mean when I say we have to get real. The fact is: we’re going to run into opposition in this life. Whether it is a rebellious teenager who screams obscenities at you every time you try to enforce a little discipline; an immoral boss who wants you to lie to clients or forfeit your job; a spouse who declares that they are leaving you for a newer model; or any of hundreds of other situations and scenarios; we are all going to fight dragons. And it isn’t going to do any good to pretend they aren’t there.

The Psalms are brutally honest. They show there is nothing wrong with taking these kinds of problems to God.

Stop and Think
Now, before we move on to the next point, let me comment briefly on that word “Selah.” This is a word that shows up a lot in the Psalms. It’s a word left untranslated from the Hebrew because—quite frankly—no one knows how to translate it. Often, when I read the Psalms, I just skip right over it.

Scholars can’t agree on what it means. Most agree that it is some sort of musical term or direction—instruction for how the Psalm is supposed to be sung. So, it might mean something like go faster (or slower) or get louder (or quieter). One common theory is that it is a musical rest—like an indication that we should catch our breath. Along those lines, the preacher Alistair Begg suggests that it means something like: “Stop and think about that for a moment.”

And I like that interpretation, because it leads directly into my second point, which is Get Theological! Get Theological. When our circumstances are going down the drain, it’s the perfect time to stop and think about what we know about God. Verse 3:

3 But you are a shield around me, O LORD;
you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.

Let me put it this way. If I have some sort of home improvement project, or some sort of update that has to be done on my computer, or pretty much anything mechanical or technical that requires skill, there’s a basic checklist for the way things are going to go for me:
1. Things are going to go wrong.
2. They are going to go wrong quickly.
3. I’m not going to know what to do about it.

And it’s at step three that I’m going to get pretty emotional. My family will testify: that’s when I start to stomp my foot and get grouchy. When the water is coming up the floor drain or the computer is giving me the blue screen of death, that’s when I start yelling and mumbling about shoddy workmanship and dumb pipes and so on.

At this point, I’ll call for help. If it’s a home improvement project I’ll call Jay or if it’s a plumbing problem I’ll call Phil Dalagar or if it’s a computer issue I’ll call Dean Mechler. And, inevitably, what happens is—while I’m all emotional and in a panic and on the verge of tears—they’ll come and they’ll be very calm and they’ll say something like: “Let’s stop and think about this for a moment.”

And that’s brilliant! I mean, that’s exactly right. Why didn’t I think to stop and think? Instead of getting all emotional and bent out of shape, the thing to do is stop and think about what we know, pinpoint the problem, and fix it.

And that’s what David is doing here. Even though his circumstances are terrible—even though his own son is chasing him and he’s getting mud thrown on him and his head is bowed down—he doesn’t let his feelings dictate what he does. Instead, he gets theological. He stops and he thinks about what he knows about God. He thinks about what he knows to be true.

I love the first two words of verse 3: “But you…” Things are bad right now, I’m on the run and I’m a laughingstock, but you O LORD. But you… David realizes that no matter how big his problems are: God is bigger. No matter how hopeless things look: God offers hope.

So David says that God is his shield. He’s probably thinking of Genesis 15:1, where God says to Abram: “Do not be afraid…I am your shield and your very great reward.” He says that God gives him his glory. Right now he’s covered in dirt and rags, but his real value is determined by the Almighty. He says that God is the lifter of his head. Right now his head is bent low, but God will lift it up.

David thinks about what he knows to be true about God. This is such an important principle. This is why it is important to be grounded in God’s Word and to know who God is and what God is like. This is why good theology is so important. Because truth transforms. Alistair Begg says: “There is a direct correlation between thinking properly and doing rightly.”

Truth transforms. Sometimes people will say: I don’t need to know about God. I don’t need to know the Psalms. I don’t need to know about the Trinity or the Incarnation or the Doctrine of Atonement. Just tell me what to do. Tell me how to be a good parent. Tell me how to be a good wife or husband. Tell me how to get along with people at work and make a positive contribution to my community. Leave all that theology talk for somebody else.

But listen, you’ve got to start in the right place. Start with what you know about God—start with true things about God—and then all those other things—how to be a good parent, how to be a good husband or wife, how to deal with enemies—all of that will follow. All of those “how-to”s spring out knowing who God is.

You have to start with truth. You have to get theological.

Trust and Act
Then, third, Get Going! Once you’ve grounded yourself on God’s truth, the question is: what are you going to do with what you know. Once David remembers who God is, he’s ready to act. Verses 4-6:

4 To the LORD I cry aloud,
and he answers me from his holy hill.
5 I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.
6 I will not fear the tens of thousands
drawn up against me on every side.

David is able go forward in trust. And, again, the order is important. Because of what he knows about God, he’s able to get going in faith.

So, verse 4, because of what he knows about God he is able to pray. He cries out to the LORD. Matthew Henry, a famous commentator a few centuries back, writes about this verse: “Care and grief do us good and not harm, when they set us to praying and engage us not only to speak to God but to cry to him as those who are in earnest.” Opposition and trial do us no harm—they do us only good—when they drive us to the Lord.

Or, again, verse 5: David is able to sleep and rise up again. Both these things are miracles in themselves. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it that way, but think about it. Psalm 127 says that God grants sleep to those he loves. The ability to sleep is a gift from God.

And the ability to get up in the morning? It’s a small miracle that we’re all here today. Who woke you up this morning? Jesus did. Maybe it was an alarm clock, or your kids. But on a bigger level, why is that you were able to rise this morning? Why didn’t you die of renal failure last night? Why didn’t your heart stop beating as you slept? Because Jesus is sustaining you. The good news here is that Jesus sustains you. Jesus watches over you.

And, of course, in context what this means is that even though David has a thousand things to think about, and ten thousand reasons to be afraid for his life—he was able to put his head on pillow and sleep—and wake up in the morning un-harmed—because he decided to hand his problems to God and trust in him.

David takes what he knows about God and he acts on it. He prays and he trusts.

And, by the way, let me wrap up the story about Abasalom. Commentator Bruce Waltke points out that at the same time that David is praying this prayer of trust in God, he is setting into motion plans to take his kingdom back. As David was fleeing the capital he left behind a network of spies and loyalists who pretended to be on the side of Absalom but who in reality were giving him bad advice and feeding information back to David.

So, even as David was putting his wholehearted trust in God, he was also devising a strategy. In faith, he was acting. And in time, through the use of these advisors and loyal soldiers, God handed the kingdom back to David—though not without more heartache.

The point is that when we have a solid grasp of who God is and what is the right thing to do, God expects us to act. Waltke writes: “True faith risks the use of means. It takes more faith to risk the surgeon’s scalpel than to lie in bed and pray: ‘God save me.’” (The Psalms as Christian Worship, p. 197)

So, it’s a fact of life. We will face opposition. Enemies lurk like dragons on the edges of our lives. The Bible does not sugarcoat that. But it does model for us how to deal with it. We must be realistic about what we face. We must fall back on the truth of who God is. And then we must use what we know to act in faith.

Finally, let me just share with you the final two verses of the Psalm:

7 Arise, O LORD!
Deliver me, O my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked.
8 From the LORD comes deliverance.
May your blessing be on your people.

Ultimately, David realizes that God is the only source of deliverance. And so He prays that God would act in justice against his enemies. And he falls back on God as His only hope.

Kevin Adams sums up the whole of Psalm 3 like this:

Psalms tell us the truth: enemies are everywhere. But they do not have the final word. The enemies who lurk like dragons on the margins of our lives and who let loose their toxic brew of hate and anger in the center of our lives are finally undone. Pray-ers brave enough to name their foes find new ways to hope. In the act of expressing disgust, fury and spite to the Almighty, the psalmist moves toward trust, a trust that leads to obedience. Prayed fear and dread are re-wrapped in reliance. (p. 68)

Dragons are a part life. But by trusting in God and acting in faith, they can be slain.