A Psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom.
1 O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;
2 many are saying to me, “There is no help for you in God.” Selah
3 But you, O Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.
4 I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill. Selah
5 I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
6 I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.
7 Rise up, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.
8 Deliverance belongs to the Lord; may your blessing be on your people! Selah
The attribution at the beginning of Psalm 3 tells us that it is a Psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absolom. A father running away from his son. Usually it’s the other way around:
One day, a father passing by his son’s bedroom was astonished to see the bed was nicely made and everything was picked up. Then, he saw an envelope, propped up on the pillow. It was addressed, ‘Dad’. With the worst feeling in the pit of his stomach, the father opened the envelope and read the letter, with trembling hands:
“Dear, Dad. It is with great regret and sorrow that I’m writing you. I had to elope with my new girlfriend, because I wanted to avoid making a scene with Mom and you. I’ve been finding real passion with Stacy. She is so nice, but I knew you would not approve of her because of all her piercings, tattoos, her skimpy clothes, and because she is so much older than I am. But it’s not only the passion, Dad. She’s pregnant. Stacy said that we will be very happy. She owns a trailer in the woods, and has a stack of firewood for the whole winter. We share a dream of having many more children. Stacy has opened my eyes to the fact that marijuana doesn’t really hurt anyone. We’ll be growing it for ourselves and trading it with the other people in the commune for all the crack and ecstasy we want. In the meantime, we’ll pray that science will find a cure for AIDS so that Stacy can get better. She sure deserves it! Don’t worry Dad, I’m 15, and I know how to take care of myself. Someday, I’m sure we’ll be back to visit so you can get to know your many grandchildren. Love, your son, Joshua.
P.S. Dad, none of the above is true. I’m over at Jason’s house. I just wanted to remind you that there are worse things in life than my report card, which is on the kitchen table. Call when it’s safe for me to come home!”
Psalm 3 is a psalm about fear, courage, peace, and of course, prayer. But like all of the Psalms, to truly understand the message, it’s helpful to know the story behind it. And those first few words–a psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absolom–point us to the story behind the psalm.
Absolom was one of King David’s favorite sons. His name, Avi-shalom, means “my father’s peace.” Remember that. Absolom was a lot like David himself when he was younger: He was good looking, passionate, charming, popular with the people, and somewhat impulsive. But unlike David, who grew up as a poor shepherd boy, often left to fend for himself, Absolom grew up as a prince, privileged and well-provided for. Absolom had expensive tastes, and liked to show off his wealth. You can read all about Absolom in the book of 2 Samuel–I’m giving the abbreviated version here.
To make a long story short, Absolom grew tired of waiting for his father to die so he could inherit the kingdom, and he began to plot against his father. He would seek out people who had grievances, and tell them “I’m on your side. if only I were king, you wouldn’t have that problem…” Absolom began to build up a lot of support this way, and eventually had enough support to proclaim himself king of Israel.
Upon hearing this, David flees the city of Jerusalem with a handful of loyal followers, and takes refuge in the hills of Judah, much like he did decades earlier when he was pursued by King Saul.
It is somewhere in this period, while he his hiding from the forces of his son, that David writes the words of Psalm 3.
The first two verses give a sense of the desperation he feels–first externally: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me.” That’s a real, tangible danger to his body, to his life. People want to kill me. But then the desperation moves inward: “Many are saying to me, ‘There is no help for you in God.'” This is an attack on his psyche, his spirit. Even God, who has always been there for you in the past, won’t get you out of this one. You are alone. I imagine there is a third, unspoken fear: Even if he wins this battle, he still loses his son. This is a lose-lose situation, and David is not used to that.
And so perhaps for the first time, David (slayer of giants, veteran of many battles, uniter of kingdoms) is faced with crippling fear–fear for his life, fear for his soul, and fear for his family. Not a great place to be.
And then there’s one more word at the end of verse 2: Selah. That’s actually a Hebrew word, transcribed directly, not translated, because no one really knows what it means. It’s a word that occurs almost exclusively in the Psalms, and this is where it shows up for the very first time–and then two more times in the next few verses.
Entire sermons have been preached on the possible meaning of Selah–I’ve preached about it before, but it’s still just everyone’s best guess. It could be some kind of forgotten musical instruction to the person reciting or singing the psalm, it could be something like the words “Amen” or “Halellujah.” One possibility, and the one I like best for this particular psalm, is the idea that it could indicate a change, a transition. Because that IS what happens next.
Verse 3, in most English translations, starts with the word, BUT! As in, Stop! Wait a minute! There’s something more.
But you, O Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head. I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill.
It may seem subtle at first, but this is actually a dramatic shift, a 180 degree turn-around, figuratively, and possibly even literally.
The key metaphor here is God acting as a shield. This is a metaphor that shows up in several places in the Old Testament, but in Psalms more than any other book, and also more frequently on the lips of David than any other individual. It even shows up in a prayer that David prays in 2 Samuel near the end of his life. Clearly, this is David’s thing.
God is my shield.
Presbyterian Pastor Tim Keller rightly points out that a shield is something that only defends you from what you are facing, from what is attacking you when it is in front of you. If you are running away, a shield won’t protect you. Up to this point, David has been running away–away from his son, away from Jerusalem, and away from his fears. But the reversal happens when he stops and turns around, crying out to the Lord, who answers him from his holy hill (which is Mount Zion, or Jerusalem).
There are times when it makes sense to run and hide. But that doesn’t solve anything, it only buys us a little more time. And running doesn’t make the fear go away. The opposite of fear is courage. The antidote to fear is courage. Courage in the face of our fears comes from calling out to God in prayer. It comes from trusting and relying upon God to protect us like a shield. But we have to turn around and face the things that terrify us the most.
And when we do that, once again, at the end of verse 4…Selah. Something changes.
What changes? At first, not much (or maybe everything, depending on how you look at things). David says in verse 5, “I lie down and sleep. I wake again, for the Lord sustains me. Basically, I keep on going. I’m still alive, even when maybe I shouldn’t be. Rinse, wash, repeat.
But then when I’ve done that for awhile, when I see that life keeps going and God keeps providing…verse 6: I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around. I’m not afraid anymore. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, day after day. There is a certain kind of peace that comes from facing each night, each morning with courage and trust in God–not as something I deserve or am entitled to, but as a gift, as something beautiful to be cherished and enjoyed fully.
And in the long, slow climb that David makes back to Jerusalem, facing his fears with God in front of him as his shield, he continues to pray. Verse 7: Rise up, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.” That may sound harsh, but for more on that subject, please reference last week’s sermon, just in case you missed it. The key point here is that David is praying heartfelt prayers. Like most of us, he’s not a perfect human being. He’s made mistakes as a leader. He’s made terrible mistakes as a husband, and as a father. But if there’s one thing David knows how to do, it’s to get back up again when he has fallen down, to put his trust in his God and try again. And again. And again.
Prayer, courage, and trust in the Lord…over time lead to peace, progress and resilience.
But David doesn’t stop there. There’s one more thing. Up to this point, this psalm, this prayer has been all about one person: David. If we’re honest, most of our prayers are the same: God, help ME. Save ME. Give ME.
But then, like a good King, like a good leader, in the final verse David goes wide: “Deliverance belongs to the Lord; (in other words, “not me”) and may your blessing (this peace, this progress, this resilience that I have found in you) be on your people!” For David, God’s chosen people meant the people of Israel, of Jerusalem. The people who are marching with him…as well as the people he is marching to. The people who have rejected and pursued him. His son, Absolom.
May your blessing be on your people. All of them. All of us.
What happens next? Look at the last word (or…is it the first?)