“I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.”
I’ve been reflecting on these words since September of last year when I read Psalm 3 while on holiday in West Wales. By turns, they have intrigued me, inspired me and haunted me – mostly haunted me. As someone whose lifelong insomnia has been complicated over recent years by anxiety and paranoia, the factual simplicity of these words has often left me cold. To be able to lie down, to sleep, and to wake again…. Oh, to be so able!
This is one of those passages in the psalms that creates in me a dialectic of faith. I know what is right. I know, intellectually at least, the power of even the smallest faith – “as a grain of mustard seed”. I know the words of the Lord Jesus, spoken during one of His sermons, and recorded in Matthew 6:25
“Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life…”
And again, in verse 34
“Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”
and yet I am anxious. I do worry. And sometimes, I don’t know what I am worried about but still, I worry. Anxiety gnaws at me like a poison, sapping my will, robbing me of sleep. The dialectic – the huge gulf between what I profess to believe and what I perceive to be the reality of my life – can send me into a spiral of despair. It’s bad enough that I suffer from this terrible curse, but the failure of being so anxious while knowing that Christ commands us not to be anxious, not to worry, is devastating. And I ask, “What’s wrong with me?” And it’s an easy step from here to start doubting the truth of the Bible, doubting the truth of Christ’s words.
I’m not talking, here, about needing medication to help me sleep. I have that. I’m not talking about needing medication to dull anxiety’s razor-sharp edge. I have that, too. I’m talking about the next step. Learning to live with, and then, hopefully, live without, anxiety. To be well.
The realism of the Psalms, right at this point of the dialectic, the seeming paradox of faith, can be reassuring, if we let it. The realism of Psalm 3 can be reassuring if we let God speak to us through it, as we read it in its context. Because when we do see it in context, we’re confronted with the absolute horror of King David’s life at the moment when he prayed, and, following his prayer, lay down and slept and woke again.
Psalm 3 is another of those psalms that remind us that the people of God whom we find in the Bible led messy, complicated lives, marred by awful tragedy – just like us. They are not superheroes. They don’t inhabit a sterile world, scoured of problems and fears. They’re not two-dimensional cyphers who are free from the passions that dominate our lives. All too often, they are broken men and women, living in broken families, in broken communities. Just like us.
Psalm 3, on the surface, is very simple. David begins by telling God his problem. He continues by professing his faith in God. He tells us about the immediate benefit of his prayer – that he slept. He goes on again to pray confidently for deliverance from his problem. And he ends with another profession of confidence in God. The focus of my thinking – verse 5 – is a kind of hinge. The psalm moves in toward this verse and then develops from it.
The more I’ve reflected on Psalm 3 the more I’ve realised that I have a lot to learn about prayer, not least that it’s perfectly okay to tell God your problems. That might sound obvious. But as I’ve thought about my own praying over the years, I’ve realised that I often skip the problem and get straight to what I think is the solution – my prayer goes straight to asking God for help. David doesn’t do that. He shouts out in his anxiety, “God, see how many enemies I have! There are so many people turning against me! And they’re mocking me, telling me you can’t help me!” I don’t do that. I’m almost afraid to tell God my problem because it sounds like I’m complaining. But David does it. He gets straight to the point and gets his burden off his chest. And he does it quite simply – no ornate language, no gilding the lily, here. The sweet psalmist of Israel abandons the wordsmith’s skills and just lays it out, straight from the heart. He’s surrounded by an ever-increasing horde of enemies who are taunting him that not even God can help him this time. And we need to be honest and say that David’s condition sounds terrifying.
The reality, though, is far, far worse than these brief words suggest. The ascription to the psalm tells us that David wrote these words about the time when he fled from his son, Absalom. We need to note that – his son, Absalom, was one of the enemies that surrounded David. Forget David the king, David the warrior, David the psalmist, David the man after God’s own heart; forget all the wonderful ways the Bible speaks about David, the archetypal king of Israel. See, now, for a moment, David the father, betrayed by his son. How heartbreaking is this picture?
But the more we dig into these events – and we can read about them in 2 Samuel Chapters 13-19 – the more this very personal but all too public tragedy is revealed in all its sordid details. This Absalom is the son who killed his half-brother Amnon. Yes, Absalom was responsible for killing one of David’s sons from a different wife. David had already buried a child. He was carrying the weight of that grief. But something tainted that grief. Absalom had killed Amnon because Amnon had raped Absalom’s sister, Tamar. At that moment, David faced the impossible choice of punishing one child for his sin against another child. And for whatever reason, perhaps because Absalom had shamefully persuaded Tamar to stay silent about what had happened, David did not act. He did not provide justice for his daughter. But Absalom did. After biding his time, he killed his half-brother, and then fled from the court in Jerusalem, from his father’s anger. Over time, we read that David became reconciled to Amnon’s death, perhaps realising that Absalom had done the right thing, albeit in the wrong way. And David was persuaded to accept Absalom back into Jerusalem, back into the court. And we can see something even here of David’s bewilderment at what had happened because for three years, though Absalom his son was back in the city, David refused to see him. One child raped. One child killed. One child altogether estranged.
At this point, the story changed direction, and it seems as though there might have been a chance of genuine reconciliation between David and Absalom. David agreed to meet his son and he forgave him. But Absalom, far from living content, wanted more. For we learn that Absalom, like his sister Tamar, was strikingly beautiful, and blessed especially with a glorious head of hair. Absalom took advantage of his status as the king’s son and became what we would readily recognise today as a celebrity – a star. He purchased a chariot to ride around in, which was nothing more than a ridiculous and impractical status symbol in such a cramped and hilly city as Jerusalem. And he paid for fifty men to run before him wherever he went, his entourage, just in case anyone didn’t realise just how important he was. This son, just newly reconciled with his father after committing fratricide, behaving in the most ostentatious manner imaginable! But Absalom wasn’t content to leave matters there. He slowly but effectively undermined his father, the king, and usurped his authority, and in a particularly public way. Until the day came when he judged the time right to stage a rebellion, one that gathered pace so rapidly that within a day, David was forced to flee from Jerusalem with only his wives, his personal guard, and a group of old warriors who had been with him for many years. There are more details given about the revolt, all of which simply add to the sorry and sordid affair. But one of the most debilitating for David, from a personal point of view, was the defection of his close friend and advisor, Ahithophel.
The picture that Samuel gives us of David is of a broken man, hurriedly making his way to safety, in tears as one of his enemies literally taunts him from a hilltop.
Yes, David faced the imminent loss of the kingdom promised to him and to his children. And yes, this is the main focus of the narrative in 2 Samuel – the continuity of the kingdom that God had covenanted to David and his house. But Psalm 3 is a very personal psalm. And this gives us the warrant to draw back from David the king and look at David the man: the unfaithful husband who was both adulterer and murderer, whose sins forced God to curse him and his house with violence: the father, who made sorry mistakes in his anger and grief at the wickedness and violence of his children, but who, when given the opportunity, was quick to reconcile himself with his son: the father who saw that reconciliation thrown back in his teeth when that son rebelled against him: the man who saw his oldest friend and confidant betray him in what was possibly the moment of his greatest need.
This is the man who prayed the prayer we find in the opening verses of Psalm 3. A broken man, in a broken family, in a broken community. A man with a profoundly complicated and messy life. A man, like me.
I find it almost incomprehensible that this man, weeping as he made his way to camp that night, was able to write,
“I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.”
But write it he did, and we have his testimony to this very day, recorded and kept for our benefit.
Of course, the trite answer is because he had faith, he trusted God. But how? How did this weeping, broken man trust God? How can we trust God in our weeping brokenness, when the terrors of darkness and night threaten to overwhelm us?
I don’t have a magic bullet. But I have the beginning of an answer because Psalm 3 gives it to us.
First, of course, David prayed. He unburdened himself before God. And that is what our prayer – the prayer of the anxious and depressed – must be. It must be an unburdening, a laying bare of ourselves. God is our Heavenly Father. If most human fathers are capable and willing to do good for their children, how much more does our Father in heaven desire to do good for us? We have to believe at least that much!
But second – and this is the golden theme of the wisdom literature, the psalms, perhaps, especially – David confessed his faith. After telling God what his problem was, David told God “You are the One who can help me!”
“You’re my shield! You’re my glory! You’re the One who lifts my head!”
If, like me, and like David’s enemies, you’re tempted, at this point, to say, “But David’s in deep trouble here. God doesn’t seem to be doing much to help!” then, like me, and like David’s enemies, it’s worth asking what David is actually doing at this point. He’s certainly not burying his head in the sand, trying to persuade himself that, despite all evidence to the contrary, God is actually helping him at this very moment. Not at all. The three “You are….” statements, here, are statements of fact based on what God has done for David in the past. And based on that past experience, they are statements of confidence that that is what God will prove to be now, in the present. You’ve kept me, every step of my way so far. You’ve given me many, many glorious moments and blessed me. And when I have been weary and my feet have dragged, when I thought I might fall away, you’ve lifted up my head “unto the hills, from whence my help comes” (Psalm 122). David remembered the one central fact of His life: it began with grace, it had continued with grace, and if it was to continue at all, it would be with grace.
David prayed. He unburdened himself. He remembered all that God had done for him to that point. And with that disposition – a disposition informed and shaped by his remembered experience of God – he lay down, and he slept, and he woke again.
Can I do this? Can I unburden myself before God and then remember all the help that He has given me in the past, and not only me but His people through the ages? Can I lie down and sleep and wake again?
I can but try. And try remembering that if ever I begin to convince myself that I can’t, I must then pray for an increase of faith. I must tell God that I am too weak in my faith to lie down and sleep. I must be that honest. And then, when I ask for strengthening in my faith, I must remember that I pray in the power of One who intercedes with groans too deep for words; and through the intercession of One who calls us to Him when we are weary and heavy-laden; and to One who is my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head.
S.D.G. 1 February 2020