Psalm 141

I’ve read many times that Billy Graham preached with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. During times like these it is tempting to choose one or the other. We can stick with Bible and ignore the world around us or we can toss out the text and preach from the newspaper. It’s especially true with Psalms, isn’t it? We can read it exclusively as David’s exchanges with God that have little relevance to our own circumstances and try to understand the grammar and the structure of the Psalm. We can read it as not only meant to be read as David’s struggle with wicked men but we can take it over completely as instruction for us alone. It’s one of the dangers of individual Bible study exclusively. Every passage is interpreted through the lens of “What does this mean for me and my life today? What does this have to say about my personal circumstances and time in my life?” It becomes all about me. Yet, there is the equal temptation to take it totally out of the context of personal application and turn it into a sermon against who we might consider to be wicked enemies today – either in our community or nation. We “weaponize” the Bible and use it for our own purposes.

I’d like to try and avoid all of those snares this morning but I realize I will not be completely successful! There are too many of them and too many ways to use current illustrations that can color whatever I hope to say. That is why I pray this morning as David did in Psalm 19 that the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart will be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, My Rock and my Redeemer.

There are so many different levels in this Psalm. The first is getting what is likely the setting and the circumstance. For that we turn to 1 Samuel 24:1-22.

Saul is hunting for David to kill him out of jealousy. Saul could not stand all the praise and pressed that David had been receiving from the people and his only desire now was to get rid of David. Meanwhile, David had fled and had attracted a mangy army of 400 followers who are described as “those in distress, debt and discontent.” Saul had thousands of men looking for David and David had 400 who had no one else to follow.

The story is worth reading directly:

24 After Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines, he was told, “David is in the Desert of En Gedi.” 2 So Saul took three thousand able young men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats. 3 He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave. 4 The men said, “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’” Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. 5 Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. 6 He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” 7 With these words David sharply rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way. 8 Then David went out of the cave and called out to Saul, “My lord the king!” When Saul looked behind him, David bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. 9 He said to Saul, “Why do you listen when men say, ‘David is bent on harming you’? 10 This day you have seen with your own eyes how the Lord delivered you into my hands in the cave. Some urged me to kill you, but I spared you; I said, ‘I will not lay my hand on my lord, because he is the Lord’s anointed.’ 11 See, my father, look at this piece of your robe in my hand! I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you. See that there is nothing in my hand to indicate that I am guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life. 12 May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. 13 As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you. 14 “Against whom has the king of Israel come out? Who are you pursuing? A dead dog? A flea? 15 May the Lord be our judge and decide between us. May he consider my cause and uphold it; may he vindicate me by delivering me from your hand.” 16 When David finished saying this, Saul asked, “Is that your voice, David my son?” And he wept aloud. 17 “You are more righteous than I,” he said. “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly. 18 You have just now told me about the good you did to me; the Lord delivered me into your hands, but you did not kill me. 19 When a man finds his enemy, does he let him get away unharmed? May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today. 20 I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands. 21 Now swear to me by the Lord that you will not kill off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father’s family.” 22 So David gave his oath to Saul. Then Saul returned home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.

Here is the context. David is torn between doing what is expedient and being urged on him by his most loyal followers. “This is the chance we and God have been waiting for. He has been delivered into your hands. All you need to do is what he would do to you if he had the opportunity. This is hardball. This is how you win. This is how you inherit the kingdom God has promised you. Don’t hesitate. God is with you.”

David’s response?

An agonized request to God to resolve the conflict in his soul. A plea for help in desperate times when all the voices around him are encouraging him to take the Kingdom by force as well as by right. It’s a Shakespearean dilemma, isn’t it? “Hear my voice, smell my prayer, see my hands. I am doing whatever it takes to make you answer me now in the heat of the moment.” I need an answer now and then he says, “Maranatha” or “Come quickly” and resolve this.

There are days when I feel the same. I want everything to be resolved or at peace. Maybe that’s why most of what we see on Facebook is pictures of cats and cute sayings. Other people want the same. I feel like the early Christians who said often, “Maranatha” or as we read in the last few words of the last book of the Bible, “He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” It seems like only the second coming can fix the world in which we live and we wonder how long it will be before everything just comes apart at the seams. The poet W.H. Auden said it well in his poem “The Second Coming”:

”Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”

Surely, we cannot live much longer with this tension of not knowing what is right, what is God’s will, what is simply the manipulations of wicked men or the mistaken counsel of loyal followers. When will someone with credibility just tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

That is David’s dilemma. What is God’s will and what is simply the mix of anger, intrigue, good intentions, loyalty, of those who are in distress, debt and discontent?

Have you ever heard of something called a commitment device? It’s an economic concept but it comes originally from the story of Odysseus and his plan to keep his ship from sailing into the rocks because of the lure of the songs of the Sirens? He knows he is incapable of resisting the temptation that has destroyed everyone before him so he puts wax in the ears of his men rowing to make them deaf to the sounds. On the other hand, he wants to hear the music but not be killed on the rocks so he then instructs them to lash him to the mast so he cannot jump over or instruct them to take the wax out of their ears. He knows himself and he knows the consequences. They sail safely past the Sirens because of his being lashed to the mast.

It is the same when we make certain commitments ahead of time and decide now what we will do when the time of temptation comes. When it comes it is too late, isn’t it. The commitment must be there beforehand. What is David’s commitment device?

He has determined that he will not be drawn to what is evil even when it appears to be good. You could read the words “set a guard over my mouth” to mean watch my words but while that may be part of it, I don’t think it is all. I don’t think speaking rashly gets close to the depth of the temptation here. I think these two verses taken together mean “I will not eat with or listen to those who would encourage me to do what I know in my heart to be evil.” I will not sit down with men who entice me with delicacies – and those delicacies are not just food are they? C.S. Lewis wrote about the Inner Ring and the power of being included in special groups or being insiders is overwhelming to many. Being at the table, being in the Oval Office, being supported by powerful donors and players is all part of what David means by delicacies – and those delicacies are different for each of us. Each of us has something that is tempting to our spirits, our ego, our esteem and reputation. Each of us has something that once we eat we are trapped. We are caught by our own desire. Your delicacy is not mine nor mine yours but every one of us has something that has the power to be drawn away.

The word for wicked here has a special meaning. It is not describing simple theft or any number of bad character qualities. It means literally those who resort to violence and crime against civil law. It means those who practice lawlessness and encourage others to do the same. It is not civil disobedience but violence and taking the law into our own hands or, worse, contributing to the breakdown of law. I read an article this week on the rise of the Third Reich in Germany and one of the steps was the loss of faith in government as a whole – not just one administration or political party – but in the role of government altogether. No one could be trusted. The institutions were broken beyond repair and only a strong leader could bring order to chaos as government had squandered its credibility. That is what we are reading here. “Saul is a failure. Only you are fit to be king. Take the risk and use the power you have over us and others.”

David knew that. He knew his own heart and his own ambitions. He knew how easy it would be and how much his followers would support and acclaim his doing it. He also knew how his men would respond if he did not do this. They would say, “As one plows and breaks up the earth, so our bones have been scattered at the mouth of the grave.” In other words, all is lost and we are doomed if you do not take this gift of God to kill Saul.

But, in the front of his mind (not the back) were the words of a righteous man. I could take that to mean someone in his life like Samuel or Jonathan or even the wisdom of God telling him this was not the way of integrity. If he did this he would be no better than Saul. He would be an imposter and a traitor to God’s anointed. As we discovered with Samson, being anointed does not mean being heroic or even having character. It simply means God’s calling is on their life even if we cannot understand it. There are anointed fools.

But David does do this one thing. He cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe. Why? Just to prove to Saul that he could have killed him and taken the kingdom along with most of Saul’s army as well? I don’t think so. I think he took it and kept it as a reminder of the temptation encouraged by followers, of the opportunity he had to do evil and, finally, the power of having made the decision ahead of time how he would respond to that temptation. He lashed himself to the mast years before and that saved him.

And, finally, what was his response to his men who felt all was lost and they would have to suffer for years under an anointed fool? Just this:

”But my eyes are fixed on you, O Sovereign Lord; in you I take refuge – do not give me over to death.”

My life is not in my hands or the hands of those who love or hate me. It is in God’s and my eyes are fixed not on what is expedient or tempting or seeming to be good at the time but fixed on God. What does it say in Hebrews 12?

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.…”

And we are surrounded by witnesses like David who resisted lawlessness and violence and today we need to fix our eyes on a Sovereign God who holds our lives in his hands.

His success led him and his family into a snare. Unlike Joshua who dedicated all the spoil to the Lord, Gideon and his family’s too a piece of everything. They turned something good (the ephod) into an idol. It’s as relevant today as it was then. Just read the account of Penn State taking down Joe Paterno’s statue. Something good was turned into an idol and a “culture of compliance” created a snare not just for Paterno and his family but the whole community. It’s strong language but a school did “prostitute” itself by worshiping the football program. The same is true of other schools as well. But, you could say free speech or academic freedom has had the same effect. Something good becomes a snare.

The word bread is used figuratively in such expressions as “bread of sorrows” ( Psalms 127:2 ), “bread of tears” ( 80:5 ), i.e., sorrow and tears are like one’s daily bread, they form so great a part in life. The bread of “wickedness” ( Proverbs 4:17 ) and “of deceit” ( 20:17 ) denote in like manner that wickedness and deceit are a part of the daily life.

(2) in these circumstances it occurred to his mind, or was suggested to him, to say or do something which, not honorable or right in itself, might have brought relief, or which might have rescued him from his peril, and secured the favor of his enemies; some trick – some artful scheme – some concession of principle – which would have delivered him from his danger, and which would have secured for him a position of safety, plenty, and honor, Psalm 141:3-4. Many considerations, derived from his danger, might have been suggested for this, even by those who were not bad people, but who might have been timid men, and who might have felt that their cause was hopeless, and that it would be proper to avail themselves of this opportunity to escape from their peril in any way.

The practical truth which would be illustrated by this view of the psalm would be, “that we are not to say or do anything that is wrong, though good people, our friends, advise it; though it should subject us to their reproaches if we do it not; though to do it would be followed by great personal advantages; and though not to do it would leave us still in danger – a danger from which the course advised would have delivered us. It is better to act nobly, honorably, and in a high-minded manner, and to leave the result with God, still trusting in him.”

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