FOR TROUBLED TIMES
Psalms 50–56 “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never let the righteous fall” (Ps. 55:22).Seven psalms of David teach us how to respond when we bring trouble on ourselves, and when others betray us.
Through Asaph God spoke to His people and to the wicked (Ps. 50). David modeled confession (Ps. 51), and in three psalms expressed his response to betrayal by others (Pss. 52–54). David then recorded a prayer for the distressed (Ps. 55) and for the afraid (Ps. 56).
Understanding the Text
God as Judge.
God speaks through this poem penned by a temple musician to His own people and to the wicked. “The Lord, speaks and summons the earth” Ps. 50:1–6. An image from Israel’s legal system pictures God, speaking from heaven, announcing His righteous judgments. “O My people” Ps. 50:7–15. God’s message to His own is simple. “Fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor Me.” As we are faithful to the Lord, He will be faithful to us. “But to the wicked” Ps. 50:16–22. The wicked should not misconstrue God’s silence as indifference. God will condemn the righteous “to your face.” In a sense, the psalms of David that follow Asaph’s prophetic poem illustrate its theme. In view of the fact that God is Judge, David shows us how we are to respond in various situations. Psalm 51: Confession of Sin. David’s confession after his affair with Bathsheba shows us how to respect God as Judge when we sin. (See DEVOTIONAL.) Psalm 52: Betrayed by an Enemy. David took comfort in reviewing how different he was from his enemy. “Doeg the Edomite” Ps. 52 superscription. When David fled for his life from Saul, he paused at Nob and took the sword of Goliath from the priests there (1 Sam. 21:1–9). Doeg, one of Saul’s officials, saw him and later reported to Saul. The furious king charged the priestly family with treason; Doeg himself executed 85 innocent priests and their families (22:6–19). When David heard this from the sole-surviving member of the family, he took responsibility, for he had seen Doeg there and knew he would surely tell Saul (v. 20). Yet David never suspected that the half-mad king ordered the execution of these men of God. Psalm 52 commemorates that day, and finds comfort in the fact that God will ultimately judge. “You love evil” Ps. 52:1–7. Doeg’s acts were a disgrace, an attempt to win Saul’s favor at the price of others’ lives. David says, “Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin.” “But I am like an olive tree” Ps. 52:8–9. The critical difference between Doeg and David was that “I trust in God’s unfailing love.” Because David, despite his mistake, honored God, his future was secure. The one person the betrayer surely has betrayed is himself! Psalm 53: The Fate of Fools. Evildoers never learn. God is watching, and will judge. “The fool says in his heart” Ps. 53:1–5. The person whose heart is closed to God becomes morally corrupt (see Ps. 14). Yet God is observing him, and the dread in his own heart testifies against him. “Oh, that salvation would come” Ps. 53:6. Despite the fact that David knew the fate awaiting evildoers, he yearned for God to act soon. Psalm 54: Betrayal by Friends. Most painful of all is betrayal by those whom we have called our friends. “The Ziphites”: Ps. 54 superscription. The introduction to this psalm too gives us a historical setting. While fleeing Saul, David’s band of men occupied southern Judah’s hill country. There they even fought to save such cities as Keilah from marauding bands of Philistines (cf. 1 Sam. 23:1–18). Yet when David’s company hid in the rugged range of hills known as Ziph, the Ziphites twice went to Saul and volunteered to betray his hiding place (vv. 19–25; 26:1–4). “Save me, O God” Ps. 54:1–7. In an earlier psalm David described the wickedness of an enemy who betrayed him (Ps. 52). Here David said little against those fellow-countrymen who showed such ingratitude in betraying him twice! His only imprecation was, “Let evil recoil on those who slander me.” David wisely chose to focus on God Himself, His help, and the One who sustained him. It’s especially painful when a friend turns against us. When that happens we would be wise to follow David’s lead. Don’t dwell on the betrayal. Let God mete out any appropriate punishment. Released from any thoughts of hurt or revenge, David praised God, and remembered how the Lord “delivered me from all my troubles.” Psalm 55: Prayer When in Distress. David did feel betrayal—deeply. In this psalm he reminds us that however great our distress, we can cast our cares on the Lord and He will sustain us. “My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught” Ps. 55:1–8. David again proved himself an emotional man, who freely expressed his feelings in prayer. When you or I are shaken or in despair, it helps to read a psalm like this one and pray along with David. Such psalms help us realize that when we are hurting God does care, and that we can come to the Lord as we are. “Let death take my enemies by surprise” Ps. 55:9–15. David hardly wished the wicked well! Yet he was not being vindictive. The wicked are characterized by violence, strife, malice, and abuse. Such actions surely merit the judgment of God. “But I call to God” Ps. 55:16–23. David’s anguish and his anger both led him to the Lord. He could do nothing to alter God’s timing. What he could do was to remember that God, “who is enthroned forever,” will surely bring the wicked down. In view of this, David penned one of the most wonderful promises in Scripture. “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you” (v. 22). Until God acts to destroy the wicked, He will surely sustain His own. He will never let the righteous fall. Psalm 56: Prayer When Afraid. David saw fear not as an evil, but as an opportunity to trust. “When the Philistines had seized him” Ps. 56 superscription. The setting for this psalm is David’s flight to Gath. Depressed and certain that he would lose his life if he stayed in Israel, David went to the land of the Philistines. There he was recognized and seized. David pretended to be insane and was released (1 Sam. 21:10–15). The whole incident is electric with the fear that David experienced—fear that caused him to flee in the first place, fear when taken captive, certainly fear as he returned to his homeland still a fugitive. “Be merciful to me” Ps. 56:1–13. David’s sense of being surrounded by enemies was no paranoia. He was alone, and his enemies were all too real. Yet through this terrifying experience David came to see fear as a friend, rather than as an enemy. How is fear a friend? Fear is a friend because it is only when we are afraid that we plumb the depths of trust. We cannot know what trust means unless we live through experiences in which the Lord is all we have to hold on to. Through his experience of fear, David became able to share a great and wonderful discovery with us. When I am afraid, I will trust in You. In God, whose Word I praise, In God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me? When trust releases us from our fear of others, we are truly free to “walk before God in the light of life.”
Night and Day (Ps. 51)
Perhaps our most troubling times come when we are faced with the realization that we have sinned. How we deal with that sin makes all the difference in the world. It’s like the difference between night and day. The difference between a crushing sense of guilt, and the buoyant realization that our heart is pure. This well-known psalm celebrating God’s forgiveness was written by David after he committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then arranged for the death of her husband in battle. The first half of the psalm portrays the dark side of our experience. The second half the bright newness God offers believers who confess their sins to Him. Verses 1–9 feature words from the Old Testament’s vocabulary of sin. David’s usage draws together the entire Old Testament concept by using three major Hebrew terms. Hata˒ (“sin”) is the failure to live up to God’s established standard. Pesha˒ (“transgression”) is conscious rebellion against that standard, while ˒awon (“iniquity”) is deviation from or a twisting of the standard. Somehow the seeds of sin are rooted deeply in David’s very nature, and have grown into a tangled, thorny thicket of willful and unintentional sins which have drawn the psalmist into acts that repel his better self. There is a dark side to all our natures; a side expressed in acts of sin that cry out for forgiveness. Yet David and you and I have hope. There is a bright side, revealed in verses 10–19. Aware of the darkness within him, David cried out, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” God, who spoke light into existence, can do a creative work in us and make our soiled hearts pure. And when that happens? Then again there is joy in salvation. Then again we are able to “teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will turn back to You.” From the purified heart pour forth hymns of praise, and from the humble acknowledgment of what we are comes something new; a life of holiness.
When we expose sin in confession, God makes our darkness light.