Songs of a Warrior Poet

Courage of the Abandoned Heart

Psalm 27
Of David
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in His temple.

For He will hide me in His shelter
in the day of trouble;
He will conceal me under the cover of His tent;
He will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in His tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek His face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

“Whom Shall I Fear?”

What is the birthplace of courage?

David discovered its source early in life. We should not let our familiarity with his remarkable story blind us to the gritty reality of it. When the sun beat down on David, when pain or hunger or disease wracked his body, or when danger threatened his life, it was just as real to him as it would be to us. Goliath, for example, was intensely real. David encountered a living, breathing, cursing monstrosity encased in 200 pounds of bronze armor and carrying a spear with a fifteen-pound tip. Twice a day for forty consecutive days, Goliath had mocked Israel, daring the army to produce a champion to fight him in single combat. Each time when the soldiers heard Goliath’s challenge, they “fled from him in great fear” (1 Samuel 17: 24). Facing this Philistine warrior in battle should have been Saul’s job. Although he was aging, Saul was still an impressive physical specimen, a head taller than the rest of the Israelites, and as their king he should have been their defender. But Saul, like the rest of his army, was “dismayed and terrified” (1 Samuel 17:11). When David heard Goliath’s mockery, however, he volunteered on the spot to fight him. As David explained to Saul, this combat was simply one more event in a long history with God. Facing danger with poise and trust had become a habit.

Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine (1 Samuel 17:34-37).
Inspiring speeches are easier to utter in a tent than on the battlefield. But these words went far beyond bravado. When he saw the Philistine giant approaching, David stayed true to his convictions:
You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and He will give you into our hand (1 Samuel 17:45-47).
This attitude of reckless abandonment to God and utter confidence in His provision had kept David’s hand steady and his arm strong when he rescued his father’s lambs from lions and bears. He acted from that same attitude of faith when he refused Saul’s armor, picked up his shepherd’s sling, and ran towards Goliath. And he would embrace that same outlook for the rest of his life, whether he was attacking enemy armies, dodging a mad king’s spear, or hiding from assassins in a desert cave. This Psalm is brimming with that same faith.

When David composed this song, he was facing persecution and personal attack from an unnamed enemy. He declared once again that God was his light, salvation, and stronghold. Light, because David looked to God for guidance and wisdom. Salvation, because he counted on God for deliverance and vindication. Stronghold, because he found in God a place of shelter and protection in times of danger and overwhelming pressure. That affirmation wasn’t just David’s theology about God; it was his experience of God. In view of those facts, he asked, “Whom shall I fear? Of whom shall I be afraid?” The clear answer: No one!

The persecutors were very real, just as Goliath had been. David was under no illusions. The enemies and adversaries attacking him were evildoers in the grip of dark spiritual forces that had marked him as a man after God’s own heart and targeted him for destruction. To a later generation of God’s people who were experiencing similar persecution, Peter would write, “Your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, is on the prowl looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). David understood. These enemies likewise wouldn’t be satisfied with just hurting him; they wanted to devour his flesh. But David had such a confidence in God’s provision and protection that he was certain the attackers would eventually “stumble and fall,” just as Goliath once had.

To many people in his situation, the future would have seemed frightening and uncertain. David could face it with unshakable courage. What if it weren’t just a small pack of enemies who attacked him? Suppose an entire army encamped against him. No matter; his heart would not fear. Suppose war rose up against him. It would make no difference; he would be confident.

“One Thing I Asked of the LORD”

So again we ask, what is the birthplace of such courage? When we are attacked with supernatural hatred in the form of human adversaries, where can we discover this kind of confidence? When we must confront our fear for our loved ones, when we have to deal with pain from personal loss, how can we find God? How can we experience Him as our light, our salvation, our stronghold? What was David’s secret?

We don’t have to guess. David sang his answer to us.

“One thing I asked of the Lord; that will I seek after.” One thing! The secret to his courage was his single-mindedness. Ambitious people have a lot to lose. Possessions can be stolen. Positions can be taken away. Agendas can be thwarted. Plans can be frustrated. Desires can be crushed. But what if we channeled all of our energies into a single goal? What if we focused all of our desires on one object? And what if that goal lay on a different plane entirely than “success” or “failure”? What if it was completely beyond the reach of any enemy in hell or on earth who opposed us? Then we would experience true freedom, genuine peace.

David had chosen his “one thing” carefully: “To live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple.” As a young shepherd in the Judean hills, David had spent many a night out under a clear, starlit sky. He marveled at the beauty and majesty of the heavens and later composed songs describing them. But he grasped that the skies were merely “telling the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1-4). With the eyes of his heart he saw through the glories of the physical heavens into the splendor of the Mind that created them. David longed to experience God’s beauty, and the house of the Lord was where God could be found. God’s house was also where one could inquire of the Lord and learn His desires. David wanted to do more than enjoy God; he wanted to submit to Him in everything. This yieldedness was not just poetry. In the Biblical account of his life, we read that David did in fact continually “ask the Lord” what he should do.

So David was gripped by one controlling desire: to abandon his life in full surrender to a God so beautiful He was worthy of whole-hearted worship. How could he fail if that was his goal? How could any oppressor deprive him of that privilege? A man like that can afford to be fearless. He has nothing left to lose!

Of course in his day, the Ark of the Covenant—the physical manifestation of God’s presence—rested in a tent that David had pitched for it in Jerusalem. He could not literally, physically live inside that tent all the days of his life. He could sacrifice and inquire there often, but responsibilities would require him to leave and reenter the world of men. He could and did, however, maintain the posture of worship and dependence wherever he found himself.

But the glorious truth is that it is possible for us, “on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come,” to live in God’s house all the days of our lives! Our temple is the church, the ekklesia of God, and His presence is manifested in His church by His indwelling Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-5). By “church” we of course do not mean a religiously-purposed building, a denominational entity, or a “service” that one could “attend.” Those concepts are completely foreign to the New Testament! No, the ekklesia is an interwoven fabric of lives that are “joined and knitted together.” It “builds itself up in love” as “each part does its work,” until it “grows up in every way into Him who is the Head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:7-22). The people of God are truly living as a church when they are intimately joined into an organic whole, just as the members of a physical body are merged into a single life. In the ekklesia, each person is “given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The members value each other and would never dream of dismissing one another with an attitude that “I have no need of you” until the next meeting. When Believers are joined in ekklesia life, there is “no dissension within the body, but the members have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:4-26). Those who have lived in a House of God as described in those passages can testify that they do behold God’s beauty there and that His wisdom is richly available in it. They agree wholeheartedly with David that there is nowhere else they’d rather be.

So how can we translate David’s “one thing” from a covenant in which God’s Presence lived in a tent of animal hides into a covenant in which His Spirit lives in the joined lives of His people? Paul shows us the way:

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to His saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is He whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that He powerfully inspires within me (Colossians 1:24-29).

The same single-minded focus on the House of the Lord that dominated David’s heart had captivated Paul’s as well: “For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that He powerfully inspires within me.” David was gripped by a vision of the beauty of God in a House made by human hands; Paul was captivated by a vision of the glory of God in a House built from human hearts. David longed to build a magnificent temple for God; Paul burned with desire to present everyone mature in Christ. As David cast off all other ambitions, he found the strength to face persecution with great courage. In the same way Paul discovered a capacity to rejoice in his sufferings for the House, to receive willingly into his own body the sufferings of Christ for His Body.

So you and I can lose ourselves--and lose our instability and fear at the same time--in a single-minded focus. We can live to proclaim the “riches of the glory of the mystery” of a God who makes his home in human beings: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” And we can spend ourselves “warning everyone and teaching everyone” with a vision towards presenting them mature in Christ. Our desire, like David’s, can be to “behold the beauty of the Lord” in His temple and to see His wisdom manifested among His people. That one controlling thought can be the underlying motivation for all we do, from the time we wake each day until the time we sleep again--and throughout the watches of the night if sleep eludes us.

Persecution need not intimidate or embitter us. It can clear our vision and sharpen our focus as it refines us from competing ambitions. In the face of suffering, a courageous love and joy can take root in our hearts. As Peter put it,

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy (1 Peter 1:6-8).

“Now My Head is Lifted Up”

David knew what it meant to have “indescribable and glorious joy,” despite all the hatred heaped on him and the genuine physical danger that he endured every day.

For one thing, David knew that his devotion to God’s house meant protection: “For He will hide me in His shelter in the day of trouble; He will conceal me under the cover of His tent.” Usually, David wouldn’t literally hide in the tabernacle when in danger—although once when Saul was trying to kill him, David fled there and received food and a sword from the high priest Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:1-9). For the most part, though, David was speaking metaphorically of his confidence in God’s protection. For us who have the privilege of knowing a temple made from intertwined human lives, however, that shelter and covering are quite literally real. The encouragement, nourishment, and wisdom that we can receive from another believer during our “day of trouble” can be supernaturally strengthening, as many a persecuted Christian over the centuries could testify.

But David’s experience wasn’t just one of surviving persecution. He knew what it meant to overcome it. And so he sang, “God will set me high on a rock. Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me.” An army of haters had surrounded him and attacked him. God could have simply wiped them out, of course. But instead, He chose to lift David up and set him out of their reach, with his feet stably planted on an unshakable rock. The enemies were still surrounding him on all sides, but David could now lift his head victoriously in spite of them.

Our first reaction when persecution threatens is usually to ask God to remove it. Sometimes He does so, and we praise Him for it. But sometimes for His purposes God chooses to allow it to continue, at least for a season, and instead give us Grace and Provision to rise above it. We should also praise Him for that grace, for in many ways it is deeper, richer, and more glorious than a quick deliverance. Paul discovered this truth when he received a painful “thorn in his flesh,” quite possibly meaning a persecutor:

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this thorn, that it would leave me, but He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

Those who, like David and Paul before them, choose to live for “one thing” receive from God indomitable courage and unconquerable joy. They experience fear, pain, and loss just as anyone else would. But they also receive divine Provision to “lift their heads” above their circumstances. And so they “offer in God’s tent sacrifices with shouts of joy” and “sing and make melody to the Lord.”

“I Shall See the Goodness of the LORD”

Psalm 27 is a song of victory. But interwoven throughout its melody of forceful confidence are notes of deep humility. Persecution should teach us both. It requires us to realize our utter need for God and to abandon ourselves into His hands. That abandonment strips away our self-life. We are no longer under the illusion that we can manage our own lives with our own wisdom and strength. Leaning all our weight on God, we gain freedom and confidence, but we never lose our sense of total dependence on Him.

So David’s heart said, “Come! Seek His face!” And he did seek the Lord’s face continually. There was not a hint of presumption here. There was certainly no shallow “name it and claim it” attitude based on a naïve assumption that God somehow owed him something. He implored God to hear him when he cried aloud. He pleaded for God not to hide His face, not to turn him away in anger. He begged God not to cast him off or forsake him. David reminded the Lord that He had been his help, that he could not have survived without Him. He called the Lord the “God of my salvation.” If David was going to experience any deliverance from his enemies, any vindication of his life, God would have to act.

But in this humility, there was still confidence: “If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.” One of the heart-breaking aspects of persecution is that it can rob us of the understanding and support that should come from those who are supposed to be on our side. Physical family members may actually side with the persecutors. God is not unsympathetic, but He does not promise us that if we obey Him, our biological family relationships will be peaceful. Quite the contrary. His word is a boundary line that divides the human race. It forces people to a decision. Each person must make an individual choice. A shared genetic makeup or family name or place of residence does not in any way ensure that two people will wind up on the same side of that line. In fact, Jesus proclaims:

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law (Luke 12:51-53).

There’s no denying the fact that this kind of division is painful. Some have even betrayed the Father and His Kingdom to try to avoid the pain, and in so doing have shipwrecked their faith. Not David. He unflinchingly faced the possibility of being forsaken by the very people who brought him into the world, his father and mother. Such rejection could happen. But that knowledge drove him towards God, not away from Him. For he could imagine his earthly father forsaking him, but never his heavenly Father!

David’s trust in God drew him back to the Father in both confidence and humility. The prayer of a persecuted child of God is always, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.”

Even on a good day life can be confusing. On a hard day, oppressors can make it seem hopelessly perplexing. No matter. We can always rest on the knowledge that God does have a way for us to get through, and that He is willing to help us find it. He is a generous and gracious Father, willing to give us wisdom for the asking if we trust him (James 1:5-6). If we present our bodies to Him as a living sacrifice, if we refuse to be controlled by this world’s pressures and expectations, if we instead renew our minds with His truth, we will be able to discern His “good and acceptable and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).

If those words describe us, we have every reason, like David, to believe that we “shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” And our final declaration, like his, can be: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

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