Psalm 34: The Safe Place

October 25, 1998

It was the biggest-ever ship to sail under its own power. It was trumpeted as the greatest achievement of modern engineering technology to date. At noon on April 10, 1912, the Titanic left Southampton dock for New York City. At 2:20 a.m. on April 15, the ship slid below the surface of the Atlantic. Out of its total 2,207 passengers, more than 1,500 died in the greatest maritime disaster in history.

When the first frightening reports of the ship’s sinking reached New York around six hours later, Philip A.S. Franklin, Vice-President of the White Star Line, said, "We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable."1 At a United States Senate investigation, Franklin later said, "During the entire day we considered the ship unsinkable, and it never entered our minds that there had been anything like a serious loss of life."2

There seems to be an enduring fascination with the sinking of the "unsinkable" Titanic. It is seen as such a fascinating, unusual, unique event. Hardly! From a biblically literate point of view, human arrogance is the norm rather than the exception. We boast of our achievements and pride ourselves on the evolution of our knowledge, technology, and moral sensibilities. Then we watch a space shuttle explode in the sky over Florida, tremble in fear over the "Y2K bug" we created in computer software programs, and wring our hands over the latest ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

We human beings long for security, but we don’t know where to find it. We admit our need to feel safe, but we can’t. Fear and Trembling is not merely a Kierkegaardian title but the general human condition.

Psalm 34 affirms that there is one safe place in all the cosmos. It has been identified for human beings for centuries now. That so many of us continue to live in fear testifies to the fact that so few of us have gone to it. So here goes one more try to identify it.

We Seek Security


Before going to the counsel of David at Psalm 34, I want to make an observation about a strange phenomenon researchers have discovered. Airline travel is statistically far safer than any alternative method of transportation, yet about 20 percent of people say they have "great fear" of flying – or simply do not fly at all. It is far safer, for example, than traveling by automobile. Being carried to your destination by tons of metal thrust through the air by huge jet engines is measurably safer than being pulled along in a 4-, 6-, or 8-cylinder machine whose wheels never leave the ground.

It’s a psychological rather than factual thing! People without experience in flying resist it because it "just seems to make more sense" that staying on the ground is safer than being propelled through the air. So John Madden rides his custom bus rather than fly from football game to football game. And many more Americans get behind the wheel rather than trust themselves to machinery they don’t understand and people they don’t know.

Spiritual experience has some parallels to what I have just described. Believing in a God we haven’t seen who promises to take us to a place we’ve never been by a method that requires trusting something other than ourselves is just too much to ask of some people. They’d rather go to hell by a do-it-yourself approach to life than have heaven by letting Jesus do the driving for them! One of my childhood buddies and heroes declared until the day of his death that he’d fly in an airplane only when they designed one that he could fly with one foot on the ground. I know many more people who will accept Christ only when somebody devises a system wherein faith is faith in their own ability to remain in control of the machinery. (Come to think of it, there are lots of these legalistic religious systems on the market already!)

Paul could write: "That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day" (2 Tim. 1:12). Paul produced those words from jail – an imprisonment that would end with his martyrdom. Embrace a religion that means suffering and possibly even death? He did. And he was perfectly confident and secure in his decision. Hmmm. Maybe we’ve been missing something.

What we’ve been missing has been available at least since David wrote Psalm 34 – a thousand years before Jesus was born.

All the Wrong Things, Places, and People


Granted that all of us want security in our lives, we go looking for it in all the wrong places. Money can make the people who have it feel secure, powerful, and practically immortal. But they are deceived. Do you remember this story Jesus told?

And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

"Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I’ll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."’

"But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God" (Luke 12:16-21).

Nope, there’s no security in "things." They’re too unstable. The market soars – then plunges. Business is good – then there’s no more market for widgets. Everything is great – then a heart attack or stroke pulls down the curtain. There’d better be something more permanent that "stuff" to make you feel safe.

People! That’s it. That’s what will make us secure, right? We’ll find good people and build good relationships. We’ll find the right person and marry her/him. We’ll have babies. We’ll live in a good neighborhood and make friends. We’ll work with quality people who care about us. And then we’ll be secure. We’ll feel safe. Everything will be wonderful. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way either. Here are more lines from Paul while he was in jail at Rome:

Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. . . .

At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength . . . " (2 Tim. 4:9-17a).

People aren’t always dependable. Friends get busy and move on with their lives; sometimes they just stop being friends. People you work with remember you – until you retire, get a new job, or die. Even mates leave. Yes, children can forget their parents too. Even Christian co-workers who had once been with a man so godly as Paul had to go on with their work, just weren’t there when he needed them, or "deserted" him.

Yet he was secure. He felt safe in facing death. "The Lord stood at my side," he said, "and gave me strength." That’s the key! The presence and strength of the Lord create safety!

Security Is Found in Only One Place


David wrote Psalm 34 on the heels of an episode of escape from a Philistine king who was trying to kill him. It is actually an acrostic poem in which the first ten verses constitute a personal testimony. Then verses 11-22 deliver an exhortation to others in Israel based on the king’s experience. The key to everything in the psalm is found in these verses:

I sought the LORD, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.
This poor man called, and the LORD heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
and he delivers them (vs. 4-7).

There is a remarkable principle enunciated here that is easy to miss because of preconceptions we bring to the Bible. Let me illustrate by asking you a question: Whom does God hear, save, and bless? Chances are your immediate answer would be something like this: Good people. People who do right. People who obey the Lord, stay out of trouble, and do good deeds.3

Now please don’t miss the point here. We all should be "good people." We should all "do right." And, of course, we should "obey the Lord, stay out of trouble, and do good deeds." In fact, we should be doing lots of things most of us aren’t! After all, why are we in trouble in the first place? Most of David’s troubles were all rooted in David’s sins. So are most of mine. So are most of yours. So let’s go back to the text and try the question again: Whom does God hear, save, and bless? The answer in this poem celebrates the wonderful truth that he comes to the aid of people who are in trouble because they’ve messed up and are in jeopardy because of their own foolishness.

Here is the text again – with the critical words emphasized:

I sought the LORD, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.
This poor man called, and the LORD heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
and he delivers them (vs. 4-7).

God’s solidarity is not with "good" people but with people who know they are helpless, have nowhere else to go, and run to him. He shows mercy to the brokenhearted. He gives strength to the exhausted. He gives salvation to the sinner. And he reflects his personal glory off the tear-stained, dirty, even angry faces that turn to him for help. Contrary to our experience and expectation, God does not side with the folks who already have everything but with those who are so bankrupt that they know they have nothing!

Here is the New Testament version of this psalm and its message:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Rom. 5:6-11).

The Fear of the Lord


It may come as a surprise for you to find that the Hebrew language has no word for "religion" in its vocabulary. Its closest term is an expression – "the fear of the Lord." And the fear of the Lord is hardly reducible to the trappings of religion. It is personal desperation before a Holy God. It is not the cringing, groveling fear that God will swat you like a gnat. It is the "fear" of unworthiness and unacceptability. It is the "fear" that we have tried too much of our own goodness and are too enmeshed in our religious rituals to really trust him – and him alone – to rescue us from death and bring us to heaven. God encamps hosts of his ministering angels around such a person. He will meet every need in her life. He has found a safe place!

What’s the matter with our world? Echoing Psalm 36:1, Paul said the problem with our fallen, idolatrous, self-centered world can be summed up this way: "There is no fear of God before their eyes" (Rom. 3:18). Did he say there was no – or not enough – religion? Did he say there weren’t enough churches? No, if you had asked him, he likely would have said there was too much of both! Religion and churches tend to try to do too much and, in turn, expect and need too little from God. Against the arrogance of what we can do and offer to God, those who fear the Lord know there is nothing we can do and offer to him that would count for anything in setting right what we have spoiled.

As the remainder of the psalm affirms, the one who fears God and "the righteous" are one and the same person. The world has been stood on its head! The righteous person is not the good, upright, and admired man or woman but the one who will "cry out" (vs. 16b, 17) for his blessings. Indeed, the "righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all" (v. 19). He isn’t above failures, troubles, and sin. It is simply that he knows what to do with them. Brokenhearted over his sin and crushed in spirit from his troubles (v. 18), he cries out and is responded to by the merciful goodness of God. He has found the one and only safe place in the cosmos. He has found the God of all Grace!

Conclusion


There are several places around Nashville with "Safe Place" signs featured prominently near their doors. All the fire stations in our city, for example, have a bright yellow sign with the logo of a child surrounded by huge, protective hands. I like the symbolism and appreciate its meaning. Any child walking home from school who feels threatened, one who has been hurt in a bicycle or skating accident, a boy or girl who senses a need for protection from any sort of harm – all that child has to do is go through the doors of a "Safe Place" and report the problem. The pledge is that somebody will respond with help.

I don’t know how well the "Safe Place" program has worked for our city. What I do know is that God built Israel and the church to proclaim that he hears the cries, comes to the aid of, and saves those who reach out to him.

Yesterday I had the chance to spend an hour with a lady who has been sober now for a month – the first time she has been sober since 1991. In a series of unhealthy, abusive relationships, she had no idea where to go or what to do to find safety. Then one of you "just happened to meet her" – strange how God arranges these things! – and immediately sensed her need. Your family took her home on a Thursday, gave her the first physically safe place she had been in for years, and gently began sharing the gospel with her. Now she is saved, getting help from an in-patient alcohol treatment center, and beginning to feel alive for the first time in years. She is safe – and senses it.

When she is able to be with us early next year, I’m going to ask her to tell you her story. Like the stories you heard from three of our members last week, it will testify to you of God’s love that causes him to hear our cries for help and of his power that reveals him to be fully able to give us the help we need.

If you are calling out for help today, he is listening.

I will extol the LORD at all times;
his praise will always be on my lips.
My soul will boast in the LORD;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice.
Glorify the LORD with me;
let us exalt his name together (vs. 1-3).



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