Studies in Unfamiliar Psalms No. 6


Psalm 62

We have another psalm of David before us this evening that few of us could have identified by number had it been read to us. It is a wonderful specimen of what scholars call a “confidence” psalm, a confession of the psalmist’s faith in God. Like many psalms this poem was born in difficult circumstances, indeed, as v. 3 may suggest, the pressure may still be intense as the psalm was being written; but no matter his troubles, David’s confidence in the Lord gets stronger not weaker. The basis of his soul’s triumph in adversity – his confidence that the Lord can and will help him – is stated in the opening verse of the psalm.

Text Comment

By the way, Jeduthun is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 16:41 as one of David’s chief musicians. Here the name refers to some aspect of the musical setting or performance of the psalm.  Jeduthun may have become the name of a tune or his name may have become attached to a particular choir. [Tate, 120]

v.1       The thought is that David has come to terms with the fact that only God can help him and that, therefore, the issue must be left with him. He will wait for the Lord, neither complaining nor agitating. It is very much the state of mind beautifully expressed in Psalm 123:2:

           “As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us.”

            If the Lord is the only one who can help me – and he is the living God of infinite wisdom, power, and love, and my heavenly Father – then I will calmly wait for him to intervene. Hebrew often uses repetition as a way of increasing emphasis. It is not as clear in the English translations as in the original Hebrew but the exclamation ךּאֵ which means “truly” or “only” begins five of the first seven verses of the psalm and again v.9.

v.2       “Rock” and “fortress” as metaphors for God are understandable given David’s history as man who took refuge from enemies in the rugged mountains and the caves of Judea and the Transjordan.

v.4       Goodness takes care of the bruised reed but evil looks for weakness and capitalizes on it. [Kidner, i, 221-222] Blessing with the mouth but cursing in the heart is such a common human hypocrisy, but it is especially common in politics and David, after all, was a king, a king with enemies who pretended to be his friends. We had a highly publicized example of this at the Olympics this week. Two lady skiers who were all friendly when they won gold and silver earlier in the competition we now learned are rivals and not at all above saying critical things about one another in the pinch. Such is life in a sinful world.

v.5       We have here another instance of soliloquy, an important technique of godly living in the Bible. Soliloquy is the practice of speaking to oneself or instructing oneself or, even, arguing with oneself. You know famous soliloquies from famous plays like Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Hamlet steps to the front side of the stage and has that famous conversation with himself, “To be or not to be, that is the question!” He is arguing with himself. There is a part of him that is ready to commit suicide. There is a part of him that is too afraid to take that final step and by that soliloquy the audience is brought into the mental processes of the character. The practice of speaking to oneself is something we find frequently in the Bible. Three times we read in Psalms 42 and 43, the psalmist arguing with himself: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” Then he makes an argument, “You shouldn’t be and here’s why!” In Psalm 103 we read, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.” The psalmist is stirring up his soul into a frame of mind and heart ready to praise God and to rejoice in his great goodness to David. In all of these cases we find a man talking to himself and by that means stirring up his soul either to a better way of thinking or to more faithful and holy actions. Lloyd Jones, summing up a lot of Puritan wisdom on living a godly life, said, “The whole art of Christian living is to know how to talk to yourself.” You have the truth but its force is not pressing upon your thinking, your feeling, and your behavior. What do you do? How do you make the truth a power again in your heart? You speak it to yourself, you argue the point to yourself, you batter it home into your own heart. That is the art of soliloquy in the Christian life.

v.7       The thought that David’s glory rests on God is unusual. The NIV translates the word “honor” not “glory” and that seems to be the idea. We don’t think much of honor in our day; they thought much more about it in previous days. But we still care for our reputation. We wish to be thought in the right; we wish our actions to be judged to have been noble and worthy. We want people to admire our character and our way of life. That is honor and we ought to care about such things. The moral, the godly man or woman always does. And here David admits that his hope of such honor rests with God and with God’s work in him and for him. Left to himself not much honor will ensue.

v.8       This is an insight to share and the rest of the psalm addresses others.

v.10     It doesn’t matter whether one’s riches are fairly gotten, as in v. 9, or obtained by crime, as in v. 10. Riches are no solid basis for a man’s life or hope however they are got, as temporary as they are and little able to provide what matters most to the soul. As John Owen once put it, “We are too needy to be satisfied by a mere creature.”  

v.12     What men can count on is God’s power, his steadfast love, and his just judgment.

I had friends in British Columbia, in our church in Vancouver years ago, John and Rosemary Dunstan, expatriate English folk, now Canadians. Rosemary had had cancer some years before but for nine years after her treatment had enjoyed good health. But suddenly, in 1997, she took ill and was found to have a number of inoperable brain tumors. No treatment was possible, none was even attempted. She was going to die; the only remaining question was when. John and Rosemary were the old-fashioned kind of devout Christians and on the day they received the news of Rosemary’s soon-coming death, John began to read a psalm to her, one each day, to mark the passage of her remaining life. The day before she died in the summer of 1997 they had reached Psalm 62.

“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.”

Imagine yourself in that situation. Most of you will be in a like situation at the end of your lives. Imagine lying on your deathbed, as Rosemary was, and hearing your husband or your wife read out those words to you as you struggled with the pain of your illness or the fear of death. In her case, her children were still relatively young, and the great tragedy of death for her was separation for her loved ones.

But, still, what would those words mean to you and how powerfully would they address the terrible moment? All your life is behind you now, death has finally come, it is right there knocking at the door. And you hear those words, those magnificent, beautiful, life-giving, hope-stirring words. What would they mean to you? Would they, will they express the deepest convictions of your heart at that very moment, when push has finally come to shove? Every Christian knows very well the truth of what David has here so beautifully expressed: the absolute confidence that the children of God may have in the justice, the power, and above all the love, mercy, and salvation of their heavenly Father. But it is one thing to know that; another to feel it, still another thing to take the same comfort from it, to draw the same strength from it, to experience the same calm from it that David did, and all the more to experience it, as David did, when beset by enemies and troubled, if not endangered by their betrayal.

For example, in Psalms 42 and 43 (originally a single psalm), quite similar in some respects to Psalm 62 – both employ soliloquy and both express absolute confidence in God’s faithfulness – the author of the psalm reminds himself three times of God’s faithfulness but, so far as we can tell, he is still having to remind himself of it at the end of the psalm. He has not found the rest, the calm, the settled confidence that David has already at the beginning of Psalm 62. There are a number of lament psalms in the Psalter that express in the most poignant ways the trials and tribulations of life and the desolation of the disappointed soul without ever reaching the settled confidence and calm assurance that we have here in Psalm 62.

So, in other words, we do not have the profile of Christian experience in any one psalm, but we have it in the Psalter as a whole. Sometimes believers are in the world of Psalms 42 and 43 and sometimes in the world of Psalm 62. David certainly lived at different times in the different psalms. And so will we.

It is a fact of biblical revelation, as it is a fact of life for Christian folk that it is not always the case that the soul is so happily at rest in the conviction and assurance of the faithfulness, the love, and the power of God to help and to save. How is it so with you, brothers and sisters? Sometimes, I dare say, you have felt as David did when he wrote this great psalm. Perhaps you have said or could have said such things in such ways many times and they have been the best times of all.

O blessèd life! The heart at rest
   When all without tumultuous seems,
   That trusts a higher will, and deems
That higher will, not mine, the best.

O blessèd life! The mind that sees,
   Whatever change the years may bring,
   A mercy still in everything
And shining through all mysteries.

O life, how blessèd, how divine!
   High life, the earnest of a higher!
  Saviour, fulfil my deep desire,
And let this blessèd life be mine.

That beautiful poem, by the way – a beautiful commentary on Psalm 62 I think – was written by William Tidd Matson. We have two of his hymns in our Trinity Hymnal, one of them the very fine “Teach Me, O Lord, Thy Holy Way.” Matson’s father was a great man in 19th century British politics and his very able son, William, would certainly have been too. But when converted at the age of 20 he gave up all of those glittering prospects to preach the gospel. He sounds like a man who understood Ps. 62:9-10, and indeed he was. He would later say, “No sacrifice, all gain.” That’s what a man says who knows that God is his rock and his salvation and that power belongs to God and steadfast love!

There is a way, I am saying, of thinking about the Christian life almost exclusively in terms of the sure faith and calm confidence expressed by David in this psalm. Sometimes we have it at a flood and what a great time that is for a Christian. But sometimes we do not have this same full and rich experience of that knowledge that every Christian has regarding God, his power and his grace. Is it not the case with you that you can divide up your life into those times when you feel as David felt when he wrote this psalm and those times when these wonderful convictions have grown weaker in your mind and heart and have had less influence over your soul?

Some of this is, of course, due to the differences that exist between Christians in psychological makeup, in life experience, in family upbringing, in the experiences of life, in spiritual training, and so on. Some people have a tougher go of it than others. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know. For some the Christian life is a harder slog than it is for others. For some such confidence and assurance as David expresses here is much easier to come by than it is for others. We all know that if we have lived and loved for very long in this world.

One of the most beautiful love stories in the history of the Christian church is that of a man and a woman who never married, couldn’t marry, and so had to manage their deep affection for one another in a highly artificial way, with particular attention to the conventions of etiquette regarding the behavior of unmarried men and women that were accepted in their day. Olympias was a remarkable woman. She was highly intelligent, strong-willed, and outspoken. The daughter of one of the emperor Constantine’s officials, upon her father’s death she became fabulously wealthy. In 385 the emperor Theodosius arranged a marriage for her with the intention of keeping all of her money “in the family” as it were. Her husband, however, died less than two years later. Theodosius pressed her to marry again but she categorically refused. By this time she was committed to the ascetic life, and bluntly told the emperor off: if her king, Jesus Christ, had wanted her to be married, he wouldn’t have taken her husband away! The emperor was furious. In his view that much money should not remain in the keeping of a widow and it would be a waste if she lavished it all on Christian charities, which she was likely to do, instead of allowing that money to be disposed for the benefit of the government. He ordered that her fortune be impounded until she was thirty, but four years later he relented, in large part because of her reputation for piety.

With her own funds she built a convent next to the bishop’s residence in Constantinople and soon had built it into an impressive center of ministry to the sick and the poor and the visitor. Although the early church office of deaconess had its origin in the order of widows the Apostle Paul mentions in 1 Timothy 5, and although he there says that no widow is to be put on the list who is younger than 60 years of age, and although that age limit had recently been confirmed by the emperor Theodosius, the aged bishop of Constantinople, one Nektarios, had found Olympias so helpful and such an advantage to the church that he had ordained her deaconess when she was still in her early thirties. After Nektarios’ death, when John Chrysostom arrived in Constantinople to take up his duties as the bishop there were some 250 women living and working in the convent, all having devoted themselves to the service of the Lord and all having renounced marriage.

The two must have met almost immediately and from the beginning there formed between them a deep affection and mutual admiration that was to last until John’s death. Her convent was separated from his bishop’s palace by a single wall and, as bishop, he was the only outsider who had permission to enter the convent. She began to take care of his clothes and preparing his meals, which she sent across to the palace every day. Modern readers of their relationship and the correspondence between them over many years are bound to discern some kind of sexual element in the relationship and, of course, there must have been. But there is no reason to suspect any unchastity. They were both absolutely committed to their callings, both entirely aware of the temptations of sexual desire, and both remained throughout very careful to keep a proper distance, physically and emotionally, by means of an elaborate formal courtesy by which they kept one another at a proper distance. As Chrysostom’s greatest biographer, J.N.D. Kelly puts it, "What their heroic efforts cost them we can only surmise…” He goes on to say, “if [the effects of these heroic efforts] on John were relatively slight, on Olympias they were to be deeply damaging.” [Kelly, 114] I’m not sure if the evidence is sufficient to prove that conclusion, but it is certainly possible. Someone should make a movie of their story. For their later years I suggest Robert Duval or Anthony Hopkins for Chrysostom and Meryl Streep for Olympias. Sorry young people, but these are roles far beyond the capacity of Matt Damon or Jennifer Aniston!

Anyway, when John was exiled from Constantinople, a disgraceful affair orchestrated by his ecclesiastical enemies – I would hate to have to answer for the exile of John Chrysostom on the Great Day! – Olympias and John continued to write to one another. They last saw one another in the baptistery of Hagia Sophia in June of A.D. 404 and were never to see one another again, though, of course, they did not know that at the time. In the three years that followed they exchanged letters as they were able (they had to send letters only when a trustworthy courier happened to be going the right way). We don’t have her letters to John but we have seventeen of John’s to her and can easily enough imagine much of what she must have written to him. Olympias was, by temperament and now by circumstance inclined to discouragement, if not depression. Her heart ran to the psalms of lament and all the more after she lost John. And now, whether related to her spiritual state or not, she was ill much of the time. It was clear that her life had been shattered; her Christian morale dealt a severe blow by her separation from John.

His letters to her are wonderful specimens of the art of encouragement. He tells her everything that is going on in his life, the ups and downs, his own health issues, the cruel winter, his struggle to keep warm, and so on. He lets her into his own life, in other words. He confides in her his own struggles and the state of his heart. He tells her how much it means to him to hear from her. And he works hard to console her for what he knows is her deepest sadness, her separation from what he calls “the nothingness that is all that I am.” [Kelly, 266] But what makes them interesting to us with respect to Psalm 62 is that they are virtually an elaborate effort to help her to the same state of mind that David had found when he wrote this wonderful psalm.

His desire, he says, is to help her shake off what he calls the tyranny of depression which she has not seemed to be able to escape. And what he does in that effort is to remind her of what she believes, he knows, as confidently as he does. If in the present circumstances they are like a ship battered by storms, God is the pilot of the universe and will set the ship on is proper course in his own good time. If her friends have been treated unjustly, if erstwhile friends have betrayed her, all of these disasters are only apparent and temporary. God is all-powerful and all-merciful and he will put matters right in just that way that will bring the greatest good not only to the two of them but to everyone else. Christ himself was maltreated, vilified, and betrayed but all of that redounded to the greatest conceivable good for the whole world. “Olympias should abandon her gloom, turning her eyes away from the distresses of the moment to contemplate the deliverance and the ultimate recompense which will surely be hers.” [Kelly, 266-267] Is that not precisely the thought with which David concludes his psalm in v. 12?

John encouraged Olympias to believe that because of God’s faithfulness our sufferings must make our lives more fruitful if only we gratefully accept them and honor the Lord through them. We don’t know how successful John was in encouraging her to a better frame of mind and heart but we do know that his argument was precisely the argument that any Christian ought to deploy with himself or herself, or, as David shows us here in vv. 8ff, with others.

It is a confident appeal to the character of God and to his promise to be his people’s rock, fortress and salvation. God is God, his nature does not change, and he does not cease to be our salvation, our hope, our rest, and our refuge because we may fail to feel that he is. Psalm 62 is a witness to the triumph of the objective over the subjective, of the truth about God over the mental state of his children. In Psalms 42 and 43 the psalmist has the wisdom to appeal to the same facts about God and about the unquestioned facts of God’s sovereignty and his mercy. He doesn’t feel their reality as David did when he wrote Psalm 62 but he stands on them nevertheless, as Chrysostom encouraged Olympias to do.

Psalm 62 is the demonstration, of which we find a great deal in the Bible, of the unchanging reality of the character of God: his power, his justice, and his mercy, all of which are infinite and absolute. The troubles of life that can, at times, seem to overwhelm us, are, in fact, nothing in comparison to majesty of God. Every Christian knows this. I do not need to prove it to you. But if that is so, as it is, if God is all powerful and all merciful, as he is, if he is our rock and refuge, as he is, if because we trust in him we have nothing to look forward to but our salvation, as we do, then it is ours, as David reminds us, to wait patiently in silence for him. He will come at the proper time and do for us what ought to be done and, at last, make us forget all the troubles we ever faced in this world. Forget them forever!

If we cannot completely rise in our hearts above the mess of life, at least let us make the attempt and continue to make it. In that way we pay honor to the great Majesty who is our God and Father. And no doubt, now and then if not frequently, he will let drop a ray of comfort from his throne. In Madame Guyon’s words:

A little bird I am,
  Shut from the fields of air;
And in my cage I sit and sing
  To him who placed me there;
Well pleased a prisoner to be,
Because, my God, it pleases thee.

O, it is good to soar
  These bolts and bars above,
To him whose purpose I adore,
  Whose providence I love;
And in thy mighty will to find
The joy, the freedom, of the mind.

It is always there to be found because it is found in God who is always there; that joy, that freedom of the mind such as David has described in this wonderful Psalm. If you haven’t found it or, if you have temporarily misplaced it, look up. Look to God. Talk to yourself about what you know to be true of him and of his character. That freedom of the mind is there. Seek and you will find! Wait for God and he will certainly not fail to appear!