Psalm 141 (LXX) /142 (MT); 1 Samuel (Kingdoms) 22; 1 Samuel (Kingdoms) 24; Hebrews 12:1-6
The second of the “Lamp-light” Psalms, Psalm 141 in the Greek, 142 in the Hebrew, continues the theme of the previous one—the plight of the righteous, and their cry to God. In the Psalter, it is introduced by a superscription that reads “by David, when he was in the cave, a Prayer.” David’s popularity was not appreciated by King Saul, who had been told prophetically that the kingdom would be taken from him and, while he was a young man, David spent some time in hiding. The context for this psalm could well be understood as that related in1 Samuel (Kingdoms) 22, when David and his men hid in the Cave of Adullam, 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem. There his relatives, as well as many who had been mistreated by the king came to David, joining him and strengthening him: “When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there. All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander. About four hundred men were with him.”
This scene of David being surrounded by his supporters is echoed in the final verse of the psalm, which says “The righteous shall wait for me (or surround me), until you reward me.” David, low, discouraged, and hiding, is surrounded by his friends, and they count on God’s deliverance. But reference to the cave also reminds us of that poignant story in 1 Sam (Kingdoms) 24, where David and his men are hiding in the back of a cave in the desert of En Gedi, and David refuses to take advantage of the solitary Saul who unwittingly comes into the same cave to relieve himself. David does cut off the edge of Saul’s robe, and then reveals himself in the open to the King, trying to convince him that he has no intention of being disloyal to the Lord’s anointed. David is content to wait until it is God’s time for him to reign, but Saul, though emotionally moved for a moment, continues his vendetta against the young upstart.
This psalm, with its rich background, teaches us that affliction comes the way of God’s own beloved, and that we need to place our trust in Him when it does. We may seem entirely alone: refuge failed me; no one cared for my soul.” But, in fact, it is at the time when we are completely desolate that we can see the LORD alone as the hope, and our “inheritance” or “portion,” in the land of the living. Humility teaches us to recognize our need, and to cast ourselves on Him.
Our God is one who delights to hear us in our need, and who knows our afflictions even before we call out. David, of course, was pursued by persecutors: “Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are stronger than I.” And he was, effectively, in prison, while he bided his time in the exile of the cave: “Bring my soul out of prison.” Our problems may be parallel, as those with whom we live do not accept our Christian convictions, or lifestyle, or choices. In an age which claims to be tolerant of all, those of us who follow Christ know that our particular beliefs and morals are sometimes not only despised, but even attacked. The “soft” persecution in our contemporary context may be nothing as harmful as that which is faced by our brothers and sisters in outwardly anti-Christian and repressive regimes (for whom we should always pray!). But it is indeed real, costing faithful Christians not only the respect of those around them, but sometimes promotion, employment, and livelihood. This is a psalm for those who are tempted to think that God does not see, and that they are all alone—for there are other righteous who will surround them, and God remains their hope.
Then there are other “enemies” that harm us—those of demonic origin, and that come to lodge within us as temptations. Bishop Palladius of Helenopolis (fifth century) tells the story of a young monastic who faithfully went from his community in Skete into the neighboring village, sent by the elder to do necessary business for his brother monks. Satan took this opportunity of the young man being “sent into Egypt” to try to tempt him to engage in fornication and to be disobedient (Lausiac History 2.4; PHF 1:209). If these temptations come the way of one who lived regularly among others dedicating their lives to Christ, how much more do they make their mark on those of us who, so to speak, live in Egypt? But, as St. Paul exclaims in the epistle to the Corinthians, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our LORD Jesus Christ!”
We, like David, then, are subject to enemies—external, and internal. In recognition that until He comes again, we are sometimes “in prison,” or restrained, we cry out to Him, aware that He knows our needs, and thankful that he can turn even our darkest moments into humbling times of strength. From a strictly logical point of view, our stance as dependent human beings may be mocked—if God knows our needs, why does He not supply them immediately, and why do we “declare to Him our affliction in His presence”? It is, of course, because our LORD’s aim is not only to rescue us, but also to bind us to Him in deep community, as well as to each other, as we intercede for our brothers and sisters. Our needs are very real; His help is even more solid; and He includes us in this help, as we surround each other. His aim is not merely to make us comfortable, but to make us new, and like Him. It is also to join us to each other, part of the same communion that derives its life from the Holy Trinity. Prayer, petitionary prayer like this, is not magic, but is part of the dynamic that God uses in order to bring His will upon our still broken, but reclaimed world.
It helps to remember that, even when we feel alone, this is not truly the case. Hebrews 12 gives us this scenario to contemplate when temptations and trials may seem to overcome us:
[S]ince we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or faint-hearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
We are, after all, in an even more privileged position than David, for we have not only his example, but the example of the great Son of David, the God-Man, who was the sufferer par excellence, and who cried out to the LORD not in a cave, but from the cross. Along our own ways, we are surrounded by a host of great witnesses to God’s mercy and redemption, and follow in the train of Christ himself. As we go, we cry to the LORD with our voice, speak frankly to Him of our troubles, recognize that He knows our paths, claim Him as the only Hope, and look to Him to turn our humility into thanks. For He will come, and bring with Him His great reward. Vesperal darkness will be transformed into the resurrection Light, and until then we have the Lamp of the Scriptures and the apostolic witness to guide us!