Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Psalm 27 and Saving Light in Our Souls' Dark Nights

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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 the wicked advance against me 

to devour me, 

it is my enemies and my foes 

who will stumble and fall. 

Though an army besiege me, 

my heart will not fear; 

though war break out against me, 

even then I will be confident.

Psalm 27:1-3 NIV

Light green hydrangea bloom tinged with pink and shadowed on the left side of the image


In Psalm 27, God through David has given us a prayer-song for when we are afraid of the dark—whatever kind of dark, whether literal darkness or emotional and spiritual darkness. In this Psalm, David seeks shelter in God’s personal presence with confidence borne out of His past rescues. In the first post, we considered the themes and structure of the Psalm as a whole. In this post, we’re dwelling on the first section of three verses.


In this first section (27:1-3), David describes his experience of God’s saving defense. The Psalm begins with a pair of parallel couplets: David says something true of God, then asks a rhetorical question brimming with confidence. And he does this twice.


He has known the Lord as his light, his salvation, his stronghold, and his defense.


Light at night gives us guidance and security. City girls like me are rather insulated against real darkness, apart from a blackout during a storm, but we might think of a flashlight when there is no power or a nightlight in a dark bedroom for comfort and vision. Or perhaps we think of the comforting familiarity of the lights given by God to mark the days and seasons, the constellations and moonlight that guided and kept David company during the long nights with his flocks.


Without light at night, we so easily lose our way. In college, I had to drive down a dark, two-lane country road to go to an evening Bible study. Looking for an unlit gate and driveway in the absence of streetlights or even house lights visible from the highway always gave me anxiety. The void of a dark world beyond the small puddle of light from my headlamps felt ominous and insecure. I wanted brighter, better light to lead me to my destination. Continuing the theme, we might think of the pillar of God’s glory-fire which led and also guarded the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings for 40 years:


“The Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to lead them on their way during the day and in a pillar of fire to give them light at night, so that they could travel day or night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night never left its place in front of the people.”

Exodus 13:21-22 CSB


That light showed God’s people God’s way and provided a visible reminder of the security of God’s presence. God also displayed His presence in a bright shekinah glory cloud descending on Solomon’s temple at its dedication:


“When the priests came out of the holy place, the cloud filled the Lord’s temple, and because of the cloud, the priests were not able to continue ministering, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple.”

1 Kings 8:10-11 CSB


In these two examples, the presence of God manifests as light, glorious light. In the new Jerusalem to come, the apostle John foresaw:


“The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because the glory of God illuminates it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never close by day because it will never be night there.”

Revelation 21:23-25 CSB


The Lord is not only David’s light: He is also his salvation. Salvation, in its simplest sense, means rescue. In Hebrew, it could also be translated “room to breathe” (Thomas Nelson Study Bible, note on Psalm 3:8). “Light” and “salvation” in combination convey the single concept of “saving light.” The most intense darkness I remember was the darkness outside our tent on a camping trip early in our marriage. My mini Maglite flashlight could not budge the weighed blanket of darkness pressing in on me. Darkness like that feels alive and threatening, even predatory. Every noise is freighted with awful possibility and unseen dangers.  In that darkness, a trusted person bearing a stronger light would have felt like rescue and security.  (The related names Joshua and Jesus mean “Yahweh saves,” or in the simplest sense, “Savior.”) It is possible that the salvation in this verse has a near-term meaning of God’s miraculous rescue from human enemies and physical danger, of which David knew plenty; at the same time, it is possible that the shadow of the cross marks this verse with the spiritual sense of rescue from sin and death in the person of the Savior, Jesus Christ. In any case, David celebrates God as his Rescuer, even though in the moment he is surrounded by enemies who want to eat him alive (verse 2).


The word “stronghold”  or “refuge” conveys the image of a fortress or castle. Tolkien fans may think of Helm’s Deep; or in a more modern image, one might imagine a nuclear bunker deep beneath the earth or a panic room. This fortress is such a sure and well-defended one that the wicked advancing against David will themselves be defeated. David has confidence because God is his impenetrable fortress, a castle no enemy can breach without His permission.


Where does this confidence come from? Surrounded by enemies, threatened by the wicked, war declared against him, even so David is confident in victory. David can take courage despite overwhelming foes and difficulties because, as strong and powerful as they are, his God is even mightier. 


This confidence does not imply that trusting God means health, wealth, and prosperity. Nor does it guarantee every battle will go our way or no hurt come to us. It does, however, mean that for the child of God, all things weave together for our good and God’s glory. It means God is with us and for us in all things. It means that, when the last page of our life is written, all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well (Julian of Norwich).


As a whole, David testifies that God is his light in the darkness, his comforting Guide, his Rescuer, his secure fortress, his unconquerable defense. This first section of Psalm 27 starts and ends with David’s declaration of trust: even if an entire army has him surrounded and declares war, his heart will not fear but will instead be confident. So strong is his experience of God’s protection.


An echo of David’s confidence sounds a millennium later at the end of Romans 8:


“What, then, are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the one who died, but even more, has been raised; he also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: Because of you we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Romans 8:31-37 CSB


What about you? Can you remember a time in your life when the Lord showed Himself to be your light and your salvation? Have you experienced God’s rescue from enemies who were too strong for you? If so, spend some time remembering and perhaps journaling God’s work in your past as a way to encourage trust in Him now. If not, I encourage you to borrow courage from the experiences of people in the Bible and Christian history: people like Joseph and Joshua, David and Elijah, Daniel and Peter and Paul; people like Corrie ten Boom, Darlene Deibler Rose, John Newton, John Bunyan, Jane Grey, Ridley and Latimer, and Charles Spurgeon.


Are you overwhelmed and outnumbered by enemies and battles today? Are you besieged by trials and squeezed by difficulties? Does it feel like human helpers have failed and comforts fled, leaving you alone and scared in the dark? If so, my heart is with yours. Your troubles do not mean God’s absence. He will never leave or abandon you. The battles you’ve lost and sins you’ve committed do not mean you have lost the war or forfeited God’s love. In the darkness, I encourage you to dwell on the greatness and power of God more than you contemplate the strength of your enemies and the size of your challenges. In the darkness, the stars seem brighter. Look for the light in the darkness; ask for His light. Look for the promises of God. Look at His faithfulness over the millennia of human history. Hope against hope that He will be for you what He has been for others.


The God who has rescued, led, defended, and comforted in the dark nights and desperate battles of others still does so today. We can trust Him with our souls’ three o’clocks.


Lord, in our darkness shine Your light.

In our tribulations, be our Rescuer.

When we are under attack from enemies without and fears within, be our strong refuge, our safe place.

All our hope and confidence are in You. We believe; help our unbelief, in Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Monday, October 16, 2023

An Introduction to Psalm 27: A Prayer for Three O’Clock in the Morning

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This is the first installment of a series on Psalm 27. Here are four photos from Saturday’s annular eclipse and one of Venus, the Morning Star, in the east just before the dawn.

Myriad parentheses of light on the stepping stones during the annular eclipse (the tiny spaces between tree leaves acted as pinhole viewers)

The small gaps in tree leaves created many mini-eclipses, parentheses of light, on the ground during the annular eclipse Saturday, 14 October 2023.

The small gaps in tree leaves created many mini-eclipses, parentheses of light, on the ground during the annular eclipse Saturday, 14 October 2023.

The shadow of a paper plate and part of the writer shade a brown stone patio. The pinhole in the plate shows a tiny eclipse on the ground as an arc of light in the black shadow.

A single dot of white light shines in the gray-blue gradient sky of early morning. The sun hasn’t risen yet, and silhouettes of trees cover the bottom quarter of the image.

Have you ever been afraid of the dark? As a child, were you afraid of monsters under the bed or ghouls in the closet? Or perhaps you are not afraid of the absence of light but of the dark night of the soul, the three-o’clock bleakness of spirit?


You may know the author Lucy Maud Montgomery from her character Anne Shirley. In another series, her character Emily Starr experienced these “white nights,” as she called them, at times of loss and momentous decisions. Here is one typical description:


“Woke up at three and couldn't even cry. Tears seemed as foolish as laughter—or ambition. I was quite bankrupt in hope and belief. And then I got up in the chilly grey dawn and began a new story. Don't let a three-o'clock-at-night feeling fog your soul."


"Unfortunately there's a three o'clock every night," said Teddy. "At that ungodly hour I am always convinced that if you want things too much you're not likely ever to get them” (L. M. Montgomery, Emily’s Quest).


F. Scott Fitzgerald used the same metaphor years later in The Crack-Up:


Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering—this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary day-time advice for everyone. But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work—and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.


Or perhaps you have said with the late Rich Mullins, “When I wake up in the night and feel the dark/It’s so hot inside my soul, I swear there must be blisters on my heart” (“Hold Me Jesus,” from A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band).


Have you known that feeling? I suspect many, if not most, of us have in the last four years.


When you are afraid of the dark, whatever kind of dark it is, what do you want? For myself, I think I want two things: a light and a person, specifically someone bigger and stronger than me. A protector. A champion.


King David, ruler of Israel three millennia ago, would have been on friendly terms with the night and constellations from his youth as a shepherd. He had faced and bested the wild things that might seize the darkness to prowl and pounce on the sheep he kept. But I suspect there were many other nights alone with flock and stars, with perhaps a stone for his pillow and his harp for refreshment.


David, however, knew many, many spiritual and emotional dark nights. He faced attacks from enemies, betrayals from friends, consequences of his own lost spiritual battles, tragic sins among his children, and even a coup by his own beloved Absalom, Absalom, his son.


In Psalm 27, God through David has given us a prayer-song for when we are afraid of the dark. Whatever kind of dark. In these verses, David seeks shelter in God’s personal presence with confidence borne out of His past rescues. Like me, he seems to seek God’s light and His protection.


As I have prayerfully pondered this passage, I see five sections. The first four sections each begin with statements of David’s relationship with God and conclude with a declaration of trust. The final section consists of a single verse that captures David’s counsel to his own heart. In verses 1-3, David describes his experience of God’s saving defense; in verses 4-6, David describes his expectation of God’s sheltering presence; in verses 7-10, David pleads for God’s presence; and in verses 11-13, David pleads for God’s protection. Alternately, verses 1-6 describe David’s experience and expectation of God’s protection, and in verses 7-13 David pleads directly to God for His protective presence. In the concluding section, verse 14, David counsels his heart toward courage.


In the coming posts, we will seek to work through these verses one section at a time and conclude by asking and answering the question of what difference this makes in our own dark nights. For the moment, I will offer you this: the sun has not abandoned us at 3AM, and it has not failed when a solar eclipse blocks its light at midday. The sun still shines and radiates heat, even when we cannot see it. The difficulty is that something has come between us temporarily and hidden it from our view. Yet it always returns and always will until that great Day when we will no more need sun or moon, for the Lord our God will be our light in the eternal nightless city.


In the dark, faith waits in expectation of the light’s return. Faith holds fast to the hope that the light remains even when we cannot see it. Sometimes we grow weary of the waiting, and our faith and hope waver. In those seasons, this Psalm reminds me to remember the times the light previously shone out of darkness, both in my own life and in the lives of other people of faith, past and present. Remembering yesterday’s light sustains me in today’s darkness with hope light may return as soon as tomorrow.


Will we let God’s mysterious hiddenness drive us from Him or drive us to seek His face even more? Hudson Taylor, the pioneer missionary to inland China, said this:  “It does not matter how great the pressure is. What really matters is where the pressure lies—whether it comes between you and God, or whether it presses you nearer His heart.” 


My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” 

Your face, Lord, I will seek. 

Psalm 27:8


Before the next post in this series, I suggest that you take time, if possible, to read or listen to the whole of Psalm 27 at least once. As we go on, I will provide the Bible text in shorter segments to keep it before our minds for our reflections. With the final post, I intend to provide the option to download a PDF document of the whole series in one place.


Courage, dear hearts!

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Burden-Bearing God

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Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up;
God is our salvation. Selah"

Psalm 68:19 ESV

Lock screen of this prayer, white text on background like an old photo of a sea on a cloudy day

Burden-bearing God:

You hold us up when our shoulders bow and knees buckle

    under the heavy load of trials (and duties and blessings).

You hold us together when we are falling apart.

You hold us fast when we can't hold on.

You hold us in your impenetrable,


    unalterable grasp of love and power.

You hold us with tungsten strength and maternal gentleness.

You hold us;

Grace us, Lord, with trust enough to rest in the refuge of Your hands,

In the name of Jesus,

Whose hands and heart and head

Were wounded for my transgressions

And crushed for my iniquities,


Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Tenderhearted Savior {A Prayer}

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Harvest Moon, September 2023

Unidentified garden plant

Moonflower and honeybee

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, ventral wings fully open

Tenderhearted Savior,
Rich in mercy and inexhaustible in grace,
We come before you today with full hearts and empty hands:
Pour your strengthening love into our hearts
And your loving strength into our hands.
Deal gently with our infirmities;
Grant wisdom for our perplexities;
Comfort us in all adversity;
Come alongside us in every difficulty.
Hear and answer our prayers even when we have no words, only tears.
When we are in darkness, let Your light shine brighter.
When we are in pain, let Your love be nearer.
Meet us at the point of our deepest needs today,
For Your glory and our good,
In Jesus' name. Amen.

The prayer as downloadable image, white print against backdrop of flaming sunrise

(Update: Audio has now been added to "The Lord Is Peace" also.)