Yesterday one of the deacons in our congregation gave a sermonette on a psalm that I must admit I have not read often personally. Although I read and comment often on the psalms , this happens to be a psalm I have not really looked at very often. Nevertheless, the fact that the deacon did such a detailed word study on the psalm, breaking it down into small bits, I figured I would be better served to look at the psalm in my usual sense, in the larger context of the psalms, which at least may point the way to understanding this psalm among its fellows and perhaps to suggest some reasons why it is not a well-known psalm despite the fact that its short length makes it very quick to read and gives plenty of time to ponder.
Psalm 61 is so brief it can be examined all at once, remembering that it is typically divided into four parts despite its eight verses and that it has a break in the middle with a Selah: “To the Chief Musician. On a stringed instrument. A Psalm of David. Hear my cry, O God; attend to my prayer. From the end of the earth I will cry to You, when my heart is overwhelmed; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For You have been a shelter for me, a strong tower from the enemy. I will abide in Your tabernacle forever; I will trust in the shelter of Your wings. Selah. For You, O God, have heard my vows; You have given me the heritage of those who fear Your name. You will prolong the king’s life, his years as many generations. He shall abide before God forever. Oh, prepare mercy and truth, which may preserve him! So I will sing praise to Your name forever, that I may daily perform my vows.”
As is often the case, the superscription gives at least a little bit of information, although not as much as some other psalms do. We have the information of the author, David, a note on instrumentation, that it is played on a string instrument, presumably a lyre solo, given that we know David was skilled on this instrument and probably wrote an original tune along with the lyrics. Likewise, the fact that this song was deposited with the chief musician (Asaph) means that it was intended for use in public worship . Its structure is a straightforward bifid construction (like the book of Isaiah) with four verses in each section, and a pause in the middle making a clean break to provide opportunity for reflection on the saving works of God in the lives of believers, as well as the ways that God specifically acted to save David in his tumultuous life. None of the language in the psalm is particularly challenging or complicated–the theme is a straightforward psalm of praise, with its request for help more of a theoretical one rather than the author expressing present intense distress, as is often the case. It may also be considered a wisdom psalm because it focuses on what a king needs to live forever, namely a love of mercy and truth, which a few kings could use more of. The psalm is also noteworthy for its view of the Kingdom of God, something that will be worthy of more discussion.
The first part of the psalm makes a petition of God to hear and respond to the psalmist’s prayers when he is overwhelmed and far away from God’s people. No matter where we are, whether close to home or in some far off land among the heathen in jungles and rice paddies and the like, when we are overwhelmed by sorrows we want God to deliver us. When God delivers us, it should strengthen our faith in God’s power, so that even if God is sometimes slower in acting than we might wish, we know both His good will and His ability to save, and can safely draw whatever conclusions we might from the circumstances we face. Then the first section lingers a bit on one of its most profound points, namely that the refuge of God is higher than we are, that it is a strong tower, safe from the enemies. For David, a man experienced with warfare from his youth, this was not simply a metaphor, but a matter that he took very seriously. Both as a young man on the run from Saul’s murderous fury and as a king engaged in frequent warfare against the heathen nations that attacked Israel during most of his life, and as a man under assault from Satan, he was someone who knew the value of strong fortifications, as they could be the difference between life and death. He then expresses his confidence in God’s protection and states confidently that He will abide in God’s tabernacle forever.
The second part of the psalm continues the confident praise of God. Given that God has heard and answered David’s prayers (for they amount the same thing in the heart and mind of the believer), David promises to pay his vows to God, twice. He also asks God to give him that which will make a king live forever, and seems to know the promise that was told in Ezekiel 37:24 where David is said to be king over all Israel, or at least implies as much. This psalm is one of many (like Psalm 110) that raises the question of how much David really knew about prophecy as well as about the nature of God and Jesus Christ. Given the weight of the example of centuries of Pharisees and their Orthodox acolytes, it is hard to uncover the actual belief system of believers in the days of the prophets and the writings apart from such tantalizing hints that David and Agur and others knew that there was a Father and a Son and had some knowledge of the Book of Life, like Moses did . At any rate, the psalm ends with a public commitment from David to pay the vows he made when he was in distress, and to show his gratitude for God’s continued deliverance.
This is a psalm that should be better known. It touches on issues of prophetic significance, shows considerable knowledge of God’s future plan for David in particular, and it shows the value of the practice of loving truth and mercy for leaders. The psalm is only 8 verses long and presents no particularly difficult barriers to understanding, and yet compared to other psalms about similar topics like Psalm 84 and Psalm 46, this particular psalm appears to languish without receiving much attention. Perhaps it is too plainspoken to attract much attention from those who want to comment on particularly shocking psalms, perhaps its emotional intensity is a little bit less than what people expect from psalms, and perhaps the call of this psalm to leaders is not something that many people want to focus on. That said, this is a worthy psalm to reflect on, with significance far greater than is often recognized.
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