Theme: When God Feels Far Away
In this week’s lessons we are reminded that God is a rock to which we can turn, a rock higher and wiser and stronger than we are ourselves.
Scripture: Psalm 61:1-8
In the Trinity Hymnal, the hymnbook we use in our church, William O. Cushing’s hymn “O safe to the rock that is higher than I” is linked to Psalm 94 because of verse 22, which speaks of God as a rock of refuge. But it is hard to read Psalm 61 without supposing that Cushing had it in mind, rather than Psalm 94, when he composed the hymn. Psalm 61 says, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I,” and Cushing wrote:
O safe to the rock that is higher than I
My soul in its conflicts and sorrows would fly;
So sinful, so weary, thine, thine would I be;
Thou blest Rock of Ages, I’m hiding in thee.
Hiding in thee, hiding in thee—
Thou blest Rock of Ages, I’m hiding in thee.
People who have lived with the Lord for any length of time know the force of that hymn and the image it is based upon. It is because life is filled with sorrows, and there are times in life when there is literally no one else to whom we can turn for understanding, comfort or help. Some people spend most of their lives alone. Others are surrounded by an unsympathizing family, perhaps because these others are not Christians and resent the believer’s convictions and lifestyle. Some have an unbelieving husband or wife, or it may be a case of people resenting you at work. Maybe the person we are thinking about is just old, and all the friends and relatives of an earlier day have died. Whatever the cause, many know what it is like to have no one human to whom they can turn for understanding.
Yet if they are Christians and have any experience of the Lord at all, they know that God is a rock to whom they can turn, a rock higher and wiser and stronger than they are themselves.
The title to Psalm 61 identifies it as a psalm of David, but it could be from nearly any period in his career, since we know that David often felt alone, even after he had become king.
There are various ways of outlining this psalm. Some divide it into two parts of four verses each, separated at the selah following verse 4.1 Leupold divides the psalm into three petitions, the first two ending with a reason for the petition, the third with a vow.2 Alexander Maclaren has the most interesting arrangement. He argues that there is an introductory verse, followed by three matched pairs of verses, ending with an additional single verse to match verse 1.3 In my opinion, any of these outlines is equally valid, but none more helpful than the others. It is because this is a very simple psalm, and the most helpful way of studying it is merely to look in order at the various points that are made.
The setting for a psalm provides the background for interpreting it, and in this case the setting is found in the fact that the psalmist is far from home. He feels he is very far away indeed, because he is calling to God from what he regards as the very “ends of the earth” (v. 2).
For any Jew the center of the universe was (and is) Jerusalem, where the Ark of God was located. So the phrase “ends of the earth” must mean that David was far from or felt himself to be far from Jerusalem. Is this to be taken literally, as a geographical reference? If so, it could refer to any time David was absent from the capital—when he was fleeing from Saul or Absalom or when he was absent on a military campaign. Verses 6 and 7 make clear that at the time of writing David was already king. So at the very least, the days when he was fleeing from Saul are eliminated. David could be writing during the days of Absalom’s rebellion. Again, the placing of Psalm 61 immediately after Psalm 60 might suggest that the psalm was written at the time of the campaign along the Euphrates River, which is the earlier psalm’s setting. Certainly the words “ends of the earth” would be more appropriate to that location than the Judean wilderness where David fled from Absalom.
But there is another possibility, and that is that the words “ends of the earth” are metaphorical. This idea appeals to Marvin E. Tate, who concludes his study with a section suggesting that the chief value of the psalm is its metaphorical richness. He believes that “the dominant metaphor in the psalm is that of distance from God…. a sense of far-awayness from the divine presence, an at-the-end-of the earth experience” and that the psalm was written to overcome this far-away feeling. “Breaking down a perceived distance and the creation of a sense of nearness and presence is a major function of prayer.”4
This may very well be right, and in any case it is how you and I should apply the words to ourselves, at least in most instances. From time to time, perhaps often, you and I feel far from God. When we do, we should do as David did and pray along the lines of this psalm.
1See Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Francis Bolton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), vol. 2, p. 202; J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 478; Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), pp. 218-220.
2H.C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 458.
3Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 2, Psalms 39-89 (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), vol. 2, p. 217, 218.
4Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word, 1990), p. 116.
Why do we think of God as a rock?
What is the setting for this psalm? What does “ends of the earth” mean (v. 2)?
How do we know this psalm was written when David was king?
What is the metaphorical meaning of “ends of the earth”?
Reflection: When have you felt far from God? How has he been a rock for you?