The Christian life is a life of undisturbed joy.
The Christian life is a life of unending battles.
Both statements are true, and that calls for help as it is humanly impossible to hold two polarized truths in our hearts at the same time. We need help.
It is easy to go from the mountaintop of spiritual experiences to the valley with thoughts of unending and uncontested glory. Yet that is neither the expectation you should have in your church nor the expectation you should have in your life. It is not the history of the church or the pattern of the life of Jesus. The early church bore witness to the fact the resurrection ushered in a time of immense diabolical activity through the fallen minds and evil intentions of madmen and idolatrous powers.
David fought a fight through all of his life against the raging battles of sin in the world, the flesh and the devil. He wrote Psalm 27 to encourage himself in the Lord in the midst of the battle. It is a militant hymn. It has been called the “Soldier’s Prayer.” Today, is it is God’s Word for you. It is your psalm, hymn, prayer and the inerrant and infallible Word of God.
He sat in front of me weeping. He had been in the ministry for more than 30 years. He was from another denomination. I was safe to approach for him to say what he had to say. “Mike, my entire life of ministry has been such a struggle. I am tired. I am exhausted. I dare say that I am clinically depressed. I don’t know where to go. I need direction.”
The confession of this fine minister, who had helped many in his career, is not unusual. Those who help most can be hurt the most. The story of faith is not unlike Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. The story of faith is not unlike the life of our Lord, who went from John’s baptism to being driven into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
I have been there. Perhaps you are there today. I have no illusions that I have escaped the cycle of mountaintop experiences and valleys by now being inaugurated as chancellor of a seminary. In fact, I rather expect the cycle of closeness to God and fiery darts will intensity.
For some of you, you live today on a mountaintop. Your career is going better than you ever imagined. Your family is well. Your life is as stable as a cozy corner at Starbucks on a carefree Saturday morning. Yet for others seated next to you, the cozy corner is obliterated beneath the falling ceiling of debt, loss and self-doubt. For some of you, the question, “Where is God in all of this?” is a constant specter haunting your faith.
God has given us a gift. David’s psalm is a divine echo of the cry of hope shaped on the crucible of spiritual and real warfare that can be heard across the centuries down to our own day and into this very moment. If you listen, you will hear the cadence of two great themes, an upbeat and a downbeat intensifying in the psalm as a troop marching uphill until at last there is a resolution.
I offer this Psalm to you as reflection of your vexations and a renewal of your hope of victory in the battle. This psalm alternates between affirmation and adversity. We must ground ourselves in both realities until the final victory is won.
There are three reverberating cadence calls in this Soldier’s Psalm. The first cadence call of the march of Psalm 27 is this: There is the resounding affirmation of the overarching theme that brings strength to the Christian life (v. 1). “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?”
David began his psalm with affirmation. He will get to the challenges, but the battle begins with an assessment of what you have going into the battle. If you have only yourself, then you are ill-prepared to fight the devil, the flesh and the world. Today is a good day to reassess your weaponry.
I teach at chaplain school as a USAR (United States Army Reserve) chaplain. One of my jobs is to teach preaching to our chaplains. I ask them, “Do you have your rucksack filled with the repository of faith, a personal encounter with God and a study of the Holy Scripture, to be able to enter the battlefields of Afghanistan, North Africa and the Middle East to bring hope, healing and gospel victory? If you are going on your own resources, you are bound for defeat. Even worse, the soul of our genuine soldiers will be strengthened to take on the enemy.
As David strengthened himself in this affirmation, so should we. What is it? That the Lord is my light and my salvation.
The church is a corporate body. We are taught to pray, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” but the body is made up of individual members. Each member must know the light of Christ and His life and Word as the very salvation He possesses. In this way, the Lord is the stronghold, citadel or fortress that is absolutely impenetrable. Thus, David and we can affirm, “Of whom shall I be afraid?” The answer is, of course, no one! Be fearful, rather, as Jesus taught us, of the one who can kill the soul.
Look toward the light of Jesus. Repent of your sins. Receive Him as your Savior, and confidently affirm your faith: You are safe in Him. He is a mighty tower, a strong deliverer; and no one can snatch you out of His hand.
The second cadence call of this Soldier’s Psalm is before us now:
The recurring adversities are the overarching trials that bring sanctification in the Christian life (vv. 2-12).
In verses 2-12, David recounts the march of faith that alternates between adversity, enemies and trials and the resulting spiritual consequence. What we see is the motif of the cross, that the instruments brought against him became the instruments in the hand of God that brought him to victory. No verse in this collection sums up the situation better than verse 11: “Teach me Your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.”
David saw as he looked back at the battle in his life that he learned the way of the Lord and was even brought to a level path, a place where he could recover his balance and be able to continue the march forward, “because of my enemies,” he said.
This is where the devil is defeated: When Jesus Christ the Lord of glory causes the cross to become a crown, the captives go free! Our hope is in God overcoming evil for good in our lives. The presence of evil or trials does not indict us, but invites us to see the glory of God at work in our midst. It is counter-intuitive, similar to the general who is told the enemy has his unit surrounded and he responds as would John Wayne, “Good, they won’t get away now!”
A surgical oncologist friend of mine, one of my parishioners, asked me to join him on his day at the chemotherapy ward. Patients were lined up in what appeared to be recliners, with IVs attached to them, receiving what they hoped would cure their disease. My friend brought me to each of his patients, and I heard their stories. He then whispered to me as we were approaching a certain lady, “Pastor, she is one of my favorites! You soon will learn why…”
His comment piqued my interest. I leaned over to this middle-aged lady, and the doctor introduced me as his pastor. “Oh, pastor!” she exclaimed with not the slightest understanding (it seemed to me) that she should be more morose than jubilant, given her situation, “Oh, pastor, I am so glad to meet you!” Before I could return her greeting, she continued, “Pastor, I thank God for my cancer!” I smiled at her, joining her rejoicing; but inside I was conflicted by her jubilation and her situation. She went on to become a living example of this passage.
“You see, pastor, if I had not been given this cancer, I would not know the church really is the grace place. I would not have known the love of my husband who has cared for me so well. I never would have met the best doctor in the whole world!” My friend looked at me, leaned in and said, “You see why I like this one!”
I liked her, too! I love the goodness of God that allows you today in your life to say, “Teach me Your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.”
Now hear the third cadence call of this Soldier’s Psalm: There is the resurrection aim that is the hope that brings satisfaction in the Christian life (vv. 13-14).
Some thoughtful reader of theology might pause here at this point and think, “I thought the liberals said there was no resurrection in the Old Testament religion of Israel.” Yes, they do say that. They are wrong. Resurrection anticipation is everywhere in the ancient church! It is clearly embedded in the psalms of David and is the climax of the Soldier’s Psalm.
The affirmation, which led to admission of adversaries, shows him this is how God sanctifies and leads him to the hope of the land of the living beyond the grave.
I am so thankful my hope is not in the Egyptian gods I saw when my family and I visited the British Museum this past summer. The mummies were, as you well know, buried with ornaments of the earthly life to keep them company in the land of the dead. Yet when we visited the Dylan Thomas Museum in Swansea, Wales, we were told Richard Burton was buried with a copy of Dylan Thomas’ poems in his hands. Dylan Thomas is hard to read when you are alive, much less in a coffin six feet under!
David had no such pagan ideas. His hope was in the living God; and because God lived, he would live. In fact, all his trials and battles were leading him not just to an inevitable death, but through a portal to eternal life. How David’s resurrection aim in this psalm reminds me of Job who exclaimed as a brilliant sun bursting through a dark cloud, “I know my Redeemer lives!” David joined his forefather in faith and declared, “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.”
Praise God for such faith! I once preached from this text in a mausoleum where I was surrounded by bodies entombed in the wall, and a dark, ominous storm was brewing outside. I never had a greater moment as a preacher than to declare that I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! I was thankful to know several people were saved that day. People hearing about resurrection while seated in folding chairs in a mausoleum respond well, I think.
What is more, David comforted his own soul as he came back down to the place where he was living as the sweet psalmist of Israel but also as the Soldier of Zion, stilling his heart on the words of hope: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, take heart, and wait for the Lord” (v. 14).
This is the Word of the Lord for you. You have affirmed your faith, and your adversaries have assaulted your faith; but that has worked to increase your faith, because it is turning you to resurrection faith, which settles your hearts back down. Let this Scripture simmer. Let the potent resurrection hope soak in the boiling water of your trials until the tea of good hope is fully dispersed. Then drink quietly from the cup of salvation. Wait. Wait on the Lord.
Psalm 27 gives us divine perspective, and—even better¸ gospel strength—to balance the seemingly competing realities of adversity and promise.
Isaac Watts grew up in a very hard situation. His father was a Non-Conformist minister; that is, he did not belong to the Church of England and was committed to the Reformed faith and the principles of representative government in matters of faith. This got him locked up twice in his life. Young Isaac grew up visiting his father in prison and enduring the pain and poverty that came from his father’s absence.
Years later, Dr. Watts—as a minister in London—wrote about the life of the believer as the life of a soldier. He wrote the famous hymn “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” We can imagine he recalled the trials of his childhood, the sorrows of his father and the frequent hardships his family faced. He perhaps was not unlike the minister who visited me with his depression. Yet, as David strengthened himself for battle, so did Watts as he used soliloquy to speak the Word of God back to his own life. Listen and ask yourself the questions in this hymn.
“Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the Lamb, and shall I fear to own His cause, or blush to speak His name? Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize, and sailed through bloody seas? Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood? Is this vile world a friend to grace, to help me on to God? Sure I must fight, if I would reign; increase my courage, Lord; I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by Your Word.”
As prayerful reflection on the truths found in Psalm 27 brought divine perspective to Isaac Watts, it did so for David and countless other Soldiers of the Cross. So let it bring optimistic hope to you in Jesus Christ our Lord. For this psalm is about Him, anticipates Him and follows the gospel pattern of seeing that the things that come against us are really the things (such as the cross having brought resurrection) that lead us home. We end up blessing the adversary, for his assaults drive us to Christ our Victor. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ that we must live. This is the gospel power that lives in us.
Will you receive this gospel truth of Christ today? Will you renew your life in this gospel truth today? To do so is to march forward with confidence against all odds as a Soldier of the Cross.