Though largely fictional, there is an old story about a seminary student who abandons his faith after sitting through many lectures on philosophy and critical scholarship. So he comes to the office of the school chaplain for advice and counsel. “I don’t believe in God anymore,” the student confesses. The old chaplain nods without judgment, saying, “Well, tell me about this god you don’t believe in, because maybe I don’t believe in him, either.”
The message is simple: sometimes the caricatures we draw of God don’t compare to the reality of God. Our expectations, our assumptions we so often press upon him—many of the images we create as a culture don’t match the portrait we find in the Bible.
Like many other psalms, Psalm 18 bridges multiple categories of psalms. We’re classifying it as a royal psalm, primarily because of the last lines that speak of salvation to the earthly king. But it could also be seen as a psalm of thanksgiving—full of gratitude for God’s goodness to all people. Reading along, we can see three areas as to why.
GOD’S CHARACTER (Psalm 18:1-3)
First, Psalm 18 digs deeply into the unchanging character of God, who offers protection and provision for his people:
I love you, O Lord, my strength.2 The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. 3 I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.
DELIVERANCE (Psalm 18:4-29)
Second, God provides his people with protection from death and destruction.
4 The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; 5 the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. 6 In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. 7 Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. 8 Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. 9 He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. 10 He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind. 11 He made darkness his covering, is canopy around him thick clouds dark with water. 12 Out of the brightness before him hailstones and coals of fire broke through his clouds. 13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice, hailstones and coals of fire. 14 And he sent out his arrows and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings and routed them. 15 Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of your nostrils. 16 He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. 17 He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me. 18 They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support. 19 He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me. 20 The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. 21 For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. 22 For tall his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. 23 I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. 24 So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. 25 With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; 26 with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous. 27 For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down. 28 For it is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness. 29 For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.
BLESSINGS (Psalm 18:30-50)
Finally, God provides help and strength and blessing to his people:
30 This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him. 31 For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God?—32 the God who equipped me with strength and made my way blameless. 33 He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights. 34 He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. 35 You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great. 36 You gave a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip. 37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them, and did not turn back till they were consumed. 38 I thrust them through, so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet. 39 For you equipped me with strength for the battle; you made those who rise against me sink under me. 40 You made my enemies turn their backs to me, and those who hated me I destroyed. 41 They cried for help, but there was none to save; they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them. 42 I beat them fine as dust before the wind; I cast them out like the mire of the streets. 43 You delivered me from strife with the people; you made me the head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me. 44 As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me; foreigners came cringing to me. 45 Foreigners lost heart and came trembling out of their fortresses.46 The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation—47 the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me, 48 who delivered me from my enemies; yes, you exalted me above those who rose against me; you rescued me from the man of violence. 49 For this I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations, and sing to your name. 50 Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever.
BUT WHAT ABOUT ME?
I could easily imagine that some of you read this and feel it all a cheat. The words of the psalms—however comforting and pleasant—might seem no more real than the message inside your fortune cookie. You read them, smile, and go about your day.
Christianity would tell you that God’s promises of blessing and protection are far from absolute. The experiences reflected in the book of psalms are highly varied, and may or may not match your own.
But what Christianity would also say is that while God makes no promises of universal blessing and happiness, he offers incredible promises of lasting joy. And the greatest gift God ever gave man was himself.
In his novel Life After God, Douglas Coupland offers a series of vignettes of life through the eyes of an atheist. But he concludes with a fascinating confession:
“Now—here is my secret…My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”
Do you need God? Faith is more than a comforting set of beliefs. Faith provides us with a path that illumines and guides us each and every day. And the most shocking part of all, is that God stepped into our path in the person of Jesus, that he might lead us back to God.