Our minds constantly recall things to memory: usually the bad stuff. You’ve safely tucked into the farthest corners of your minds those embarrassing or shameful deeds of yesteryear, and then, before you know it, they roar back at the weirdest moments. I think occasionally of a girl’s watch I broke screwing around in class in high school: almost twenty years ago. And that’s one of the tamer remembrances.
David’s memory worked too. The Greek and Latin versions of the Old Testament assign Psalm 143 to the time of Absalom’s rebellion. Absalom, David’s son, wanted to be king, so he conspires against his father, earns the favor of much of the nation, raises an army, and wins over some of David’s closest advisors. 2 Samuel reports for us that this didn’t go unnoticed. “A messenger came and told David, “The hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom.” Then David does something we might find strange. He says, “Come! We must flee!” Hey, wait a minute. David defeated Goliath. David won wars! God anointed David king! But this same David also heard the prophet Nathan say, “The sword will never depart from your house.” All of David’s sinful past, all the consequences of those sins come roaring back to David as he hears reports about his son’s rebellion. To David, Absalom’s rebellion signified the chickens coming home to roost.
Notice how David describes it: “The enemy pursues me, he crushes me to the ground; he makes me dwell in darkness like those long dead. So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed.” David suffered in body, soul, and spirit. He feels like he’s at the end of it all: “like those long dead,” he said. Mostly, it seems, David meditates upon the words that our LORD spoke as He gave Israel the Ten Commandments, words which Luther used to conclude the Ten Commandments in his catechism: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”
Whether it’s your sinful chickens coming home to roost, or it’s the unjust, sinful world pursuing and persecuting, these types of thoughts malinger in our hearts. Rightly so. We must confess with David, “Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you.” Whether the enemies pursuing us have been “earned” from our point of view or not, we must confess earning them, even if only unintentionally: for we are not righteous, not above reproach. No matter how good we think we are, or have been, we’ve only misled ourselves. C.F.W. Walther, a Lutheran giant of the nineteenth century, used two axioms when he taught his students to help drive this point home. The first: “It is not as easy to believe that you are a sinner as it is to be one.” How easily do you find yourself in the title of the rabbi’s famous book, Why do bad things happen to good people?
By nature, most of us only intellectually understand our sin, which is foolish, because, as mentioned before, our sins confront us day after day. We feel guilt and shame over thousands of known and remembered sins. And yet we think ourselves to be, on the whole, compared to the mass of humanity, good people. But we’re not. All that guilt and shame should impact your thinking. It proves that you are not righteous, not good. Otherwise you’d feel no guilt. Ever.
Walther’s second axiom? “We are most well off when it seems to us that we are as bad off as can be.” Neither Walther, nor David advocate a glass-half empty approach to every moment of life. Just towards yourself. He said, “Do not bring your servant into judgment.” Why? “For no one living is righteous before you.” When you grasp that your fathers (and mothers) sinned, and you’re their sinful children, in their image and likeness, then finally you’ve “achieved” something. When you own Adam and Eve’s sinfulness as your own, then finally you’ve “accepted” something. When that condition finally becomes your condition, not just some intellectual abstraction, then finally the fear of God sinks in. Luther explained, “We should fear his anger and not disobey what he commands.” God jealously judges. The wages of sin is death. What David felt – pursuit, crushing, darkness, desolation of spirit – all earned. All precursors of eternal persecution, crushing, darkness, and desolation.
So, how does that make you “most well off”? Because it empties you of you. We’ve talked of that before and will talk of it again, ad nauseum, until heaven. Only Scripture reveals the full extent of that problem, convicting you of your unrighteousness, revealing your sin, terrifying you with its consequences. Again, how does this make me “most well off”? Well, emptied of me, there’s room for Someone else. Emptied of me, I finally understand that I am Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, a valley of death and decay without hope. Without hope in myself. When finally God’s Word has forced me to believe that I am a sinner, that I am as bad off as possible, that bad things happen to me because I’m a bad person…then I have nowhere else to hang my hat except God and His Christ. Which His Word also reveals to me. Listen to David.
“I remember the days of long ago.” From Adam until David’s own time, we can see the hand of God guiding, saving, forgiving, redeeming. “I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.” In David’s own sin-filled life he remembers God protecting him from the lion and the bear, giving him victory over Goliath, sparing him from Saul’s wrath, and forgiving his wretched sins in the affair with Bathsheba. “I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.” And he hangs it all upon Christ. “Help me, please, my Lord and Savior. I have nothing to drink, you have water to give. I wait for your food, for your salvation.” Another psalmist sings: “My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your Word…Save me, for I am yours.” David has only God and His Christ, the King who will reign forever. And in his wretchedness, David clings to that: “Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.”
And because David isn’t from the “sin all the more” school of thought, He begs the LORD for guidance: “Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul….Rescue me from my enemies…for I hide myself in you….Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.” Not because these deeds merit any favor or heaven, but because this is what the believer in Christ does. We don’t just beg for escape from enemies and maintain the status quo. With the salvation won by faith comes a life of love. “Therefore we should love and trust in him and gladly obey what he commands,” the catechism says. And with David, we ask the Lord, “Give me a chance to do that. Teach me.”
Still, we shame ourselves here. Our most righteous acts are filthy rags. So David says, “I hide myself in you.” From enemies, from death, from our own sin, we run, we hide, in Christ. Paul told the Galatians: “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And He comes to us. He comes to our relief in His unfailing love. He came into our flesh. Our God did that. In His righteousness He brought us out of trouble. Our Master served us, preserving our lives by giving up His own; only to take it up again, for all times silencing our foes. And now He feeds us with that very flesh in His Supper, feeding us with forgiveness, giving us an appetizer of our own resurrection, and our own bodies transformed like His glorious body.
The LORD heard our prayer. He listened to our cry for mercy. He came to our relief. With confidence then, we can approach His throne, sinful as we are, and beg and plead as David did. And because God shows us Jesus Christ, because He shows us His own Son become sin for us, dying as our sin, rising as our righteousness, our last words on our death bed can be a combination of Martin Luther’s and David’s. Luther found himself to be still just a beggar before God as he lay dying. True, no man is righteous before God. Yet David’s final words sound the note of hope and faith: “Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured every part? Will he not bring to fruition my salvation and grant me my every desire.” Yes. He has and He will, in, because of, and through Christ.
Psalm 143: A psalm of David. O LORD, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief. Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you. The enemy pursues me, he crushes me to the ground; he makes me dwell in darkness like those long dead. So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed. I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done. I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Selah Answer me quickly, O LORD; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. Rescue me from my enemies, O LORD, for I hide myself in you. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground. For your name’s sake, O LORD, preserve my life; in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble. In your unfailing love, silence my enemies; destroy all my foes, for I am your servant. Amen.