A Higher Rock (Psalm 61:1–8)

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In 1992, R.E.M. released a song titled “Everybody Hurts,” which contains the lyric, “Everybody hurts sometimes.” There is truth to that. Everybody hurts sometimes—including kings, and including those who, like David, are characterised as being “after God’s own heart.” Even those in covenant relationship with God hurt sometimes. David hurt. He hurt often. He hurt deeply.

No doubt, he hurt deeply when he was criticised by his brothers (see 1 Samuel 16). I am sure he hurt deeply when he was pursued time and again by King Saul. We know from his writings that he hurt deeply when he sinned against God, Uriah and Bathsheba. He no doubt hurt deeply when his son Amnon raped Tamar his sister, and when Absalom dishonoured him and usurped the throne.

Indeed, David could no doubt have added a stanza or two to R.E.M.’s hit. And no doubt he would have concurred that, when we hurt, we must “hold on.” But he may have differed with them as to how and to whom we should hold on. If you are wondering as to the how and the whom, Psalm 61 offers the answer.

Spurgeon noted that this psalm is a pearl: little but precious. Indeed.

We are not offered an inscription giving us insight into the occasion of this psalm, but many interpreters believe that it was probably written while David was on the run from Absalom.

You will remember that Absalom became bitter because, among other things, he was displeased with the way that David responded to Amnon’s rape of Tamar. He therefore rose against his father. Second Samuel 15 reports the outcome:

Now a messenger came to David, saying, “The hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom.” So David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, “Arise, and let us flee, or we shall not escape from Absalom. Make haste to depart, lest he overtake us suddenly and bring disaster upon us, and strike the city with the edge of the sword.” And the king’s servants said to the king, “We are your servants, ready to do whatever my lord the king commands.” Then the king went out with all his household after him.

(2 Samuel 15:13–14)

There are a number of hints in this psalm that that may well have been the background of its writing. For example, he speaks in v. 2 of crying to God “from the end of the earth.” The word “earth” in Psalms and the prophetic writings generally refers to the holy land, and so it seems that David was far from Jerusalem when he prayed this prayer. He was hurting, but he was holding onto God’s covenant with him (vv. 5–7). And so perhaps it was in 2 Samuel 15:32, when David “worshipped God” as he was fleeing from Absalom, that he wrote this poem.

We cannot state the above assertion with any amount of certainty, but it certainly does fit. Regardless, the message is clear, relevant, real, hopeful and instructive. David tells us how to handle pain, and he does so by asking for several things in this prayer.

Hear Me

In v. 1, David prays for the Lord to hear him: “Hear my cry, O God; attend to my prayer.” Augustine noted, “They that are godly are oppressed and vexed in the church or congregation for this purpose: that when they are pressed, they should cry; and when they cry, that they should be heard.”1

The word translated “hear” speaks of hearing acceptably, not merely factually. In other words, his prayer is for God to hear and to act.

“Cry” speaks of a mournful wailing. It describes the sound of a flag high on a flagpole, battered by the wind. Calvin says that it describes “the vehemency of his desire.”2

David begs the Lord, “Attend to my supplication.” He is pleading with the Lord to act on his behalf, for his only hope is if God will act.

We should note that this is the correct posture of prayer: one of dependence. David recognised his need and cried out to God in response. All too often, we are hesitant to cry to God. Perhaps it is because we feel that we deserve the trouble, and God is against us. Perhaps we are faithless because we are self-sufficient. Perhaps we have forgotten the gospel. If that is the case, then we need to heed the words of the writer to the Hebrews:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

(Hebrews 4:14–16)

When you desperately pray, reflect on “O God”—who He is, what He has done, what He can do, what He has promised He will do.

I recently read an article titled “Doomsday approaching? Clock ticking closer to midnight.” The article made the claim that world events suggest we are getting closer to the end of civilisation. Unchecked climate change and the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons have pushed us two minutes closer to midnight. “The probability of global catastrophe is very high. This is about the end of civilization as we know it.”

As I read the article, I thought to myself, “If I was reading this as a non-Christian, I might actually be quite scared.” As a Christian, however, I have no reason to fear, because I believe God’s promises that the world will not end in global catastrophe, but will come under submission to the gospel of Christ. And I can pray accordingly.

Lead Me

David’s second petition in this psalm is for the Lord’s leading: “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” (v. 2). There may be an end to the “earth,” but there was no end to David’s devotion.

As noted above, David appears here to have been outside of the holy land, but he knew that God was still with him.  Even as he fled from the land of promise, he prayed, “I will cry to You.” This is a phrase that means “to call someone to oneself.” David knew that, at least for the time being, he could not return to Jerusalem, but the Lord could certainly join him. Of course, he knew that God was everywhere, but he was appealing to the typology of the tabernacle. He could not go meet God at the tabernacle, but God’s presence could go with him from the tabernacle.

He was in dire straits, his heart “overwhelmed.” This word means “to cover,” “to wrap in darkness,” “to languish,” “to faint” or “to be feeble.” It is used in Genesis 30:42 to describe feeble lambs. VanGemeren notes, “The nature of the misery is not spelled out, but its effect on the sufferer is. It wears him out so that he becomes weary of life to the point of despair.”3

According to Spurgeon, David is saying, “I see You to be my refuge, sure and strong; but, alas, I am confused and cannot find You; I am weak and cannot climb You. You are so steadfast: Guide me. You are so high: Lift me.” David could barely function. He longed for solace and security in the Lord, but he was helpless to seek God unless God first sought him. As Leupold writes, “His heart is faint from the prolonged anguish that has come upon him, and that he needs to be led out of the dangerous situation in which he finds himself to a place of safety, which is unattainable for him in his own strength. God must lift him on high.”4

The image of God as the believer’s rock is found frequently in Scripture (see Deuteronomy 32:4, 15, 18, 30, 31, 37; 2 Samuel 22:1–3, 32, 47; 23:3). It pictures stability, strength, sovereignty and shelter.

Perhaps it seems obvious to you that God is a rock “higher than I.” No doubt it is obvious to many, though not to all. But it is in times of pain in particular that we are brought to the awareness of God being a rock “higher than I.” Perhaps as Shimei hurled curses at David, he was brought afresh to realise the refuge that he could find in God.

My wife and daughters have told me in the past that I have been their rock during times of instability for them. I am thankful that I have been able to be that for them, but I trust that, in all those times, they have been able to look beyond me to the rock that is higher than I. David was a rock to many of those following him, yet “he never forgot that God was infinitely above him and that it was always God he needed.”5

Sometimes, even those who appear to be rocks need a rock. I was speaking to my mother recently, who has always been a rock to me. My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago, and he has begun to take a definite downward spiral in recent months. He had just been admitted to hospital with a suspected stroke, and I was asking my mother how she was doing. She told me that she was doing fine, and when I pressed her, she admitted that, even if she wasn’t, she probably wouldn’t tell me! But as the conversation wore on, it became clear that cracks were beginning to appear. I am thankful that she knows the rock who is higher than her, and that she can rest in Him.

Everybody hurts sometimes—including you. This is a part of life, which must be faced and accepted. Suffering is a part of the human reality. But we are thankful that we are not alone in our suffering. We have a rock to lean on. Paul knew times of pain and weakness (2 Corinthians 11:24–28; 2 Corinthians 1:8), and yet consider his outlook:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you.

And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed and therefore I spoke,” we also believe and therefore speak, knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.

(2 Corinthians 4:7–15)

He was privileged to know the rock that was higher than him. May that be our privilege too.

Lest we think that our moments of weakness and pain are necessarily moments of sinful failure, let us remember that even the Lord Jesus had such moments. He wept when Lazarus died (John 11) and, when He learned of John the Baptist’s death, He withdrew to be alone (Matthew 14). Gethsemane was clearly a moment of great pain for Him (Luke 22:39–46).

When you experience moments of hurt, ask God to shelter you and strengthen you. Focus on your need, and know that there is one who is able to meet that need. “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7).

Practically, prioritise the reading of Scripture, prayer, gathering with the saints and meditating on God’s Word. Don’t give up or give in, but hold on knowing He holds you. Calvin wrote, “It is the duty, then, of believers, when oppressed with heaviness and spiritual distress, to make only the most strenuous efforts for breaking through these obstacles in their approaches to God.”6 Being helpless yet hopeful is a great—a graced—place to be. To God be the glory!

Shelter Me

David’s third petition is for shelter: “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” (vv. 3–4). His past experiences helped him in his present distress. He knew that, while circumstances change, God does not. Therefore, “he seeks the privilege of keeping closely as possible in the shelter of God’s presence.”7

Some understand “the shelter of Your wings” to be a reference to the mercy seat beneath the wings of the cherubim. This is possible, but I think that he is referring instead to the concept of being carried on God’s wings to deliverance and protection (see Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11–12; Psalm 17:8; 57:1; see also Matthew 23:37). David knew that he could flee to the loving wings of God for shelter through the storm.

These sheltering wings are found in God’s dwelling place and His people. We find shelter in Christ (Colossians 3:1–3) and in the church (Ephesians 2:19; 1 Peter 2:1–9; Matthew 18:15–20; etc.).

The church is to be a place of shelter through the storm. It is a place for the hurting and the broken. It should point to hurting to the place of “forever shelter.” Selah on that!

If you do not prioritise the local church, then you may not know how broken you really are! The church is a place for the broken, and those who feel their brokenness will find shelter in the church.

Preserve Me

David next asks God to preserve him: “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!” (vv. 5–7).

Here, David speaks of himself—king of Israel—in the third person. As he does so, he refers to the “heritage” promised to him in the Davidic covenant, and to his vow of faithfulness in response. “God, I have pledged my faithfulness; I know that You are faithful. I fully expect that You will ‘preserve’ kindness and fidelity as You show favour to the king.”

David speaks of his intentional desire to “abide before God forever.” The idea is that of sitting down as an invited guest. VanGemeren paraphrases it, “May I be your invited guest of honour in your tent.”8

The term translated “before God” might legitimately be translated “before the face of God.” Calvin writes,

By “the face of God,” must be meant the fatherly care and providence which he extends to his people. So numerous are the dangers which surround us, that we could not stand single moment, if His eye did not watch over our preservation. But the true security for a happy life lies in being persuaded that we are under divine government.9

But who exactly is “the king” of whom he writes? In one sense, he speaks of himself. He expected the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7) to be fulfilled. (That is quite some faith, in the light of the events of 2 Samuel 11–12!) But in a major, prophetic sense, he was writing of Jesus. As Leupold notes, “David in effect taught the people in the psalm to pray for the coming of the Messiah, at least for the fulfilment of the promises made with reference to that coming.”7

This is gloriously encouraging. “Through Him His people share the kingly blessings and can pray this magnificent petition on their own behalf.”11

When you are hurting for righteousness’ sake, be hopeful! The kingdom will come—despite the predictions of the doomsday clock!

Jesus Christ is singing this psalm with us (cf. Hebrews 2:11–12)! “The true defence of the kingdom is only to be found in the mercy and faithfulness of God,”9 and this, of course, is summed up in Christ. Christ’s prayers are always heard and His purposes always fulfilled. So, what is the effect of this assurance?

Fill Me

David’s final petition in this psalm is to be filled with praise and gratitude forever: “So I will sing praise to Your name forever, that I may daily perform my vows” (v. 8). In a sense, he is asking God again to hear him, though this time in the sense of hearing him to sing praise. He prays that God will accept praise from him.

Gratefulness is always our response to God’s promises. When you are hurting, seek the Lord. He will be found, and you will be filled with praise. As you are filled with the Spirit, you will speak in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:18–20).

Listen again to Augustine: “They that are godly are oppressed and vexed in the church or congregation for this purpose: that when they are pressed, they should cry; and when they cry, that they should be heard; and when they are heard, that they should laud and praise God.” Boice then adds, “We will be happy Christians if we learn to do just that.”13

Yes, every Christian hurts sometimes, but, biblically, we can be happy even in such times.

Show 13 footnotes

  1. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:507.
  2. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 5.1:410.
  3. Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 12:418.
  4. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 455.
  5. Boice, Psalms, 2:504.
  6. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 5.1:411–12.
  7. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 456.
  8. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:419.
  9. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 5.1:416.
  10. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 456.
  11. Kidner, Psalms, 220.
  12. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 5.1:416.
  13. Boice, Psalms, 2:507.