I recently returned from a trip to a country where two of our missionaries are serving.
The land where they are making disciples is a difficult place, in many ways—not the least of which is that only about one percent of the population are evangelical Christians. A larger percentage would be nominally Christian. These, in fact, have become our missionaries’ main target for evangelism.
I want to say that I was both greatly blessed and deeply burdened by what I observed while there.
I was blessed to witness the fruit of fourteen years of missionary, disciple-making labour. I was blessed to observe that many of the same people that I have encountered in the church over the past decade are still faithfully growing in and serving the Lord I was blessed to see many who have been discipled who are now discipling others. This is true of both women and men. In both churches in which our missionaries have been involved, leadership is being developed, with the presence of gifted and mature and godly and serving men. I was blessed to witness the godly homes of many of those to whom our missionaries have ministered.
I was blessed to see that these two churches, planted by missionaries sent by BBC, are now sending missionaries of their own. I was blessed to hear the stories of some members of these churches who are living for Christ at great personal cost.
I met a young man from a mountain village who travels fifteen kilometres by bicycle to attend church. His father is very ill, nearly to the point of death. The son carried his father to hospital and to church! God saved his mom and dad and another brother. The community has threatened to tear down their house, and so they take turns each Sunday to stay home to guard their home while the others attend church. The older son has been studying engineering—by candlelight—and will finish (with good marks) very soon
I met a young orphan who came to Christ some years ago and when he turned eighteen, moved away from his Muslim family, and now lives in the church building so that he can serve the Lord. To watch these young men sing would move you to tears. The local pastor, trained by our missionaries, has done an outstanding job of shepherding them.
I was blessed to experience genuine Christian fellowship: a hole-in-the-wall Chinese dinner after prayer with ten men; a family camp and the church’s involvement of all in all the meetings. The hungry and teachable spirit of the churches concerning biblical family life was hugely encouraging. I was blessed to see a great many ministry opportunities opening for our missionaries.
It was a blessing previously to hear the testimony of one particular woman at her baptism, and now noting a real change in her disposition. She has been married for some 35 years to a well-known and well-connected Methodist minister. When she was baptised she gave this testimony: “I loved and idolised my husband. The Lord had to take him away so that I would love the Lord in first place.” She also told one of our missionaries that, in all the years that she was married to her husband, she never heard the (biblical) gospel from him. She had to come to our missionary’s church to hear it. I have observed a remarkable growth in humility and a corresponding teachable spirit over the past few years since I first met her.
In short, I was blessed to witness the reality that BBC has been a genuine means of God’s gospel grace over the years. I wish every member of BBC could experience what I saw of the simple faith of these humble people who are growing in their appreciation of the grace of God and their growing desire for Him to be glorified.
On more than one occasion, I wished that our whole church could be there to witness these blessings. It would be a great encouragement to all.
I wish every member of BBC could have heard the testimonies of gratitude to God for the church, from several members of these two churches.
I wish each member could see the changed lives in which the Lord has used them as a means of His grace. All of these blessings, which I have briefly shared, are something of what Paul spoke of when he said that Philippians had fruit that abounded to their account because of their partnership with him as a missionary to the nations (4:17).
I wish that each member of BBC could have shared in the joy I experienced in the time I was there. It was a joy that sometimes brought tears.
For example, I was more bed to tears at a musical drama of the Prodigal Son. It showed such an understanding of sin and of the matchless and free grace of our sovereign God who is determined to save all of those whom He has chosen; notwithstanding the pull and power of the world, the flesh and the devil.
I hope that, in sharing some of this, with we will together taste and see that the Lord is good. But more so, I trust that we will be determined to keep at it. And this brings me to the next point. For alongside the blessings I was also burdened about some things.
I was burdened by the realisation that so many in this land are yet without the Lord Jesus Christ and without a credible witness in their midst. I was burdened by the obvious idolatry and the chaos, the disorder and destruction that this brings in its wake. I was burdened by the sad reminder, once again, that nominal Christianity is more prevalent there than is biblical Christianity.
When we first sent missionaries to this place, there were a few local pastors who helped them get into the country. As we interacted with these pastors, however, we became concerned about their nominalism, even wondering whether they might be believers. One of our missionaries told me that two of these pastors had recently been arrested for selling church property and pocketing the proceeds. The arrests were public knowledge, and yet they continue to pastor those churches.
I was burdened by the sad reminder, once again, that the local church is not the focus of so much of what is self-identified as evangelical Christianity. I was burdened by the sad reminder, once again, that families there are so destructively dysfunctional—including Christian families. I was burdened by the realisation of increasing government restrictions that could close the door for many missionaries—including our own. For instance, a new law demands that a company must have a turnover of the equivalent of R2 million to be granted a license for receiving visas. Also, the threat of heavy taxation, as well as threats of arrests and heavy fines, threaten the very possibility of missionary ministry.
The task is huge and the challenges are many and large. It can, in fact, be overwhelming to contemplate. It can even be discouraging. Indeed, there were times that, as I contemplated it all, I felt myself heading for the slough of despair—that is, until I read Psalm 4. Reading this psalm, I was refreshed and revived by the painful honesty coupled with patient and sure hope.
In this psalm of David, we have a record of David both sharing his burdens and counting his blessings with a view towards bolstering the faith of others. It is, like almost all the psalms, one that points to great hope—the same kind of hope that we need to have for the nation I recently visited as well as for our own nation and beyond.
I hope that I will be enabled by the Holy Spirit to expound and apply this text in such a way that we will be encouraged in spite of setbacks, and in spite of heartaches, and in spite of sinful failures, that when it comes to pursuing Christ, when it comes to the Great Commission, we will keep at it!
As we engage in a brief study of this psalm, I will be sharing several anecdotes from my recent observations. My desire is simple: to encourage us to keep at it in the work of the Great Commission. I want us to keep going, keep praying, keep giving, keep sending. I want us to keep believing God for greater things. I want us to expect great things from God and therefore to keep, or start, attempting great things for Him. More importantly, God wants this of us.
But what kind of people do this? David tells us: the godly, those whom the Lord has graciously set apart unto Himself. If you are truly a Christian, then there is hope; hope which in fact fuels our motivation to keep at it!
Keeping at It in Context
We will note several things about the godly person from this account. But first, let us note the historical context from which this was probably written.
When he wrote these words, David was likely on the run as a fugitive due to Absalom’s revolt (2 Samuel 15–19). Psalm 3 was certainly written from this context, and most likely (though not conclusively) so was Psalm 4. The similarities between the two psalms point to this.
David faced some very serious setbacks. He carried almost unimaginable burdens. The kingdom had been taken from him—a kingdom promised to Him by God. He, the rightful ruler, had been run out of the Promised Land. Many of the people whom he had served had revolted against him. A usurper had slandered him—his own son. Most significantly, God’s kingdom on earth was in the hands of an ungodly leader, God’s name was being dishonoured, and the righteous—the godly—were suffering.
David was experiencing a horrible situation—and nearly a hopeless one. There is much for us to learn from the sweet psalmist of Israel (2 Samuel 23:1).
We are to learn from him, because ultimately we are learning from God who inspired Him. And ultimately this psalm points us to Christ and how He responded, is responding, and will respond. There is enough here to help us to keep at it!
The Cry of Those Who Keep at It
The psalmist begins: “Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have relieved me in my distress; have mercy on me, and hear my prayer” (v. 1).
Sinful treason was met with prayerful trust . The one whose name indicated wellbeing (“Absalom” means “father of peace”) was, in fact, he was a father—a producer—of pain. David’s son had become his most painful enemy. The kingdom was taken away from him. He was being treated as a fugitive, as one on the run. It looked as if all that he had longed for was coming to an end. He was facing a humanly hopeless situation. His own flesh and blood was usurping what was divinely and rightly his. No wonder he cried. No wonder he desired God’s mercy, God’s grace.
This “distress” is well described as being in a narrow, a very tight, spot out of which only a miracle can deliver him. I was driving with one of our missionaries down a very narrow street in a particular village, and the next thing we knew another car was coming toward us from the other direction. There were stalls on either side of us, and it seemed impossible that we would make it through. I’m convinced that the Lord somehow shrunk our car, because somehow we made it without a head-on collision.
David was in a narrow spot, constrained on every side, but he trusted that God would deliver him. God had done so before, and he knew that He could do so now. When we feel pressed in by trials, we need to pray for God to enlarge the tight spot in which we find ourselves.
We might paraphrase David’s plea this way: “Please answer my heartfelt pleading that You will enlarge what is presently my narrow way. I am constrained by trials. And please do so diligently.” Here is the point: Those who persevere do so because they are persuaded that God is just and that they themselves are justified before Him. “What then shall we say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Our cry for such deliverance must be driven by a passion for the glory of our righteous God.
I spent a long time talking to our missionaries about some of the challenges related to visas. One of them reminded me that, for some fourteen years, there have been visa-related challenges, and yet God has faithfully provided visas. We must be bold in our prayers that He will continue to do so. The Great Commission is a righteous cause. It is worthy of our cries. A lot of good missionaries have already been forced to leave the field because of these and similar restrictions, but we must pray that, if God wants our missionaries there, He will do what is necessary to keep them there.
The Confidence of Those Who Keep at It
In vv. 2–3 we see something of David’s confidence: “How long, O you sons of men, will you turn my glory to shame? How long will you love worthlessness and seek falsehood? Selah. But know that the LORD has set apart for Himself him who is godly; the LORD will hear when I call to Him.”
Here we see a mixture of complaint and confidence. This is normal Christian living. We experience grief and yet we remember and lay hold of the grace that is abundantly available in the gospel message: “Take your best shot, we belong to Him. Bring it on; He has brought us in.”
David speaks here to his opponents and asks, “How long … will you turn my glory into shame?” His “glory” speaks of his honour, his weighty position. He was appointed as Israel’s king, and yet now he was slouching away from Jerusalem as a fugitive, shamefully treated and even stoned by Shimei (2 Samuel 6:5–14). He is righteously complaining that his God-ordained position as king of Israel has been dishonoured.
His opponents “love worthlessness and seek falsehood.” They are guilty of slander and idolatry. This was certainly true of Absalom, who stole the hearts of God’s people in order to seize the throne from his father (see 2 Samuel 15). And those who followed this “father of falsehood” were not following the God of truth, and so they were seen to be following false gods.
This should be our complaint: that people are opposing God by their slander and their idolatry. Our personal hurts must take a backseat to what people are doing against the living God.
During my recent trip to visit our missionaries, I was saddened to see the “church planting” efforts of the false religions there. There were meeting places all over, even in the most obscure of places. I felt a little like Paul, with my spirit provoked within me at a city given over to idols (Acts 17:16). We must be honest: What is our biggest, most significant complaint? Is it the interruption of our personal “good” or the desecration of God’s glory?
David’s message in the midst of his complaint is simply this: “The LORD has set apart for Himself him who is godly.” Those who are “set apart” are those who are pious, ethically and religiously committed to Yahweh. The complaint undergirds David’s knowledge that God is on his side. He boldly declared that. He knew, in New Testament language, that God was building His church and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. He knew that God was with him.
We have a similar promise:
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
Do you see that? God is with us to the end of the age. His presence with us guarantees success in the endeavour. The knowledge that we have been set apart unto God encourages us to pray because we believe that God will hear our prayers. After all, He is for us and He is for His name. As we proclaim the gospel, we unashamedly identify with Jesus Christ the righteous and with His cause. We therefore can claim that He hears us when we call. After all, we have His promise: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
This is important for us. We need to rejoice and be confident that God is for us because He has chosen us. Such knowledge will keep us from caving in to despair. It is easy to fall into doubt when it appears that most the world is not following the Lord but is rather embracing idolatry.
The Counsel of Those Who Keep at It
In vv. 4–5 David offers some counsel: “Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still. Selah. Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the LORD.”
David shows real leadership here as he exhorts those who are with him to exercise self-control. He understands their temptation to anger and to personal revenge. And so he exhorts his loyal compatriots to not seek personal revenge. In this historical situation, as in so many in David’s life, it is remarkable that he did not seek personal revenge. He trembled in the presence of God rather than becoming terrified and hence constructing a sinful response.
We need to remember that there is often no point in seeking “revenge” because those in darkness know no other way. I recently read of a restaurant in another part of the world that added a dish to its menu called The Holy Trinity. A Christian group in that country became very angry and sued the restaurant chain. I must admit, I fail to see why. Unbelievers just don’t get it, and we do not help our gospel witness by getting angry and lashing out. It does not help to fight the wrong battles. We only end up alienating ourselves from those whom we should be reaching with the gospel.
David speaks further of being “on your bed” in v. 4. Night-time can be tough. It can be a time of disorientation. David knew this well—hence his wise and winsome counsel: “Be wise and think until your head and heart are clear.” This is exactly how David behaved when Shimei was throwing stones at David and David’s personal guard wanted to lash out at Shimei in revenge.
You see, we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces. And so, instead of lashing out in sinful anger, David exhorts: “Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the LORD.” Give proper thought to your response. Search your own heart. Let the truth of God dwell in your heart as you contemplate the seeming victory of the enemy. Better to be silent and sinless rather than verbal and sinful.
In short, David exhorts his readers to keep at it. Keep doing what is right, even when everyone else is doing wrong. You are right to do right; you are right to offer that which is right. God has not changed and we are to continue to honour Him.
Though the world rejects God and His Word and biblical worship we are to continue in these things. Though the world mocks and resists our attempts at discipleship and the planting of churches yet we continue to do so. Though the world says that particular situations are hopeless, we give what is countercultural (because biblical) counsel. Though the world rejects our commitment to raising a godly seed, yet we continue with this commitment.
The Conviction of Those Who Keep at It
David next argues that those who keep at it are driven by the conviction that God prospers His people: “There are many who say, ‘Who will show us any good?’ LORD, lift up the light of Your countenance upon us. You have put gladness in my heart, more than in the season that their grain and wine increased” (vv. 6–7).
While we are to follow the counsel as given by David above, we do so with expectation. We desire to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Psalm 27:14). And so we pray for God’s blessing (see Numbers 6:24–26; Psalm 67).
When David was driven from Jerusalem by the rebellion, he and those who followed him found themselves hungry and cold. Those who remained in Jerusalem, following Absalom, feasted while the anointed king and his followers starved. David was concerned that some of them were becoming discouraged and so he asked the Lord to give some encouragement. The historical account reflects that God answered this prayer by sending them what they needed.
Perhaps not everyone needs this kind of encouragement, but probably most of us do! God’s countenance changes ours.
I met a young woman during my trip who learned at the age of six that she was HIV positive. She planned at that point to kill herself, because she felt as if there was no hope for her. God saved her. She is now eighteen years old, and she gladly praises God. She does not have the grain and the wine of being HIV free, but she has something far greater: She has Christ, and the joy that comes with that.
David was confident that the Lord would hear him because he had experienced God’s similar grace in the past. He knew the experience of the joy of the Lord being his strength, and so he could keep at it. He had the conviction, born by experience, that God’s blessing far exceeds our burdens. In fact, the world’s blessings cannot even compare.
What do others see in us? Do they see us finding our purpose in the same things that they do? Are they amazed at our joyful purpose when things are going awry in our life?
The Comfort/Contentment of Those Who Keep at It
Finally, let us consider the comfort and the contentment of those who keep at it: “I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; for You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (v. 8). We are to rest in the Lord since He alone is control, and therefore He is the true giver of sleep.
Observe the note of confidence here: “I will.” That is, “I will keep at it because I know that God will keep at it. Therefore, I will rest so that I can keep at it again tomorrow.” This is the kind of calm confidence that characterises those who keep God’s countenance before them by keeping God’s Word before them.
God’s Word reveals His character. It reveals all that God has done in the past that gives us assurance. When the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, we need not panic, for the Lord is in control and is working His plan. Knowing God must be our passionate and consistent pursuit, for “those who know their God will be strong and do exploits” (Daniel 11:32).
The Christ of Those Who Keep at It
We need to read this psalm correctly if we will keep at it. This is not mere moralism; this is about the ultimate motivation to keep at it: Jesus.
We need to be sure that we do not miss the point of this psalm: This, as with all of the psalms, is the prayer of the ultimate David, the Lord Jesus Christ. Read through this psalm with Jesus as the one making this prayerful and faithful cry.
There are so many connections, but certainly vv. 2, 3 and 8 are the clearest. The Lord Jesus Christ was despised and rejected of men (v. 2), even while He was God’s only begotten Son (v. 3). Though the world was against Him (v. 6), yet His joy was found in doing the will of the Father (v. 7; cf. John 14), whose countenance He constantly beheld (Mark 1:35ff). But finally, at the cross, Jesus literally laid Himself down and in faithful peace experienced the sleep of death (v. 8). And He did so in perfect safety (Psalm 16:10–11). The resurrection testified to this.
Because David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, laid Himself down in death for our sakes, the Father raised Him from the sleep of death and we are now justified (Romans 4:25). That is, God has set apart unto Himself those who once were ungodly to be godly. He is our God and we are His people.
This gives us the confidence that, when we cry out to God, He hears us when we call. We therefore have every reason to keep at it.
No doubt, there are many more in this world whom God has set apart unto Himself. He will vindicate both His name and those who bear His name.
As I considered this psalm, I was encouraged as a home church to keep at it. As a sending church in South Africa, we need to keep witnessing, keep praying, keep discipling and keep raising a godly seed.
Likewise, there are doubtless more on the mission field whom God has set apart unto Himself. And to reach them presents us with significant challenges. Nevertheless, this psalm should encourage us that the righteous God will vindicate, will accomplish, His righteous purpose there as well. So, let us keep offering sacrifices of righteousness. Let us keep sending. Let us keep giving. Let us keep going. Let us do all we can to disciple the nations. Let us keep at it.