The psalms were all written out of particular historical contexts. Perhaps that is why they speak so powerfully to us: We can relate at a very personal level. They are “real.” When we read the psalms, we often think, “Yes, I’ve been there!”
So it is with Psalm 60. Many of the psalms contain a superscription, offering us some historical detail into the historical events surrounding the penning of the psalm. Psalm 60 offers us perhaps the longest of these introductions. The superscription reads as follows: “To the Chief Musician. Set to ‘Lily of the Testimony.’ A Michtam of David. For teaching. When he fought against Mesopotamia and Syria of Zobah, and Joab returned and killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.”
The biblical record of these events can be found in 2 Samuel 8 and 1 Chronicles 18. According to these texts, David was experiencing great military victory. Further south, however, Joab’s Israelite force was experiencing defeat at the hand of the Edomites. Things looked ominous, even hopeless. What was happening? What could be done?
It is in this context that Psalm 60 was penned. David etched1 these words, either as a poem of prayer as he headed south to aid the defeated forces, or as words of reflection after he had come to their rescue. Regardless of the exact timing of the authorship, there is much for us here. The primary lesson is this: When life seems to turn sour, rally around the gospel and rely on the Lord. Locate God’s truth and assemble there.
It is interesting to note that the record of 2 Samuel 8 follows immediately on the heels of the establishment of the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7. The Davidic covenant was essentially the promise of a continual kingdom, pointing to Christ (see 2 Samuel 7:16, 19). David responded by praying for the success of this kingdom (vv. 25ff).
In 2 Samuel 8, it appears that the kingdom was going from strength to strength, conquest to conquest. But, as Psalm 60 reveals, that was not the full story. This psalm fills in some of the important details. Kidner notes, “But for this psalm and its title, we should have had no inkling of the resilience of David’s hostile neighbours at the peak of his own power.”2 If all we had were the records of Kings and Chronicles, we might be tempted to assume that the kingdom advanced without difficulty.
All too often, we look at others, and other churches and ministries, with the temptation to think that it is all plain sailing. John MacArthur, who has a solid, worldwide ministry, tells the story of what is known at Grace Community Church as “Black Tuesday.” It was seven or eight years into MacArthur’s ministry, and he walked into a staff meeting one Tuesday and said, “I want to tell you guys how much I love you and how much I appreciate you. I want to thank you for your friendship.” One staff member, speaking for all, replied, “If you think we’re your friends, you’ve got another thing coming!” A mutiny broke out in the church at that moment.3 If we look at MacArthur’s ministry, we might be tempted to think that his church has always gone from success to success, with no setbacks. But that is not the whole picture.
We thank God for very real promises given (like that in 2 Samuel 7) and for victories experienced (like those in 2 Samuel 8), but we must realise that those promises and victories also often contain Psalm 60-like setbacks. And while we don’t relish in others’ struggles, it can be heartening to hear and read of the struggles that others have faced and, by grace, have overcome.
This psalm is one such testimony of struggle overcome. We will divide our study into three broad sections.
The Hardships of the Mission
As noted, David was experiencing great victory, but back at the ranch, trouble was looming.
O God, You have cast us off; You have broken us down; You have been displeased; oh, restore us again! You have made the earth tremble; You have broken it; heal its breaches, for it is shaking. You have shown Your people hard things; You have made us drink the wine of confusion. You have given a banner to those who fear You, that it may be displayed because of the truth. Selah That Your beloved may be delivered, save with Your right hand, and hear me.
A Hard Reality
In vv. 1–3, David writes of a hard reality: a sense of disfavour, even of shame, as he hears the news of Joab’s defeat. Boice notes, “Even in times of unprecedented blessing there are nevertheless defeats.”4
Even while David witnessed what appeared to be God’s disfavour, he never doubted the sovereign hand of God. He accepted the defeat as God’s will. He assumed that the defeat was the result of divine disfavour, in line with the covenantal curses of Leviticus 26:1–13). He assumed responsibility, acknowledged accountability and responded with humility. He saw tremendous possibility.
This is a good place for God’s people to begin. I recently received a phone call from another pastor in our city, whose church, in his words, is slowly haemorrhaging members. Knowing that I have pastored BBC long enough to probably have experienced similar situations, he called to just talk through the issues. I encouraged him that BBC had indeed experienced this in the past, but God had graciously healed her. I encouraged him to remember that, even in what may appear to be failures, God is still sovereign.
There are times in which we all wonder what God is doing in our lives and in our churches. We pray for God’s name to be hallowed, His kingdom to come, and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and yet we wonder why we face setbacks. Why does a congregation experience chastening? Why is there unhappiness in the home? Why am I facing difficulty in my own life? As we wonder about these things, it is time to rally under the truth of God’s sovereignty and to rely on Him for grace to persevere. There is nothing necessarily wrong with heartfelt lament, but it ought always to be mixed with hopeful longing.
David felt that God had “cast [Israel] off,” in the sense of not covenantally remembering them. Perhaps he felt that they had somehow broken covenant and were thus covenantally condemned. Regardless, he cried, “You have broken us down.” The image is of walls being broken down, or of people being scattered or dispersed. But his prayer was, “Oh, restore us again!” He pleaded with the Lord not to be angry, but to instead return and bestow His favour once again upon His people. Even in the lament there was an element of life-giving hope.
He changes the imagery slightly in v. 2, pointing to Israel’s defeat as wreckage after an earthquake, yet again there is hope for healing. God could rebuild, remake, renovate, remodel His people. There is always such hope with God.
Have you suffered broken relationships? God can rebuild them. Have you experienced diminished reverence? God can restore it. Have you lost your resolve? God can renovate it. Have you seen stability and unity crumble in your church? God can remodel it. The damage you experience is a reality, but there is always hope of healing with God. Take seriously the promise of God recorded by the chronicler: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
In v. 3, David summarises how he and his fellow Israelites were feeling. In short, they were stunned, immobilised, disoriented, shell-shocked, numbed like drunk men by the troubles they were experiencing. God alone could help them.
The lament was heartfelt. Life was hard. But, clearly, David believed that the Lord would hear him. And we need the same faith when things seem confusing. When the gospel seems to be making slow progress, pray and believe that God will hear. When we and our fellow saints face persecution and great obstacles, pray and believe that the Lord will hear. There is good reason to believe that our current hard situation is not final.
I recently read of a church in Colorado, which is facing pressure from the community after its pastor, who had agreed to perform the funeral service of a lesbian woman, refused to show video footage of her and her partner kissing one another romantically. The funeral service was moved to a funeral home across the road, which proved to be far too small to comfortably host the service. A few days later, friends protested outside the church building, holding signs that read, “You will not find Jesus at New Hope but you will find hypocrisy.” They have demanded an apology from the pastor.
I find their demand for an apology incredible. Just a few years ago, no one would have imagined a church agreeing to show a video of lesbians kissing, but today an apology is demanded when a church takes that stand. What has happened? Something has gone awry, but we trust that God is able to rectify it.
A Hopeful Reminder
In vv. 4–5, David issues a hopeful reminder: “You have given a banner to those who fear You, that it may be displayed because of the truth. Selah That Your beloved may be delivered, save with Your right hand, and hear me” (vv. 4–5).
The Banner to Which We Rally
David speaks in v. 4 of God giving a “banner” to which His people can rally. A “banner” is something lifted up, a sign to be seen from afar off. In battle it showed soldiers where to assemble. The NKJV speaks of God giving a banner “that it may be displayed because of the truth.” The ESV translates this differently: “that they may flee to it from the bow.” The point is simply this: Those who fear the Lord find refuge in the truth (i.e. in God’s covenant and covenantal faithfulness; in the gospel!). Selah—pause and think about that!
When you are beleaguered, assaulted and staggering, run to that which stands the test of time and trials: the gospel! When you are lamenting, look to the banner and live. When you are reeling, remember the Lord and His promises.
I’ve always smiled when I read Paul’s rhetorical question in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The truth is, a whole lot of people will be against you if God is for you! But the gospel puts it all into perspective. Perhaps we can say it this way: If God is for us, who cares who is against us? If we fear the Lord, other fears are confronted and defeated by the gospel. We must hang onto the covenant!
Does it seem as if the church is defeated, the gospel unprevailing? Hang onto God’s promises (e.g. Revelation 5:9; 7:14; 11:15): The gospel will prevail! The banner is displayed: Look for and rally underneath it. As Boice notes, “We need to rally around the banner God has given us. That banner is the gospel.”5
The Belonging We Remember
David took courage because he knew that the Israelites were God’s “beloved ones” who would “be delivered.” He therefore prayed, “Give salvation by your right hand and answer us!” (v. 5). They were children of God, and if children, then heirs (see 1 John 3:1–2; Romans 8:17). He knew that he (and his people) were connected to God as their Groom, and this removed the shame.
The Beloved On the Right Hand
Ultimately, our hope lies in Christ. We are beloved only because He is beloved. As Paul put it,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
Believer, when you are in a Psalm 60 situation rally around the gospel and remember your identity. “However desperate were the straits, this verse is a prayer of faith, which shines out in the single expression ‘thy beloved.’”6
To rally may well require a retreat.6 This is, in many ways, the purpose of the Lord’s Day: to rally, reflect and remember—and thus to rest. In a real sense, as someone has said, the church is the only army that is given a weekly day of rest by its Commander in Chief.
The Hope for the Mission
In vv. 6–8, David states the hope for the mission. “Answering the prayers of his people, the Lord gives an oracle of hope.”8
God has spoken in His holiness: “I will rejoice; I will divide Shechem and measure out the Valley of Succoth. Gilead is Mine, and Manasseh is Mine; Ephraim also is the helmet for My head; Judah is My lawgiver. Moab is My washpot; over Edom I will cast My shoe; Philistia, shout in triumph because of Me.”
The basis for the hope is God’s revelation: “God has spoken in His holiness.” Leupold notes, “A most valuable thought is this that the Word of God (vv. 6–8) is made the basis of its faith in a very direct and pointed way. Thus faith should always seek the foundation of the Word of God.”9
These verses record God’s ultimate opinion of His enemies and thus their determined end. Elsewhere, David likewise wrestled with confusion because of God’s enemies, and wrote, “When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me—until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end” (Psalm 73:16–17). He learned the character and purpose of God in “the sanctuary,” where he heard God’s promises reiterated. In our times of confusion, we likewise need to hear God’s reiterated promises in His sanctuary.
In these verses, we see an expectation that Israel’s enemies—and thus God’s enemies—will not ultimately succeed. Leupold writes, “The whole section is an expression of exuberant confidence that God will fulfil His ancient promises to His people and will give them the land in possession.”10
The Lord begins by assuring Israel—Shechem, Gilead, Manasseh, Ephraim, Judah—of His favour. He lists these regions geographically from north to south, and then speaks of God’s enemies—Moab/Edom and Philistia—from east to west. The promise implied here is one of complete conquest: north to south, east to west. God is with His people and none of His enemies will stand in His way. The kingdom will expand.
New covenant Christians have a similar promise. Jesus commands us to go and make disciples of all nations, and assures us that He is with us in the mission (Matthew 28:18–20). Success is guaranteed on the basis of His ultimate authority. We must not dismiss this promise. We must not be dismayed when we see enemies of the gospel—radical Islam, secularism, religious pluralism, etc.—seemingly triumph. At such times, we need to rally under the promises of God and move forward in anticipation of victory.
Boice asks, “Wouldn’t we be more active in gospel work if we believed God’s promises to bless it?” He then adds, “Some have believed God and have made an impact on cities and even continents.”11 Boice is correct. Men like William Carey, John Paton, David Livingstone and Robert Moffatt—men who believed the gospel—impacted cities and continents greatly for the glory of God. There is no reason for us to lose hope. God has not lost hope, and the “I wills” of this psalm are “I wills” that we can likewise believe.
Like David, we need to hear God as He tells us that our best days are not all in the past. Glorious potential lies in your future. What will God yet do in, for and with you? What will He yet do in, for and with your church? It’s all about Him and His power. He has made the promises and He will fulfil them.
The Help for the Mission
Finally, David acknowledged that there was help for the mission:
Who will bring me to the strong city? Who will lead me to Edom? Is it not You, O God, who cast us off? And You, O God, who did not go out with our armies? Give us help from trouble, for the help of man is useless. Through God we will do valiantly, for it is He who shall tread down our enemies.
David knew that it would not be easy, but he expected victory nonetheless. The Lord would be His help.
The Choice to Be Made
David now faced a choice: Would he go to the “fortified city”; would he go against “Edom” (v. 9)? The Edomite fortress of Petra was humanly impenetrable; would someone go with to give him victory? God’s Word had encouraged Him. It would be not be easy—indeed, it would be humanly impossible—but the humanly impossible could be achieved.
We need to appreciate the enormity of the conflict if we will approach it wisely and confidently. We face those who are spiritually dead. We face the blinding power of the evil one. It won’t be easy, but God’s promises should strengthen us.
The Choice that He Made
David was faced with a choice, and in faith he made the wise and winning choice. He acknowledged that God had evidently not gone with the Israelite army previously (v. 10) but then prayed, “Oh, grant us help against the foe, for vain is the salvation of man!” (v. 11). He would not rely on human strength or military allies, only on God.
In a strange way, the Lord’s previous chastening had become a means of hope. He had learned an important lesson; he would not go in faith, trusting God to grant victory. He was not naïvely triumphalistic.
There is always a danger of presumptive arrogance in the mission. We can run the risk of thinking that we can attain victory on our own. Moses knew that God had chosen him to deliver Israel, and so he killed an Egyptian to show off his might. God then spent forty years humbling him before He used him to do what He had called him to do.
John Phillips says it well: “We often have to rely on men to get things done and if we are wise, we will seek out the best men for the job. But let us remember that our warfare is spiritual and must be fought on spiritual terms.”12
We must remember that we cannot attain victory on our own, because ultimately our fight is not against flesh and blood. It is a spiritual war, which requires spiritual power (Ephesians 6:10–20). The early church understood this, which is why they relied so heavily on prayer in the midst of severe persecution (Acts 4:23–31; 12:5–11). They knew that their enemy was not ultimately flesh and blood, and so they turned to the spiritual Source for spiritual power. And, as Trevin Wax notes in his book Holy Subversion, the early church, despite its weakness politically and socially, had a powerful impact in its culture for the glory of God. Despite its weakness—indeed, perhaps because of its weakness—the early church conquered in gospel ministry by faithful dependence on God.
The Confidence He Displayed
Finally, David displayed great confidence in his God: “With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will treat down our foes” (v. 12). Kidner neatly summarises vv. 6–12: “The enemy is no longer the invader, as in verses 1ff, but the one to be invaded. Finally prayer turns into affirmation, and the lonely venture into a partnership…. For God’s part, there will not be only His hand on ours (“with God,” 11a) but His foot on the enemy (11b).”13
David had great confidence in God’s willing ability to grant victory to His people. “The enemy may have smitten you. But God will yet smite him!”14
David had the right disposition, knowing that it was “with God” that they would succeed. He went forth in great unity with his people, speaking corporately of “we” and “our.”
We are in this together. We stand together with the Lord as our God. So let us humbly rally to the Lord—together. Let us rely on the Lord—together. And let us consequently reach further for the Lord—together.
- The word “Michtam” means to etch or engrave. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press), 1973, 215. ↩
- Jeffrey T. Riddle, “Sermon of the Week: MacArthur on ‘Black Tuesday,’” http://goo.gl/B9asE2, retrieved 18 January 2015. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 496. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:498. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 217. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 217. ↩
- Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 12:416. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 448. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 451. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:499. ↩
- John Phillips, Exploring the Psalms, 2 vols. (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1988), 1:483. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 218. ↩
- Phillips, Exploring the Psalms, 1:484. ↩