Have you ever watched a train pulled by four engines? You hear the squeal of steel against steel, the clanking of car against car, and feel the rumble of the ground as thousands of tons roar past. When standing near a track, I realize fearfully that the buildings nearby would provide no shelter were something to happen to cause that train to derail. Even brick structures seem as flimsy as paper compared to the sheer force of such tonnage moving upwards of 30 miles an hour.
One of the main themes of David’s prayers recorded in the Psalms is God’s strength.
He compares it to a mountain, to a tower, a fortress, a rock (a BIG one, more like a mountain), a warrior, the waves of the sea, and great storms. He calls our attention to all the impersonal forces of nature so that we might know that God is stronger than these. David also acknowledges the strength of the enemies he faced. He compares them to lions and fiery beasts. He points out their weapons and their numbers, their anger and the force of their evil intent. They roar like mighty waters, they lurk unseen about him, and as far as he is concerned, his enemies have the upper hand against him. He is helpless.
But sometimes, the images of power and strength in the psalms are lost on me. I am not sure that I have faced my own powerlessness in the face of great strength against me, whether of nature or of people. I do remember being blown into a fence on my way to the bus stop during a particularly fierce thunderstorm in Florida. Maybe if I had anticipated the wind, or had not been weighed down by a backpack, I might have been able to exercise some resistance. I still look back on the event and think I could have “weathered” it better. But a diesel train? I’m fairly certain no amount of my own muscle or preparation would give me the upper hand. This image has been helpful for me in understanding power and my own helplessness.
Keeping this image in mind, I look at Psalm 59 in particular. The whole psalm is an appeal to God for deliverance from his enemies. When David is confronted with the impenetrable strength of his enemy, he appeals to God’s strength. He refers to God as his fortress, his strength, and his refuge in verses 9, 16, and 17. David knows that God is able to destroy his enemies because God is the ruler of all the earth, and will call all men to account, judging all nations and men rightly.
Jonathan Edwards in his Treatise on Religious Affections explains, “…It is possible that those who are wholly without grace should have a clear sight and very great and affecting sense of God’s greatness, his mighty power, and awful majesty; for this is what the devils have….” What Edwards is saying is that even the devils know the strength of God and can appreciate it, just as James reminds that even the demons believe God is one…and shudder. The gospels give us accounts of Jesus facing demons who begged him not to destroy them. They knew his great power and feared him. So we, too, when we are confronted with the power and majesty of God, we tremble. Just like I do when I watch a train speed down a track. It is a force with which I cannot reckon.
All of God’s strength means nothing to David unless God loves him. Each time David calls God his fortress in Psalm 59, he then speaks of the steadfast love of the Lord. In Hebrew, this word is “hesed” and can be translated “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love” or “mercy.” In this, David appealed to a covenantal relationship. God’s strength was no comfort to David unless it was for him. God set his affections on a people; therefore, all of God’s strength, justice, mercy, and love were for them. God is David’s refuge not because of his might, but because of his steadfast love. God’s strength, for David, was not some sort of impersonal force behind which he could hide; one that, if he himself weren’t careful, could sweep him away along with his enemies. He wasn’t simply hoping to direct an impersonal force against his enemies, or hoping that the impersonal force might haphazardly blast through his enemies. His prayers weren’t intended to act as an engineer for a train, so to speak. He does not merely say that God is stronger than his enemies. Yes. This is true. But what matters is that God’s strength is for him; therefore, he will not fear.
Now, the only way that God’s strength is for us is if we are in Christ. In him are all the blessings of a covenantal relationship to the Father. Only in the shelter of his wings, only when his blood covers us like the passover blood over the doorposts of our dwelling places, does God’s strength become our refuge. Otherwise, God’s strength is a source of great fear, not comfort. We are no better than demons who recognize God’s power but do not run to him for refuge. It is true that no enemy that can withstand his wrath, including myself. But his steadfast love in Christ Jesus has opened for me a shelter. In the face of danger, I can only drop all my weapons, accept my position of utter helplessness, and trust fully in the love of God, who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.
So our boldness in prayer does not come because we serve a God who is mighty, though that is important. We could have a very weak god that is on our side. Strength and power do matter, and it helps me to understand such things in any way I can, even train watching! But our boldness in prayer comes from the fact that in Christ, the Almighty God is for us. He has given us a refuge in Jesus Christ. He is the rock on which we stand, in which we hide, and on which the church is built. He has conquered death by his resurrection, so not even that great enemy, though it comes barreling at us like a freight train, can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.