The psalmist is singing again. It's not exactly like singing in the rain, but it's kind of like singing in the rain, because he's in trouble again. He's in a cave, a dark, foreboding cave, and it's not that he's not been in a cave before. I suspect he has.
Caves are a part of the terrain, part of the territory in the area around which and in which he's been raised. He probably played in caves when he was a kid. It's a nice place to get away from older brothers who think you're a brat and who often wish you'd disappear. It's even a nice place to get away from sheep and their incessant bleating.
Caves can be funlike tree housesbut when you're a man and you're married and you're part of the king's cabinet, well, you don't usually hang out in caves. But David is in a cave.
David doesn't belong in a cave. He's too talented for that. He belongs in a palace. He belongs on a podium. He belongs among other or generals. He's a wonderfully gifted personhandsome, ruddy of complexion, an outdoorsman, a gifted speaker, a musician, tremendously competitive, and with a genius for military strategy. He's a born leader, and those people you don't want in cavesfor any reason.
But that wasn't what commended him to God. What commended him to God was his heart; the young boy had a heart for God. It seems that from an early age the sensitivity of his heart, his spirit, was godward, and when it came time to instruct the pastor/prophet to anoint someone who would take the place of Saul, the anointing fell on David. For God had said, "Look not on the outward appearance but on the heart." David had a different kind of heart, and that is what commended him to God, not his natural gifts, not his outward appearance, not his style, his zest for living, his passion for life, his youthful curiosity, his quick wit and mind. None of that. No, his heart is what commended him to God.
Early on, God anoints this boy to be king in Israel. As I read the story, I don't get the impression that all that that meant really sank in. After all, he was called to the ceremony from tending his father's sheep. He wasn't even coming to the meeting. Why? Because he hadn't been asked. He was just a kid, and his brothers were always too willing to let him know that. This day, Jesse didn't have it in his mind. When it comes time to anoint somebody from your tribe to be somebody, you don't start from the bottom up. It just isn't done that way; it's not the culture. But he's a king; he's being anointed.
"Yeah, so you want to be king, eh?" They've already got a king, for one thing, a man of considerable reputation and talent and gift. And then there are the Philistines; they're all over the place, and they're no friends of Israel. It's a time of internal strife and difficulty. "So you want to be king?"
I don't think it sinks in. But there follows a remarkable, interior, intense that somehow or other God has laid his hand upon his life. There is a recognition that takes place in his heart as Spirit speaks to spirit and his head is bowed to the wishes of a greater Sovereign than Saul. He may go back to his pursuits. He may go back to his sheep. He may go back to the little chores that fall upon his shoulders because he's the youngest. He may take the lunch up to the battlefield to serve his brothers. And he may be flitting in and out with all the energy of youth, but somewhere down deep within that boy is an awareness, an awful awareness, that he is chosen.
There follows with rapid succession a series of triumphs that bring him into the very court of the king: incredible favor with the people, great victories on the field of battle. He really becomes someone. His star is on the rise, as it were. It's a great story.
In God, the cave becomes a concert hall
So what's he doing in the cave? Why is he a refugee in his own land?
Well, the government has gotten a little corrupt. The king has gone mad. There isn't anything worse than the head of state who is slightly balmy. Whether it's because of that elixir of power that inebriates even the best, or whether it's insane jealousy over a person who wants to serve him with a great gift that makes him a rival, we don't know. Maybe it's anger, triggered by an incredible amount of guilt unreleased because he doesn't know how to confess his sins with integrity before a holy God.
David has been dodging danger all the way along the line. Saul has sought to drive him to the wall with spears on several occasions. He's fled for his very life. That's why he's in the cave. He's looking for refuge, and he turns to God, who has always been his refuge.
This is not the first time he prayed. If you are in the habit of communion with God when the sun is shining, it makes it much easier to sing in the rain. If you have sung to God in the open fields, if you have expressed your praise to him when the stars twinkle overhead on a dark night, it's much easier to praise God, to pray to him, to seek his face, in the darkness of a cave.
David prays to God in celebration of his lovingkindness, he talks about his faithfulness, and he pleads for his mercy. One of the nice things about David is that it is his habit to plead for mercy. He does not presume upon the mercy of God. Sure he's the chosen of the Lord, sure his head has been anointed with oil, sure he's special, but he doesn't presume upon the mercy of God.
It is the prerogative of God to extend mercy. He will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy, judgment upon whom he will have judgment. It's his selection; it's his prerogative. He is God. You don't play with that. You don't flirt with that. You don't think lightly about it. Don't presume upon it.
David asks for mercy, and it's almost his favorite phrase. Over and over again throughout his life: "Have mercy on me, O God!" And yet I think he knows it is the passion of God to be merciful. One need not twist his arm, as it were, to evoke his mercy. It is the delight of the Lord to be merciful. David prays, "Have mercy on me, O God, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until this disaster is past."
What a place to be: in God, in a cave! But in God, the cave becomes a cathedral. In God, the cave becomes the sanctuary. In God, the place is transformed into a concert hall of praise and worship.
Then he expresses his confidence in God, who he says "fulfills his purpose for me." David thinks he's special.
I know you can take that to all kinds of ridiculous lengths, all the way from some kind of weird psychological to weird forms of political nationalism. That sense of specialness can be bent all out of shape, all out of proportion, human nature being what it is. But David does know he is special, and he says, "God, the Most High God, fulfills his purpose for me."
We are special because God has a purpose for us
That's different, brothers and sisters, from someone coming up to you and saying, "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for you." No one has ever come to me with a smile upon her face and said "Pannell, God loves you and has a wonderful purpose for your life." The world is full of people with plans. The world is going to hell with the most magnificently wrought plans in the history of the human race. We do not lack for plans.
Even in the Christian community we are loaded with wonderful plans, graphs, charts. Whew, are we gifted! Do our plans ever sparkle! Are our committees ever magnificent! "They shall be known by the plans they make." But they are relatively obscure in their grasp of the purpose without which the planning is of no value.
What is the purpose of your life? Has God ever touched your life and given it purpose? I'm not suggesting that planning and purpose are miles apart. They're closely related and carefully intertwined. But purpose is first. Purpose derives from relationship with a God who is merciful, loving, and faithful. Your life has meaning and significance. Not because you're blue, black, grizzly, or gray. Not because you're Presbyterian or Baptist. Not because you're talented, gifted, fat, skinny, short, tall, or whatever. American, Chinesenothing to do with that at all.
You are somebody and special because God has created you in his likeness. You are really somebody because God has touched you with the finger of his grace and set you free in the power of the resurrection of his beloved Son. You are really somebody, and you do not drift aimlessly and purposelessly through life. You really know who you are and whose you are and where you're going. You are the King's child, and you are headed for the throne. Not all the demons in hell can keep you from that. You are going to drink wine in the presence of the King.
So what are you doing in a cave?
Caves are part of God's plan for us
I get the impression in contemporary American religious life that Christians are not supposed to be in caves. They're not supposed to suffer. They're not supposed to be ill. They're not supposed to have a cloud over them at all. They're supposed to be triumphant and victorious and prosperous, and they go straight from the cradle to the throneunimpeded. They may sing, but there is no rain out there.
Brothers and sisters, that's not only lousy theology; it's also bad experience. You never get to the throne without some cave someplace. But the cave is not what you're called to. The cave is not the destination. The cave is not your purpose. The cave is part of the plan.
David, though he doesn't understand it all, probably would wish himself to be other places. Nevertheless he says, "My heart is steadfast, O God. This circumstance doesn't alter my heartbeat at all. I will sing and make music. Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn."
Mercy. Small wonder people started coming out from all over the countryside to be with David. The dispirited, the disenchanted, the distressedall sorts of people, all sorts of problems, wandering aimlessly in their own little worlds, trying to make sense out of life in that particular timeand they sought out David even though he was a refugee, because somehow or other you're going to follow somebody who can make a cathedral of a cave.
Because we are special to God he is with us in the cave
The man is special. God sends from heaven and saves David rebuking those who pursue him. God sends his love and his faithfulness. Think of that! What does it take for a person to really believe that God, the Most High God, sends from heaven to fulfill his purpose in his life?
What kind of woman is it who could believe that in the midst of her difficulty, God would send from heaven and save her? "Who do you think you are, Lady? Would God do that for you?"
"Oh, you are somebody. Of course!"
What do you think the Cross is all about? Of course he will come down from the heavens, wrapping himself in lovingkindness and faithfulness as a garment. Of course he would do it for you. He's already marked you off, cut you out of the herd, put his mark upon you before the foundations of the earth. Of course he's going to save you. Boy, if I were less Presbyterian I'd say Hallelujah! Of course he's going to be with you in it. I love it.
I was reading not long ago, and I got to that marvelous little passage that says, "I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations. I will sing of you among the peoples, for great is your love reaching to the heavens and your faithfulness which reaches to the skies." And I thought to myself, I would have thought he would have put it the other way around. I would have thought he would celebrate the fact that God's love comes down from the heavens to the earth, that his faithfulness reaches to the earth, but he seems to be saying it quite the opposite.
I know what he's saying. He's saying, "There is no place where your love is not." I understand that. But I also understand something profound here in his own experience. He's really saying that "love is with me, and it reaches from me, where I am, to the heavens." He's also saying, "Your faithfulness is with me and starts with me and reaches to the heavens. I am the object lesson. I am the case study of the love of God and the faithfulness of the Lord. Without me there is no point to God's love or faithfulness. I am part of the equation. Nothing makes sense in God's dealings, nothing makes sense in the expression of himself in love and in faithfulness, unless I am the object of his eye."
You really are something. You really are. You have affected the very heart and behavior of God. He can never be the same, now that you're here.
You are in his hands. So why the gloom? "Why art thou cast down, O my soul?" Ask yourself that, and find a place in God, in the midst of your cave, to sing. For he really is committed to you.
Bill Pannell is senior professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.