Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: When We Are Betrayed
The text for our sermon today, “Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: When We Are Betrayed,” is one of thirteen psalms identified as a maskil. I want you to notice the subtitle or information provided beneath the title of Psalm 55. The NIV reads, “For the director of music. With stringed instruments. A maskil of David.” No one knows the exact meaning of the term maskil, but it is associated with skill or scholarly wisdom. David gave the first two books of Psalms to the priests to be used in worship. Apparently, the priests who added this title wanted someone who was skilled at the music craft, someone who could play a stringed instrument. The subtitle also gives us an indication about the content of the psalm: a broken relationship, a bitter disappointment, a broken heart and deep despair.
Think about contemporary times and some of the music we have known through the years. I suppose the Mills Brothers’ song “You Always Hurt the One You Love” could be considered a maskil. Some kinds of opera could be considered maskils, but the two genres most typical are country music and the blues.
David Allan Coe says that the perfect country music song must mention trains, rain, pickup trucks, Mama, prison, and getting drunk.
Listen to the words of one of my favorite country songs:
She never cried when old Yeller died. She ain’t been washed in the blood of the Lamb. She don’t stand for the Star-Spangled Banner. She ain’t a John Wayne fan. Those baby blue eyes had the warning signs That woman was bad to the bone. She didn’t cry when old Yeller died. Do you think I am going to cry when she’s gone?
Joe Bennett, a member of the Sparkle Tones, said that when he served in the Air Force and was stationed in Vietnam, his job was that of an air traffic controller. The commander of the base told Joe not to work at night. Instead, he wanted Joe to play his guitar in the non-commissioned officers club. Doing so would encourage those men to remain on base at night. Joe said he got paid good money for playing his guitar at the NCO club. When he asked for requests the men wanted to hear every heart-break song he knew. Many had received a Dear John letter at some point while they were away from their sweetheart. Joe quipped, “I bet I sang Hank Williams’ song ‘Your Cheating Heart’ 50,000 times.” Perhaps you know the words to that song:
Your cheating heart will make you weep. You will cry and cry and try to sleep. But sleep won’t come the whole night through. Your cheating heart will tell on you.
The other genre similar to a maskil is the blues, which grew right out of the soil of the Mississippi Delta, traveled up to Memphis then St. Louis, and finally reached the south side of Chicago and Detroit. The Piedmont blues, which took root in the red clay soil of the hills of the Appalachian Mountains, grew up in every cotton mill town across the Southeast. W.C. Handy, deemed the “Father of the Blues” by most people, said, “The blues did not come from books. Suffering and hard luck were the midwives that birthed these songs. The blues were conceived in aching hearts.”
One of my favorite blues singers, B.B. King, has picked up his guitar named Lucille and often sung a song called “Downhearted.”
My love burned like a fire. Your love burned like a cigarette. Yes, I have seen you put it down and crush it. Baby, how blue can I get? I gave you a brand new Ford. You said you wanted a Cadillac. I bought you a ten-dollar dinner. You said, “Thanks for the snack.” I let you live in my penthouse. You said, “It’s just a shack.” I gave you seven children, And now you want to give them back. I said, “I’ve been downhearted, baby,” Ever since the day we met. Our love is nothing but the blues. Tell me. How blue can I get?
You get the idea that a maskil is a song of a broken heart.
Last week I pointed out that Psalm 51 and Psalm 55 are corollaries, two sides of the same coin. These two psalms illustrate the nature of relationships. Heartbreak is a two-way street. We have been guilty of being an offending party as in Psalm 51, or we have been on the receiving end of someone hurting us, someone being unkindness, someone using cutting words. The New King James Version offers a thumbnail sketch of the psalm’s content in its heading for Psalm 55: “Trust in God Concerning the Treachery of Friends.”
Let’s look at the psalm together.
1Listen to my prayer, O God,
do not ignore my plea;
2 hear me and answer me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught
3 because of what my enemy is saying,
because of the threats of the wicked;
for they bring down suffering on me
and assail me in their anger.
In this prayer a restless David begs for relief. Some translations use the word “moaning” in place of “plea.” His distress, which is affecting him physically and mentally, has begun to affect him like grief. Has someone died? No. Has the nation suffered a disaster? No. Has a family member been harmed? No. David is crying out for help because he has come under a barrage of threatening words and actions from within his inner circle.
After coming to this prayer and reading only three verses, we ask, Where are the statements of praise and glory here? Aren’t prayers supposed to begin with adoration? Prayers do not need to be standardized. Richard Foster says that we sometimes must pray what he calls “the prayer of beginning again.” We come like little children, crying out in the dark.
David has plenty of words, but the truth is that sometimes our prayers are no more than gutturals, no more than tears and a primal scream. Listen to Verses 4-5.
4 My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen on me.
5 Fear and trembling have beset me;
horror has overwhelmed me.
David’s feelings are deep and troubled. The Message translates these verses “My insides have turned inside-out; specters of death have me down. I shake with fear, I shutter from head to foot.” He is afraid, terrified, for his very life. An enemy has done deep damage through hateful speech, angry glances, and threats against his life. This brave warrior, afraid? As a boy he had stood down Goliath and killed him! “Saul had killed his thousands, but David had killed his tens of thousands” (I Samuel 18:7). This same man had killed a hundred men to pay the price of his bride. Can a warrior be afraid? Ask any combat veteran. Ask any returning soldier who cannot find a job. Ask anyone who fought in Vietnam and still to this day feels unappreciated.
David wants to get away from all that troubles him. He desires some peace and quiet, available perhaps in the country, at the beach, in a cabin in the woods. He just wants to escape the problems he faces.
6 I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
7 I would flee far away
and stay in the desert;
8 I would hurry to my place of shelter,
far from the tempest and storm.”
David’s life had been in danger many times, but this time the fear is so deep that it has led him to a desire that no warrior like David could easily admit. He wants to run away. “If I were a bird, I would fly away, go somewhere else, somewhere that no one could ever find me. I would fly to the loneliest place on earth. I would hide and be safe in the desert.” The desert is no place to escape. With its sun and sand, with its lack of landmarks, water, and roads, the desert does not offer much comfort or respite.
David continues his prayer in Verses 9-11:
9 Lord, confuse the wicked, confound their words,
for I see violence and strife in the city.
10 Day and night they prowl about on its walls;
malice and abuse are within it.
11 Destructive forces are at work in the city;
threats and lies never leave its streets.
Notice that David makes an allusion to the Tower of Babel when he asks God to “confound their words.” When God confused the speech of the people at Babel, they had no choice but to abandon their plans. David wants the same for his enemies. Seeing a plot against him, he wants his conspirators to abandon their plans. Political leaders are often prone to paranoia, suspecting that someone is out to get them. As one patient in the state mental hospital in Kentucky said to me, “It ain’t paranoia if they really are out to get you.”
David knows his enemies are “out to get” him. Maybe political leaders are suspicious because that is the way they came to power. The Sword of Damocles hovers above him, suspended by a single horse hair. Worried about what disaster may befall him, David envisions conspirators hiding in alleys, lurking in courtyards, whispering in the dark. He imagines them hiding behind every corner, maybe wielding a knife or club.
What has happened to make David feel this grief? Psalm 4 and II Samuel 15 record the event behind Psalm 55. David is living with the stress and rebellion of his son Absalom, who sought to take the kingdom from his father. II Samuel 15:30-31 offers more to the story behind Psalm 55: “But David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up. Now David had been told, ‘Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom.’”
Absalom’s rebellious spirit was enough to hurt David. Ahithophel’s betrayal, however, makes life unbearable. He was one of David’s trusted counselors, one of David’s closest friends in whom he confided, one of his fellow worshippers. Now Ahithophel has betrayed him.
We pick up Psalm 55, Verses 12-14:
12 If an enemy were insulting me,
I could endure it;
if a foe were rising against me,
I could hide.
13 But it is you, a man like myself,
my companion, my close friend,
14 with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship
at the house of God,
as we walked about
among the worshipers.
Ahithophel, very much aware of David’s strengths and weaknesses, commits a kind of betrayal that is wrenching. Betrayal often causes sleepless nights, a loss of appetite, and an outpouring of tears. We see in these verses David’s expression of grief, bitterness, and tears. He returns to this same pain in Verses 20-21.
20 My companion attacks his friends;
he violates his covenant.
21 His talk is smooth as butter,
yet war is in his heart;
his words are more soothing than oil
yet they are drawn swords.
The world does not have much use for traitors. George Washington had once honored Benedict Arnold, a man who later tried to obtain command of West Point but whose plot was exposed before he could turn it over to the British. Marcus Brutus, a Roman politician, turned against his patron and took a leading role in the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. Two years later, after being defeated by Marc Antony, Brutus committed suicide. Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples who sat at the table with Jesus and received the Last Supper, was also a traitor. He, like all of the other disciples, had dipped his hand in the bowl with Jesus. In a sense all twelve betrayed Jesus. For thirty pieces of silver and with a kiss in a place of prayer, Judas hanged himself. According to Dante’s The Inferno, the two great traitors, Brutus and Judas, were fated to an eternity in the pit of hell, frozen in a block of ice. It may actually be where we get the expression “till hell freezes over.” We learn later that Ahithophel, who betrayed David, also committed suicide.
We see in Verse 15 and 23 that David’s emotions turn to anger, which is always a secondary emotion. Before ever feeling angry, people feel something else first. They may feel that they are being taken for granted, being misunderstood, being abused or overlooked. Anger is a way of holding people back and saying, “I am not going to let you get close to me or hurt me anymore. ”
15 Let death take my enemies by surprise;
let them go down alive to the realm of the dead,
for evil finds lodging among them.
23 But you, God, will bring down the wicked
into the pit of decay;
the bloodthirsty and deceitful
will not live out half their days.
David, in a moment of better judgment, gathers himself. It is as if he comes to his senses and decides to take another path in Verses 16-19.
16 As for me, I call to God,
and the Lord saves me.
17 Evening, morning and noon
I cry out in distress,
and he hears my voice.
18 He rescues me unharmed
from the battle waged against me,
even though many oppose me.
19 God, who is enthroned from of old,
who does not change—
he will hear them and humble them,
because they have no fear of God.
David’s realization that he must trust God is a perfect conclusion to a miskel.
22 Cast your cares on the Lord
and he will sustain you;
he will never let
the righteous be shaken.
23But as for me I trust in you.
B.B. King made the comment that no matter how late he played the blues on a Saturday night he still tried to find a church to attend on Sunday morning.
Recall the words of Jesus in John 16:33, words to his disciples in those last discourses: “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” This world is a breeding ground for hatred, cruelty, self-seeking, and self-serving. David relied on God to handle that world, which is an enemy of grace, love, and forgiveness, for him. In the end, Psalm 55 is a psalm of trust, trust in God alone.
As prayers go, Psalm 55 is not pretty. The language that a weeping David uses is heartbreaking. We see him in an agitated, upset, frightened, and hurting state. He is somewhat vengeful though he finally comes to the realization that he must let God handle the situation. In the end David wisely makes the decision that justice belongs to God and not to him.
The truth is that our friends may betray us, our family may abandon us, and our closest loved ones may exploit us. We may want to grumble about the problem and take revenge, but we must trust God to handle the difficulty for us. In our darkest times we must do as Peter advised; we are to cast our cares upon the Lord because He cares for us.
We can learn from Jesus, who taught his disciples how to cast their cares on God through a three-fold process, a process that is easy to say but difficult to do. First, we must come to the point that we can pray for people who hurt us. What? We are to pray for the people who seem to be out to get us? Jesus makes this step clear on the Sermon on the Mount: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).
The second step, forgiveness, may be the hardest. Provenient grace, a concept of the Methodist church, actually started with St. Augustine and was developed by John Wesley. This concept states that grace is always available to us whether we ask for it or not. We believe that Christ died for the entire world. Though some people have not decided to ask for that forgiveness, grace is still there, always available. This concept instructs us about how we are supposed to forgive.
You heard in the Call to Worship this morning two passages that relate to this forgiveness. Matthew 6:14-15 says, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive you your sins.” The second passage, Ephesians 4:32, says, “Be kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another just as God in Christ forgave you.”
Forgiveness has two dimensions. David experiences the vertical dimension in Psalm 51. God’s grace, not our merit, forgives us. When we understand that God has forgiven us, we have a responsibility to enact the horizontal dimension by forgiving other people. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The vertical dimension – God’s forgiveness of us – and the horizontal dimension – our forgiveness of other people – are always connected in the New Testament.
Another remarkable passage we heard this morning was Matthew 18:21-22: The disciples, especially Peter, came to Jesus, asking, “How many times shall I forgive?” The Jewish law dictated up to seven times, but Jesus said, “No, seventy times seven.” You can do the math, but Jesus did not mean 490 times. Jesus meant that we are to forgive and forgive and forgive until it is finally over, until it is done, until it is complete. Some sins hurt so badly that one moment of forgiveness is not enough. That stabbing pain returns, and we must forgive again. Something reminds us of the betrayal, and the pain returns. We must forgive again. We must forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive until it is over. That process sometimes takes a lifetime.
The third step is placing our trust in God to handle the results. Paul writes about this very concept in Romans 12: 14-21: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…Live in harmony with one another…Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge…Let God’s wrath do it…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
You do not have to live this life very long before you feel that someone you really trusted has betrayed you. For David, that betrayal came not only from his son Absalom but also from his trusted friend and counselor, Ahithophel. Psalm 55 is a prayer for all of us, any person who has ever felt betrayed. It will take us out of the heart of David and right straight into the heart of Jesus. We can learn from Psalm 55 what Jesus tried to teach his disciples: pray for our enemies, forgive the people who hurt us even if it takes a long time, and trust God with the results.
Have you accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior? Have you acknowledged him as the Lord of your life? Only He can help you deal with this kind of hurt in your life. We invite you to respond.
Kirk H. Neely © July 2013