When was the last time you were in a cave? If you have never been in one, you can imagine what it would be like. What did you see? What did you hear? How did you feel? What did you experience?
I have not been to too many caves in my life. In 2010, I was able to visit the Caves of Qumran in Israel where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and about two years ago I visited Gilmerton Cove, a hidden cave in Edinburgh where the Scottish Covenanters (a group of 17th Century Presbyterians who were against the country’s religious and political views at the time) hid for their own lives. When I think back to my experience of being in these caves, I remember them as being dark, cold, and damp. However, caves aren’t such bad places to spend time in because while they do have these negative characteristics, they also have positive ones; they are quiet, often remain at the same temperature, and provide natural shelter from storms. From a practical Biblical worldview, caves also would have made the perfect spot to hide from enemies as was the case with David.
David, the writer of this Psalm, found himself in a cave not just physically but also spiritually and emotionally. Although this Psalm is a stand-alone chapter, it’s important to recognize the context of what came before it, this is all outlined in the book of First Samuel. Believe it or not, the cave story doesn’t start with David, it actually starts with Saul. When Samuel, a great prophet of God, first met Saul, Saul was shy, a spotlight dodger, and lacked confidence. The Bible describes Saul more or less as a nobody. He was from the smallest tribe in all of Israel (the tribe of Benjamin). This tribe was only 25 miles in length and 12 miles in width – so smaller than the distance from Windsor to Essex, yet the area was strategically located and had a population of just over 35,000 people. The Bible says that Saul stumbled upon his kingship accidentally – he was looking for his father’s donkeys that had gotten loose when he turned in to ask Samuel for advice. Samuel told Saul where the donkeys were alright, but he told Saul something else – that he would be the first King of Israel. With this new knowledge, Saul hid from the crowd on coronation day until the other Israelites found him and dragged him out. We are told that Saul was 30 years old when he was appointed King and he had a reign of 42 years.
Saul did not start off entirely corrupt. Sure, he lacked wisdom, experience, and inner strength, but he also followed what he was commanded to do and as such was able to rescue some of the Israelite cities from destruction. It didn’t take long, though, before Saul’s insecurities led to narcissism and he began to do thing his own way without accountability to anyone else. Saul soon became rebellious, self-seeking, and eventually even rejected God’s ways in favour of his own. The Bible actually says that as a result of this there came a definite point when God had enough and the Holy Spirit’s presence departed from Saul. This is when David, a young shepherd boy, who is equally powerless, inexperienced, and naive enters the scene, and yet David exudes a sense of confidence and faith in God almost immediately that quickly endears him to those around him. It’s a little vague, but the gist of it is that even though David is now King, Saul still thinks he is. Saul refuses to relinquish his power and control, and begins to feel a professional jealousy towards David. Although the Bible describes the emotion as jealousy, we know that what it really stems from is anger and fear. This anger and fear causes Saul to try to kill David on several occasions, but his lack of success drives David to flee for his life.
David’s flight first takes him to Gath, where he was unable to find refuge. It was here that he came face to face with the evil king Achish. A king who mocks him and seems to want to cause him harm. David is afraid and acts undignified rather than King-like and once again takes off.
This is how David finds himself in the Cave of Adullam – a limestone cave in the mountains of Judah between Philista and Hebron. This cave is the perfect place for David – not only is it a good hiding spot, but it is also highly protected – because it is on Philistine territory if Saul were to attempt to attack it the Philistines would defend it. David has now found himself between the proverbial rock and hard place – between fleeing from King Saul and fleeing from his other enemy King Achish. King Achish is also called Abimelech in some translations though scholars suggest that this is a title rather than a proper name.
It is in this cave that David becomes a band leader of a group of misfits whom the Bible describes as distressed, indebted, and discontented, probably not unlike how David would have felt given the circumstances and he asks them to allow him to stay with them until he learns what God will do for him (1 Samuel 22:3).
How would you feel if you were fleeing for your very life? I think this is an image that many of us have heard about in the news such as when we consider the issue of the refugee crisis, but it is likely not one that most of us here have experienced. If I were to run for my life, I think I would feel a mixture of shock, fear, and exhaustion. And it’s important to remember that back then this was not about hopping in your car and driving over the speed limit, David likely literally and physically ran for his life. I started training to run a 5K about 4 weeks ago and I am already tired after every session.
Yet, David seems to take a different approach. He is not filled with self-pity, he does not collapse in exhaustion, and he doesn’t hold on to a grudge of bitterness. Instead it was in this cave and at this particular time in his life that David proceeded to write three Psalms. Today we know these Psalms as Psalm 34, 57, and 142. These Psalms all capture the spirit of crying out to God in the midst of great distress, and seeking God in a time of great fear and anxiety. Psalm 57:1 in particular sums this up perfectly “I will take refuge in the shadow of Your Wings until the disaster has passed.”
At first all looks bleak. David feels abandoned, disillusioned, and starts to wonder where God is in the mess, but with God’s help, the cave becomes a symbol of character building, strength, and hopefulness. It is in the cave that David’s inner being is developed. Instead of seeking revenge when he is given multiple opportunities to kill the very man who wants to murder him, David refuses to act unjustly. Instead of giving into a wave of defeat, David decides to depend on God, instead of allowing the trials to swallow him up, David learns complete trust, and instead of choosing to sin, David decides to surrender to God. Therefore, what looks to us like a massive frustration, becomes a great source of fruitfulness. David refuses to be a victim, instead he pushes himself to become victorious. Theologian James Montgomery Boice articulates this whole notion beautifully, “David may have been hiding in a cave, but his heart was hiding in the Lord.” An unknown theologian said it perfectly “many are the afflictions, but more are the deliverances.” It is sometimes in the most pain and inner chaos that our most beautiful moments are formed. Think about how many inspiring songs, beautiful hymns, meaningful prayers, and poignant poems were produced by individuals during the bleakest seasons of their lives. Think about how many artists have created beautiful emotive masterpieces through seasons of depression and loss. Perhaps even some here can relate to how close God felt in those times even though it felt like everything around you was collapsing.
In Psalm 34 David earnestly cries out to God. The imagery he gives of God is of a deliverer who rescues him by pulling him out of a pit. The challenge he gives himself is to continue to believe that God provides for the righteous, and the action point David requests of his listeners is one of praise and thanksgiving. David acknowledges that belief in God does not equate with an absence of difficulties and trials. He notes that even the lions (the most noble wild beasts of the day) will sometimes be hungry, but in the same breath he trusts God with provision and sustenance. This is a call not just to moral uprightness but also to spiritual integrity. I like the imagery of God as a compassionate lover of Creation. It reminds me that through the struggles, God still loves our world. Even though we constantly hear of upheaval in the news, political dissension, natural disasters, external divisions, and economic collapses, that God is still bringing good things in. Humans may sometimes take advantage or even trample those things, but God still provides beauty, grace, and righteousness to this life. Think about the ways that children show innocent wonder, the ways activists practice solidarity, and the ways churches provide for the least of these. These are all signs that goodness is not extinct, that truth is not dead.
Where do you need God to show up in your own life this week? What image of God do you need to hold in your mind today? Are there things in your life that are causing you to call out for God and to seek after God? What is afflicting you and of what do you need to be delivered? Are we living from a place of grumbling or of gratitude?
This past week, one of my friends from my clinical pastoral education class put out a challenge to write a Psalm in our own words. I would like to close with a poem I wrote based on Psalm 34 that I hope will be uplifting to you this morning:
I will lift God’s Name up at all times
Telling everyone I meet about the awesome things He has done,
The hidden surprises He has brought,
And the stealthy ways He has moved.
I will talk about how great God is,
Even when I feel defeated, deflated, disappointed and depressed.
I hope you will join me in elevating this Name.
I looked for God, but at first it was in all the wrong places.
At first I looked for Him in places of fame, fortune, and status,
I sought for Him on the road to relationships,
Looked for Him on the path to prestige,
Jumped into the lake of lust,
Swam in the river of regrets,
He was nowhere to be found.
But when I truly called out to the Lord in eager expectation,
When I cried out in trying tears,
He heard me, and He yelled back “Here I am!”
I was in a pit of pretense,
A snare of sin,
A prison of passivity,
And He lifted me out
Setting my feet on the rock of righteousness.
Those who look to God,
Whose sole desire is to find rest in Him,
Suddenly change their tune,
No longer singing a song of self, but of salvation.
Their hymn of holiness rather than a poem of pride,
Shame has no meaning to them,
They are not ensnared in guilt,
For they have access to heavenly glory.
I knew a man once, he was poor and had nothing,
Even his backpack was barren,
His clothes tattered and torn.
Yet all he did was cry out “God, please help!”
And God did.
He didn’t even have to wait for God was with him.
God is everywhere, but He is especially close to those who want Him to be,
Those who want deliverance from the collateral damage of this world.
God invites us to dig into His Word,
Just like it’s a huge piece of chocolate cake.
He invites us to jump into His peace,
As if it were a cool, refreshing spring on a hot day.
God doesn’t hold back,
He doesn’t deny access to His throne,
He doesn’t keep treasures to Himself,
Nor does He force forgiveness,
He only offers it freely.
His only invitation “come.”
If you love life,
If you long for love,
If you are crawling towards compassion,
Pursue peace. It’s there.
God looks after the weak and weary,
His ears perk up when He hears injustice,
His heart pangs when He perceives pain.
The Lord is close to the broken,
He bandages the bemused,
He performs surgery for the stricken,
First-aid for the frustrated,
CPR for the one who has lost their childhood.
That’s not to say life will be perfect,
No more troubles from henceforth,
But it is to say that God is true in trials,
Trustworthy in tests,
He builds and restores,
He fuses together the parts that are broken.
It’s not like that for those who choose not to access His grace,
But the rescue is there for the restless and righteous.
Anyone who chooses Him won’t be disappointed.