Finding Relevance in the Psalms in the Covenant of God
To the casual reader, it might seem like the experiences of King David as expressed in the Psalms are not relevant to us. For in them, David prays for protection in the here-and-now from his enemies, and he obviously expects God to answer his prayer. In the Psalms, God is a shield and refuge for his people, and he will protect them from all those opposed to them. But when we look around and consider the state of the church today, it doesn't really seem like God is protecting his people. They are being brutally persecuted in the Middle East, imprisoned and tortured in North Korea, suppressed in China, and marginalized and laughed at in the West. And this, despite their praying to God.
And so there seems to be a disconnect between David's experience of God's deliverance and ours. While the Christian hopes for deliverance in the future, David asked for and received it in the present. For example, consider David's words in Psalm 5 (ESV):
1 Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my groaning.2 Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you do I pray.3 O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.5 The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.6 You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you.8 Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.9 For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.10 Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.12 For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover him with favor as with a shield.
Could it be that the Psalms, after all, are another witness to the futility of prayer? Do they not mock us with the confident expectation that though "the young lions suffer want and hunger," yet "those who seek the Lord lack no good thing" (Ps. 34:10)? Does the Lord really cover the righteous with favor as with a shield?
Context is always important when it comes to literature. Not just the literary context, but its historical context. And nowhere is this more true than in reading the Psalms.
When David prays like he does in Psalm 5, it is important to understand why he was praying for deliverance from his enemies. He was not doing so simply because it was uncomfortable, or because frankly it was irritating to have to duck into a cave every time someone wanted to try out his throne. He was doing so because of the covenant God made with him (cf. 2 Sam 7). In this covenant, God promised to establish David's throne and to give him a sure kingdom. Which was precisely what was at stake here. When he talks about his enemies, he is referring to those who would take the Davidic throne by force and give it to someone else. In other words, it wasn't just David's comfort at stake here. The very promise of God given in his covenant to David was at stake.
And so David prayed with confident expectation that God would deliver him because he knew the covenant-making God is also the covenant-keeping God. David appeals to God's "steadfast love" in verse 7, and the Hebrew word behind this phrase is understood by the authorities as a reference to God's covenant faithfulness. God will keep his word.
What does this mean for you and me? Is it at all relevant? Absolutely.
And the reason this is relevant is because, just as God made a covenant with David, he has made a covenant with all who believe in his Son, Jesus Christ. It is called the new covenant, and its terms are spelled out in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Just as David could appeal to God on the basis of his covenant with him, even so we can appeal to God on the basis of his covenant to us.
It is not the same as the Davidic covenant (although they are certainly connected, but that is for another post!), for God has not promised us in the new covenant a physical throne in the here and now. Rather, God has promised us something better, namely himself.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:33, ESV)
For God to be our God and for us to be his people is the greatest of all blessings. It secures our hope for the age to come and grace for the present. It means that God is for us in every sense of the word (Rom. 8:31). And with David, we can pray to God and appeal to him on the basis of this covenant, with complete confidence and full expectation.