Psalm 61 • For the Faint of Heart

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Exposition

Loneliness comes for everyone. This world is full of people who spend most of their lives living alone. Some have an unbelieving spouse or unsaved family members who resent them. Others have coworkers who rail against them for one reason or another. Still, others have simply grown old to see their friends and relatives pass on. Whatever the case, most of us have known or will know what it feels like to have no one to turn to for understanding.

In Psalm 61, we have a king who feels lonely, isolated, alienated, and far from God. It is a prayer set to music as his soul rises from pain to praise.

There are times in life when the anguish we feel is so great and so overwhelming we find it hard to pray. It’s not that we have forgotten our love for the Lord or don’t know where to turn when the waters rise. We just lack the strength and frame of mind to seek help when we need it most. David is here to tell us how to pray when we can’t.

Originally, this poem was set to music so we would not forget its message. It has two parts separated by a Selah in the middle. When life has suffocated your senses and you have little to no strength left, here are two good reasons (with several subpoints for support) to rise above your circumstances by taking your troubles to the Lord. In the first four verses, we see that God keeps His people.

1. God Keeps His People

Our song begins with a strong petition in verse 1. Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer. The Hebrew word for “my cry” is a very vocal word. It is loud and excited. This is not some quiet cry, like the sniffles. This is a shrill scream for help. David is not whimpering, he’s wailing. He is crying out to God and desperate enough to demand an audience. The tone is not, “please Lord, if you’re willing, would you maybe…” His anguish requires an audience. He is telling God to pay attention to his pain. He needs Him to listen.

David’s relationship with the Lord is so tight, he blubbers for the Lord’s attention. Verse 2 describes his feelings. From the end of the earth I call to you. This is a poetic way of saying, I am as far from you as I can be! I am not only at the end of myself, I am at the end of the world! He feels distant from God. It is as if he is on one side of a large field. He sees God on the other side and is afraid He might not hear him if he whispers. So he strains his voice as he calls out across the distance, hoping for God to turn around to notice the muffled cries of the small speck of a faraway man. He paints this scene to describe his isolation. God has not moved or abandoned him, but David has somehow found himself on the other side of the planet. At least, that’s how he feels.

The psalmist is not only distant. He is also depressed. He says, when my heart is faint. This word “faint” is a powerful and emotional word. It means, to cover in darkness, to surround with shadow, to languish in distress. The fainting heart is emotionally exhausted. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this feeling is to see how the word is used elsewhere. It appears in the superscription of Psalm 102: “A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the Lord.” Psalm 102:3-11 provides a poetic and Holy Spirit inspired description for the overwhelming darkness of an exhausted heart.

David’s situation is dismal. It is one thing to fall down depressed. It is another to feel both depressed and distant from God. So he takes a deep breath, fills his lungs, and shouts for God’s attention. He says “lead me” once in verse 2 and “let me” twice in verse 4. He seeks guidance and acceptance from a God strong enough to protect him, preserve him, and provide for him.

Like all good prayers, Psalm 61 is rich with real-life theology. David paints his theology with four encouraging metaphors for the security God provides for His people. When we are distressed, our God becomes these images for us.

First of all, God is Our Shelter.

The rest of verse 2: Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. This picture of God as a rock appears at least 20 times in the psalms. It is a metaphor that is especially meaningful to David because he had to use the rocks of the wilderness for protection more than once. When he was on the run from Saul and from his own son Absalom, he was able to hide and find refuge in the rocks. He knew the Judean wilderness better than anyone because knowing where to hide meant the difference between life and death. Here, he refers to God as his rock, his shelter in his distress.

We learn two things about this rock. 1) It is higher than us and 2) we cannot find it on our own. This first reminder (that God is infinitely higher than we are) should not surprise us. God Himself says in Isaiah 55:9, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This is an easy truth to accept when you find yourself scraping at the bottom of the barrel. David is the king of all Israel as he writes this psalm. He is the definition of worldly success and literally the king of the hill. He answers to no man because no one is higher than the king. Yet, to his credit, he recognizes that he still answers to God (something most of us tend to forget once we achieve a certain level of success). David does not make that mistake. The man everyone in the land looks up to must direct his gaze even higher.

David also knows that he cannot get to this rock on his own. He needs to be led there by the Spirit of God Himself. He cannot ‘will himself’ out of despair. The Lord must actively intervene by pulling him out of distress and leading him back right thinking and resting in the Lord. Knowing this to be true, He draws from his well of experience with biblical truth and asks God to lead him back from the end of the earth to the shelter of the highest rock he knows.

Next, God is Our Stronghold.

Verse 3: for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Whereas, a rock makes for excellent shelter when hiding from the enemy, a tower increases the ante. Strongholds are not isolated wilderness retreats, but part of a fortified city. With a rock, one runs and hides. With a tower, one stands and defends.

Notice, the metaphor becomes more personal than the higher rock. David is looking back to when times were tough and the odds were against him. He remembers those nights as God became his stronghold, an impenetrable tower that protected him from death. Who could possibly be stronger or provide better protection than the all-powerful God of creation?

Additionally, God is Our Sanctuary.

The beginning of Verse 4: Let me dwell in your tent forever! The word “tent” conjures up ideas of home, where a host might welcome a guest. David is saying, “I want to dwell in your home. I want to stay with you forever.” In a way, he is inviting himself over and informing God that he never wants to leave. However, this word is even more personal since it is often translated tabernacle, the home of the ark where God’s presence and glory dwelt. David does not want to be anywhere else. He wants to be with the Lord.

With each of these metaphors, he is inching closer and closer to God. He moves from his shelter in the wilderness, to his stronghold in a fortified city, to his sanctuary in the Lord’s home. Each step of the way, he is getting more personal as he closes the distance between himself and God.

Finally, God is Our Safety.

Finishing out verse 4: Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! David is not saying that God has wings. This is a zoomorphism where God is being compared to a bird who cares for her chicks. It is a cry for intimate safety. By now, his desire has grown from protection, to defense, to hospitality, to the warmest sense of security.

At first glance, it might appear as though we have stepped backwards. After all, how are a few feathers better than the rocks, the tower, or the tabernacle? However, the best protection lies in closest proximity to God and this request is to cozy up to the Creator. It means putting your head on His chest and trusting Him completely to keep you safe.

This is a powerful image. It might not look like it, but this illustration is the greatest security of all, and David is not afraid to ask for it. This emotionally and spiritually exhausted king who feels far from God at the end of the earth, is both distant and depressed. He longs for the safest shelter, the strongest defense, the longest fellowship, and the closest relationship with the God who keeps His people.

At this point in the song, he pauses for a well-placed Selah. This is when our crestfallen comrade collects himself, takes a deep breath, and changes his tone. He goes from despondent to confident because God does more than keep His people…

2. God Keeps His Promises

Verses 5 through 8 begin with an air of certainty as he affirms God’s attention. He says, For you, O God, have heard my vows. He has not finished yet. He is still praying. His circumstances are still hard, but he no longer feels hallow. He is confident that despite his feelings of distance, God is near and God has heard him.

David addresses Him the same way he did at the start. He says, O God. His passion has not diminished, but it has been redirected. He is certain that God has listened to his vows. These vows are the source of his confidence, not God’s ability to hear him. All throughout the psalms, David makes promises within his prayers. As evil men are closing in, he screams, “God protect me, so I can praise you!” When running for his life, he shouts, “God deliver me, so I can keep on serving you!” God honors these vows because David honors Him.

In the remaining verses, David reminds us of three truths, hoping to add gas to our prayers. These reassurances are as true for us as they were for him.

First of all, the God who hears Determines Your Destiny.

The rest of verse 5: you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name. In other words, those who honor God (who tremble when they worship Him) receive an incredible inheritance as the undeserving recipients of grace. This is not something we deserve or earn. This is the legacy God gives us because we belong to Him.

Throughout the Old Testament, this word “heritage” often refers to the land of Canaan, which is tied to the Abrahamic Covenant. However, it is also used to refer to the benefits of life found in God’s promises. He has made us joint heirs with all the saints and history is moving towards a final day that will last forever.

Like David, we currently enjoy benefits here and now for relying on the promises of God. Additionally, our heritage extends beyond today’s blessings to the eternal state of Revelation 22. At that time, the Lord God will be our light and we will reign with Him forever and ever (Revelation 22:5). To share in this inheritance, you must believe and trust in His Son Jesus, who died in the place of sinners. You must deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Him to receive His heritage. In the meantime, those who possess this heritage have access to the Father through prayer and His attention when they cry out to Him.

Next, the God who hears Defends His Dynasty.

Verses 6 and 7: Prolong the life of the king; may his years endure to all generations! May he be enthroned forever before God; appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him! Some have argued that these verses could not possibly be about David. After all, 1) he switches from first person to third person, 2) he might live a long life (and even live to see many generations) but he is not going to live for all generations, and 3) he definitely could not sit on the throne forever.

Let’s not forget that this is a song. It is a poetic prayer set to music. David is allowed to talk about himself in third person if he wants to and, while he would not be king indefinitely, he knew his heir would sit on his throne forever (2 Samuel 7:12-13; Psalm 89:36-37). David is simply praying for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

He begins by saying, Prolong the life of the king or “Give me more years, so I can serve you longer.” This is similar to the prayer Hezekiah made in Isaiah 38. There, he argues that those who die cannot live in hope of God’s faithfulness. Only those who are alive can thank the Lord and tell others about how good He is. So long as God’s glory is our goal, we should pray for extended years of service. So long as our hope remains to serve God longer, why wouldn’t we pray for more years and more opportunities to bless the Lord?

David prays that his dynasty would last forever by asking for God’s covenant faithfulness (His love and His Word) to defend it for all time. This is why the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew is so important. Matthew 1:1 says, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” David is mentioned first as the father of Jesus (even before Abraham) because Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise God made to David (the Davidic Covenant). His reign will last forever. As both the Son of God and the Son of David, David’s dynasty has become God’s dynasty. God will defend it.

Finally, the God who hears Deserves Our Devotion.

Verse 8: So will I ever sing praises to your name, as I perform my vows day after day.

We have all heard the phrase, “My, how the mighty have fallen!” This psalm flips that around with, “My, how the weak have ascended!” David begins distant, depressed, and in desperation. He ends praising, performing, and at peace. His praises are a continual song. For as long as he is alive, he will bless the Lord.

Like verse 5, he intends to make good on his vows. He essentially says, “I will remember to consistently live for you. Day after day, one step at a time, my actions are going to match my profession.” His dire circumstances (whatever they are) have not gone away. Yet, David is well aware of a debt he can never repay and that changes everything.

The God who hears us has determined our destiny. He has redeemed us by the blood of His Son on the cross, who has defended His dynasty with steadfast love and perfect faithfulness. This God deserves our devotion. Why? Because He always keeps His promises.


Application

Psalm 61 is a theologically rich and uplifting prayer set to music. It reminds us to pray when we find it hard to. As we move to the Lord in our distress, we need to be confident, honest, intentional, reflective, theological, and intimate.

Sometimes, our prayers are weak because we are afraid to approach God with confidence. It is easy for us to fall into one of two mindsets when it comes to prayer. We might think, God knows everything anyway. He knows my heart and He knows my need. Why should I bother Him? Or, we might fall on the other side of that cliff and think, I said my prayers. My duty is done. The rest is up to God now. We’ll see what He does. Either way, we underestimate God’s desire for us to take our desires to Him. We lack the faith and confidence that God really does care about our difficulties (let alone respond).

Charles Spurgeon wrote…

When the huge waves of trouble wash over me, and I am completely submerged, not only as to my head, but also my heart. It is hard to pray when the very heart is drowning, yet gracious men plead best at such times. Tribulation brings us to God, and brings God to us.

The Prince of Preachers is right. When your heart is weak, you don’t feel like praying. You would rather turn off the lights and feel sorry for yourself, especially if no one else will. You are not in the mood to talk with anyone, let alone God. And yet, the best prayers come from a drowning heart. When we are at our worst, God is at His best. As we drown in our sorrows, prayer must fill the bubbles that escape our screaming lips as we sink lower into the depths. To quote Spurgeon again, he adds, “There is an end to a man when he makes an end to prayer.” When life falls apart, you cannot afford to sit in silence. You must cry out to God in prayer.

When your hearts is faint, when you feel far away from God, all you can do is turn to the Lord, cry out for help, and beg Him to bring you home. He will stretch out His hand to lead you back. He will not leave you hanging. He leaves the ninety nine in search for the one. God will be your refuge and He will bring you back to Himself.

Consider adding vows to your prayers as well. When trouble strikes, it is good to make promises back to God. David did it all the time. He would also remind God of his faithfulness to make good on those vows once things got better. Unfortunately, that is not how most of us act. As the waters rise, we cry out to the Lord! We make promises, hoping to cut a deal with God, but as soon as the sun shines again… we go right back to ignoring Him and relying on ourselves for everything. God does not honor such behavior. If this is the pattern of your life, what makes you think you will change your behavior the next time calamity strikes?

God knows the depths of your heart better than you do. When you make a promise, God hears it and holds you to it. This is bad news for those who do not follow through with their vows, but good news for those who fear the Lord.

David’s God is our God. He is the one we turn to when the lights go out. In fact, we have an even greater privilege than David because we know God more intimately than he did. We know Him in the Lord Jesus.

Jesus is our shelter.

He is our rock that is so infinitely higher than we are.

Jesus is our stronghold.

He is our tower that we run to and find safety.

Jesus is our sanctuary.

He is our tent – the Word that became flesh and dwelled among us.

Jesus is our safety.

In Matthew, he wept over Jerusalem and shouted…

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37)

Yet, He has so graciously gathered us to the safety beneath His wings. Our destiny is secured. We share in His inheritance. His heritage has become our heritage. We share in His kingdom and His dynasty will last forever. This Jesus is God of very God. He is the Lion of Judah, the Lamb of God, and the Rock of Ages.

When you find yourself at the end of the earth and you have lost the will to pray… turn to Jesus, our high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses. Draw near to the throne of grace with confidence. If you do so, you will receive mercy and find grace to help you in your time of need. It is because of Him; we can pray when we feel like we cannot pray.

Let’s never forget that our God and our King – keeps His people and keeps His promises. He is here for the faint of heart.


Illustrations

At a press conference in 1976, Dr. Daniel Boorstin of the Library of Congress approached the cameras with a little blue box taken from a small closet that held the library’s antiquities. The label on the box read: Contents of the President’s Pockets on the Night of April 14, 1865. Of course, that was the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Everyone held their breath as the box was opened. Dr. Boorstin proceeded to remove the contents and display them for the cameras.

There were five objects in the box. A handkerchief embroidered “A. Lincoln,” a country boy’s pen knife, a glasses case repaired with string, a purse containing a five-dollar bill (of confederate money no less), and some old worn newspaper clippings.

Boorstin said the clippings were all about the great deeds of Abraham Lincoln. One of them reported a speech by John Bright saying that he was “one of the greatest men of all times.” Today we would consider that common knowledge, but back in 1865, millions would have disagreed with that statement. The president had many critics and cruel enemies.

One writer has stated…

His was a lonely agony that reflected the suffering and turmoil of his country ripped to shreds by hatred and a cruel costly war. There is something touchingly pathetic in the mental picture of this great leader seeking solace and self-assurance from a few old newspaper clippings as he reads them under the flickering flame of a candle all alone in the oval office.

You can be one of the most loved and well-remembered presidents in United States history and still be lonely.


Reference Materials

Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms 1–89: Commentary, vol. 2, Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2011–2013).

C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Psalms 56-87, vol. 3 (London; Edinburgh; New York: Marshall Brothers, n.d.).

Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973).

Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).

James Montgomery Boice, Psalms 42–106: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005).

Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000).

Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Worshipful, 1st ed., “Be” Commentary Series (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications Ministries, 2004).

Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997).

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