Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 19, 2021
Psalm 54 Commentary
In TV shows and movies—often as part of a comedic scene but sometimes in a more serious vein too—we have all seen the musical and visual effect that signals someone is having a flashback of a memory or is getting ready to recount something from his or her past. As you can see in the first part of this clip from the very silly movie Airplane! the woman playing a flight attendant glimpses her former boyfriend talking to someone and this makes her flash back to when they first met. Typical of such flashback scenes, some dramatic music—often harp music in some films or shows—is accompanied by the picture going all wavy and fluttery as the picture fades over to a recreation of the memory in question.
If we were to read Psalm 54 backwards, you could imagine that kind of thing happening for this psalmist. Start at verse 7 where the psalmist declares that God “has delivered me from all my troubles” and then imagine the psalmist saying, “What troubles, you ask? Well . . .” and then the picture goes wavy and some harp music plays and the psalmist takes us on a flashback to his past as recounted starting in verse 1. Because indeed, the first three verses of this psalm paint a bleak picture.
A sharp cry for help and deliverance is screamed out by the psalmist. We are then told that some genuine enemies are not just slandering the psalmist but actively trying to kill him. Whatever the specifics—and few if any psalms in the Hebrew Psalter give us such specifics—this is a dire situation. It reminds me of one of the final scenes in another movie, Saving Private Ryan. Watch just the first minute of this clip and near the one-minute mark, notice Pvt. Ryan (played by Matt Damon) gripping his knees and crying out in fearful horror as a terrible WWII battle rages around him. Look at his face in that brief moment and imagine this is the psalmist in Psalm 54:3.
At the end of verse 3 comes the Hebrew musical notation Selah. No one is completely certain what that word—that occurs in many Hebrew poems—means but it almost always seems to mark a break in the psalm. A place to pause, take a breath, and anticipate a shift in focus or some other kind of key transition.
And indeed, starting at verse 4 the tone of the psalm shifts. Suddenly words of utter confidence about God are sung out followed by a declaration that God will take care of evil people. And then it’s a quick slide in this very short psalm to where we began in verses 6-7 on the high side of the troubles of the first three verses. Deliverance did come. God did come through. And so then imagine the picture going back wavy again in a reverse of the flashback we imagined early and we arrive back at the picture of calm as the psalmist makes a thanksgiving offering to God even as he triumphantly declares the wonder of God’s deliverance.
It seems that many psalms are structured like this. Sometimes laments and cries for deliverance are followed by words that imply some confidence that God will yet come through. On rare occasions—Psalm 88 being a glaring example—no hint of restoration or deliverance ever appears. And then there are poems like Psalm 54 that very much appear to have been written in retrospect with the troubles and agonies of the psalmist clearly belonging to some (perhaps) distant past but the psalm itself is written from the vantage point of having arrived by God’s grace at a far, far better day.
This makes preaching on a psalm like this—or really any of these psalms that traffic in the area of cries for deliverance and the utter surety of said deliverance coming through—a little pastorally dodgy. We have noted this in the past here on the CEP sermon commentaries but there is always the danger of over-celebrating God’s coming through—and then connecting it perhaps to a concrete situation in the congregation—because there may always be at least one other family or group in the church who pleaded every bit as hard for God’s salvation and restoration as some other family or group but whose prayers were not answered as they hoped. We never want to preach as though we are unaware that these hurting people are also in the room.
What we can say with utter assurance is that God is on the side of deliverance and so if it is slow in coming or appears not to have come at all in a given scenario, this does not put God on the side of oppressors or suffering. And in the longest possible run, God will of course restore all things and bring us to himself.
There is joy in that for those who are able to join the poet at the end of Psalm 54 in looking back with satisfaction and gratitude for what God has done. There is hope in that for those still straining forward to see a deliverance they pray is yet coming. There is consolation in that for those who have to grapple with the whys and wherefores of a salvation that did not come.
For all of us, however, we hope we can always say in all circumstances—whether we say it through gritted teeth, through copious tears, in joyful assurance—the truth contained in verse 4: “Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me.”
To that may we all be able to say a hearty “Amen!”
For illustration purposes, I will refer to the images already contained in this sermon starter: the idea of reading this psalm backwards so that verse 7 becomes an occasion for a movie-like flashback sequence. Also I mentioned the image of suffering in battle and in terror from Saving Private Ryan. Sometimes maybe we pass too quickly over the heart-wrenching portraits of fear and terror to which many psalmists give voice. But can we imagine what it may be like really to be hunted by enemies out to kill us? Can we imagine that cold fear that would grip our hearts if we were in the kind of peril some psalmists report to having once been in? If we can make those past times of struggle vivid for a congregation, we may also succeed in making God’s salvation a more vivid and wonderful gift too.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!