Rock. Refuge. Strong tower. Under the cover of your wings. Stronghold. I always am glad for these reassuring descriptions of God as protector and defender when they appear in the appointed psalms for the day. Psalms like Psalm 61 and Psalm 62 are comforting when life is hard, and they also offer beautifully honest expressions of our most basic prayers—“God, listen to me. God, help me. God, answer me. God, I need rest.”
Sometimes that’s about as far as I go with these psalms. If my week has become really frenetic and full of noise, I might try to make “For God alone my soul in silence waits” a mantra. But that’s about it.
This week I noticed more, perhaps because of the way the world feels right now, violent and fragile and full of contingency everywhere I look. This week I remembered that the reason the psalmist is concerned about God as fortress and refuge is because some bad guys are after him to do him harm. Earlier in Psalm 59 these enemies are described as bloodthirsty evildoers who “lie in wait for my life.” They act like snarling, prowling, scavenging dogs in search of prey. This is not an experience to which I can easily relate; I have never felt unsafe or threatened by physical enemies. But there are plenty of people who have and do, some this very morning, and so I also am reminded that we pray the psalms as a community, knowing that on any given day the images may leap out at us and connect—or not. Our faithful praying of the psalms is done trusting that they will connect with someone who needs that connection.
I believe that it’s imperative not to take away any of the urgency of these psalms from persons who truly are afraid of the violence of evildoers. Especially in 2015. The ancient teachers, however, who read scripture allegorically, do offer us other ways to practice praying the psalms. I might, for example, use Psalm 62 to reckon with what the desert abbas and ammas called “bad thoughts,” “rushing at [me], as the Jerusalem Bible translates it, “to bring [me] down like a wall already leaning over, like a rampart undermined.” You might, for example, find other words in your prayerful imagination for those predatory curs in Psalm 59.
Whether we face enemies external or inward, the promise is the same: Only in God do we find safety and shelter that are ultimately reliable; only in God do we find what Walter Brueggeman calls “the power of relentless solidarity.”
“In God alone there is rest for my soul, from him comes my safety; with him alone for my rock, my safety, my fortress, I can never fall.”