Cast Your Burden on the Lord | Psalm 55
Brian Hedges | May 20, 2020
Thanks for tuning into our service tonight. Turn in your Bibles to Psalm 55, and while you’re turning there I want to read you a quotation from a man named Brian Kay. Brian is both an author and a pastor, and he wrote something about the Psalms that I have found very helpful and accurate.
He said, “These 150 songs, most of which are 3,000 years old, are the deepest psycho-spiritual literature that humanity has ever produced, as far as I can tell. They are the blues before the blues, Tom Wades before Tom Wades, emotional regulation before the therapist told us that would help. Orthodox, but taunting the God of the philosophers, and as Calvin rightly said, an anatomy of all parts of the soul. I wish contemporary publishers didn’t print the Psalms with pastel, flowery fonts. These songs will both console you and tear you a new one, give you a new vocabulary for your pain and yearning while embarrassing you with their seeming impiety, except that they should be the very index of piety, while somehow also being the very words of God. They contradict large parts of the worldviews of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Half of them could be turned into rap with little editing. A few of them have been barred from use in churches. Yet their language of intimacy with God will break your heart or repulse you. What on earth?”
What an amazing statement that is about the Psalms. I think it’s a very accurate description of what you find in these songs, in these poems that come to us from the Old Testament.
For the last ten or twelve weeks we’ve been looking together at a number of the psalms, and we’ve really surveyed a full range of different kinds of psalms, from psalms of passion and desire for God to psalms that have to deal with our emotions. Tonight I want to look at Psalm 55, which is another psalm which does look at emotion, but it’s also one of the infamous imprecatory psalms. This is one of those psalms where David is calling down the judgment of God on his enemies.
To be honest, these are the kinds of psalms that give people pause today, that sometimes trouble people today. So I think it’s helpful for us to look at a psalm like this and to try to get a handle on how to interpret and how to apply. I think, as you’ll discover as we work through this psalm, to see that psalms like this are actually very helpful for us in certain times of our lives.
So, Psalm 55. Because this is a longer psalm, I’m not going to read it straight through. Instead I just want to walk through the psalm with you in five movements. Each one of those movements I’ll point out as we come to it, and then we’ll read the relevant verses.
1. The Storm of Emotion
The first movement is this, the storm of emotion. You see this in verses 1-5. Let me just begin by reading verses 1-3a. The psalmist begins this way: “Give ear to my prayer, O God, and hide not yourself from my pleas for mercy. Attend to me and answer me! I am restless in my complaint and I moan because of the noise of the enemy, because of the oppression of the wicked.”
Now, right there we begin to get a sense for the situation of this psalm. David is praying, he’s crying out to God, and he says in verse 2, “I am restless in my complaint and I moan…” It’s the first indication of the storm of emotion that will follow in this psalm.
I like the old outline of G. Campbell Morgan, a great British preacher who was the predecessor to Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Campbell Morgan’s outline for the psalm was pretty simple: Fear (verses 1-8), Fury (verses 9-15), and Faith (verses 16-23). That’s not far from the mark, except for the expressions of emotion in this psalm aren’t quite that segmented. There’s really a lot of back and forth between prayerful confidence in God and then angry outbursts.
In fact, there’s so much back and forth that some scholars have thought that this psalm has been amended or added to or edited over time rather than being the single composition of one author. But I would argue that this psalm represents instead the real inward life of a real person who is facing real threats from real enemies. In other words, this psalm is a slice of real life, with all the storm of emotions that comes when we face difficult circumstances.
I’m sure that almost all of us have heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Well, as you read through this psalm, you’re going to see that David is working through some of those stages of grief. At the very beginning we see the emotion that he feels.
Now, we should just ask the question, What’s the background to this psalm? Scholars have surmised two possible incidents in David’s life that may have been the background to Psalm 55. The first possibility is that David wrote this psalm after his daughter Tamar was raped by her half-brother Amnon, and perhaps David wrote it for her. Now, that’s speculative at best, but I just highlight it because it’s important to note that there are psalms such as this that are appropriate to those kinds of situations, where there has been abuse, where there has been a criminal activity, an act of crime or violence against you. If you find yourself in that kind of a situation, Psalm 55 will be a psalm of help and a psalm of comfort to you.
More likely, David wrote this psalm when he was running from his rebellious son, Absalom. This was during the mature years of David’s reign. His oldest children are now grown, and Absalom had grown power hungry and has instigated a coup against David. David has to run from Jerusalem, he has to flee from the city. The hearts of his people have gone after Absalom, and now David has discovered that Ahithophel, a close friend and a member of his cabinet, has become a traitor against him, he has betrayed him. When you read further down in the psalm, the language of betrayal as he talks about a close friend who has betrayed him, that seems to fit this psalm pretty well. It leads to deep anxiety in David’s life, a restless heart as he complains and he moans to God because of the noise of his enemy and because of the oppression of the wicked.
That leads, then, to anguish. This is also part of the storm of emotion. Look at the second half of verse 3. He says, “...for they drop trouble upon me, and in anger they bear a grudge against me. My heart is in anguish within me. The terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.” Again, you see this storm of emotion, a torrent of emotion as David fears for his life and he feels this anxiety, this anguish.
Then also, we get further down into the psalm and he feels anger. This is also part of his emotion. You see this in verses 9-11, where the imprecation begins. Notice this. He says, “Destroy, O Lord; divide their tongues, for I see violence and strife in the city. Day and night they go around it on its walls, and iniquity and trouble are within it. Ruin is in its midst, oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace.” Then, as we’ll see in a few moments, he goes on to call down God’s judgment upon them. So there’s anger here.
Now, there are lots of questions that we may ask when we read a psalm like this. For one thing, you might ask, “Is it right to call down curses on one’s enemies?” I’ll come back to that in a moment.
Another question is simply this, “Is it okay for Christians to feel this way?” Because we have to be honest; there are lots of Christian books, there are lots of pastors and preachers in their sermons, and there are a lot of hymns that seem to indicate that if you’re really trusting God, if you’re really spiritually-minded, if you’re really walking with the Lord, that fear and anxiety and anguish and distress and even anger should be banished far from you heart. Just think about the words of this old hymn:
“Not a shadow can rise,
Not a cloud in the skies,
But his smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt or a fear,
Not a sigh or a tear
Can abide while we trust and obey.”
Is that really true? Is it really true that as long as you’re trusting and obeying the Lord that there are no doubts, there are no fears, there are no sighs, there are no tears? Not if you read the Psalms. If you read the Psalms and you remember who these psalms were written by—this psalm in particular, written by David, a man after God’s own heart, David, who is a man of courage. This is the guy who defeated Goliath and killed the Philistines by the thousands. This is a man of devotion who gave us the 23rd Psalm; this is a man of faith who, even in Psalm 55, says, “I will trust you, Lord.” And yet he writes with a storm of emotion.
I think it just shows us that being a Christian does not exempt us from difficult, painful situations in our lives, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we will never feel emotion such as anxiety or anguish or anger. This is just part of being human. When we face difficult circumstances in our lives, we experience the full range of human emotions, we experience a storm of emotions; and David experienced that as well, and we see it in this psalm.
The first lesson, then, is to just recognize that in our humanity these kinds of emotions are normal when we face difficult circumstances. Now, what the psalm will show us is that there are good ways to deal with such emotions and there are bad ways to deal with these emotions, and we need to learn from David how to process our emotions.
2. The Desire to Escape
So the psalm begins with the storm of emotions, and then the second movement of the psalm in verses 6-8 is (get this) the desire to escape. Remember the five stages of grief? Denial is one of them, and you see it right here in the psalm. Look at verses 6-8.
David says, “And I say, ‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find shelter from the raging wind and tempest.’”
So often when we experience these kinds of things in our lives, we just want to hit the escape button, we just want to be away from it all. This is a common way of trying to handle emotions—denial—especially with anxiety and anger. Escapism; just trying to bury our feelings. Sometimes we respond with outbursts, especially with our anger. Sometimes we’re just overwhelmed, we experience panic and anxiety, what the Bible calls fretting.
Well, David felt such intense anxiety and anguish in his life that he just wanted to escape. It shows us the danger of escapism. What is escapism? Here’s a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary. Escapism is “the tendency to seek or the practice of seeking distraction from what normally has to be endured.”
We’re not talking about merely enjoying some relaxing music or watching a good old movie or other kinds of genuine recreation. There’s a place for soul-restoring, body-restoring, friendship-building recreation in our lives. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about a use of sometimes good things for bad purposes, or even turning to negative and unhelpful things as a means to escape from and to dissociate from the emotions that we need to face honestly.
There are all kinds of ways that people can do this. You can do this by burying yourself in your phone instead of engaging in your family. You can do this by wasting hours on social media, just scrolling through the feed out of boredom, because you don’t want to be alone with your thoughts. You can do this by mindless channel surfing or surfing the Internet. You can do this through pornography or through alcohol or through overeating or through burying yourself in work.
All of these are ways of trying to escape from our emotions rather than deal with them and face them honestly. The great spiritual teachers and masters in the church have flagged this as a danger for us.
Listen to John Owen, who in Volume 6 of his works talks about the dangers of escapism. He doesn’t use the word “escapism,” he uses the word “diversions,” but what he says I think is very applicable here. He says, “There are also other ways whereby sinful souls destroy themselves by false reliefs.” Highlight that phrase, “false reliefs.” “Diversions from their perplexing thoughtfulness please them. They will fix on something or other that cannot cure their disease, but shall only make them forget that they are sick.” Then he goes on to give some biblical examples.
For example, Saul, who when he was troubled and when he was in distress either sought help through music or eventually by seeking out a witch. Owen says, “Nothing is more ordinary than for men thus to deal with their convictions, and this insensibly leads men unto atheism,” that is, a practical unbelief and denial of God. “Frequent applications of creature diversions under convictions of sin are a notable means of bringing on final impenitency.” That means that if this is how you normally deal with your guilt and with the emotions that come in your lives, if you’re dealing with it in this way, through diversions, it can lead you to real hardness of heart.
“This is so far from believers,” Owen says, “that they will not allow lawful things to be a diversion in their distress. Use lawful things they may and will, but not to divert their thoughts from their distresses.”
I think we have to take heed to that, that there is a danger to escapism. There is certainly this temptation to live in denial, to try to escape from the stresses we feel, the emotions we feel; but we will not be spiritually healthy, we will not be emotionally healthy, and eventually we will hurt our relationships both with God and with others as well as our own inner psychological health and mental health and integrity. We will hurt all of those things if we are burying emotions instead of facing them honestly.
David was tempted to do that. He says, “I wish I had the wings of a dove so I could just fly away and be at rest! I want to escape from this problem.” But that’s not what he does. What he actually does in verse 9 is he begins to turn to the Lord in prayer.
3. The Rhetoric of Outrage
The first things we see in his prayer are not very pretty, but they’re still helpful for us. This leads us right into the third movement of this psalm, and it is what I want to call the rhetoric of outrage. I’m borrowing that phrase from D.A. Carson, whom I’ll quote in a few moments. The rhetoric of outrage.
This is where we come back to the question of the imprecations. Is it right to call down curses on one’s enemies? These expressions of anger against our enemies that are directed to God in prayer.
Now, these are unsettling to read. C.S. Lewis said that “the hatred is there, festering, gloating, undisguised.” In fact, Lewis goes so far (I think too far) as to call the imprecations “devilish.” What are we to make of the imprecatory psalms?
Well, there are several things that we need to note here. Here’s the first thing: that when David is praying here, he’s praying not just for personal vindication against his own enemies, but he’s also praying against God’s enemies, and he’s praying for God’s justice.
Verses 9-11 I’ve already read, but they give us a very interesting picture of the situation. David seems to personify violence and strife and iniquity and trouble and ruin and oppression. He says these things are going around the city day and night and that they are in the middle of the city. Listen to what he says again in verse 9. “Destroy, O Lord; divide their tongues. For I see violence and strife in the city. Day and night they go around it on its walls, and iniquity and trouble are within it. Ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace.”
The city he’s referring to, of course, is Jerusalem. David is the king, and he has been unjustly routed from the throne. He is a bystander who is now watching evil anarchy and chaos supplant the peace of the city and the justice of his reign. Why would he not pray against this? How could you be in the middle of a war-torn country and not pray against the violence, pray for God’s justice to come down on the evildoers? That’s what David does.
Notice what he prays. He prays that God would “divide their tongues” in verse 9. That’s a reference back to the Tower of Babel, where the Lord divided the tongues of the people. This was an evil city, and the Lord confused them.
He prays that they would go down to the grave alive in verse 15; that is, that the ground would just swallow them up, as the ground had swallowed up Korah and Dathan in their rebellion against Moses in Numbers 16. In other words, he is praying that God would overthrow not just his enemies, but overthrow God’s own enemies.
Even aside from that, when you consider the situation, the outrage that David feels is understandable. These are normal feelings, not irrational feelings. He is angry because of the deep personal betrayal that he has experienced. You begin to see that betrayal in verses 12-15.
He says, “For it is not an enemy who taunts me; then I could bear it. It is not an adversary who deals insolently with me; then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together within God’s house; we walked in the throng. Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive. For evil is in their dwelling place and in their hearts.”
You see what’s going on here? David’s been betrayed. There’s someone who was his friend, and his friend has now betrayed him.
You see it again in verses 20-21. He says, “My companion stretched out his hand against his friends, he violated his covenant. His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart. His words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords.” Something that should have been soft has become sharp and piercing.
Spurgeon one time said, “None are such real enemies as false friends.” Have you ever been betrayed? Have you ever been betrayed by a friend who had made promises to you and then broke those promises and stabbed you in the back? Maybe by a parent who should have protected you but instead hurt you or even abused you, or by a spouse who promised to love you forever and was unfaithful to that promise? Well, if you’ve experienced any of those things, you know how David feels.
When we read these words from David, we have to remember the context in which they are written. David is expressing to God his emotion.
Listen to how D.A. Carson explains this. He says, “This is not the language of considered address, but the rhetoric of outrage.” That’s where I got that phrase, the rhetoric of outrage. “Its purpose is not to inform, but to ignite. It has little in common with cool discourse, a great deal in common with a sudden scream. It does not establish military policy. It vents confusion and terror when haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land.”
Now, that’s a helpful way for us to try to interpret these verses. When you’re reading this, you’re not reading David’s military policy and how to deal with his enemies. In fact, when you look through the life of David, what you see is that over and over again there were times when he had opportunity to take vengeance on his enemies, and he spared them.
You remember when King Saul was hunting him down in 1 Samuel, and there are several times when Saul is right there in his hand and David will not kill him, he will not lift up his hand against the Lord’s anointed. Even after David becomes king, when Shimei is cursing him and David’s mighty men are ready to take off his head, David says, “Let him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has bidden him.”
And now certainly, even though Absalom his son has rebelled against him, is seeking his life, is seeking to overthrow his kingdom, David doesn’t want him to die. When Absalom does die, David weeps and mourns. It’s the one thing he didn’t want to happen.
In other words, even though David is expressing his outrage to the Lord in prayer, he is actually not trying to take vengeance on his enemies in his actual practice. This is a key insight.
Listen: if you pray your anger to the Lord, you’re able to give the anger to the Lord, that’s exactly what will keep you from expressing bitterness in acts of vengeance. I think sometimes when people lose it, in small ways or in large, life-altering, violent ways, one reason is because they bottled up so much emotion, and they have not learned how to process that emotion internally and then spiritually, vertically, in relationship with God. Praying your anger keeps you from acting on anger. Trusting God’s justice will keep you from taking justice into your own hands. This is the rhetoric of outrage, and David directs that rhetoric to the Lord himself.
4. The Discipline of Prayer
That leads us to the fourth movement, the discipline of prayer. The psalms, of course, are full of prayers. They teach us to pray, and Psalm 55 especially is a psalm about prayer. It really begins with prayer in verses 1-2. He says, “Give ear to my prayer, O God; hide not yourself from my plea for mercy! Attend to me and answer me; I am restless in my complaint and moan…”
Right there, there are four expressions, four requests to God to hear his prayer. But then you really get the discipline of prayer described in verses 16-17. He says, “I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” There’s an emphasis in this psalm on the fact that God hears prayer. Look again at verse 19. “God will give ear and humble him, he who is enthroned of old.”
What you see in this psalm is a way of praying. You see that this prayer is honest. I mean, everything that we’ve looked at so far has shown that, that David is honest with his emotions. He is unburdening his heart to the Lord, he’s expressing what’s there. He has stuff inside, and he’s getting it out, and he’s getting it out in the context of prayer, in relationship to God.
But it’s also humble prayer, because it is prayer that entrusts the self to God, that entrusts our situations to God. This is a prayer in which one casts his burdens onto the Lord! This is what prayer is. Prayer is when, instead of trying to take control ourselves, we trust in God’s control. Instead of trying to take justice into our own hands, we entrust ourselves to the justice and the righteousness of God. That’s humility, that’s recognizing that God is God, and we are not.
Notice also this is disciplined prayer. It’s frequent, disciplined prayer. Verse 17 again, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” It was three times a day that David was praying. It’s probably not just a rhetorical flourish here, but actually a description of David’s practice in prayer. Three times a day he was pulling aside and he was focusing on talking to God.
Listen, brothers and sisters. It takes a lot of prayer to sustain faith through pain and stress and suffering. I don’t mean necessarily lengthy times of prayer, I mean frequent recourse to prayer, where you are regularly—when those emotions are beginning to swell, when the storm is beginning to break, you’re going back to the Lord and you’re finding shelter in him. Attend to your prayer life. If you’re not suffering right now, if you don’t feel these acute emotions right now, don’t neglect your prayer life; build it, so that when these times come you will have a closet to go to and you will already be familiar with God. The discipline of prayer.
5. The God Who Hears
Here’s the final movement in this psalm, and it’s really the key to the solution, to everything else that’s come forward, and it is the God who hears. We’ve seen the storm of emotion, we’ve seen the desire or the temptation to escape, we’ve seen the rhetoric of outrage, we’ve seen the discipline of prayer; but now, the God who hears prayer. Look at verses 22-23.
He says, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved. But you, O God, will cast them down into the pit of destruction. Men of blood and treachery shall not live out half their days, but I will trust in you.”
You see what he’s doing? He’s trusting the Lord with the fate of his enemies. Rather than taking things into his own hands, he says, “You, O God, will cast them down. You’re going to take care of this, but I will trust in you.”
I think the basic message of this psalm is verse 22. It’s, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” It’s learning to take the burden of all the emotions we feel and entrust that burden into the hands of God.
It’s important that we just remember who this God is. The psalm gives us some clues. The psalm reminds us of the character of God. Verse 19, he is a sovereign God. “God will give ear and humble them, he who is enthroned from of old.” He’s enthroned. God sits on the throne, and we remember that when we pray.
He’s also a just God. Verse 23, which I’ve already read, God is the one who casts them down into the pit of destruction, and we trust God in his justice.
Then notice this also: he is the redeeming God. He is the God who rescues, he is the God who saves, he is the God who redeems. Verse 18, “He redeems my soul in safety from the battle that I wage, for many are arrayed against me.” Verse 22, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” He’s the sustaining God. “He will never permit the righteous to be moved.”
One more comment, one more illustration about verse 22, as we draw to a close. When the psalmist says, “Cast your burden on the Lord,” the word burden carries a little more than just the idea of a load. Derek Kidner says, “The word ‘burden’ is too restrictive. It means whatever is given to you. It means your appointed lot. And so the psalmist is saying, ‘Cast what has been given to you onto the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.’”
It reminded me of that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, one of my favorite movies, based on one of my favorite books—do you remember this?—when Frodo turn to Gandalf and he says, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
Do you remember what Gandalf says? He says, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has been given to us.”
It may very well be that as we are going through this season as a society, as a culture, and we as a church going through this season with the pandemic and the virus and all the emotion and all the upheaval that that has brought, it may be that there have been times when you have felt, “I wish this had never happened.”
Well, that’s not for us to decide. What we have to decide, no matter what our trials are, is what to do with the time that has been given to us, the burden that has been entrusted to us, the burden that has been appointed to us. What do we do with our lot in life? What do we do with these circumstances, these stresses, these anxieties? What do we do with these emotions?
A lot of people try to deny them. A lot of people try to escape from them. But that’s not going to work, ultimately. That’s only going to bring greater harm into your life and into the lives of those you love. Instead, what we do is we take them to the Lord, we entrust them to the Lord, we cast our burden upon him. When we do that in prayer, trusting the sovereign God with all the emotions that we feel, and we do that, the Lord promises that he will sustain us.
So, brothers and sisters, cast your burdens onto the Lord tonight. Let’s pray together.
Our gracious, sovereign God, we thank you that you are enthroned, that you are on the throne today, and that you reign and that nothing falls outside the scope of your sovereignty, your providence, your wisdom, and your goodness in our lives. Therefore we can trust you, and we do that right now. We cast our burdens onto you.
Father, I know that within our own congregation, and certainly within our community and within the world, there’s a lot more going on than just the coronavirus. There are difficult, difficult family situations; there are marriages that are in trouble; there are people who are suffering anxiety; there are people who have suffered, maybe recently, but certainly in the past, who have suffered violence or abuse of different kinds. There’s all this emotion that comes when we experience these kinds of betrayals in our lives.
Lord, I thank you that you give us language for being honest with those kinds of heart-wrenching burdens. Thank you that you are able to listen to the rhetoric of our outrage, and that you show us in Scripture that it is appropriate to bring even these burdens, even these emotions to you, our Lord. My prayer tonight is that we would cast these burdens upon you, that we would entrust ourselves to you, that we would be honest and yet humble in bringing the depths of our hearts to you, laying our hearts bare in your presence and then entrusting ourselves to you, knowing that you are a God of justice, that you are a God of grace, that you are the God who redeems, that you are the God who hears our prayers. I ask, Lord, that you would hear the prayers of your people tonight, and that you’d do it for the sake of Jesus, your Son, who died to give us access into your presence and who rose from the dead to give us hope that all of these burdens will someday be removed. So we pray this in his name and we pray for his sake, Amen.