How would you act if suddenly what gave you a sense of security was taken away? How and what would you pray? Would you pray? In Rumaan Alam’s novel Leave the World Behind, two families from different racial and social strata find themselves stranded in a house together during an international emergency (although they have no sense of its scope, since internet, television, and media aren’t working). They encountered a few others when they tentatively venture out – one who is panicking and talking rapidly in a language that is not understood, another who is unfriendly, almost threatening, who tells them not to trust the hospital they seek, but to fortify themselves in the house and trust no one. Animals are behaving strangely, unexplained sonic booms shake them physically and emotionally, minor health concerns become major with no medical assistance. Prayer is mentioned, or rather, its absence is noted by the author/narrator. Several of the main characters no longer share the faith in God that a previous generation had. Of one character it is said that because she could not pray, she thought nothing. However, she still feared what might happen next.
Psalm 34 is about response to fear. The psalmist advocates taking refuge in God through prayer and praise in times of crisis. He begins,
“I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. I will glory in the LORD; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the LORD with me; let us exalt his name together. I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame” (Psalm 34:1-5).
Biblical worship, including prayer, focuses on giving glory to God. When crises and loss dominate our lives, lament and protest may dominate our prayers. Even then, the act of praying confesses that God exists and has the power to resolve our troubles or to console us as we grieve. The psalmist’s experience suggests three key aspects to prayer: Seeking God’s help rather than relying on our own failing resources, approaching God with reverent fear rather than regarding prayer as the equivalent of using a debit card, and remembering God’s protecting presence even when it seems that forces that we cannot overcome are attacking us.
One of my favorite bible episodes about God’s protection of the righteous is found in 2 Kings chapter 6. The king of Syria has learned that the prophet Elisha warns the king of Israel about Syria’s hostile military encroachments into Israel before they happen. The king sends a special assault force to kill Elisha. When Elisha’s servant sees the Syrian military forces surrounding their village, he panics until Elisha speaks:
“Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elisha prayed, ‘Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.’ Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:16-17).
The rest of the chapter describes how God and Elisha overcome the situation while also giving insight on ethical treatment of prisoners of war. Psalm 34 and 2 Kings 6 proclaim the same message – God protects the righteous. As Psalm 34 says,
“This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them” (Psalm 34:6-7).
In my next two posts, we will learn more from Psalm 34 about prayer and trusting God’s power to save. We will see how the psalm and its teaching about prayer is used in the New Testament, and what that use helps us understand about how to pray, how to live as disciples of Jesus, and how to live with confidence when all seems lost.
• Quotations of the Bible are from the New International Version of the Bible.
God whose protective forces surround the righteous, When we cower in fear, remind us that you are present. When we discern only horror and doubt your presence, open our eyes that we may see your capabilities. You are the God who achieves what we think impossible. You provide hope where we see none. You listen to our fears and renew our courage. May we always remember to call you when circumstances are dire; may we live with urgent awareness of your will, your presence, and your love. In Jesus’ name, amen.