Just when I think I might have God ever so slightly figured out, he pulls a surprise on me that shatters and confuses and discombobulates what little understanding I have of him.
I’m a theologian by trade, so its my responsibility and calling (and joy) in life to do what I can to connect the dots of divine revelation and hope that the resultant picture at least looks vaguely similar to the God I read about in Scripture. But sadly, that picture all too often ends up looking more like me than it does God, and reflects more what I think should be true or false rather than accurately portraying what God says is true or false, good or evil. The fact is, when God and his ways are looked at from a merely human point of view, he can often appear quite strange.
Whenever I use that language I’m compelled to pause and say, “Hey, Sam, hold on. Be careful. You don’t want to be guilty of sacrilege or, worse still, blasphemy in talking about God in such terms.” But then again, God is a bit strange, in the sense that I don’t understand why he does not do things the way I would do them if I were God!
Of course, the problem isn’t that God is strange but that I am sinful. The warped perspective I have of the Almighty is due, not to his being odd or out of line, but solely to the selfish and often corrupt way in which I filter and interpret the data of human experience.
Having said that, I can’t help but think that David would have agreed with me. Having spent considerable time in many of his psalms, I’m convinced that he was occasionally (often?) just as confused about God as we are, just as befuddled and puzzled about what he does and why as we are these many centuries later.
In fact, I suspect that lingering beneath the words of Psalm 142 is David’s suspicion that God is strange. I say this not simply because of what is in the psalm itself but from what we read in the superscription: “A Maskil of David, when he was in the cave. A Prayer.”
What’s so unusual about that, you ask? More than unusual, it’s downright shocking. Remember, this is David speaking, David, the man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14), the man singularly selected by the Lord, out of all the men of Israel, the man anointed by Samuel the prophet to be king over God’s people. King! Anointed! But here he is sitting, and probably sulking, in a cave!
I could certainly understand this more readily if it were written by a few other odd characters in Scripture, such as Cain or Balaam or Saul or Jezebel or Judas Iscariot. We expect people like that to find themselves in caves, hiding from their enemies, fearful for their lives. But David? The man who waxed eloquently about “green pastures” and “still waters” (Psalm 23), the man who rejoiced to live in the presence of God where “fullness of joy” could be found, the man who wanted nothing more than to linger at God’s right hand where “pleasures forevermore” are experienced (Psalm 16:11) and to spend his days beholding the beauty of God (Psalm 27:4). David, in a cave? God, you’re strange.
As best we can tell, David twice found himself seeking safety in a cave. The first occasion was in a cave near Adullam, just west of Jerusalem. This is described in 1 Samuel 22:1. The second occasion was at En-Gedi, on the western shore of the Dead Sea, described in 1 Samuel 24:1. In both instances he was there to escape Saul who had threatened to kill him.
Psalm 142 is probably describing the first of these two incidents. What a contradiction must it have felt like to this man of God. I can almost hear him in protest: “God, this isn’t at all what I expected to happen when you anointed me king over your people. Hiding out in a cave for protection from my enemies wasn’t in the job description. I’m supposed to be honored and revered and respected. I’m supposed to be sitting on a throne with servants at my beck and call. So what am I doing here with the spiders and snakes and wolves in a cave hiding to save my life?” Strange God.
To make matters worse, we need to remember that the cave was David’s final destination, not his first. Before he ever got to the cave, he first had to jump out of the way when Saul attempted to impale him with a spear. He then had to escape a death threat by being let down from a window by his wife. After that he was forced to flee into the night to elude the soldiers who were dispatched to capture and kill him. For a time he hid out in the fields surrounding Jerusalem and eventually suffered the humiliation of being compelled to seek refuge in the city of Gath, the hometown of his old enemy Goliath! After all this, David sat down in a cave, . . . disconsolate, discouraged, possibly depressed, and no doubt confused about this God whom he loved and served.
Before you dismiss all this as speculation, allow David the freedom to be human. Don’t you think he had his doubts? Don’t you think he wondered aloud about why God did what he did, as well as when and how and to what purpose this scenario had unfolded? Could it be that even David, on occasion, might have asked himself: “If this God to be trusted with my life?” I don’t believe this is speculation, because we have the words of the psalm that largely corroborate this perspective. We’ll turn to them in the next meditation.
The bottom line, then, is that this psalm is here to tell us how to pray when God seems strange. This psalm is uniquely suited for people who need encouragement in the midst of trial and suffering, people who are wondering if God even knows where they are. It’s a psalm designed to tell us what to do when we’re in a “cave” of our own.
This “maskil” (a musical term) of David was a “prayer” he uttered while “in the cave.” May I suggest that at least part of its purpose is to tell us that God is attentive to our needs and hears us no matter where we are? Our prayers, like David’s, reach his ear and enter his heart whether we are on land, at sea, in the air, or stuck away in some desolate cave (whether literal or metaphorical). If God heard Jonah’s prayer from inside the belly of a fish and heard David’s prayer from inside a lonely cave, he will surely hear yours whether uttered in a church building or at home or in your office or car or while lying on your bed at night.
May I also suggest that David is telling us that God hears and answers not only wherever we may be but whatever we may be experiencing? In other words, although David’s cave was quite literal, it also describes spiritually what David was feeling, most likely abandoned, alone, useless, defeated, helpless, embarrassed, but still hopeful, as we’ll shortly see.
So, if God’s seems a bit strange to you at times (or a lot!), especially when you find yourself in something of a “cave”, or perhaps even on those occasions when you actually wish you could spend some time in one just to get away from life and the constant hassles it throws your way, then this psalm is for you. We’ll look carefully at its content in the next meditation.