Freedom, Prison and Praise: A 1-Verse Prayer for Desperate Places

What rolls off your tongue when you’re in trouble? What comes out when you’re in a prison or a cave? How do you pray?

Like A Song, It Came

“Help me,” “Heal us,” and “Have mercy,” are desperate prayers my God has heard lately. There’s also been that prayer for a prodigal.

But last night, these words came. Like lyrics from songs we sang in eighth grade, they came.

Set me free from my prison,
    that I may praise your name.
Then the righteous will gather about me
    because of your goodness to me.

That’s the last verse of Psalm 142, “Of David. When he was in the cave.” David prayed those words when he was literally in a cave, hiding from a hostile King Saul who literally sought to end his life.

I’d just texted a few friends to ask them to pray, another SOS. Please pray that God will bring peace to our family.

Then Psalm 142 verse 7 came, like ROYGBIV and All Cows Eat Grass and The Doxology.

Like a familiar, overlearned thing it came. The Spirit sent it and it came.

Because that verse was a go-to prayer during the decade of gut-wrenching infertility, a heart-wrenching church split, and marriage conflict that came along for the ride. Those felt like a prison that I couldn’t escape. I felt helpless and hemmed in.

So I prayed.

Set Me Free From My Prison

We know anything is a blessing that makes us pray. I think thinking of the word prison today triggered it.

David’s prison was a cave. He hid in a hole in the rocks to save his life from hostile King Saul. Derek Kidner explains, “the strain of being hated and hunted is almost too much, and faith is at full stretch.”

Psalm 142 teaches us how to pray when we feel trapped and out of control, when we see no way of escape from our dark cave of troubles. It is a psalm of lament, it is a psalm crying out to God.

There is no cave so deep, so dark, but we may out of it send up our souls in prayer to God.

Matthew Henry

My prison is not a cave. It was my “decade of troubles.”

But today I felt trapped and helpless again. As if there was nothing I could do to escape hostile, hateful words from someone I love, nothing I could do to help him know how much he is loved. I didn’t feel hunted but I did feel hated.

So for freedom, I prayed.

That I May Praise Your Name

During that decade of troubles, I loved to pray this phrase of Psalm 142. Because it grounded my prayer. It turned it from being just about me and my pain to the Lord and his praise.

Bible commentator Albert Barnes, explains, “Not merely for my own sake, but that I may have occasion more abundantly to praise thee; that thus [you] may be honored; an object at all times much more important than our own welfare.”

In other words, we ground our cries for help in the glory and praise of God that will come when he frees us from our prisons. Bring my soul out of prison, not that I may live more comfortably, or insure my physical safety and financial security, but that I may praise your name.

Because God is zealous for his glory and seeks our praise, these prison break prayers are easy to pray.

So for God’s praise, I prayed.

The Righteous Will Gather Around Me Because of Your Goodness to Me

The Hebrew verb for “praise” means to confess or acknowledge. David wants to extol God’s power, goodness and mercy in the company of the saints. In other words, he wants God to answer his prayer so that he can glorify God publicly.

Here, Derek Kidner notes, David “dares to visualize the day when he is no longer shunned or hunted, but thronged, or even crowned.” David visualized a good end. In Christ, with him as our refuge and portion (verse 5), we can be sure of a good end (Romans 8:28). But we can’t be sure when.

I believe we have biblical warrant to take our cues from David and visualize a good end.

Do you visualize how answered prayer would look? Because it does seem like that’s what David is doing. He’s picturing his faithful friends, like the friends I texted who pray, coming around him and rejoicing at God’s goodness to him in freeing him from prison.

David’s visualizing is hoping.

So in hope, I pray.

Faith Joined By Hope

David’s faith was tested in the cave. It was “at full stretch,” as Kidner said. But it was “undefeated, and in the final words it is at last joined by hope.”

Sixteen years ago, God broke me free from a childless prison. Six years ago, he brought me out of an estranged prison. Today, God is building our marriage. I am a prisoner of hope.

Now I am visualizing deliverance. It’s hard, but I picture a day when the relationship filled with hurt and hate is marked by love and laughter. Then the righteous will gather around us and celebrate because of God’s goodness to us.

Friend, tell me if I can pray for you. Because I’d like to get in on the party. Because there will be a party.

The righteous will rejoice in God’s goodness to us. He has done great things, we will say together.

So together, we pray.

We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

1 Corinthians 1:8b-11 (ESV)

Saints in the Land & 1 Thing Saint-Friends Do

David and Jonathan Good Friends

 

As for the saints who are in the land, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.
Psalm 16:3

What delights your soul? Is it the saints you know? Do you even know any saints? And, if you do, do they make you glad?

Or does this sound like silly talk? Like such words about saints could only come from a  super-spiritual poet living long ago in a faraway land?

Saint-Friends Who Stick Closer Than Brothers

It’s not silly talk. It’s real and daily- this saints-are-so-lovely talk. I know this because in the last week I’ve had- not one, not two, not three- but four different friends tell me, as it were, that sometimes blood isn’t thicker.  That it depends on whose blood; specifically, if it’s saints’ blood.

All four confided to me big hurts inflicted by blood. A sister whose words are sword thrusts, a brother whose whose aloofness wounds, another brother whose lifestyle choices take him to a distant land (my friend misses him), and a father who waited until my friend was 42  to tell her, “I love you.” 

All four also shared how a Christian friend- a saint- had helped them through. How, for example, when a blood-brother wound was raw, my friend texted a saint-friend to pray and then her friend not only prayed but showed up 30 minutes later to whisk my friend away to a happier place. 

Christian friends may be more loyal than an  unbelieving brother. Since brotherhood is one of the tightest relationships we know, a  friend who sticks closer than a brother is a life-giving gift, indeed. (David and Jonathan’s friendship is a great biblical example of this type of closer-than-a-brother friendship.)

Proverbs 18:4 says, There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. And if the friendship is between saints, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that water’s sometimes thicker.

Just who are these saints?

Saints literally means, “holy ones.”

But if the term’s still a bit murky, don’t worry. You’re not alone. One source says the word “saints” has almost completely lost its original meaning,

[T]hat is, of being set aside for the exclusive ownership and use of the Triune God. Very few people in the Christian Church today would consider themselves to be “saints”…Unfortunately the original meaning of the word “saints” has largely fallen into disuse.

But if the term’s still a little fuzzy, a quick survey of Scripture makes it clear: saints are simply believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. And all believers are called saints, even when their character is “dubiously holy.”

Paul uses the term “saints” – the plural- to refer to a group of Christians about 40 times. In fact, Paul addresses almost all of his letters to “the saints” in that particular place. (See 2 Thess. 1:10, 1 Cor. 1:2, Romans 1:7, Eph. 1:1, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:2.) Only once does Paul refer to a solo “saint.” That’s at the end of Philippians where he writes, “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus.”

So saints are not a special class of Christian. They are all those called by God’s grace and sanctified by His Spirit. Saints are in Christ Jesus.

Saints-R-Us. Saints are believers. Saints are “just” Christians, running the race by grace through faith, in Christ Jesus.

Saints-R-Us

Still, we’re prone to put people like Mother Teresa and Apostle Paul on pedestals and think they’re super-human. We ought not.

C.H. Spurgeon explains, 

Their holiness is attainable even by us. We are “called to be saints” by that same voice which constrained them to their high vocation…They lived with Jesus, they lived for Jesus, therefore they grew like Jesus. Let us live by the same Spirit as they did, “looking unto Jesus,” and our saintship will soon be apparent.

I crossed paths with some saints last week. Their names were Holly and Hannah, Jim and Jen, Christin and Cindy and Shari and Stan. They live with Jesus, they live for Jesus, therefore they are growing like Jesus. 

The saints in my land are doing this. They are growing more like Jesus.

They’re growing to:

Saints in my land are growing thicker skins and softer hearts. They set their hearts to seek God.

That’s why the saints in my land make me glad. Saints remind me of Jesus. 

Saint-Friends Strengthen Our Hands In God

In 1 Samuel 23:16-18, we find the best description of a best saint-friend a guy—or girl—could ever have.  David is running for his life from a jealous king Saul.

Then Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose and went to David in the woods and strengthened his hand in God. And he said to him, “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Even my father Saul knows that.” So the two of them made a covenant before the LORD. And David stayed in the woods, and Jonathan went to his own house.

Whatever else Jonathan did to knit his soul with David’s he did this: he strengthened his hand in God.

We don’t use the phrase much. Maybe instead we say: He encouraged me. He gave me courage. She helped me hope in God.

We walk away from saint-friends like this feeling stronger. Feeling like we can look that difficult person in the face and take on the tough circumstance. We don’t feel so afraid. Jonathan reminded David of God’s promise—that you shall be king. 

We, too, are strengthened when our friends remind us of God’s unbreakable promises. 

Saints Point Us To The Right Rock

That is what Jonathan did for David. They stabilize us.

As David Guzik has noted

Jonathan could not rescue David, but he strengthened his hand in God. Jonathan couldn’t give David all the answers, but he strengthened his hand in God. Jonathan couldn’t stay with David, but he strengthened his hand in God.

My best saint-friends are those who don’t ignore my pain or minimize my trials. And they seldom solve my problems. In fact, I wouldn’t call any friend, even my husband, my rock.

But they do point me to the rock that is higher than I. That is what the best saint-friends do.  

Those nearest him are nearest one another.

It’s no wonder, then, that believers like this are closer to us in than even our non-believing families. That’s the oneness of the body of Christ. That’s the intimate, eternal relationship that we have with the saints.

That’s why the Psalmist cannot help but say, “As for the saints who are in the land, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.”

Or as S. L. Johnson said, God’s the center. Those that are nearest him are nearest to one another.  Saints take joy in saints.

David did this too. He took delight in the saints he knew. “I will look with favor on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me,”  (101:6), he said. And “I am a companion of all who fear you,” (Psalm 119:63). The saints were David’s delight.

Saints make saints glad.

Do the saints make you glad?

David says that there’s one type of person who gets him stoked and fired-up and makes him really, really glad. It’s saints. It’s the holy ones who treasure God.

So I repeat, do the saints make you glad? Do you cherish God’s people?  And do you delight in them or merely endure them?

If your honest answer is merely endure, I have two questions for you.  They’re from this sermon by Pastor John Piper.

  1. Do you know any Christians?  I mean radical people who lay down their lives for Jesus because Jesus means everything to them and they are servants of the world and God has broken them free from their love affair with the world and their ego and power and comfort.
  2. Why would it be that you, a professing Christian, would find more joy in people who find no joy in what is your primary joy?

Hard hitting, those. But it makes sense: If we treasure God, we treasure those who treasure God.

These are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.

The “Sweetness of the Saints” Test

Piper explains how Psalm 16:3 can be,

When it comes to people, he says, the ones who give him pleasure are godly people.. He doesn’t mean that he has delight in God’s people instead of God or above God. He means that godless people don’t give him delight in their godless ways; only the godly do. What delights him about people is how they treasure God and exalt God. This is the sweetness of his relationships.

Saint-friends are sweet to us because God is sweet to them. That’s why this saint stuff matters. Because it is one way we can measure our relationship to the Lord. It’s a simple test, really.  For, as James Boice explains, Those who love the Lord will love the company of those who also love him.

So  I’ll ask again: Do you love other Christians? Do you cherish the people of God and seek to be near those who treasure your Lord?

Do you delight in the saints in the land?

The new men are already here, dotting the earth- recognisable if you know what to look for. They will not be very like the idea of ‘religious people’ which you have formed from your general reading. They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other men do, but they need you less. (We must get over wanting to be NEEDED: in some goodish people, specially women, that is the hardest of all temptations to resist.) They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from. When you have recognised one of them, you will recognise the next one much more easily. And I strongly suspect that they recognise one another immediately and infallibly, across every barrier of colour, sex, class, age, and even of creeds. In that way, to become holy is rather like joining a secret society. To put it at the very lowest, it must be great fun.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity