I was slumped over my computer triaging my inbox when a knock broke my concentration.
“There’s a guy asking to speak to a pastor. He’s . . . well, he’s crying. Can you go talk to him?”
I said sure, and inhaled a long, slow breath as I prayed over what lay ahead.
He was sitting with his back to me when I arrived. I recognized him. He thanked me for seeing him, his head slightly bowed like he was in the principal’s office.
He wasn’t sure how it happened. Things had gotten out of hand, one thing had led to another, and somehow he had spent the night in jail. The details were fuzzy. Their flesh wounds were not.
“Something’s got to change with me,” he said. But he had no idea what that meant. “I don’t want it to go on like this. What do I do?”
This is the hazardous work of discipleship. The part no one prepares you for.
when you don’t know what to say
I intentionally say it’s the hazardous work of discipleship—not the pastorate—because sooner or later every disciple-maker finds themselves in conversations they weren’t prepared for. These conversations are loaded with questions that don’t have easy answers and are smeared with the filth of sin.
In times like these, disciple-makers need something substantial to grab hold of and to offer to drowning disciples. Flimsy Christian phrases about “seasons of life” and “God having a plan” simply won’t do.
When someone’s life is falling apart, we need to offer robust truths that stand the test of time—truths like those in Psalm 124.
Written by David likely after a time of great onslaught and suffering, this psalm “better than any other describes the hazardous work of all discipleship and declares the help that is always experienced at the hand of God,” wrote Eugene Peterson.
The first five verses declare the dangers of discipleship:
If it had not been the Lord who was on our side when people rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; then over us would have gone the raging waters.
Where would we be without God? In every time and place, the church has faced physical or spiritual persecution, and sometimes both. Beatings, torture, marginalization, spiritual warfare, lust, greed, death; these are commonplace among God’s people.
What believer has not known a threat that rose so steadily and powerfully around them that they thought they might be carried away by the flood? What believer has not known the suffocating pressure applied by people bent on demeaning or destroying their character?
But it is in these moments, at just the right time, that our Lord comes to the rescue. “Imagine what would have happened if the Lord had left us, and then see what has happened because he has been faithful to us,” wrote Charles Spurgeon. If it weren’t for an almighty, all-powerful God we would surely be carried away by the raging waters; we would surely be swallowed up.
“This psalm, though, is not about hazards but about help,” Peterson writes. “The hazardous work of discipleship is not the subject of the psalm but only its setting.” The psalm now turns to what happens in such a hazardous setting.
Why the Caged Bird Sings
After calling us to look back and see the Lord’s rescuing hand, David beckons us to celebrate our escape by magnifying the Rescuer.
Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth! We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped!
When all our friends and help have evaporated and all hope is lost, then God breaks the snare and sets us free. Our deliverance comes by the hand of God, so we must thank him properly, for he snatched us out of danger like a helpless mouse in the snake’s fangs or a bird who narrowly escapes the snare. “We rob [God] of his due if we do not return thanks to him,” wrote Matthew Henry. “And we are the more obliged to praise him because we had such a narrow escape.”
Spurgeon, in his commentary on these verses, lingers on the bird and snare imagery:
“Our soul is like a bird for many reasons; but in this case the point of likeness is weakness, folly, and the ease with which it is enticed into the snare. Fowlers have many methods of taking small birds, and Satan has many methods of entrapping souls. . . . Fowlers know their birds, and how to take them; but the birds see not the snare so as to avoid it, and they cannot break it so as to escape from it.”
We are helpless, like a caged bird, as much as we wouldn’t like to admit it.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was a poet born to emancipated parents in June 1872. He went on to become one of the first influential African-American poets in America. In his poem titled “Sympathy,” he writes of the desperation of being another man’s property:
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore — When he beats his bars and he would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— I know why the caged bird sings!”
Though we are not enslaved to other people today, we have all been slaves to sin (Rom. 6:16). But if you are in Christ, the gate of your cage has burst open and you have been set free! Spurgeon writes,
“Happy is the bird that hath a deliverer strong, and mighty, and ready in the moment of peril: happier still is the soul over which the Lord watches day and night to pluck its feet out of the net. What joy there is in this song, ‘our soul is escaped.’ How the emancipated one sings and soars, and soars and sings again.”
Brothers and sisters, rejoice at your rescue and freedom in Christ! God has snatched you out of the darkness and brought you into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). He has grafted you into his family, making you his very own son or daughter (Rom. 11:17). Who is this God who rescues sinners and adopts them as his own?
The Lord Who Made Heaven and Earth
Recently I was teaching a class on what the Bible says about immigrants and refugees. My wife walked in a few minutes late after dropping our kids off, so she sat at a table in the back with one other woman. We paused for discussion and they got to talking.
My wife discovered the woman was here as a refugee after fleeing persecution for her Christian faith in Eritrea. We asked about her family. One of her brothers-in-law is in prison for his faith; the whereabouts of her mentally ill brother are unknown, she told us through tears.
The next day my wife wanted to text her and let her know we’re praying for her. But what do you say in a situation like this?
My wife sent her Psalm 124 and told her we were thanking God that she escaped and was able to come to America. The psalm meant so much to the woman that she read it to a group of Eritrean ex-pats who pray regularly for their country, then they prayed the song for their loved ones back home.
OUR CREATOR AND COMFORTER
The final verse of Psalm 124 tells us, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Yahweh, the great “I Am,” is our rescuer. He is our strength and shield, our shelter from the storm. He is the omnipotent, omniscient one who created heaven and earth. He is not a weak god incapable of saving but an Almighty God with whom all things are possible (Matt. 19:26).
This is who our help is in! Our Creator is our Rescuer. “He made heaven for us, and he will keep us for heaven,” Spurgeon wrote. He will not abandon us forever, though for a short time we may suffer. This is the God—the truth—to whom we point desperate disciples in times of great need and trouble. This is the truth to whom we point ourselves when in desperation or despair.
When we praise the God who made heaven and earth, we start to see our lives in the proper perspective. We begin to realize God is shaping and forming us through our suffering into men and women who look like his Son. When we worship God as Creator, we increase our trust in God as Comforter.