The birth of your first child is always momentous. For me, it was also scary. We were expecting twins, and the labour did not proceed well. Karyn was wheeled off for an emergency caesarean, with me running alongside. I was then left standing at the thick red line by the nurses’ station. And the door closed.
There was plenty of medical staff bustling by. But I felt more alone at that point than any other in my life so far. It was an emergency, and I had no idea how bad. Would our babies live? What would happen to Karyn?
And I could not even articulate a single prayer. I tried. But I was completely lost for words. I didn’t know what to say to God. My whole brain had frozen.
Then into my head came a song I’d learnt in youth fellowship 15 years earlier. A song I’d not sung for years. It went like this:
Hear my cry, O Lord. / Attend unto my prayer. /
From the ends of the earth / Will I cry unto you. /
When my heart is overwhelmed, / Lead me to the rock /
That is higher than I, / That is higher than I. /
For you have been / A shelter unto me. /
And a strong tower / From the enemy. /
When my heart is overwhelmed, / Lead me to the rock /
That is higher than I, / That is higher than I.
It’s the words of the first three verses of Psalm 61. And it was, literally, a Godsend. There is no other way to put it. In a moment of terrible fear and loneliness, God’s Spirit had sent the words of this psalm into my mind.
God’s Word is powerful. And as I stood there singing the words of that song, tears welling in my eyes, I knew God was with me.
I also remember my response: somehow I whispered to God that I would trust him no matter whether my wife or babies lived or died. He would be my refuge.
God is a Refuge
There may be people reading who do not know God as a refuge. For some people, a dark moment has not turned out as well as things eventually did with the birth of our twins.
Nevertheless, God’s powerful Word still promises that he can be your refuge too. Indeed Psalm 61 promises he will be with those who cry to him no matter how alone you feel.
But what does it mean to have God as your refuge? Well to summarise Psalm 61 in less poetic terms, it means that when you are alone or weak or afraid, there is someone to hear your cry, someone to protect you, someone to comfort you.
Someone to hear
You get the idea of someone to hear from the very first verse…
1 Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.
2 From the ends of the earth I call to you,
I call as my heart grows faint… [NIV]
No matter where you are. No matter how weak and overwhelmed. Even from the ends of the earth, the psalm-writer knows you can call out to God and he hears. Of course, “the ends of the earth” is not just geography! It’s an image for the feeling of distance, from others or from God.
No matter how true that is, you can call out to God and he will listen. More than that, we who pray this side of Jesus’ coming know that God doesn’t just hear as an impassive observer.
The incarnation of Jesus was where God took on flesh with all the frailty that goes with living in this world. The incarnation of Jesus means he suffered and so he can sympathise with our weaknesses. He’s walked where we walk. So God not only hears, he understands. When no one else will listen, God will hear the cry of your heart.
Someone to protect
Central to the idea of refuge is not just listening, but protecting. Having God as a refuge means you have someone to protect you. We see this from the end of v2.
…lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
A high rock has many advantages.
Drive up to the Mt Keira lookout over Wollongong for a truly spectacular view. But that’s not the only advantage of height. The high ground is where you run in a tsunami. It’s a safe place to stand.
I have friends who lived as missionaries in the Red Sea area. They’ve sent photos to show how all the villages used to be built on the edge of sheer cliffs. Not for the view, but for the protective advantages. When another tribe came raiding, you saw them coming. And you could defend your town more easily from up high, with cliffs blocking one side.
You get a similar thought in v3.
3 For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.
When the enemy comes, you run from the paddocks to the safety of the fortified walls. And this has been the psalm-writer’s experience in the past with God, so he knows he can expect it again.
Someone to comfort
And yet there is even more than hearing and protecting. Having God as your refuge means there is also someone to comfort you. You can see this in v4.
4 I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.
The desire to dwell in God’s tent is rich Old Testament imagery. For the precursor to the Jerusalem Temple – where God symbolically dwelt – was the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was a sort of portable temple, quite literally a tent. It was the focus of God’s presence, as Israel travelled the wilderness with it; in a sense, the place where heaven touched earth.
To dwell in God’s tent is to be allowed into his presence; it’s to be the recipient of his hospitality; it’s to receive the comfort of his refreshment.
And the imagery grows even more personal with the picture of a mother hen sheltering her baby chicks under her wings. It’s what our kids did in a thunderstorm: they run to Mum for a reassuring cuddle. It’s imagery for the comfort of knowing there is someone bigger and stronger near by who knows what’s going on, and who cares, and who can protect you from danger.
Friends, that’s what God is like; the concern of a mother hen, the strength of a strong tower, the security of the higher rock. He is a refuge to all who turn to him. And God’s Word brought these realities home so very powerfully to me that day so many years ago.
Incidentally, it’s a reminder that learning God’s Word through song is especially powerful. It was the song that lodged the wonderful words of that psalm in my head, waiting for the day it was needed. Sadly I cannot find the particular song tune online anywhere, nor any author credits.
But how wonderful to sing the Scriptures. And all the more in a time of need. (More tomorrow.)