The church prays Psalm 3 thus:
Lord, how are they increased that trouble me!
Many are they that rise up against me.
Many there be which say of my soul, there is no help for him in God.
But Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me;
My glory, and the lifter up of mine head.
I cried unto the Lord with my voice,
And He heard me out of His holy hill.
I laid me down and slept;
I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people,
that have set themselves against me round about.
Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God:
For Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone;
Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.
Salvation belongeth unto the Lord:
Thy blessing is upon Thy people.
I’m going to speculate that most of this blog’s readers are Christians and that they have prayed this prayer many times with an overflowing heart, reciting or reading it. I suspect that those readers who are not Christians or at least are not religious (in the sense that life makes sense because it is ordered by transcendent principles) find this prayer offensive at points.
So I want to ask a question that raises a lot of questions but might help us understand a little bit of what our Lord is inspiring the Psalmist to reveal about reality and our place in it. It’s a simple question, but I’ll ask it two different ways.
First way (practical): do you as a Christian really have the right to pray this prayer unless, say, you are living under the oppression of a Stalin or ISIS?
Second way (analytical): would it be legitimate to take the “ten thousands of people” as a reference to demons?
These actually are both the same question in the end. Both of them are really asking a very large question: what kind of world do we live in? Is it a world in which the material surface of things is all there is and the only ones you can consider your enemies are people who actually are trying to hurt you? Or is there something else, some other realm that is just as real as the material realm, of which the material realm is a manifestation, but not an exact likeness.
Do we live in a naturalistic acosmos in which power rises against power producing, by some unapprehended logic, the wonders of the world we live in?
Or maybe we live in a magical cosmos -in a sort of Hegelian dialectic (thesis or force A battles antithesis or force B and from them a synthesis or new energy is released thus making the world both violent and tending toward something magnificent) in which some transcendent force is at work in and through everything that happens.
Or might we, in fact, live in a world that is always and eternally an image?
It is pretty obvious that King David lived in the third option. He could speak of ten thousand people surrounding him quite physically (I will not say “literally”). There they were and he could see them, or at least most of them. And opposition arose time and again, though probably not often to the tune of ten thousand people.
He could cry out to the Lord and have in mind a very specific place on earth when he expected the Lord to hear him “out of His holy hill.” But when David fled from Absalom his son, the traditional locus of this Psalm, there was no temple on Zion, and David had only recently brought the tabernacle there to store the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, the priests brought the ark out to David as he fled, while “all the country wept with a loud voice,” until David told them to bring it back to Jerusalem. But there was no temple for it.
When David spoke of the holy hill whence God heard his cry, he had a specific place in mind, with all the antiquity of Abraham’s offering of Isaac and all the freshness of his own resolution to build a temple there to God’s honor. But he knew and confessed that God could not be contained with a temple made with hands.
So was that all David had in mind? Was he thinking only of a physical mountain on which Jerusalem would be built and on which a temple would manifest the glory of God to the nations? Did he have in mind only ten thousand human people surrounding him?
David himself stretches the physical interpretation when he says in verse three, “Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me.”
Surely he doesn’t mean that he walks around with a round or octagonal version of God attached to his wrist. God is a shield metaphorically. He possesses a quality that a shield possesses: He will block the fiery darts of the wicked and preserve David from harm.
Okay fine, there are obvious metaphors used throughout the poetry of the Psalms and Proverbs and common sense helps us understand them 95% of the time or more. Does that somehow justify sweeping the whole of Psalm 3 or the whole book of Psalms or even the whole Bible into some spiritualized interpretation that loses sight of the obvious and plain meaning of the text?
Well, no, not put like that it doesn’t. For one thing, I would never want to lose sight of the obvious and plain meaning of the text. But we can’t ignore it when the text itself creates tensions that strain our understanding. Nor can we ignore the clues given throughout the Bible that God is not only talking about the historical physical events in which His glory and power are revealed.
Here I will jump all the way to my point and try not to lose you with my leap of logic.
The whole Bible, from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22, presents reality as, ultimately, not a physical place, but a temple of the living God. Yes, the part of reality that we live in physically is physical. But even the physical is not ultimately physical. Even the physical is meant to be spiritual. You could even say that our job as humans, which is to say, as priests, is to offer the physical to God and by doing so to spiritualize it. It won’t lose its physicality when we do that but it will transcend the physical, thus finding and fulfilling its true purpose (a house will still be a house, but now it will be a house in which God lives – a temple).
Genesis 1-3 describes the creation of a temple and the placement and displacement of the priest in that temple. Exodus 26-40 recapitulates the same pattern, this time more focused because of the fall. The pattern is repeated over and over throughout the Bible until we reach Revelation, where the temple of God, the very holy of holies, encompasses the whole cosmos.
In other words, the creation we live in is a temple. When we pray to “Our Father who art in heaven,” we don’t mean that He sits up on the clouds in a blue sky, but that He inhabits the holy place where His throne is surrounded by cherubim. Isaiah saw it in Isaiah 6, Ezekiel in Ezekiel 1 and 2, Moses in Exodus 24.
Hebrews makes it obvious that the earthly tabernacle and temple were only an image of the eternal temple in the heavens.
I hope it is not incoherent to summarize it this way:
There is an eternal heavenly temple that is the dwelling place of God and may in fact be God Himself or at least an eternal manifestation of His nature.
The earth and the physical heavens are an imitation of this eternal temple (thus earth is His footstool, heaven His throne, etc.).
The tabernacle and temple are specific imitations of the eternal temple because, having fallen, we can no longer see clearly the heavenly image in this earthly mess.
The church is the earthly fulfillment of the temple of God, in which the Holy Trinity takes His habitation by the Holy Spirit and the blood of Christ.
The spirit of man is the temple of God. Its inmost dimension is the holy of holies, possessing the Ark of the Covenant with the mercy seat sitting upon it and the law of God contained within it.
We do have a problem though: perhaps the first manifestation of God’s extraordinary humility is that He allowed the first priest to evict Him from His own temple. Since then He has stood at the door knocking but He will only come in to those who open the door.
What I am suggesting, then, is that it is more natural to pray Psalm 3 analogically than it is to pray it analytically. We are the temple. Within us is this holy hill. If God is welcome there, He abides there and He hears us when we cry to Him.
But we are surrounded by “ten thousand people,” and it is common in the Bible to refer to spiritual beings, angels or demons, as people. Those spiritual beings rise up against us with challenges and accusations, speaking directly to our souls, telling them, “There is no help for him in God.”
It is no “spiritualization” or “allegorical” interpretation to say with David, “Thou has smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou has broken the teeth of the ungodly.” The allegory would be to look at the people David fought and to think that it had actually happened to them.
They speak, and that is all they can do now. They tell us lies. We don’t hear physical voices because they are hovering around that deep inaccessible part of our beings, the place where a still small voice keeps beckoning too us, simply and unobtrusively. They make as much noise as we allow them to make so we can’t hear the still small voice.
There is no help for you in God.
That is the one thing they most want us to hear. That way we’ll try to help ourselves. That way we’ll turn away from the one thing needful.
They speak. But they speak with a disjointed jaw and broken teeth.
This is everything. Do you believe that you are the temple of the living God, living in a cosmic temple, whose task it is to receive into your inner sanctuary the God of life so that you can have, like the garden of paradise, rivers of life flowing out of you into the four corners of the earth, renewing the whole earth with the life of the eternally living God.
There is no other good you can do for your neighbor.
Do you believe that the world around you is a temple and that you are the priest, called to offer it to God?
Do you teach your students as though they are temples and priests – images of the God of heaven and earth – or do you teach them like they are beavers whose highest calling is to build a house that dams up the river?
The cosmos is first a creation, a temple, a work of art; it is not a scientific experiment. We live in a cosmological analogy. That is the first step to understanding the cosmos, the human soul, or, for us, education. You can’t put things together by cutting them up.
And that makes all the difference.
Salvation belongeth unto the Lord:
Thy blessing is upon Thy people.