Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.”
But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain. I lie down and sleep; I wake up again, because the Lord sustains me. I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.
Arise, Lord! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.
From the Lord comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people.
When I was young my parents taught us a little prayer that maybe you’ve heard:
“Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep / If I die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen”
Honestly, I can’t remember the details of how often or when we stopped praying this together. The memory is more of a sense-of-an-experience at this point. And yet, that little rhyme is ingrained in the social imaginary of not just me and my brothers – but of a whole multigenerational group of people. I didn’t realize this until writing this devotional, but, in this form, it goes back to a 1750 printing of the New England Primer, the English language textbook of the colonists in New England. The subtitle of the Primer gives us the stated goal, “For the more easy attaining the true Reading of English.”
From that point forward the little poem becomes ingrained in the civil religious identity of the America’s – apparently pervading even north of the border to Bradford, Ontario where I prayed it each night in the late 80’s. During the 1917-19’s a poster was printed in the US changing the lines of the prayer to say “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. God bless my brother gone to war across the seas in France so far…”
My mother, who is a Dutch immigrant from the 70’s, can tell you that there is Dutch children’s prayer with similar cultural force. “Ik ga slapen, ik ben moe” (I’ll go to sleep, I am tired) invites the prayer: “Lord, loyally keep guard over me this night.” This too, is based on a German poem from the late 1700’s by Luise Hensel. Again, becoming formative for generations of kids and parents.
Because prayers like this have become part of the religio-cultural landscape it is easy for us to associate them with a childishness and a sort of cuteness. Their familiarity breeds a sort of indifference and an unreflective taking for granted.
The danger is the same for familiar psalms and even more familiar lines of certain psalms. Like the children’s prayer I prayed each night, verse 3 has David saying, “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.” And the temptation, at least for me (though I suspect in this I’m not unique), is to hear those words of David through the formative lens of my children’s prayer, which then has the impact of minimizing the rest of Psalm 3 to the same childish frame.
But, and read it again if you must, Psalm 3 is a psalm of lament that refuses to be categorized too simplistically; and, really, is a boldness in talking to God that might offend the same modern religious sensibilities that come out of the “now I lay me…” cultural frame. Walter Brueggemann, a leading Old Testament scholar, says, “Lament prayer seems odd to us, because the church has, for the most part, refused such prayer. The result of that refusal is that much contemporary prayer is denial, as though our secrets can be hid from God.”
Psalm 3 will not be put in a tidy box of neat and “acceptable” emotions.
We are told in the superscription of the Psalm (the little words before the main body of the poem), that this is written by David “when he fled from his son Absalom.” The complicated story of David and Absalom’s relationship is recorded in 2 Samuel 13-18. Chapter 15 records a plot of Absalom to win the hearts of the people from his father and the second half of the chapter records David fleeing for his life. This situation of anxiety and fear form the content of his cry for help. But, as with any lament, it is vital to see that the content of anxiety and fear are spoken in the context of the covenant God has spoken to David (2 Sam. 7:11-16). And so, lament is the mature cry of faith to a covenant God who has promised eternal security and ultimate justice.
Notice in that cry of faith David does not look to the love of his son, nor to the appraisal of the people for his security or sense of worth. Even though many are saying “God will not deliver him,” (vs. 2) therefore supposing that God is on their side, not David’s – David remembers the covenant. David says “you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.” (vs. 3) David is convinced that if he calls out to the Lord, God will answer (vs. 4). The source of this conviction isn’t David’s own worth, prowess, or obedience – it can only be the covenant faithfulness and loyal love (hesed) of God for his chosen one. “I lie down and sleep; I wake again…” is not a childish prayer; but the childlike conviction that Jesus says is required for those of the kingdom of God (Cf. Mk. 10:14). “Childish” is immature and unthinking; “childlike” is absolute and unflinching.
In the context of what David knows about the covenant promises of God David expresses his lament to the only one who can do anything – and, at the very same time, the one who has promised to deliver: “from the Lord comes deliverance.” (vs. 7) This is reason enough to come to the Lord with our lament, and it is the only reason that matters: he can handle it and only he can deal with it. Even when David calls the Lord to “strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.” (vs. 7b) it is important to see that the Lord is the target. David is not asking that he would get vengeance or that he would administer his own ideas of justice. He is asking a perfectly righteous and holy, covenant faithful, God to exercise God’s own will.
For us to meaningfully take the injustices of the world - which are out of our control - seriously we must believe God will bring about justice; either in judgement at the end of history, or as borne by Jesus on the cross as he bears the wrath of God for the sin of those who believe (cf. John 3:18). Lament is the language of faith in a covenant God who provides justice and mercy at the cross.
Psalm 3 is no simple, childish prayer; it is the cry of faith in a world groaning under the weight of sin. As Christians living in a world full of injustice and anxiety, we do well to call on the covenant of God with his people. In so doing, may the Holy Spirit move us from indifference and apathy to faith and activity.
Lord Jesus, even as we face so many troubles and trials, even as we cry out at injustices, may we come to you our covenant God as our shield and glory. Lift my head to hear your voice and rest secure in your promised deliverance. Whether I rise, or sleep; live or die, may your blessing be on your people. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
 Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, 92.