“He sends from heaven and saves me,
rebuking those who hotly pursue me;
God sends his love and his faithfulness.”
“He who, struggling with his own weakness, presses toward faith in his moments of anxiety is already in large part victorious.”
May not seem like John Calvin, at least the caricature John Calvin, but it is—from Book III, chapter II of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a section in which he is discussing “Faith in the struggle against temptation.”
I’m just not sure there is a way of understanding the frenetic modulation of emotions David not only lives through but sings about and of in Psalm 57—and elsewhere—without understanding the character Calvin ascribes to believers in this section of the Institutes.
David has, after all, every reason to be deathly scared. It’s the King, King Saul, who’s hot on his trail, who has threatened his life, whose poison envy is more terrifying because it is so immeasurably beyond reason. David sits in a cave, surrounded by his closest friends and family, nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. I like to imagine him composing, singing, alone, maybe at the mouth of this craggy spot, nothing to be seen over the land before him but eerie shadows created by the doubtful light of the moon.
Outside the cave is madness, but he knows he can’t hide forever. He has a mission. Deliberately, benevolently, he has given Saul grace and allowed him to live when, with good cause, he could have killed him with his own hands. Instead, he took a shard of his robe. But Saul, who David refuses to see as anything other than God’s own anointed, won’t purge the envy that has poisoned his soul; instead, he gorges on it.
That’s why David cries the way he does: “Have mercy,” and then again, “have mercy.” There is nowhere else to turn.
“And yet—and this is something marvelous,” says Calvin, “amidst all these assaults faith sustains the hearts of the godly, and truly in its effect resembles a palm tree: for it strives against every burden and raises itself upward.”
Verses two and three—amid the harrowing fear—is heart-felt testimony: you offer your wings as a refuge, Lord; you use me for your purposes, you hold back my enemies, you send love and faithfulness. David is still sitting there where he was, the moonlit landscape’s eerie outlines still teeming with terror, but he’s saying that he knows.
Maybe it’s a kind of mantra he’s offering, in part to God, in part to his own anguished soul. Maybe he’s remembering the chapters of his own story, when, not by his strength but by his God’s, deliverance was his blessing, his good fortune. Whatever the reason, faith, like that palm tree, is growing, right there from the stone on which he sits.
Faith, Calvin says, means a sure knowledge of God’s will, of his faithfulness, something which arises from a knowledge and assurance of his Word. Faith is a sure confidence in God’s will of love. “Unless you hold to be beyond doubt that whatever proceeds from him is sacred and inviolable truth,” as David does, Calvin says the terror of those shadows, like the voracious appetite of Saul’s insane envy, will overwhelm.
Seems to me that David’s song—his fears and his testimony—at the mouth of a quiet, silent cave is the Word of the Lord.