Fr. Wilbur David Ellsworth · December 10, 2010
This morning Psalm includes the familiar refrain "Arise O God!"
Psalm 3 from The Psalter According to the Seventy:
O Lord, why are they multiplied that afflict me?
Many rise up against me. Many say unto my soul: There is no salvation for him in his God.
But thou, O Lord, art my helper, my glory, and the lifter up of my head.
I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy mountain.
I laid me down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord will help me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people that set themselves against me round about.
Arise, O Lord, save me, O my God, for thou hast smitten all who without cause are mine enemies; the teeth of sinners hast thou broken.
Salvation is of the Lord, and thy blessing is upon thy people.
Psalm 3 introduces us to the Church’s practice of placing a Psalm for praying at a specific time of the day. This is a morning Psalm, one of the six that is prayed every morning in the Church at Orthros or the Matins service. Some years ago, when I began to understand this morning use of a Psalm, I was struck by the jarring way the first morning Psalm began:
O Lord, why are they multiplied that afflict me?
Many rise up against me.
My first thought was, “Why would anyone want to begin the day with this prayer?” It would make it seem even harder to get out of bed. Waking up with all this trouble seems like a good incentive to roll over and pull the covers over our heads. But think about the wisdom of this prayer. This is a Psalm of David and in his life and in the heading of this Psalm this is set in the time David was fleeing for his life from the treachery of his own son, Absalom. And here we find the value of Psalm 3 as a morning prayer. No matter how we pray and no matter how we trust God there is a sense that we go to bed with our troubles and we wake up to find them waiting for us in the morning. And if that’s the way life is, and it is, then it is good that the Psalter is not a prayer-book for the passive or for those who serenely sail above all the troubles and dangers of life.
There’s also great encouragement for us to remember that this was also the prayer of our Lord in his own earthly life. The Lord awakened every morning with enemies, enemies that he had to face. Their names might change but they never went away: Herod, the chief priests and the scribes, Judas, Pontius Pilate, soldiers, mockers at the Cross, the Devil himself. This unrelenting, draining and depressing sense of overwhelming oppression, threat and loneliness may come and go in the different seasons of our lives but the intensity of it may vary. But when we waken to feel this sense of opposition we feel those unseen voices that say to us, “There’s no salvation. No salvation for you in your God.” And that is the true enemy: cynicism, accusation, the absence of confidence that this morning and this day, no matter what comes, this is a day of my salvation in my God. Yes, there are and there will be enemies and adversaries against our souls. Ephesians 6 confirms that we do wrestle and struggle against adversaries, not even primarily flesh and blood, as daunting as they may be, but against the unseen dark powers of evil. The Church has described our enemies as “the world, the flesh and the Devil” and these adversaries remain with us throughout our lives.
The honest facing of these many foes is spiritual wisdom. We do not find peace by hiding from or denying or covering over the realities of these enemies that we face every day, every morning. But we do take action. Praying Psalm 3 is effective warfare; as we lift our hearts to the Lord, as we confess him to be our helper and protection, our glory and fulfilment and the lifter up of our heads in vindication and victory. In other words, we cry out in prayer to the Lord “with our voice and he hears us out of his holy mountain”, the mountain of his great goodness and strength, the mountain from which he has sent and continues to send his mighty salvation through his Son and his Spirit.
We can and should actively give thanks to the Lord for all that rises up against us, because it is our call in these struggles to turn and to seek our God. It is in the intimacy of our drawing near and seeking his presence of grace that trouble begins to change in its power over us. Even when circumstances don’t change, his presence brings peace and when each day finds us praying we can lie down even as the Lord lay down ultimately into death; we can sleep as he slept in quiet dependence on the Father on Holy Saturday, and awaken on the new day, the Lord’s Day of Resurrection, because his God and Father was faithful in his help. For death is the final adversary, the worst that can happen, and even death is no match for the goodness of our life-giving God. And the life that is prayed [has] received the rescue of God. No enemies, though they be many, “tens of thousands”, and though they be on every side surrounding us, can trouble us as they once did for we have tasted his glorious deliverance.
This Psalm concludes with a prayer of holy tradition, spoken down through the centuries by the people of God:
Arise, O Lord…
…heard in Numbers 10 and Psalm 67: that call that marked the setting forth of the people of God as the Ark of God led them, and in Psalm 67, as the Church sees it, as the people of God rising up in the risen Christ of Pascha and moving out against all that would oppose God and his people. That great cry:
Arise, O Lord, save me, O my God.
When we begin that new venture of walking this new day in our salvation we sing and cry this great call of the people of God throughout the ages. And we confess a new conviction, deepened and strengthened: salvation is of the Lord. It is not we who save ourselves, it is not our strength, it is not our cunning: it is the Lord. And this peace leads to a life of extending love and goodwill upon all we encounter in our struggles so, even as we struggle, we look upon those around us and pray: “Thy blessing is upon thy people.”
Psalm 3 reverberates in the beautiful prayer of St. Nikolai Velimirovic in Prayers by the Lake. He prayed:
My faith is like diving into the abyss of my soul and swimming out with You…
My faith is the only genuine interest in my life.
Truly, everything else is a comedy of the senses.
As we pray and face the battles, trials and temptations of life may God give us his mercy to pray this prayer:
Let my prayer arise as incense before thee;
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.