Psalm 60: Total Dependence

You have rejected us, God, and burst upon us;
    you have been angry – now restore us!
You have shaken the land and torn it open;
    mend its fractures, for it is quaking.
You have shown your people desperate times;
    you have given us wine that makes us stagger.
But for those who fear you, you have raised a banner
    to be unfurled against the bow.

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Psalm 60

The previous Psalms have rung out with the confident assurance that, in spite of some evidence to the contrary, God was on David’s side. Psalm 60 follows on rather awkwardly. The opening verses are some of the bleakest in the Psalter: God has rejected his people, he is angry with them (v. 1) and as a result his people stagger and are bewildered like victims of an earthquake or drinkers of too much cheap wine (vv. 2, 3).

The middle verses of the Psalm (vv. 5–8) record God’s great promises to his people. They take us back to the time before the Israelites arrived in Canaan and remind them of what God said he would do. Shechem was the largest of the Canaanite cities and Sukkot was on the other side of the Jordan where some of the tribes would settle. Ephraim and Judah were the two main tribes that settled to the west of the Jordan, the images of ‘helmet’ and ‘sceptre’ being symbols of God’s rule. These short verses recall God’s great promises: ‘This land is your land’ in fulfilment of the promises that God had made many years previously to Abraham (Genesis 15).

There is a stark contrast in the description of the Israelite cities and tribes compared to the triad of regions mentioned in v. 8. John Goldingay comments, ‘God had nothing against those peoples. If they just mind their own business, they will get along fine. God has no designs on the territory of Moab and Edom.’ Admittedly, though, the Philistines – who were recent European invaders – were a different proposition.

By David’s time the Israelites were securely in possession of the Promised Land and their enemies had been defeated. However, enemies once defeated don’t always remain defeated and it seems this Psalm was written at a time when the threat level was high and the promise seemed to be in danger of unravelling (Perhaps 2 Samuel 8 and 10 provide some of the background).

The final verses of the Psalm pick up the complaint. ‘You promised you’d give us the victory but we’re not winning and we can’t win without you.’ Sometimes it is in our setbacks that we remember the truth that without God we can do nothing of any permanent worth or value. The same truth is expressed a little later in the Psalter when it says, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.’ (Psalm 127:1). In John 15:5, Jesus says, ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’

When things are going smoothly in our lives, we can overlook that truth and forget how dependent we really are upon God. Sometimes, like in this Psalm, it is the difficulties that we face that expose the inadequacy of our own resources and cause us to depend more deeply upon God. The struggles we face day to day are less likely to be military and more likely illness, advancing years, temptations, despair, depression, destructive habits, our own mortality. To say limited human help is ‘worthless’ (v. 11) may be a bit of poetic licence – there are things we can and should do to help one another – but our ultimate confidence is in God, the God who has already won the victory for us in and through his Son, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).