Fall Back to the Banner

Four Lessons for Our Devastations

Cities Church | Saint Paul

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
     O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

These lines, written by Francis Scott Key (1779–1843), were not penned in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and its elation. Nor in the euphoria of the late 1940s and early ’50s, when Americans felt they had saved the world from the Axis powers. Key’s poem hails not from one of American’s high times, but one of its lowest. The star-spangled banner he saw was not a symbol of American dominance, but of mere survival in one of the darkest moments.

Key’s poem was written in the midst of a war that Americans today don’t talk much about: “Mr. Madison’s War” of 1812. The President and Congress responded to Great Britain’s mistreatment of American ships and sailors on the high seas by making a landgrab at Canada. It wasn’t pretty. At many junctures, it proved humiliating.

In August of 1814, the British sacked and burned the nation’s new capital named Washington City, including the White House and the U.S. Capitol. But at that point, Washington had only been the capital for fourteen years. The real prize for the British would be Baltimore, just forty miles away.

The Battle of Baltimore came two weeks later on September 12–15, 1814. America was weak and vulnerable, on its heels. Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry, anticipating another devasting loss for America.

But “through the night” by the light of “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” Key caught glimpses of the banner still flying — not as a symbol of American dominance and strut, but mere survival under great duress. The flag still waving was a sign that hope was not yet forsaken. Despite the odds, the fort — and its weak nation — still endured as long as the banner yet waved.

Shock, Devastation, Fear

So too Psalm 60 mentions a banner as a sign of survival and a place to fall back and flee in devastation, when the invading army is advancing and routing the front lines. As the tides of defeat rise around them, surviving soldiers turn to look for the banner, a place to return and regroup, to escape and fight another day. While the banner still flies, hope remains, even as the odds mount.

Psalm 60 is the seventh and final psalm in the sequence of Psalms 54–60, which mention seven specific enemies of David. What a catalogue of foes we’ve seen: “Relatives from his own tribe, a closest friend, neighboring Philistines, King Saul, rulers of the land, murderous henchmen, [and now] enemies from distant lands” (O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms, 110–111; see Psalm 54:7; 55:12; 56:2, 9; 57:3–4; 58:1; 59:1, 10; 60:3, 11–12). In each psalm, David is under threat from foes. Yet each, significantly, ends with a note of David’s confidence in God.

We learn the particular context of Psalm 60 in the superscript: “When [David] strove with Aram-Naharaim and Aram-Zobah, and when Joab on his return struck down twelve thousand of Edom in the Valley of Salt.” Aram was the region to the north and east of Israel in David’s day, sometimes called Aramea; you may have heard of the ancient language Aramaic, which Jesus would have spoken a thousand years after David. Later, this region became Syria.

Interestingly enough, this conflict may have started, like the War of 1812, with a landgrab. Along with 2 Samual 8, we find some background in 1 Chronicles 18:3, which says, in summarizing David’s victories, “David also defeated Hadadezer king of Zobah-Hamath [same Zobah], as he went to set up his monument at the river Euphrates.” It may have been that David heard that Aram had its back turned, and David tried to catch the nation off guard.

Meanwhile, while the Israelite army went north to Aram, the nation of Edom, to the south, invaded Israel. That’s the reference in the superscript about Joab, leader of David’s army, “on his return” striking down “twelve thousand of Edom in the Valley of Salt.” Joab had gone north, but then had to return south to address Edom.

David’s Spiritual Dynamic

If we only knew the broad brushstrokes of 1 Chronicles 18 (and 2 Samuel 8), with its refrain “the Lord gave victory to David wherever he went” (verses 6, 13), we might assume that David just rolled from victory to victory, no sweat, no anxiety, no desperation.

But Psalm 60 gives us a remarkable window into the fears and uncertainties of that moment, as well as into the spiritual dynamic that eventually led to victory after victory — but not without painful setbacks and fears and distresses along the way.

Psalm 60 comes in the dark moment when David has been caught off guard by Edom, suffering an unnerving, even devastating, first wave of losses. David and the nation are undone. In their shock and embarrassment and fear, they feel rejected by God.

As we’ll see in Psalm 60:1–3, David and his people are anxious, in some measure, about God’s abandonment. Was he not supposed to protect them? And yet, in this psalm, in this painful defeat, David sees the banner still flying. Hope is not lost yet. He falls back to the banner.

Four Lessons for Our Devastation

I love that the superscript says “for instruction.” Psalm 60 not only captures a moment in history, when David finds himself in the tension between present darkness (vv. 1–3) and the light of God’s promises (vv. 6–8). It’s not only David’s expression of self-humbling in that moment, and rehearsing of God’s word in that moment, and a fresh plea to God for help in that moment.

What’s implicit in all the Psalms is explicit here: they are “for instruction.” That is, for teaching God’s people in David’s day and in every generation since, including ours, the spiritual dynamic of fleeing to God in our devastations. So, let us learn! What timeless lessons, then, might we draw as instruction for our times of devastation from Psalm 60?

1. Hope begins with the sovereignty of God.

Whatever the devastation — cancer diagnosis, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, divorce, disease, depression — hope does not begin by pretending that God didn’t see it coming or couldn’t have stopped it. A God so small that he couldn’t have prevented it will be no real help and comfort in it.

David does not begin with a few exercises in shrinking God or trying to get him off the hook. Rather, from the get-go, he owns God’s absolute sovereignty over the defeat of Israel’s army, and in doing so, he acknowledges a God big enough to actually pray to for help. Look at Psalm 60:1–3:

O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses;
     you have been angry; oh, restore us.
You have made the land to quake; you have torn it open;
     repair its breaches, for it totters.
You have made your people see hard things;
     you have given us wine to drink that made us stagger.

Acknowledging God’s sovereignty does not make David and Israel cavalier. They feel rejected. They feel confused, disoriented, made to stagger. Not only is this humiliating, but now they are pierced with fear. Will Edom win the next battle? Will Edom march on Jerusalem? Will Edom overthrow the nation? Has God rejected his people?

David begins with “O God” and then says “you” six times. And he does so, not with his finger pointed to heaven in accusation, but with his hands spread, prostrate on his knees: O God, you, you, you, you, you, you. He is humbled, not arrogant.

“God not only rules over the greatest triumphs of his people, but also their greatest losses.”

God not only rules over the greatest triumphs of his people, but also their greatest losses. The devastations of his beloved are by his allowance, but not toward the end of destruction but in service of his good purposes. We might talk of an asymmetry in his sovereignty over the good and bad. He stands directly behind the good, as it were, and indirectly over the evil. The good reflects his character, but he is no less sovereign over devastation. But for his people, for David, for us in Christ, any felt-sense of rejection from God is never the final word for his covenant people.

So even as David casts this military defeat as quaking earth and a cup of staggering, even as he counts it as if God has rejected the nation (not actually rejected, but it feels like that in the moment), David does not come at God in cynicism, but humbles himself. So our first timeless lesson is, in our devastation, hope begins with the sovereignty of God.

2. Our God gives us a banner to flee to.

As Francis Scott Key saw the banner flying and knew there was still hope, so too, in the midst of devastating news, David sees a banner still flying. Psalm 60:4–5:

You have set up a banner for those who fear you,
     that they may flee to it from the bow. That your beloved ones may be delivered,
     give salvation by your right hand and answer us!

So, all hope is not lost. But what is this banner David sees? Where does he flee? It’s not a star-spangled banner. It’s not cloth waving in the breeze at the top a pole.

In one sense, the banner is God himself (as we’ll see), but more specifically here, it is something that God has “set up.” One way to say it would be that the banner is prayer. God has set up a banner for his people in his covenant with his open ear. He hears our prayers. In our devastation, he inclines his ear.

So then, this very psalm is David’s running to the banner. It is “a hand upon the throne of the Lord” (Exodus 17:15–16), petitioning him for help. In particular, the culminating plea to God comes in Psalm 60:9–12.

God Has Spoken

But before we get there, we have an even more specific answer still as to what this banner is. Verse 6 is the hinge of the psalm. Verses 1–3: devastation. Verses 4–5: hope, there is a banner. Verses 6–8: specificity, “God has spoken.” The word of God is the turning point in the psalm. “God has spoken” changes everything.

“In your fears, in your disappointments, in your anxieties, do you fly to the banner of what God has spoken?”

Brothers and sisters, this is so precious and practical. Our God has spoken! His oath, his covenant, his blood-bought promises support us in the overwhelming flood. He has spoken. Do you flee to the banner? In your devastations, in your fears, in your disappointments, in your anxieties, do you fly to the banner of what God has spoken?

Not to a visual banner, star-spangled on a pole, but to the audible banner of God’s own words to us. Not to an image-banner, but to a word-banner. Do you ask, in your devastation, in your fears, “What does God have to say?” That God has spoken changed everything for David, and that God has spoken will change everything for us.

Cities Church, very practically, the Bible is no ordinary book. These are the very words of God to us his people, a record of his words to his people in the past and the treasury of his words to us in this age. They are not dead words, but living and active by the power of God himself in his Spirit.

How well do you know this Book? How well do you know this treasure chest of holy balms and tonics, not just applicable to our devastations, but designed especially for them? Do you come to this Book when the arrows come your way? Do you fall back first to God’s banner or flee elsewhere?

God has spoken — and not casually but “in his holiness,” that is, with the full force of divine authority and power. And in the last part of verse 6, “with exultation.” He not only speaks promises good as gold, but greatly rejoices to say them for us. He will not change his mind. His heart is settled. Fly to his banner.

3. God’s action is decisive; our action matters.

Now, there are glorious exceptions — our action is not always required. In fact, there are moments when we dare not act, except to watch in faith. We see this in Exodus 14:13–14, just before God parted the sea: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. . . . The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” Or in Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Or in Galatians 2:16: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”

David does have his moment of being still and knowing that God is God, when he rehearses God’s promises and bows in prayer. But then David doesn’t stand by passively. There’s another battle to fight. He sends Joab. He sends Abishai. He sends the army. And so the psalm ends with a prayer that leads to action and a burst of confidence. When David asks, “Who?” in verse 9, he knows exactly who. He has rehearsed God’s word. Now he asks,

Who will bring me to the fortified city?
     Who will lead me to Edom?
Have you not rejected us, O God? [echoes verse 1 and their felt-sense of rejection]
     You do not go forth, O God, with our armies. [However, in light of God’s promises:]
Oh, grant us help against the foe,
     for vain is the salvation of man!
With God we shall do valiantly;
     it is he who will tread down our foes. (Psalm 60:9–12)

“We act in faith, but God’s action is decisive. And our acting will be in vain, unless he acts.”

Vain is the salvation of man. In other words, we dare not go forth in our own strength. We dare not try to effect our own salvation. To do so is to live like the lost, to be like Edom. But verse 12 says, “With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.” Notice that we-he sequence: we shall do, and he will tread. We act in faith, but God’s action is decisive. And our acting will be in vain, unless he acts.

The decisiveness of God’s action does not make us passive, nor do we dare act in our own strength. But word-informed, prayer-requested, faith-inspired action works here in David — and in God’s people — by replacing fear with valiancy. That is, it provides the courage needed for war.

War demands the training of two kinds of strength: (1) bodily strength and (2) emotional strength, a determined, undeterred spirit or soul. We call it valor, or bravery, or courage; the heart of a lion (2 Samuel 17:10). And this is precisely what Balaam prophesied in Numbers 24:18, hundreds of years before David, about Israel one day defeating Edom: “Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly.” (1 Samuel 14:47–48 also makes this connection between Edom and fighting valiantly.)

So, though quaking and staggering, David and the nation will put to rest their fears. How? Now that we have some key pieces on the table, let’s trace the spiritual dynamic: in our devastation, fleeing to God includes acknowledging his sovereignty, flying to the banner of his word, and trusting his words, and then turning to him in prayer and asking for help. This is very basic, and yet powerful, and this is our life.

This is what God made us for: to turn to him, come to him, listen to him, trust him, ask him for help, and act in faith. This is the dynamic of the Christian life, individually and corporately, again and again. This is what we do every Sunday in worship, and this is the pattern for our days. Let every fear and threat turn you to God, to hear him, trust him, ask him for help, and act in reliance on him.

But we have one final lesson that’s at the very bottom and center of the spiritual dynamic.

4. God protects his own without fretting or breaking a sweat.

The raging of his people’s enemies is child’s play to our God. The heart of Psalm 60 — and this is the main lesson — is the bigness and calmness and power of our God in verses 6–8. It’s this vision of God through his word that then leads to David’s confidence in verse 9–12. But God’s majesty and composure comes first. So let’s finish with Psalm 60:6–8:

God has spoken in his holiness:
     “With exultation I will divide up Shechem
     and portion out the Vale of Succoth.
Gilead is mine; Manasseh is mine;
     Ephraim is my helmet;
     Judah is my scepter.
Moab is my washbasin;
     upon Edom I cast my shoe;
     over Philistia I shout in triumph.”

Verses 6–7 mention parts of the land God has promised his people, going back to Jacob. Shechem (in Canaan) and Succoth (across the Jordan) were the first places Jacob settled when he returned from Aram, of all places (Genesis 33:17). So too Gilead is across the Jordan. Manasseh spans the Jordan. And Ephraim and Judah (north and south) compromise the heart of the promised land.

The effect of rehearsing God’s claim on these lands in verses 6–7 is that it reminds David in his time of need of God’s unbreakable commitment to Israel, and that God would not let Edom take his lands.

In fact, now in a reversal, God calls the neighboring lands his. That’s verse 8, the culminating declaration showing God’s bigness and strength and power. Fret as David may over Edom, Edom does not make God sweat. He will wash his feet in Moab. And he will fling his shoe on Edom like it’s just a shoe rack in the corner. And by the way, Philistia will be his too. This vision of God in his power — without fretting, without sweating, calmly bringing his people’s foes into submission with his feet resting on their backs — is the heart of what moves David and the nation from fear to faith.

God Threw His Shoe on Edom

Forty years ago this fall, our mother church Bethlehem Baptist was worried about this massive stadium that had come to downtown, just across the street. Tens of thousands of Vikings fan would be descending on that corner of downtown on Sunday mornings before noon games, and little Bethlehem across the street wondered, “Are we doomed? Will the hordes streaming in overrun us and send us fleeing to the suburbs for a place to worship?”

On Sunday, September 12, 1982, the Viking hordes came. And two days later, on September 14 — so exactly forty years ago this week — pastor John Piper quoted Psalm 60:8 and wrote this:

Picture Edom in rebellion against Yahweh and his people. Picture them mustering thousands and thousands of warriors. Picture the iron chariots, the war horses snorting and stamping, the bulging muscles and bronze skin of the mighty men, the razor sharp swords, the awful pointed spears, the shields flashing in the sun, the unflinching countenance of seasoned solders. . . . Fearful, dreadful, fierce and powerful.

When God sees them coming he sits down. . . . God sits down to wash his feet! And then, as one would flick a fly, he tosses his shoe on Edom. And 18,000 soldiers fall. God never even looked; he scarcely heard the noise. The world sits stunned at the victory; God sits with his feet in the water.

God is never ruffled. He never jerks. When attacked from behind, he is never startled. At just the right moment he tosses his shoe and all the enemies are crushed. He does not honor them with any nervous preparation. He has set his own schedule for the day and he will accomplish all his purpose. The enemy may try to interrupt, but will not be able to cause the slightest pause in the washing of his feet.

Cities Church, this is our God. He never frets about our enemies. He never sweats over our foes. Not because he doesn’t care. Oh does he care! But because he is God! “The nations rage and the peoples plot,” says Psalm 2. “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Christ . . .” And: “He who sits in the heavens laughs” (Psalm 2:1–4). “All the nations are as nothing before him,” says Isaiah 40:17, “they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.”

Never ruffled. Never jerks. Never startled. No nervous preparation. At just the right moment he tosses his shoe and all the enemies are crushed. As Derek Kidner says about verses 6–8:

It is as though, at the height of a children’s quarrel, which has come to blows, there could be heard the firm tread and cheerful voice of the father. . . . Like a colossus, God dominates the scene [of verses 6–8]: it is no longer a matter of rivals fighting for possession, but of the lord of the manor parceling out his lands and employments exactly as it suits him. (Psalms 1–72, 217)

Here’s how Piper closed his letter to Bethlehem back in September of 1982:

Last Sunday the Vikings drew their crowd. And we survived. We not only survived; Sunday School attendance shot beyond last fall . . . . The dome is dead as a threat to Bethlehem Baptist Church. We saw the hordes coming. But we waited for God, and he threw his shoe upon Edom. He was never nervous. He never wrung his hands. He had no plan B. And now?

Let us dream. We will be at 13th Ave. and 8th Street in ten years. The dome is dead as a threat. It is as harmless as a big strapped marshmallow.

Staggering to Clarity

So we come to the Table. In Christ, we now know so much more than David about this God and his salvation, as we come to God’s banner, the place where we flee in danger. And the banner of God’s word tells of the banner of the cross to which we fly in our sin. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2).

In Psalm 60:3, David said, about God’s will in allowing Israel’s first loss to Edom, “You have given us wine to drink that made us stagger.” But here at the Table, Christ gives us wine to drink that awakens us, and brings clarifying reminders of his word, and makes us rejoice. At the Table, in Christ, our God reminds his people who feel rejected that they are, in fact, his beloved.