I Will Sing of Thy Might and Mercy

But I will sing of thy might;
I will sing aloud of thy steadfast love in the morning.
For thou hast been to me a fortress
and a refuge in the day of my distress.
O my Strength, I will sing praises to thee,
for thou, O God, art my fortress,
the God who shows me steadfast love.

There was a scene from the movie Gandhi that seared itself into my mind. A deep hostility burned between the Hindu and Muslim populations in India. It was late at night in one of the Indian cities. You could cut the tension with a knife, the air was so full of it. Suddenly you saw a frantic crowd of men running wildly up a narrow street with torches in their hands. Then, in one of the most dramatic moments of the film, the fleeing crowd slows, turns, and realizes that there are so many more of them than the pursuers they can turn back on them. Then come five seconds of unbelievable suspense as you watch the frightened fox become a bloodthirsty hound and the bloodthirsty hound become a trapped and terrified fox.

The fire of revenge sweeps through the crowd, and they start to chase their pursuers. They run them into a house with only one exit. And then they set the house on fire.

Surrounded by a Mob

Can you imagine what it would be like to have your house surrounded by a bloodthirsty mob? No police available. No 911 to call. No appeal to reason or innocence. Just sheer rage and wickedness. David knew what it was like. Did you hear the title to the psalm? "A Miktam of David"—nobody knows for sure what Miktam means—"a Miktam of David, when Saul sent men to watch his house in order to kill him."

What is it like to be surrounded at night by vicious men who have a command from the king—whose word is law—to kill you? Verses 6–7 try to help us feel what it is like.

Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city. There they are, bellowing with their mouths, and snarling with their lips—for "Who," they think, "will hear us?"

And again in verses 14–15,

Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city. They roam about for food, and growl if they do not get their fill.

The men who came after David were like packs of bloodthirsty wild dogs that surround a trapped or wounded animal and tear it to shreds when they are starving.

As the smoke began to bellow from the Indian house, the men inside made their awful choice and stumbled out into the mob. The cheering stopped. The sword appeared. They forced one of the men to the ground and beheaded him in the street. It was an utterly terrifying scene.

The Martyrdom of John and Betty Stam

Of course, it was only a movie. But the death of John and Betty Stam was not a movie. December 6, 1934, Tsingteh, China. Betty was bathing their three-month old daughter when the Red Army surrounded the house. They took them captive and made them walk to Miaosheo. There they bound John to a post for the night. The next day they forced John and Betty to walk in their underwear through the streets of the town out and forced the people to come watch the execution. Outside town in a clump of pine trees they beheaded John Stam with a sword while his wife watched. And then when she fell over his body, they beheaded her.

This was not a movie. John and Betty Stam went to Moody Bible Institute, they were in their mid twenties like many of you, they had a three-month old daughter, and they were beheaded by howling dogs 51 years, one month, and 11 days ago today. It was no movie. And neither is Psalm 59.

God's Deliverance and the Songs of His People

David was a fugitive of the irrational king Saul. He was surrounded by fierce and bloodthirsty men. Their mission was to kill him. But God saved him. And David sang. He sang about the mercy and might of God.

So it has been all through redemptive history. The more the people of God have suffered—the more they have been forced to live on the brink of eternity where things are real and all sham and shallowness is blown away—the deeper and more beautiful has been the music and hymnody of the church. As Charles Spurgeon said, "The music of the sanctuary is in no small degree indebted to the trials of the saints."

Abide with Me

We have the great hymn "Abide with Me" because Henry Francis Lyte came to the end of his life plagued by ill health and by a church that wanted nothing more to do with him. He gave his last sermon and that evening sat watching the sun go down on his life and his ministry, and gave the church perhaps its greatest hymn on death.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide;
Then other helpers fail and comforts flee;
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

O God, Our Help in Ages Past

We have the hymn "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" because England came to the brink of a national crisis with the "Schism Act" that would have brought a Catholic monarch to the throne. But on the day in 1714 that the act was to become operative Queen Anne died, and the threat of popery was past. In all of the upheaval of those days Isaac Watts saw the hand of God. And so today we sing,

Under the shadow of thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone;
And our defense is sure.

It Is Well with My Soul

And we have the deep and moving hymn "It Is Well with My Soul" because Horatio Spafford lost four daughters at sea, and found the grace of God to write,

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Suffering and Singing

"If the eye had no tears, the soul would have no rainbow."

If no shepherd-kings were ever surrounded by fierce and bloodthirsty mobs, if no young missionaries were ever beheaded, if no pastors were ever hated and driven from their churches, if no nations ever tottered on the brink of oppression, if no daughters ever drowned at sea, the song book of the Bible and the hymnody of the church would be very thin and the singing of the church would not reach the bottom of our heart.

This is what John Calvin was getting at, I think, when he said,

If singing be tempered to that gravity which is fitting in the sight of God and the angels, it both lends dignity and grace to sacred actions and has the greatest value in kindling our hearts to a true zeal and eagerness to pray.

That kind of singing is born in the day of distress, when we taste the might and mercy of God in the midst of suffering.

William Cowper's Suffering and Songs

In November of 1731 a child was born in Hertfordshire, England. Three of his brothers and two sisters died in infancy, and two days before his sixth birthday his mother died in childbirth, leaving him one infant brother and a father.

He suffered from a physical deformity that few knew about but of which he was deeply sensitive. In 1753 he fell in love with Theodora, but her father forced an end to the relationship. He became exceedingly melancholy and resolved to end his life. He tried to hang himself, but the weight of his body broke first an iron pin and then a wooden spar. The third attempt was almost successful, but just as he went unconscious, the noose tore and his body slumped to the floor.

In 1763 he had to be institutionalized in St. Alban's Asylum for two years. During that time the wonder of God's grace began to sink in and he became a lover of the gospel. For the rest of his life he fought the recurrence of these fits of melancholy. His name was William Cowper, and we owe to his deep discoveries of grace the hymns "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" and "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood."

Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning. And when it comes, it comes with a song, not a cheap or silly song, but a deep and weighty song. It doesn't gloss over the tragedy or the pain or the loss. When the sails of joy go up, the heartaches of life, which once threatened to capsize the boat, become ballast deep in the belly of the ship to make the keel cut deep through the waves and guide the ship through rougher seas ahead.

Great songs are born out of great suffering.

A Song Born of "Evil Days"

Why do I love the hymn that Jerry Sundberg sang for me last Sunday night at the birthday party? "Wer nur den lieben Gott laesst walten"

If thou but suffer God to guide thee,
And hope in Him through all thy ways,
He'll give thee strength whate'er betide thee,
And see thee through the evil days.
Who hopes in God's unchanging love
Builds on the Rock that naught can move.

Because it was born of "evil days." Georg Neumark wrote it after he had been attacked and beaten and robbed of all he had on his way to the University of Kiel in 1641. When the sails went up, there was ballast in the ship. Georg Neumark's boat has a deep draw. He has to avoid shallow water.

The Proper Context for David's Song

The point of all of this is to put verses 16 and 17 in their proper light. David unfurls his sails in these two verses. The fierce and bloodthirsty dogs may prowl at the door of his life . . .

But I will sing of thy might;
I will sing aloud of thy steadfast love in the morning.
For thou hast been to me a fortress
and a refuge in the day of my distress.
O my Strength, I will sing praises to thee,
for thou, O God, art my fortress,
the God who shows me steadfast love.

What Moved David to Sing

Notice what has moved David so deeply: the might and mercy of God which come together to make a fortress and refuge for the saints. He says it twice. In verse 16 "I sing your might . . . I sing of your mercy." ("Steadfast love" is just another way of saying "mercy.") And the reason the might and mercy of God are so precious to David is that they come together to make a fortress—"For thou has been to me a fortress!"

Then he says the same thing again in verse 17 so we don't miss the point of his praise. First, he praises God his Strength, his might. ("O my Strength, I will sing praises to thee.") Then, in the last line he mentions God's mercy (" . . . the God who shows me steadfast love"), and between the two, he sets his eyes on the fortress ("for thou, O God, art my fortress").

So the contours and colors of this sail are clear: he is singing the might and mercy of God because they conspire to make fortress and refuge for his life.

A Fortress for John and Betty Stam

And make no mistake, they made a fortress and refuge for John and Betty Stam, too! When the China Inland Mission notified Betty's parents in Patterson, New Jersey, of the death of their daughter and son-in-law, the mission received back a telegram immediately:

Deeply appreciate your consolation. Sacrifice seems great, but not too great for Him who gave Himself for us. Experiencing God's grace. Believe wholeheartedly Romans 8:28.

Betty Stam's parents knew that "we are being killed all day long. We are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors." And they were persuaded that nothing—neither life nor death—could separate John and Betty Stam from the fortress of God's might and mercy.

Not only they, but their other children knew it too. O parents, here is an admonition to teach your children how to suffer and accept suffering. Betty's sister Helen wrote to her bereaved parents,

Dearest Daddy and Mother, you don't need to hear me say how much we love you and are thinking of and praying for you in these days . . . I have such radiant pictures of Betty and John standing with their palms of victory before the Throne, singing a song of pure joy because they had given everything they had to their Master, that I cannot break loose and cry about it as people expect. Crying seems to be too petty for a thing that was so manifestly in God's hands alone; but my heart is very, very sore for you.

David was delivered in the day of distress, and he sang of the might and mercy of God. John and Betty Stam were also delivered in the day of distress, and they also sang of the might and mercy of God.

When Will You Sing of God's Might and Mercy?

When will you really sing of the might and mercy of God? I mean really sing from the bottom of your heart?

The answer is, you will sing when you suffer for Jesus Christ, and find in the midst of that suffering that the might and the mercy of God are your refuge and strength. No, I don't mean that you should go out and try to get persecuted. I mean that we should open our eyes.

This world is one massive aching sore of need. People in nursing homes, people in hospitals, people in jails, people in half-way houses, people in pain, people in hunger, people in confusion, people enslaved to money and alcohol and drugs and pornography, people, people everywhere in need of the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation! All I mean is open your eyes and let your heart be moved, and you will suffer, if only bone weariness of love. And then you will sing.

I mean really sing, because then you will see and know the might and mercy of God in a way that you have never known it before. Safe and secure and comfortable "saints" who live for themselves and do not spend themselves to meet as many needs as they can will never sing like David. Their sails will be small, their keel will be shallow, their ballast will be light, and they will spend their lives sunning themselves on their little decks in protected coves and wonder why they cannot sing the great hymns of the church of God with any authentic depth of emotion.

The Privilege of Singing Together

O the privilege of singing together as a church! When the army of the Lord has served to the breaking point, and they have found the might and mercy of God to be a fortress and a refuge, and then they come together to worship the God of all the earth, there is nothing this side of heaven like the united voices and hearts of those people.

Singing Done Well

And so I am going to pick up the challenge of our choirmaster, Dean Palermo. Notice how this psalm begins: "To the choirmaster." Why? David had suffered. Out of his suffering had been born a song. And it was going to be sung well! It was going to be sung the way he wanted it sung. "According to Do Not Destroy." Nobody today knows what that means. But of this we may be sure: the choirmaster knew! There was a choir. There was a choirmaster. There was a song born of suffering. And there was a way to sing this song. Do it this way choirmaster: according to Do Not Destroy.

Does this not teach us that singing in the church of God ought to be done well? That there is a way that every worthy song should be sung—not just any old way, but the way that fits that song and that moment in worship? And so there was a choir and a choirmaster to lead the people in song.

The Church Hasn't Always Followed David's Lead

The church has not always believed this. William Warren Sweet wrote a history of religion in America. He said,

The musical part of New England worship consisted on Psalm singing, in which the Psalm was lined out by the ruling elder, or by one designated by the minister. The people knew few tunes, and as late as the beginning of the 18th century, New England congregations were rarely able to sing more than three or four. Even the few melodies commonly known became so corrupted that no two individuals sang them alike, so that a congregation singing sounded like five hundred different tunes roared out at the same time, often one or two words apart.

The church has not always followed David, the great singer of Israel: "To the choirmaster! Do it this way!"

An Invitation and Opportunity

On March 2 Bethlehem will move to three Sunday morning worship services at 8:15, 9:45, and 11:15. We believe the Lord's will is that we have a full choir in each of those services. We need 27 more people who are called to sing in the choir. Most will not have to sing more than one service. Some will sing in two. It costs 1 and 1/4 hours on Wednesday evening for rehearsal and 1/2 hour before the service on Sunday. January is recruitment month. Come to Dean's house tonight after the service to discuss it. The commitment is for three months.

O that we might be a singing church. Not because any of us give a hoot about art for art's sake. But because there are great things to be sung, and they are worthy of singing well! What a privilege to sing in the choir when King David says, "I have suffered in the day of my distress. And a song has been born for the people of God. Now hear me you choirmaster and you his choir, sing it this way—according to Do Not Destroy." It may be that the Lord would use you to help the people see and sing the might and mercy of God.