Freedom from Panic
While the sources may be diverse, we all hear the voices of panic in various ways. Sometimes they’re helpful, but how can we not be controlled by them? Take refuge in the LORD and you won’t have to panic.
Psalms 1-72 (Kidner Classic Commentaries), Derek Kidner
If you’ve ever spent time thinking or talking about what causes anxiety or panic, you’ve probably at some point thought about the prevalence of news and social media. There’s no news like bad news, right? Panic sells. If a company can get you to panic, they can get you to buy their product. If a politician can get you to panic, he or she can get your vote. If a news network can get you to panic, they can get you to keep watching. One way to deal with that, of course, is to dial down your media intake, and that’s probably a wise step for most of us. But the voice of panic doesn’t always go away so easily. Sometimes it’s your own nervous system telling you to panic. That may be because it’s functioning properly, or there may be some sort of illness causing it; sometimes it’s worth consulting a physician. But in the Psalm at which we’re looking today, the author, David, who lived long before mass media and modern medicine, also heard the voice of panic, and yet found a way to not be controlled by it. He took refuge in the LORD. Take refuge in the LORD and you won’t have to panic, because He’s not panicking, He is working, and He is righteous.
He’s not panicking
David says in verse 1 that he takes refuge in the LORD, which means that when scary things come into his life, the way he gets through them, the thing he looks to for comfort and hope amid them, is the LORD. He prays his way through, praises his way through, and obeys his way through. He’s surprised, then, when people begin saying to his soul, “Flee like a bird to your mountain.” His thought is, “Why would I need to do that? Don’t you know the LORD is my refuge? How can you say this to me?” Nonetheless, they do, and they have reasons to do so. Look at verse 2: The wicked bend the bow, their arrow is fitted to the string, and their target is the upright in heart. Even the foundations are apparently under attack or perhaps already faltering. The foundations refer to those things that give life stability: It could be certain people in key positions of authority or certain systems that must be in place for us to live our lives normally. In today’s terms, this might feel like no longer knowing that you could go to the grocery store and get the food you need, no longer feeling like you could walk outside your house with a reasonable expectation of safety, no longer feeling like if a crime were committed, it would be addressed. The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic felt like that for many, and I know sometimes for marginalized people groups especially it feels like the foundations that hold up the rest of the society aren’t as available to you. Perhaps you see cultural trends today that make you feel like the foundations of our society are being shaken.
And so you hear these voices: Flee like a bird to your mountain. Panic. It may be the voices I mentioned earlier, it may be the voice of Satan: He doesn’t like you taking refuge in the LORD; he wants you fleeing. And sometimes, it may even be your friends, as it seems it was, in this case, close counselors of David’s telling him to flee. And again, there are sometimes good reasons to flee. If you’re standing in the middle of traffic and a car is speeding right at you, taking refuge in the LORD doesn’t mean you just stand there. You should listen to your nervous system and move so that the car doesn’t hit you. But panic looks more like this: That happens once and now I conclude that I need to move out of the city, because after all, there are a lot of cars in the city, and you never know when one might hit you. Panic looks like now every time I cross the street, even if I’ve got a walk sign and looked both ways, I feel like a car is speeding at me, and so I never really cross the street anymore.
So you see, panic has only one word of counsel when you perceive even the slightest possible threat: “Flee.” When you’re controlled by panic, you can’t discern between a genuine threat that it would be wise to flee, and a relatively insignificant one that it would be foolish to flee. So taking refuge in the Lord enables you to assess risk more wisely, but it goes further than that too. In David’s situation, because he took refuge in the LORD, he stood in the face of a real threat, and still decided he should not flee. He’s the king of Israel, and when the foundations are threatened, what’s the worst thing the king could do? Flee. So taking refuge in the LORD means not only that you can assess threats accurately; it also means you can discern when you should stay even in the face of genuine threats. There are times when I should actually jump in front of a speeding car, if my 2-year-old son were in front of it, for example.
And there are times where we face other real threats, and love for God and neighbor means we shouldn’t flee. I remember years back when Gerry Grandzol was shot and killed in Spring Garden just a few blocks from here. He was a guy in his 30s who parked his car on his block when two guys stuck him up to jack his car and ended up shooting and killing him. And normally when there’s a shooting in Philly there was a story behind it, a reason this person was targeted. But with that one it hit me, “That could have been me.” And what did I want to do? What voice did I hear? Flee. Get out of this city, even though the odds of something like that happening to me are incredibly small. And I’m not saying that’s necessarily the wrong decision for anyone, but it’s not automatically the right one either. Not only is the threat small, but I’m a pastor, and I realized in a time when at least some others in our church were feeling the same panic, that about the worst way I could shepherd them would be to leave them to do that by themselves. So fleeing is not always wrong, but panic will make you feel like you must flee in the face of even the smallest possible threats, and it will disable you from staying in the face of genuine threats when love for God and neighbor requires you to do so.
But this Psalm shows us someone taking refuge in the LORD, who in the face of a genuine threat, with everyone around him telling him to flee, doesn’t have to panic. Why? Look at verse 4. What a contrast with verse 3. Verse 3 is, “Oh no; the foundations are threatened! What can the righteous do?” Verse 4: The LORD is in His holy temple; the LORD’s throne is in heaven. The foundations of the city of Jerusalem may have been shaken, but there is a city with foundations, whose maker and builder is God, and since God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved. The arrows of the wicked may be fitted to the string, but they can’t reach the LORD in his holy temple, they can’t reach His throne in the heavens. He’s not panicking; He’s ruling. Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases. None can stay His hand or say to Him, “What have you done?” No purpose of His can be thwarted. That arrow the wicked holds in his hands, wicked though his intentions are, will only fly where the LORD permits it. The things you fear will not happen unless the LORD permits them.
So you see, Pastor Tim Keller points out that the mistake we make is we assume that if we aren’t in control, the world is out of control. We assume that if the foundations are destroyed, there’s nothing to do but flee. But there is something else for the righteous to do. They can trust. They can take refuge in the LORD, and trust that He is in control. Take a deep breath. God’s not panicking. What He is doing, is He’s working.
He is working
The biblical scholar Derek Kidner says that God’s stillness on His heavenly throne is not inactivity, but concentration. He’s doing something, and verse 4 goes on to tell us: His eyes see, His eyelids test the children of man, and more specifically, the LORD tests the righteous. Why do the righteous face threats? What is God doing in our sufferings? There are a lot of things, and several answers the Bible gives, but here is one: The LORD is testing the righteous. Now God is omniscient, so it’s not as though He needs the test to figure out new information. The word “test” there is a word used in metallurgy, where one tests a metal by exposing it to significant heat. The heat then exposes any impurities in the metal and burns them off. So what the LORD is doing when He tests the righteous is He’s exposing our impurities and burning them off.
Testing, then, is an indication of God’s love for us, not His absence or opposition to us. Notice in verse 5 that it’s the righteous He tests, whereas His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. He doesn’t hate the righteous; He tests them. There’s a story of a lumberjack who once went into a forest to cut down trees, but he noticed that in one of the trees to which he came, there was a bird nesting. So out of love for the bird, the lumberjack went over and shook the tree. Now to the bird that wouldn’t feel like love, just as if metal had feelings, I’m sure the intense heat of testing wouldn’t feel like love, but what it did is it forced the bird to move and nest in another tree. Only the lumberjack knew they were going to be taking that one down too. So he went and shook it. And he continued doing this until the bird finally went and built its nest on a rock.
The fact is, all the trees of this earth are coming down. So God, because He loves us, begins shaking them. God starts shaking the foundations to test David: Were they your ultimate refuge, or am I? After Gerry got shot, the LORD tested me: Was “well I’m sure there’s a story behind it” your refuge, or am I? When Christian teachings and behaviors become less culturally admirable, the test comes: Is “At least my neighbors respect me” your refuge, or is the Lord? When the money gets tight and the voice of panic comes: Hoard, don’t give, the test comes: Is that money your refuge, or is the Lord? And as you age, the LORD keeps shaking trees. The things you thought would solve your problems don’t. The things you thought would last don’t. Friends and family start dying around you. It’s an unpleasant thought, but pretending it’s not the case won’t help. The foundations get shaken, but the LORD is doing something good.
So when the voices of panic come, don’t assume the only solution is to flee. Again, there are times when that is appropriate, but the LORD isn’t panicking. He’s in control, so take a deep breath, and ask honestly, “Ok Lord, what do you want to do in me through this?” What is this exposing about where my hope is? How can I use this trial to transfer my hope from that account to you, to flee to you rather than just feeling from this threat? Far too often Christians skip this important question because they get stuck grieving the trial, which is appropriate, but not ultimate, or they get so busy just trying to fix the situation that they never stop to ask what God is doing in the situation. Maybe in the end you do decide to change your circumstances: You move, you redo your budget, you change jobs, etc., but you might as well squeeze every ounce of benefit from the testing while you’re in it to build your nest more firmly on the one rock that cannot be shaken. Because if all you do is move to another tree, that one is going to get shaken one day too. Don’t resist God’s loving refinement. He’s working something good in you through the threats you face. Take refuge in Him, and you won’t need to panic, finally, because He’s righteous.
He is righteous
In verse 6 David prays a prayer that if you’ve been with us through the past few Sundays of Psalms, by now should look somewhat familiar. He asks God to bring His judgment on the wicked: “Let him rain coals on the wicked.” As usual, David doesn’t take matters into his own hands, but he does ask God to execute justice on these wicked people who love violence and threaten the righteous with it. He then expresses confidence that God will answer this prayer: “fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.” In older translations that word sulfur was translated brimstone, so this is one of those passages where we do see that God brings fire and brimstone in judgment on the wicked. Is that because God is a kind of mean, harsh God? Why all the talk of fire and brimstone?
Because, verse 7, the LORD is righteous. If the judge in George Floyd’s murder case had let Derek Chauvin go without punishment, how many of us would have said, “Wow what a great judge. Isn’t it great that he’s so nice?” Not many of us I’m guessing, because we saw that Chauvin was a man who loved violence who represented a culture of violence especially against Black Americans, and our sense of righteousness directed us to think that if that judge were righteous, he would pronounce a sentence of judgment that fit Chauvin’s crimes. So also because the LORD is righteous, because He’s a just judge, He will rain fire and brimstone on the wicked, on those who love violence. That’s the cup they will drink.
And for the same reason, because the LORD is righteous, He loves righteous deeds, and therefore those who do righteous deeds, the upright, shall behold His face. In theology we call this the “Beatific vision,” the end for which every human was created: To behold the face of God Himself. We get hints that we were made for this from the various ways we desire to behold glory now. The NBA playoffs are on now, and I love watching them. Why? Because I love basketball, these players are significantly better at it than I am, and something in me enjoys watching them do it better than I can. Why do we climb mountains, look at art, stare into the eyes of someone we love? Because we sense there is something greater than us out there, and we enjoy beholding it! Yet even the best basketball player could be better and even the greatest piece of art will one day perish. So as C.S. Lewis pointed out, if we find in ourselves a desire nothing in this world can satisfy, the best explanation is that we were made for another world. All these lesser glories are meant to point us to the one glory we were made to enjoy beholding forever: The one who made them all, the original glory, the Lord himself.
For the one who takes refuge in the LORD, this is what we have to look forward to. Our hope is not ultimately that the arrows won’t hit us; that’s in the Lord’s hands. Our hope is that one day we will behold His face, and in that day, all the arrows of earth will seem like thumbtacks. All the things we feared so much that seemed like such a big deal will pale in comparison to the glory we’re beholding. It will be like growing up. You ever look back on your teenage self now and realize just how insignificant many of the things that made you panic then seem now? You never could have imagined it then, but it’s true now. And you can’t imagine now how the things that give you occasion to panic will seem insignificant. In and of themselves, they may not be, but in comparison to the glory you will behold then, they will be.
But of course, this will only free you from panic if you know that you will see His face in the end, if you know that you are among the upright. Fire and brimstone are the portion of the wicked’s cup; only the upright will behold His face. How could it be otherwise? The LORD is righteous! So who is upright enough to behold His face? If we were to guess a character in the Bible, maybe we could start with Moses. The book of Hebrews tells us he was faithful in all God’s house. Yet even he, when he asked to behold God’s face, was told that he could not, for the sight would kill him. Moses, upright as he was, was, like the rest of us, a sinner. According to his own merits, he could not see the face of God and live. How can we?
We can because God first came to us. When a man named Philip asked Jesus to show him the father, Jesus replied, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). Though veiled in flesh, God came and showed His face in Jesus Christ. He was true God, and yet He also left His throne in heaven and lived as the only truly upright human there ever was. There was a time in His life on earth where He told one of His friends, Peter, that He was going to be nailed to a cross, and Peter tried to dissuade Him. Peter told him in more words or less, to flee like a bird. But He took refuge in the LORD, and defiantly went to the cross, where Satan shot his strongest arrow at Him, and the arrow did actually hit. The Lord did not spare Him, because even this great act of wickedness was part of God’s plan to accomplish our salvation. The fire and brimstone of God’s judgment fell on Him. He suffered the judgment of the wicked on our behalf and because He did so willingly, He received the reward of the righteous. He rose again and ascended into heaven where he beheld the face of the LORD, and now the place we behold the face of the LORD is in his face.
To take refuge in the LORD, then, is to take refuge in Him. It’s to flee to Christ, who saves us from the wrath to come. In His face, by faith, we see only the face of a loving Father, not an angry judge. So take refuge in Him, and even fire and brimstone need not make you panic. It will only purify you. The LORD who reigns above is not panicking, and He is for you. Take a deep breath. However these threats end, you will behold His face, and they will seem small in comparison.