Last night I went to dinner with two good friends. The food and the conversation were more than enjoyable but the night was far too short. It was the sort of night I wish could have gone on for much longer than it did. But time being what it is, does not allow for lasting enjoyment of temporal moments: there is always the morning after.
The morning after any enjoyable event often becomes a time of sadness for me even though I know I should rejoice in the good times and hold hope for the next. But when the morning after comes with all of its drudgery, routine, and oftentimes, loneliness, I find it difficult to remember the past joys and hold hope for the future.
I think Psalm 54 reads like a morning after psalm unless it is read in isolation. On its own, Psalm 54 is the cry for salvation from one who has been pursued by people intent on killing him. David cries to God seeking his help and vindication, begging for evil to be turned back upon the evildoers, and offering sacrifice and praise in return. This reading of Psalm 54, coming while David is being pursued by Saul (I Samuel 26), is not unfamiliar to us today, as we have often cried for help and vindication offering sacrifice and praise in return. But this reading, as helpful as it may be, does not fully explain this psalm.
Note that David opens Psalm 54 with cries for salvation about a present unresolved difficulty, but closes the psalm triumphantly by saying “You have delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.” David is in trouble and claims to have already been delivered from his foes, but how can this be? How can David cry about unresolved troubles AND exalt in God’s present delivery from his foes?
One way to resolve this tension is that David could be talking about two different events. Maybe verses 1 and 2 speak of the trouble he is currently having with Saul and as a way of building confidence, he recalls a different foe from the past from whom God delivered him (verse 7). Another possible way to resolve the tension is that Psalm 54 was written partly before his troubles were resolved and partly after, thus the triumph in verse 7 follows the events of verses 1-3. Either option fits neatly within orthodox theology and would be more than sufficient to resolve the tension. But I think there is a third way to read Psalm 54.
If the Psalms can be read as a single unit with each psalm moving the thematic structure forward, (as I have suggested in previous posts) then to understand Psalm 54 we must look at what comes before it. Psalms 45-48 offers a joyful glimpse of the conquering groom who sits on his throne in his holy city ruling the nations. Psalms 49-53 describe the judgment enacted by the groom and the difference between the righteous and foolish man: then comes Psalm 54. Psalm 54 seems to be the first in a long line of what I will call morning after psalms (Psalm 54 – 71) all of which are prayers seeking God’s help. When read this way, verse 7 declares David’s confidence in the future yet already completed work of God’s while verses 1-3 offers a cry for help regarding the present daily reality of his arrogant foes.
Augustine wrote, “Who shall lay hold upon the mind of man, that it may stand and see that time with its past and future must be determined by eternity, which stands and does not pass, which has in itself no past or future.” Augustine seems to indicate that God does not isolate our present painful events from his future conquering of those events: both are seen as a completed work. Even more so, our life is a completed work, the days of which God knew from before we breathed our first breath (Psalm 139:16). This means that when we cry to God about foes who are attacking us, like David, our hope does not rest in a possible future, but in a definite future in which God has already conquered every foe presently attacking us.
While I can hold no certainty for a future dinner with my friends, I know there is a future dinner, hosted by God, to whom all of his children are invited. This dinner, taking place at the end of all things, is the wedding supper of the groom finally uniting him with his bride, the church. I think the small joys I felt last night are like the images of the conquering groom in Psalm 45-48: a foretaste of great joys yet to come. And if there is anything that can offer real hope in the dismal experience of the morning after, it is the knowledge that God has already won every battle in all time, for all time. In fact, it is the only thing that can get us through the morning after.