At our last report almost 3 million people have been evacuated from the path of hurricane Frances. It has been amazing to see the lines and lines of traffic as they all headed north to get out of the way of the storm. Over the last day or two I have noticed the reports and seen the kind of places that people have gone. One report showed a car which the reporter said had taken refuge under an overpass. Another report showed a sailboat trying to make its way through the wind to a harbor where there would be refuge from the storm. And then we have seen numbers and numbers of people sleeping in the hallways of school buildings or other secure public buildings like that. People have been trying to find a refuge from the storm.
I have been thinking about those reports as I have done my Bible reading over the past few days, especially in the Psalms. I have noticed that in these prayers and songs of Israel, one of the favorite images of what God is to his people is the picture of a shelter in the time of storm - a refuge for people.
Notice, for example, some of the passages in which this shows up in the middle of the Psalms. In Psalm 62:1,2, 8, I read, "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken." Verse 8 says, "Trust in him at all times, O People; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us." In some way the thought of God being a refuge was particularly encouraging to that man who waited for him. In Psalm 31:1-2 we read, "In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me! Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me!" And then in verses 19-20 is his response to God's help: "Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of the children of mankind! In the cover of your presence you hide them from the plots of men; you store them in your shelter from the strife of tongues." Notice the idea of God storing us in his shelter to keep us away even from the attacks brought on by the words of others. In Psalm 36:7-9, another beautiful picture of this same idea is present: "How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light." In God's light and in the light of his refuge, we see light, he says.
What is there about this picture of a refuge or a shelter in the time of a storm which made people think of God this way, and what should it mean in the lives of those of God's children now who think about their relationship to him? Let's explore that question this morning.
Start with me by thinking about this picture of a refuge which is used in the Psalms so often. My Bible encyclopedia says that a "refuge" is "a place of safety and protection." And the one thread that runs through all of the words in the Old Testament which are translated "refuge" is the idea of security. So safety and protection and security is what is implied with this picture of a refuge. It is associated in the Psalms with the thought of strength and help. If God is my refuge, that means he is my strength, and he will be my help in all kinds of trouble. And always parallel with this thought of refuge is the idea of shelter, either from danger or enemies or trouble. My encyclopedia said that one of the words translated "shelter" refers to a ship seeking safe harbor to be protected from storms, or that sometimes it refers to even the den that an animal might dwell in. I used to go with my neighbors coon hunting when I was a boy. I found that if their old dogs got after a coon and chased it and it went up a tree, then that coon was in great danger. We would get it. But if it made its way to some old ledge rock and went into a den or a refuge, then it was safe. The idea is that if you have a refuge you are safe.
The ways in which this idea is pictured in the Bible are lovely. One thought is that if God is our refuge, then it means we take shelter in the shadow of his wings. In Psalm 57, for example, in verses 1 and 2 this picture is used: "Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by." The superscription of that Psalm says that it was written when David fled from Saul and hid in the cave. That cave was a picture to David of being sheltered in the shadow of God's wings. I assume that those of us who have never tried to take an egg out from under an old setting hen don't know what that picture means. She would cluck and spread out her wings and fluff herself up, and then if you tried to rob her nest, she would attack you. God responds that way to those who hurt his people.
Another picture of God's care as our refuge is the picture of a shield. You and I think immediately of a soldier with a shield before him in battle. But it is more like the picture of a child who is in trouble, running and hiding behind his mamma's leg and then looking around at you to see what you think you can do with him. Another picture might be a big 300 lb. lineman running out before a running back, blocking for him - a shield to him. Those pictures are always involved in this word. In Psalm 5:11, 12, this idea of a shield shows up in a good way. The Psalm says, "But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you. For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover him with favor as with a shield." Isn't that a lovely idea?
And then the third way that this thought of a refuge is illustrated in scripture is with the thought of a fort or a stronghold. Sometimes this fort or stronghold will be associated with a rock, a place to stand, or a higher ground so that you would be out of the way of the danger of a flood or any type of a difficulty like that. If you were to think of living at a time in the frontier when you would be out here trying to clear some land for farm use and if you heard an attack was coming, then you might run with your family to get inside the fortress where hopefully you would be protected. That is the thought of a shield or a refuge.
One of the men from church history who was an impressive and influential man was Martin Luther. Luther lived in the early 1500s. He lived at a time when to try to suggest that common people had the right to read scripture was heresy. The idea held by the religious authorities of the time was that even when it came to singing to God, only clergymen were allowed to do that. People had been burned at the stake for thinking otherwise before Luther came along. He, however, insisted on the authority of the Lord's word and not on the authority of any man such as a pope or anyone like that. He insisted that people had not only the right, but the responsibility to read the Lord's word and respond to it themselves. So Luther set about translating scripture into his native tongue, which was German. He was brought under all kinds of threats and opposition because he had done that. He was excommunicated by the pope. He was made to stand various kinds of trials by the civil authorities. His life was in danger. As time went along, in the year 1529 when he was 45 years old, when people who believed like him found their lives in danger, he wrote a song based on Psalm 46. The words in the first verse of that song said, "A mighty fortress is our God; a bulwark never failing. Our helper, he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe. His craft and power are great and armed with cruel hate on earth is not his equal." Luther saw not only that God is a refuge, but there are many mortal ills prevailing brought on by our ancient foe, the devil.
That leads us to ask now, "Why would we need a refuge?" You and I may think, "Well, those folks in Florida who are being harmed by the storm, they had to get out of the way. But my life is secure; things are well with me. Why would I need a refuge?" It is interesting because of that thought to read these Psalms, and to observe the kinds of circumstances in which people's minds turn to a refuge. The Psalms imply that all of us will need a refuge, and that circumstances will come that we are inadequate to face alone. Unless we have a shelter to which we can flee, even our eternal destiny is in danger.
When I red the Psalms that way, here are some of the things I notice. We need a refuge or a shelter when people let us down and when folks turn against us. In Psalm 55, for example, David has been betrayed by someone and someone that he had always thought was his friend is conspiring against him. He has prayed for God to give him a refuge in this passage. He says in verse 12 and following, "if it had been an enemy taunting me, if it had been an adversary who dealt with me this way, then I could have taken it." "But," he says, "it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend." A lot of Bible scholars believe he was talking about his own son, Absalom, who turned against him and led a rebellion against him and betrayed him. Maybe you are a person who sometimes is hurt because other people don't treat you like they should. Maybe right now this morning you are mad and angry at somebody who has let you down. May I suggest that is not the way to respond to this. A shelter is needed - a refuge - and it is God.
Another situation in which these kinds of circumstances lead to the thought of shelter is when you are under attack by an enemy. Maybe it is not a familiar friend but an enemy, an adversary, an opponent either oppresses you or threatens you in some way. Two of the Psalms especially come to view in this way. In Psalm 57, as I mentioned, David was in the cave, and he thought there about refuge in God. In Psalm 59, the superscription says that this is when Saul sent men to watch David's house in order to kill him. David's life was threatened by an enemy, in other words. And in Psalm 59:9 he prays, "O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress." And in verse 16 he says, "But I will sing of your strength; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress." Perhaps you need a refuge because an enemy threatens you. Turn to God. Flee to him.
Another circumstance in which a need for a refuge appears in the Psalms is when age comes - the weakness of accumulated years. In David's case that made some of his enemies think, "Ah ha, now we've got him where we want him and we can throw him out." In Psalm 71 David says, "In you , O Lord, do I take refuge. Let me never be put to shame." In verse 3 he says, "Be to me a rock of refuge to which I may continually come." And we find out that people are thinking here that they can reject him now. He says in verse 9, "Do not cast me off in time of old age. Forsake me not when my strength is spent." When you get to the place where you see your own mortality and you deal with physical weakness and you find out no one is there for you, God is a refuge and strength.
That leads to an associated thought in Psalm 142:4, 5. God is a refuge when loneliness overtakes us. Do you realize it is remarkable that at a time when the population of the world has grown and grown and grown - there are so many people - it is remarkable how many of us are just completely lonely. We have all kinds of things to entertain us but we are empty and lonely with the feeling that nobody really cares about me as an individual. In Psalm 142 the Psalmist said in verses 4 and 5, "Look to the right and see. There is none who takes notice of me. No refuge remains to me. No one cares for my soul." Isn't that quite a thought? But in the next verse he says, "I cry to you, O Lord. I say you are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living." The first place to turn in loneliness is to God who is our refuge and our strength.
And then there is one more circumstance that stands out in the Psalms. We need a refuge when we feel like we are away from God and that we are separated from his presence, and when there is no strong fellowship between myself and the God I believe in and worship. This may be brought on by sin and failure which we know are present in our lives. It may be brought on by drifting. It may be brought on by tiredness or weariness. But it is a real circumstance. In Psalm 61 the Psalmist deals with this in the first 4 verses: "Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Let me dwell in your tent (or your tabernacle) forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!"
There are some of the cases in which shelter or refuge is needed in all of our lives. Storms come in a lot of different forms besides hurricanes. Some of them are much more threatening. Maybe you know the feeling that the Psalmist lays down in Psalm 55:4-8: "My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. And I say, 'Oh, that I had wings lie a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest." Do you feel that way? At verse 22 this Psalmist declares, "Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved." He is talking about taking refuge in God.
Let's turn our attention to God for just a moment and what it means to take refuge in him. Of course it means that he is the answer to the kinds of problems we have been mentioning here. It has to mean that or else he wouldn't be a refuge, would he? But there are some things that refuge in him doesn't mean. And I would like to call these to your attention.
Taking refuge in God does not mean that we can forget our own responsibility to act wisely. It is interesting that Psalm 91 is one of the refuge Psalms. It is the only Psalm the devil quotes in the New Testament. He uses verse 16 when he has Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple trying to tempt him, suggesting that the Psalm said that if his foot was to stumble, or if he were to fall down, God would lift him up. Of course, you remember how Jesus responded to that abuse of that idea of refuge in God that the devil was suggesting. Taking refuge from God doesn't mean that I now no longer have to think about what is right and good.
Secondly, taking refuge in God does not mean that we will not face trouble or difficult circumstances. If I have the idea that since I have turned to God for refuge, everything is going to be easy for me from now on, I will be mistaken. I ran across this week in my reading a beautiful phrase, but a thought-provoking one, from Psalm 77:9. The Psalmist was looking back to the way God delivered his people from bondage in Egypt, and he said "your way (God's way) was through the sea." There is a lesson there. God's way is not around it or away from it, but through it sometimes.
And then third, taking refuge in God doesn't mean that we can merely use God as an emergency escape. You know that is the door on the bus that you never use. That is the exit in restaurants and some public buildings which says "Emergency Exit Only." Some of us look at God that way. If we ever feel like we need him, then we will turn to him. That is not what this picture means in the Psalms. In fact, there are some cases where the prophet said, "If you treat God that way, then there will come the crisis in your life and you will cry out to him and he will say to call on that idol you have been serving. Let him answer you." Isaiah said that in Isaiah 57:13.
Seeking refuge in God means fleeing to him and living faithfully with him. The real background of this picture is the idea of the cities of refuge in the Old Testament. In Numbers 35 God provided that when they got to the promise land, they appoint six cities that would be cities of refuge. And then if anyone was involved in some sort of an unintentional activity which took someone's life, then that person could escape the avenger of blood by going to that city of refuge and having the people there judge his case and staying there until the death of the high priest. One could flee there for safety.
And the thought is always turning to God, going to him, remaining with him. In Hebrews 6:18 this thought is used for faithfully staying with the Lord. The Bible says that God, because he made a promise and then sealed it with an oath, gave us two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie so that we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast t the hope set before us. Refuge is no thought if you don't go to the refuge. It is no comfort. Jesus said in Matthew 23:37 in speaking of Jerusalem, "How often would I have gathered you to myself like a hen gathers her chicks. But you would not." Refuge means nothing is you don't go to it.
There is a lovely picture of the thought of refuge in Psalm 52. Mentioning the tragedy of the man who would not make God his refuge in verse 7, the Psalmist said in verses 8 and 9, "But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. I will thank you forever because you have done it. I will wait for you name for it is good in the presence of the godly." There is a picture of refuge in God. Trusting. That means to believe him enough to do what he says. Thanking - look around and see the good and give thanks to him for you. I challenge you today if you are feeling like you need a refuge, find something to thank God for. And third, waiting for him. Wait for his name. Stay with him, in other words, and let him deal with the storm that may rage about you in your life. There is a picture then of refuge, storms, and of a God who can shelter us from the storms.
If you have fled to the Lord for refuge, then may I encourage you today. You won't be disappointed. He will shelter you if you will stay with him. If you are needing to flee to the Lord for refuge, won't you decide this very day to believe that what Christ did for us is enough and to turn away from sin and to confess that name of Jesus and to be baptized into him and let him raise you up to walk in newness of life. If we can help you this morning, won't you let it be known while we stand and sing?