October 18, 2015 • Life for Leaders
Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him.”
Psalm 18 celebrates God’s deliverance of David from danger and distress. “The cords of death encompassed me,” he writes, “The cords of death encompassed me” (18:4). Yet, as David cried out to the Lord, God heard him and came to deliver him.
The prose version of what happened next would read unimaginatively: The Lord rescued David from his enemies and kept him safe. But the Psalms are poetry, not prose. Psalm 18 delivers not just the facts but, rather, a vivid picture of God’s coming in awesome power to deliver David. This portrayal utilizes a variety of stirring images, including a mighty earthquake and a spectacular thunderstorm (18:7, 11-14). In verse 8, God is pictured as a sort of dragon: “Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him.”
Now that’s enough to get the attention of a ten-year-old boy! But what does it tell us about God? And how can we relate to a God with smoking nostrils? The images of Psalm 18 aren’t meant to convey literal truth about God’s nature. Rather, they are poetic, culturally embedded, and theologically powerful representations of God’s strength and judgment. In particular, they point to the mighty acts of God in Exodus, when he parted the waters of the Red Sea (Exod 14:15-31) and visited the Israelites on Mt. Sinai with thunder, lightning, smoke, and an earthquake (see Exod 19:16-20).
The good news of Psalm 18 is not only that God is mighty but also that he is mighty for us. When we cry out to him, he comes to save us. Of course, one of the greatest ironies of God’s salvation is that it is ultimately centered in the apparent weakness and defeat of the cross. Yet, through the cross, God took upon himself the fire of his righteous judgment. In the death of Christ, God bore our punishment for sin, thus defeating the power of sin and even death itself. Psalm 18 invites us to celebrate God’s salvation in Jesus Christ: “I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, so I shall be saved from my enemies” (18:3).
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Why do you think God inspired the psalmist to depict his nature in such bold and shocking images?
What images might you choose today to convey the saving power of God?
Have you ever experienced a situation like that of David in Psalm 18? How did God rescue you?
Thank you, Almighty God, for the poetic images of Psalm 18.
You are indeed my rock, my fortress, my savior, my shield. You protect me in ways I can see and in ways I’ll never know. In you, I am safe for eternity.
You are a God of power, whose presence is like smoke and fire. Your word thunders. Your judgment strikes like lightning.
You are the one who reached down and rescued me from the deep waters of sin. You have delivered me again and again from the pits into which I have fallen.
O God, you are faithful, with complete integrity. You are pure in your grace and your judgment. You light my way. Indeed, you are perfect.
All praise be to you, God of power, God of mercy! Amen.
P.S. This reflection is based on an earlier version that appeared at The High Calling. It is used with permission through a Creative Commons license.
“Rinjani 1994” by Oliver Spalt. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.