Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. –Psalm 16:1
This verse has become the most common prayer that I pray. I pray it both for its simplicity and its profundity. The logic of the prayer is that of a child’s: “Save me for no other reason than that I’m in danger and I’ve run to you for help.” “Keep me because I seek safety and protection in you.” Not, “Keep me because of my past or future faithfulness.” Not, “Preserve me because I’m useful or because I’m worthy.” Just, “Preserve me, because I’m frightened and I’m here and my eyes are looking to you.”
The childlike spirit of the request is reflected in Thomas Ken’s “Evening Hymn.”
All praise to thee, my God, this night
For all the blessing of the light.
Keep me, O keep me, King of kings
Beneath thine own almighty wings.
But the prayers of a child are not necessarily childish prayers. Often there is a depth and weight to such prayers which make them fitting for Christians of all ages. Meditate with me on the depth of this simple prayer.
King David’s prayer implies perils we must seek refuge from. There are threats, dangers, hostile forces, challenges. And there are. In the world. In the church. In your life and mine.
The psalm does not specify the dangers. But we can imagine. The dangers could be external. Enemies who plot and scheme and set traps. Wicked men who lie in wait and pursue the innocent. Liars and slanderers who utter false things against us. Disease and sickness which lay us low. The loss of wealth or job or other forms of earthly security.
All of these (and more) could be in the mind of the psalmist. More importantly, the absence of specificity allows us to fill in the gap, to supply our own dangers and threats and challenges so that David’s prayer becomes our own.
In the face of the danger (whatever dangers we face), the response is the same: we seek refuge in God. The notion of “taking refuge” is a common one in Scripture. It means to find shelter and protection and safety in something. When the scorching sun beats down on us, we take refuge in the shade of a tree. When the icy winds and snowstorms threaten, we take refuge in a warm house.
The image often connotes a pursuer (Psalm 7:2; 17:7). If a man accidentally kills another, for example, he flees to a city of refuge in order to be kept from the avenger of blood. Or the city of Zion, founded by Yahweh, is a refuge for the afflicted of his people (Isaiah 14:32). If someone shoots an arrow at us, we take refuge behind a shield.
A refuge belongs to a cluster of biblical terms that identify places of sanctuary and strength. Psalm 18 stacks such terms one after another. “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2).
“When our self-sufficiency is proved to be the lie that it is, where do we run?”
To seek refuge means to find the place where we can let down our guard, where we don’t have to be on high alert. To find refuge is to find rest, a place where we can sleep because someone strong and secure is keeping watch. Images give the term meaning. The child, fleeing from a bully, takes refuge at his older brother’s side. The chicks, hearing a loud noise, take refuge beneath the wings of their mother. The desperate family, pursued by soldiers, finds a hiding place in the Ten Boom house.
The prayer of Psalm 16:1 poses challenging questions to us. When we face dangers and threats, where do we turn? When our self-sufficiency is proved to be the lie that it is, where do we run? When we sense danger, we all seek refuge. But do we seek refuge in God? Do we run to him? Do we hide in him? Or do we run to earthly shelters, to worldly fortresses, to false idols?
There are real external dangers in the world. And when we face them, we ought to seek refuge in God and cry to him to keep us.
I am daily sensible, though, that the greatest threat to my being kept and preserved is not external opposition, or persecution by non-Christians, or physical threats, or relational conflict among former friends and colleagues, or misrepresentations and slander. The greatest threat to my being kept is my own unbelief. Not things out there; something in here. Unbelief is the greatest threat and danger and challenge that I face. Which means when I pray, “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge,” I mean, “I take refuge in you from me.” My thoughts. My passions. My sinful desires. My doubts. My moods. My unbelief.
What’s more, I have found that frequently Psalm 16:1 is both a request and a fulfillment of the request. That is, God is answering the prayer, in part, in my praying of the prayer. He is keeping me in my prayer to be kept. The prayer itself interrupts the thoughts, passions, desires, doubts, and moods that were threatening my faith.
Consider how Psalm 16:1 interrupts doubts. There I am, living as a Christian, resting in and hoping in Christ. The risen Christ is a living assumption undergirding my life and actions, and his word and gospel frame reality for me.
Then doubts come crashing into that normal Christian life. Perhaps doubts about my eternal state. Or perhaps doubts about the reality of God and the truth of the gospel. The bedrock conviction of life feels shaken. Faith feels fragile, and I wonder whether I’ll be kept. In those moments, “the God question” can easily become all-consuming. Unbelief and skepticism become the default posture of the soul, and the mind revolves endlessly on itself, looking for a way out. In other words, I’m seeking refuge.
“God is not a puzzle to be solved, but a person to be sought.”
In those moments, Psalm 16:1 is both a prayer and a means of deliverance. The prayer reframes the doubts and the questions because Psalm 16:1 is both a description and an enactment. I don’t just ask him to keep me because I’ve sought refuge in him in the past. I am seeking refuge in God now, in the present, by asking him to keep me now, in the present.
In praying the psalm, I turn from thinking about God as an intellectual puzzle from a posture of unbelief. Instead, I am addressing God as a person from a posture of desperate and child-like faith. And that difference is crucial. God is not a puzzle to be solved, but a person to be sought.
Psalm 16:1 interrupts my doubts by awakening me to the reality that we never talk about God behind his back. Our thoughts and deeds, our desires and doubts, our questions and moods — all of these are conducted in his presence, before his face, at his right hand.
The prayer of Psalm 16:1 is a prayer of faith, since I am no longer attempting to reason about God in his absence but addressing him as Father in his presence. And through such awakenings and interruptions, God answers my prayer. He keeps me, because I seek refuge in him.
Yes, Psalm 16:1 is as profound as it is simple, as simple as it is profound. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. And therefore, I encourage you, in the face of dangers and enemies, anxieties and fears, doubt and unbelief, make Psalm 16:1 your prayer.
Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.