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A surprising and timely truth

No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.  A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.  (Psalm 33:16-17, NIV)

At our (Zoom!) prayer meeting on Wednesday we looked at these surprising lines from Psalm 33.  They appear to defy all common sense.

The number of available troops is a fundamental factor in all military planning.  Military firepower is at the heart of a nation’s ability to defend itself and project power.   What on earth, then, does the writer mean with this apparently unrealistic assertion?

The key lies in the context.  Psalm 33 celebrates the greatness of Israel’s God, the Creator of all.  And the point is that however great an army a king may have at his disposal, the Lord is ultimately in charge.  He foils the plans of the nations (verse 10); not even the greatest army can succeed against His purposes and plans.

The first readers of this Psalm – the people of ancient Israel – knew this from their history.  At the Exodus, it was the mighty army of Egypt which was defeated, not the defenceless Israelites.  Gideon prevailed against the numerically superior Midianites, David against Goliath.  Sennacherib’s army of 185,000 troops was defeated without a sword being wielded.

That is not to say that numbers of troops don’t matter: the book of Numbers begins with God calling Moses to take a census of the fighting men.  But the fact that God would normally use large numbers of soldiers to achieve His ends should never be taken to imply that He is not in overall charge, and able to do as He pleases.

Covid-19 has reminded us of our frailty and dependence on God – or at least, it should. We’d do well to remember this surprising truth from Psalm 33 as we seek a solution.

Of course we should be seeking a vaccine.  Of course we should be practising social distancing, and be concerned for provision of PPE, hospital capacity, medical staff, testing and treatments.  It is only right that huge effort should be put into these.  But will we pray?  No king is saved by the size of his army.  Without God’s help, this will not be lifted.

Praying is what the Psalm encourages us to do in the verses that follow: We wait in hope for the LORD (v20) is surely expressing an attitude of dependence on Him.  That must surely be our primary response at this time.  Previous generations knew this: the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer (1662) has prayers both for the lifting of a plague and for thanksgiving when it has been lifted.

Imagine if in some amazing mercy, God were to lift the epidemic without any record of our seeking His help.  Would that not make us pat ourselves on our backs for our achievement in saving ourselves?  Is He not, instead, calling us to call on Him in fresh dependence?

We should pray for the lifting of this plague – as His people, knowing that The eyes of the LORD are on those who fear Him, whose hope is in his unfailing love (v18).  And tell our friends that it’s to Him we’re looking for the answer.

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