There are “no atheists in foxholes,” we are told. When artillery is “incoming,” even the most godless can call upon the Lord. God is, however, not some anonymous bellhop, to be summoned whenever we feel the need. In one of the most fearful denunciations upon those who pretended to be His followers, though living godless lives, the Lord declared, “I will break the pride of your power; I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze” (Lev. 26:19).
“Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23), and “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). True as it is that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21), it is also true, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, that “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ ” (Matt. 7:22). This is not caprice, for, as Jesus explains, “whatever things you ask in prayer, believing,” that you will receive (Matt. 21:22). Fear is not faith, and calling the name of God in a blue funk is not the same as knowing whom we believe. Here David shows us the way.
The motivation David gives for calling on God is not a grocery list of needs and requests, but an act of worship acknowledging God for who He really is—“Yahweh,” the covenant God, who is “worthy to be praised” (2 Sam. 22:4a). Awe and reverence clothe every mention of God’s name (2 Sam. 22:2–3). David speaks as an experienced believer, to be sure, but this is surely also the spirit of the first application of any sinner to the Lord for mercy, as he comes in the act ofbelieving in Him for salvation. Prayer that treats God as a kind of celestial welfare system betrays an absolute, if not willful, ignorance of who it is who is dealing with us.
Perhaps because we are so well schooled today in the politics of welfare, we instinctively assume that it is our right to have our needs met whenever required—after all, they are called “entitlements” when they come from the state. The government is accountable to the sovereign electorate, is it not? But Scripture teaches the exact opposite when it tells us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). God owes us nothing. We are totally accountable to Him. He does not come running when His subjects whistle. But He does answer every call of a living faith that looks to Him as the giver of every good and perfect gift and, most crucially, the giver of His Son to be the Savior of sinners.
Commitment to the Lord always changes things. David believes that because God is who He is, he will be saved from his enemies (2 Sam. 22:4b–7). There is an air of expectation to the believer’s prayer. The God “worthy of praise” is able and willing to do great things. Believing prayer is not “comfort food” for the soul—consoling to the nerves, maybe, but essentially empty—but is communion with the Lord who acts in grace. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).
When we grasp that this passage (2 Sam. 22 is a version of Psalm 18) is prophetic of the Messiah, we can understand that the desperate intensity of the prayer for deliverance finds its ultimate destination in the agonies of Christ as He faces His enemies and the Cross itself, and also embraces His promised victory over sin and death. Here is David, as Peter puts it in Acts 2:30ff., speaking as a prophet, anticipating the coming of God’s ultimate Savior, Jesus. Accordingly, we who live in the light of the already finished work of Christ as the bearer of God’s just punishment of the sins of believers must all the more expect blessing from God.
That fiery evangelist, W. P. Nicholson (1876–1959), said that, in his youth in Bangor, Ireland, the harbormaster would stand on the quay every Sunday and blaspheme God, giving Him “ten minutes to kill and damn” him. Then he would declare to the boys who gathered to hear him: “There you are! You are a lot of fools. There is no God. Isn’t that proof that there’s no God?” God never took up that defiant atheist’s challenge, but one day the man fell ill and knew he was dying. For three days, his loud cries for mercy, interspersed with curses and blasphemies against God, rang out, until the doctors sedated him quietly into a lost eternity.
Nicholson drove home his point in Jesus’ words: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). It is not true that “It’s never too late” to call on the Lord. David knew this and called on God in his childhood. Continuing to seek the Lord became forever after his “vital breath” and “native air”—which is why we have so many of his psalms in God’s Word—each one calling us to call upon the Lord.
I’ll call on God; the Lord will save;
I will complain and sigh
At evening, morning and at noon,
And He will hear my cry
Cast thou thy harden on the Lord
And He shall thee sustain;
Yes, He makes sure that still unmoved
The righteous shall remain.