Lead Me to the Rock that Is Higher than I (Psalm 61)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (14:01)

El Capitan, a granite rock formation rising about 3,000 feet (914 meters) off the valley floor in Yosemite National Park, California, USA.

I was feeling kind of bummed out this morning, depressed. I'm a pretty upbeat kind of person, but as I awoke I felt sad, upset, ill at ease.

I knew I needed to worship, to connect afresh with God. So I picked up my guitar and sang a praise chorus by Kent Henry, "Hear My Cry, O Lord," based on David's prayer in Psalm 61.1 As I sang, the words lifted me. By the time I had finished, God had encouraged my heart and given me fresh joy in him.

I encourage you to take out your Bible right now and read Psalm 61 -- aloud. Then let me share with you some of these stirring words with the hope that they will lift you too.

Chased and Harassed

The Judean Wilderness
The Judean Wilderness (larger map)

David is the author of the psalm. It could come from the time he evaded King Saul or had to escape his son Absalom. We can't know for sure. But I would imagine it is written in the several-year period when King Saul's army is trying to capture him and David has to hole up in the rugged rocks and mountains of the Judean wilderness southeast of Jerusalem. You may not be harassed by a king seeking to kill you, but I'm sure you can think of times in your life when you were stressed, overwhelmed.

The Plea: Hear My Cry (Psalm 61:1)

David begins by calling on God, pleading for God to listen to him.

"Hear my cry, O God,
listen to my prayer."2 (Psalm 61:1, ESV)

Most of the verses follow the familiar Hebrew poetic form called synonymous parallelism, where the second line repeats the first with slightly different words, often carrying the idea a bit farther.

David's prayer for God to listen is a common plea in the Psalms.3 You pray, you cry out to God, but wonder sometimes if he even hears you. It feels like the heavens are made of brass that no prayer can penetrate.4 Sometimes we feel far from God. We know from God's promises that this isn't actually the case, but nevertheless we feel that way sometimes. Denying our emotions isn't particularly healthy.

Extremity -- My Heart Is Overwhelmed (Psalm 61:2)

In verse 2, David describes his sense of distance from God, his agony, his place of extremity.

"From the end of the earth I call to you
when my heart is faint." (Psalm 61:2)

He prays here in far-away desperation -- "from the end of the earth." Modern versions translate verse 2b correctly as "when my heart is faint,"5 but I really like the KJV translation: "when my heart is overwhelmed." I've felt utterly overwhelmed, way over my depth, struggling to stay afloat. So have you.

Desire -- Lead Me to the Rock (Psalm 61:2c)

David has described his desperate situation. Now he expresses his desire.

"Lead me to the rock that is higher than I." (Psalm 61:2c)

The image is of David seeking refuge from his enemy by hiding in the craggy rocks of a mountain. He can see his pursuers coming and suddenly realizes the vulnerability of his current place of concealment. So he asks a local guide who knows this wilderness well to lead him to a rocky prominence that is yet higher up and more difficult to attack than his current position. And he scrambles up a hidden trail to the higher rock.

Of course, the Rock David desires and longs for is God himself. Many times in the Bible Yahweh is referred to as the Rock.6 The Hebrew noun tsûr suggests a massive rock. The word is used for boulders or formations of stone, the material that composes mountains.7 I think of mighty El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in my state of California. Rock symbolizes God's strength, his power, his unchanging stability, his limitless might. He is the Rock of My Salvation, the Rock Eternal, the Rock of Israel, the Rock of Refuge, the Rock from which we are hewn.8

Defense -- My Strong Tower (Psalm 61:3)

The image of God as our Rock leads naturally to thoughts of God as David's defense.

"For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the enemy."9 (Psalm 61:3)

The rocky hideouts and caves in the mountains of the Judean desert remind him of Yahweh as his refuge (NIV, NRSV, ESV) or "shelter" (KJV), the place where he flees for protection in a time of threat.10 Elsewhere, David refers to God as his "fastness, stronghold, or fortress,"11 his "refuge."12

In our passage David also pictures God as a "strong tower." Though villages lacked defenses, larger towns built walls to resist raids from enemies and bandits. City leaders would often construct a high tower on the city wall or within it that they could defend against even a determined enemy due to its height and strength of construction.13 Lord, you are my strong tower!

Intimacy -- Let Me Dwell in Your Tent (Psalm 61:4)

David asks to live under God's protection forever. But the way he asks it is wonderfully personal, intimate.

"Let me dwell in your tent forever!
Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! Selah.[14]" (Psalm 61:4)

As we recall from Hebrew parallelism, David isn't making two separate requests in verse 4, but couching the same request in two different ways.

First he prays,

"Let me dwell in your tent forever!" (Psalm 61:4a)

David is in mortal danger. He asks to live in God's own dwelling, a recipient of God's hospitality and under God's continual protection. The verb "dwell" here is interesting. It suggests an alien who is not a blood relative being taken into a home -- a sojourner who is offered hospitality. "Tent" or "tabernacle" is a throwback to a time when Israelites lived in tents rather than houses, much like how we use the word "dial" even though an actual dial hasn't appeared on a telephone for decades.15 God invites the desperate into his own home.

The second line of this couplet carries the idea further.

"Let me take refuge16 under the shelter of your wings!" (Psalm 61:4b)

It is a picture of warmth, intimacy, and protection, of a mother bird spreading out her wings to protect her chicks from danger in the "shelter"17 of her wings. In a similar way, Scriptures tell us that there is safety "in the shadow of your wings."18 As Jesus mourned over Jerusalem's stubborn rejection, he called out,

"How often would I have gathered your children together
as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
and you were not willing!" (Matthew 23:37)

The same Hebrew word translated "shelter" or "covert" in Psalm 61:4b is found elsewhere in the Psalms describing God as our Hiding Place, the secret place of the Most High where our enemies can't find us.19 Phil Wickham talks of "running to the Secret Place where You are."20 Michael Ledner affirms of God -- "You Are My Hiding Place."21 An old gospel hymn reminds us that

"Jesus is a Rock in a weary land,
A Shelter in the time of storm."22

But to take advantage of that secret place, that secure place in God, we must give up our sense of independence and personal bravado that we don't need anything. Rather, we can come to the Lord when we are fearful and feeling very vulnerable. We can snuggle into presence, draw from his strength.

Commitment You Have Heard my Vows (Psalm 61:5a)

"For you, O God, have heard my vows;[23]
you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name." (Psalm 61:5)

Jewish saints often made vows or promises to God as part of their piety. Here, David has made vows to God of what he will do when he gets out of his situation. Has God heard your vows? Your commitments? Have you made a personal commitment of faith in him? In verse 8, David performs his vows before the Lord gladly. Promises and fulfillment are part of the pattern of a godly life.

Heritage of the Saints (Psalm 65:5b)

David also speaks of the heritage of the saints.

"You have given me the heritage of those who fear your name." (Psalm 61:5b)

For people returning to the Promised Land, their heritage was the land they possessed from the enemy.

"Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you." (Joshua 1:3)

We cannot take our heritage for granted; we must possess and hold the land in faith.

For those of you who are part of a local church (and I hope this includes you!), you have a wonderful heritage.

  • A rich community of faith.
  • A rich cast of people before you to show you how to trust in God.
  • A rich set of spiritual gifts in the community designed to minister to you and to mature you in Christ.
  • A rich Word of God that you feast upon taught by a pastor or leader who cares about you.

And finally,

  • A rich expectation of glory when Christ comes and Jesus takes you home.

Prayer for the King (Psalm 61:6-7)

While David wrote verses 1 to 5 in a time of difficulty, verses 6 and 7 may have been added by a later editor, encouraging God's people to pray for their king:24

"6  Prolong the life of the king;
may his years endure to all generations!
7  May he be enthroned forever before God;
appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him!" (Psalm 61:6-7)

The psalm includes prayer for the God-anointed king. But even if our ruler isn't a believer, we are called to pray for him or her (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

Singing Praise (Psalm 61:8)

The psalm concludes with David's commitment to both sing praises and live out our faith day by day, trusting God and enjoying his presence.

"So will I ever sing praises to your name,
as I perform my vows day after day." (Psalm 61: 8)

The Hebrew verb in verse 8a refers particularly to singing praise or making music with an instrument.25 Scripture commands us to sing -- I count this command in at least 37 different verses throughout the Old and New Testaments.26 Why? God has designed music in such a way that it touches our emotions deeply. And we humans are not just bodies and brains, but people with feelings and struggles and emotions.

I learned a number of years ago that if I begin my devotional time with singing, it lifts my spirit to God and helps me connect with him. So I aim for at least three songs. Otherwise, my Quiet Time can be quite cerebral and theoretical, but lack an emotional connection with God which helps me enjoy him as a Person. Verbal praise is good. Singing praise is even better.

Psalm 61 is a psalm of struggle and prayer and desire. But it is also a psalm of intimacy, of dwelling with God, of sheltering under the warmth and protection of his wings, of singing praises, of joyful commitment.

So sing, my friend! That way you can serve the Lord with a joy that comes from an intimacy with God. Find the secret place of the Most High27 and dwell there continually, until he calls you home into his very presence.


Father, thank you for the wonderful gift of song that brings us into a sense of your presence. And thank you for that Secret Place where we can live with you -- safe, protected, cared for. Thank you. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


Unless otherwise noted, the text is from the English Standard Version, ESV.
References and Abbreviations

[1] Kent Henry, "Hear My Cry," © 1993, Integrity Music. Based on the KJV of Psalm 61:1-3.

[2] "Hear" is shāmaʿ, "hear, listen to," used 1050 times in the Qal. Cry" is rinnâ, "ringing cry of joy or sorrow" (TWOT 2179b), of joy (Isaiah 14:7), of lamentation (1 Kings 8:28). "Cry of lamentation, moaning" (1 Kg 8:28) (Holladay 341). "Listen" (NIV, NRSV), "attend" (KJV) is qāshab, "hear, be attentive, heed." It is not a command to God, but a request.

[3] For example, Psalm 4:1; 5:1-3; 17:1; 28:2; 55:1-2; 130:2.

[4] The expression comes from Deuteronomy 28:23 and Leviticus 26:19.

[5] The verb is the Qal of 'āṭap, "be feeble, faint, grow weak." The word can pertain to physical exhaustion or the languishing of a man's innermost being (Carl Schultz, 'āṭap, TWOT #1607). "Grow weak" (Holladay 271).

[6] 1 Samuel 2:2; 2 Samuel 22:32; Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 18:31; 28:1; 62:2, 6, 7; 144:1; Isaiah 44:8; Habakkuk 1:12.

[7] John E. Hartley, tsûr, TWOT 1901a.

[8] Rock of My Salvation (Deuteronomy 32:15; Psalm 89:26), the Rock Eternal (Isaiah 26:4), the Rock of Israel (2 Samuel 23:3; Isaiah 30:29), the Rock of Refuge (Psalm 94:22), the Rock from which we are hewn (Isaiah 51:1).

[9] Participle of the verb ʾāyab, "to be an enemy, to be hostile to" (TWOT #78; BDB 33).

[10] "Shelter" (KJV), "refuge" (NIV, NRSV, ESV) is maḥseh, "place of refuge, shelter," from the verb ḥāsā, "to seek refuge, flee for protection" (Donald J. Wiseman, TWOT #700b).

[11] Metsûdâ, John E. Hartley, tsûd, TWOT #1885i. Apparently related to metsād, which means "mountain-height" or "summit"; then "fortress, castle." Masada, Herod the Great's fortress-palace plateau near the Dead Sea comes from this word. In 1 Samuel 23:14, 19, and 29, David hides from Saul in the natural mountain strongholds (metsād) in the wilderness and near Engedi.

[12] Mā'ōz, "refuge, stronghold, place of strength," hence, of safety. The verb carries the idea of taking shelter quickly. While the noun can be used of various types of places of security, it is most commonly used figuratively, designating God as the refuge of his people (Carl Schultz, 'ûz, TWOT #1578a).

[13] Two words are used: 'ōz, "strength, power," used primarily of God (Carl Schultz, 'āzaz, TWOT #1596b) and migdāl, "tower," from the root gādal, "to grow up, become great," deriving from early times when the tower was the largest (greatest) structure in a town (Elmer B. Smick, gādal, TWOT #315f).

[14] "Selah" (which may signify some kind of pause), the psalm turns from God as a refuge and concludes with a prayer for the king:

[15] "Dwell" is gûr, "abide, dwell." The root carries the idea of to live among people who are not blood relatives, as a sojourner. The noun of this root, gēr, "alien, sojourner, stranger," refers to someone who wasn't a native (Harold G. Stigers, TWOT #330). In times of famine and war peoples would move to safer areas or areas that weren't suffering from food shortages. We might call such a person an expatriate, someone living in a land not one's own. The people of Israel had this status in Egypt under Joseph; Naomi was a stranger in Moab due to a famine in Bethlehem. "Thy tabernacle" (KJV), "your tent" (NIV, NRSV, ESV) is ʾōhel, "tent, dwelling, tabernacle, home". used for the animal skin or goat's hair dwelling of nomadic people. In the Psalms to "dwell in the house of the Lord" is an idiom that describes a closeness to and intimacy with God (Psalm 15:1; 23:6; 27:4; 90:1; 92:13).

[16] "Trust" (KJV), "take/find refuge" (NIV, NRSV, ESV) is hāsâ, "seek refuge, flee for protection" and thus figuratively put trust in (God), confide, hope in (God or person) (TWOT #700).

[17] "Shelter" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "covert" (KJV) is sēter, "hiding place," from sātar, "to hide, conceal" (TWOT #1551a).

[18] Psalm 17:8; 57:1; 63:7; 91:4; Ruth 2:12.

[19] "Shelter, secret place, hiding place" (Psalm 32:7; 91:1; 119:114) is sēter, "hiding place," from sātar, "to hide, conceal" (TWOT #1551a). Mistār, "hiding place" (Isaiah 45:3). Also Psalm 27:5; 31:20.

[20] "The Secret Place," by Phil Wickham and Pete Kipley,  "Children of God" album (2016).

[21] "You Are My Hiding Place," words and music by Michael Ledner, © 1981 Maranatha! Music.

[22] "A Shelter in the Time of Storm," words: Vernon J. Charlesworth (1880), music: Ira Sankey.

[23] "Vows" is nēder, "vow, votive offering" (TWOT #1308a). Vow-making was part of both personal piety and corporate worship in Israel. Remember that Paul made a vow in Asia (Acts 18:18), and four Jewish believers in Jerusalem had made a vow (Acts 21:23). Typically, in a time of distress, the petitioner would vow some kind of sacrifice, gift, or act of devotion related to his request to God. While vows were voluntary, once made, they became binding (T. W. Cartledge, "Vow," ISBE 4:998).

[24] It is also possible that David wrote this when he was an old man being chased by his son Absalom.

[25] "Sing praise(s)" is a single Hebrew verb, the Piel imperfect of zāmar, "sing, sing praise, make music," cognate to Akkadian zamāru "to sing, play an instrument" (Herbert Wolf, TWOT #558).

[26] Commands to sing: Exodus 15:21; 1 Chronicles 16:23; 2 Chronicles 20:21-22; Psalm 5:11; 30:4; 33:3; 47:6-7; 66:2; 67:4; 68:4, 32; 95:1; 96:1-2; 98:1, 4, 5; 105:2; 135:3; 147:7; 149:1, 5; Isaiah 12:5, 6; 42:10-11; 44:23; 54:1; Jeremiah 20:13; 31:7; Zephaniah 3:14; Zechariah 2:10; James 5:13; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16. Beyond these, there are many more examples for us of people singing praise.

[27] Psalm 91:1a (KJV).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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