One of my favourite hymns is Christopher Idle’s paraphrase of Psalm 18: “I love you, O Lord, you alone, my refuge on whom I depend” (Baptist Praise and Worship 341). Sung to ‘Jane’, the stirring tune written by David Peacock, it comes to a crescendo in the final lines of the last verse: “Lord God, you are powerful save, Your Spirit will spur me to pray; Your Son has defeated the grave: I trust and I praise you today!” I have asked for this hymn to be sung at my funeral.
Along with the hymn, I also want some verses of the Psalm itself read at my funeral: “He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters… He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me” (Ps 18.16, 19).
I love that expression: “a broad place”. It forms a contrast to the “distress” in which the Psalmist had called upon the Lord for help. In Hebrew the word “distress” signifies a narrow, confining place. By contrast the “broad place” is a “large place” (AV); a “spacious place” (NIV); and is like a “wide-open field” (The Message). It is a place of freedom: the Jerusalem Bible translates, “He freed me and set me at large”, while the REB declares, “He brought me into untrammelled liberty”.
The Psalmist uses a similar expression in Ps 31.8: “You have set my feet in a broad place”. Or as The Message puts it: “You gave me room to breathe”. A related Hebrew word is found in Job 36.16 where Elihu says that God “allured you out of distress into a broad place where there was no constraint, and what was set on your table was full of fatness”. In other words, the “broad place” is a place of abundant blessing. No wonder Jürgen Moltmann, the great German theologian, entitled his autobiography, A Broad Place.
Some people say that the Christian life by definition is “a broad place”. Rick Warren, the founding pastor of Saddleback Community Church, wrote in a blog:
A lot of people are afraid to trust Jesus with their lives because they think that means he will narrow it. He’ll cramp their style and make their life smaller with a lot of rules and restrictions. When Christ comes into your life, the exact opposite happens. Instead of making your life more religious, he makes it more alive. He makes you more fully human and able to experience the life you were meant to live. He expands your horizons and gives you the ability to see things you’ve never seen before. You may be living a good life now, but God wants to offer you a better life.
He then quotes Ps 18.19 and continues:
God expands the possibilities on your life because he delights in you. He doesn’t just love you; he finds joy in you!
In principle Rick Warren is right, and yet there are times when even as Christians we find ourselves in anything but a ‘broad’ place. Some years ago I had a bout of depression, and experienced what St John of the Cross described as “the dark night of the soul”. God was distant, and life was tough. At the time I found solace in the Psalms, which enabled me to affirm my trust and hope in God, even though God seemed to have ‘forgotten’ me. Then, amazingly, “a new door of opportunity” opened for me, and I experienced “eucatastrope” – eu is a Greek word often used for ‘good’ experiences such as ‘eudemony’ (happiness) and ‘euphoria’ (a strong feeling of well-being); while ‘catastrophe’ is another Greek word denoting ‘calamity, disaster, ruin’. Eucatastrophe is a word coined by Tolkien to describe “the sudden-happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears” – or what the Psalmist calls “a broad place”.
Today I continue to find myself in a “broad place”, a place of life and love, freedom and security. “God”, says Peterson The Message, “made my life complete, when I placed all the pieces before him” (Ps 18.20).