Smoke poured from his nostrils; fierce flames leaped from his mouth. Glowing coals blazed forth from him.
Psalm 18 celebrates God's deliverance of David from danger and distress. "The ropes of death entangled me," he writes, "floods of destruction swept over me" (18:4). Yet, as David cried out to the Lord, God heard him and came to deliver him.
The prose version of what happened next would read unimaginatively: The Lord rescued David from his enemies and kept him safe. But the Psalms are poetry, not prose. Psalm 18 delivers, not just the facts, but rather a vivid picture of God's coming in awesome power to deliver David. This portrayal utilizes a variety of stirring images, including a mighty earthquake and a spectacular thunderstorm (18:7, 11-14). In verse 8, God is pictured as a sort of dragon: "Smoke poured from his nostrils; fierce flames leaped from his mouth. Glowing coals blazed forth from him."
Now that's enough to get the attention of a ten-year-old boy! But what does it tell us about God? And how can we relate to a God with smoking nostrils? The images of Psalm 18 aren't meant to convey literal truth about God's nature. Rather, they are poetic, culturally embedded, and theologically powerful representations of God's strength and judgment. In particular, they point to the mighty acts of God in Exodus, when he parted the waters of the Red Sea (Exod. 14:15-31) and visited the Israelites on Mt. Sinai with thunder, lightning, smoke, and an earthquake (see Exod. 19:16-20).
The good news of Psalm 18 is not only that God is mighty, but also that he is mighty for us. When we cry out to him, he comes to save us. Of course, one of the greatest ironies of God's salvation is that it is ultimately centered in the apparent weakness and defeat of the cross. Yet, through the cross, God took upon himself the fire of his righteous judgment. In the death of Christ, God bore our punishment for sin, thus defeating the power of sin and even death itself. Psalm 18 invites us to celebrate God's salvation in Jesus Christ: "I called on the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and he saved me from my enemies" (18:3).
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Why do you think God inspired the psalmist to depict his nature in such bold and shocking images? What images might you choose today to convey the saving power of God? Have you ever experienced a situation like that of David in Psalm 18? How did God rescue you?
PRAYER: Thank you, Almighty God, for the poetic images of Psalm 18.
You are indeed my rock, my fortress, my savior, my shield. You protect me in ways I can see and in ways I'll never know. In you, I am safe for eternity.
You are a God of power, whose presence is like smoke and fire. Your word thunders. Your judgment strikes like lightning.
You are the one who reached down and rescued me from the deep waters of sin. You have delivered me again and again from the pits into which I have fallen.
O God, you are faithful, with complete integrity. You are pure in your grace and your judgment. You light my way. Indeed, you are perfect.
All praise be to you, God of power, God of mercy! Amen.
Images sourced via Creative Commons.