When we began this series a while back, I suggested that we could look at the psalms from the perspective of orientation – everything is in its place and our relationship with God and each other was all great. It’s the sort of phase you want to last forever and you don’t want to have the equilibrium disrupted. God is blessing us, the worship just lifts us and life is good. We are walking in faith and victory and everything we set out to do us achieved. How can anyone doubt God in such circumstances.
The reality is of course that for everyone who feels like this, there are many more who are not experiencing this blessing. The equilibrium is disrupted, they don’t feel God’s blessing and in fact God is very distant and doesn’t seem to be listening. And the faith and victory walkers just make them wonder why God has hidden his face from them. Those who are feeling that God is deaf to their cries and a long way off are experiencing disorientation. There is a lot of disorientation in the Psalms, both personal and national. There is often a sense of injustice, abandonment and bewilderment at the circumstances in which they find themselves. Why are they experiencing attacks, mocking and pain? Where is God their saviour?
It is very easy for us to look on and point to lack of faith, unfaithfulness to the covenant or disobedience. What if people have been seeking to be faithful and trouble still comes? Suggesting that the problem is theirs may not actually be true. Saying that they just need to trust God is not helpful. What is being experienced is a mis-match between what they believe and hold to be true, and what they are experiencing.
What we often see emerging through the psalms is a re-orientation of the writer’s faith and trust in God, that is born out of the pain and anguish. A different quality of faith is a result of disorientation, expressed as a re-assertion of trust; a determination to worship; a decision to wait; a foundational faith in God that will not be moved. It is also expressed in thankfulness and exuberant praise as deliverance or answered prayer is experienced. Sometimes within that there is an exhortation for everyone to put their faith and trust in God.
Psalm 13 is one of disorientation with a lot of questioning. In fact it comes in a string of psalms of disorientation and questioning which begin at Psalm 10 and is not broken until Psalm 18. It is a Psalm of David, but there is no clear context and it is a personal lament psalm; an expression of his experience and bewilderment at that experience. It is also interesting to note that often when the psalmist talks about the enemy and his foes; the wicked who set traps and the mockers, he is talking about people from within Israel, not external nations. Remember when we looked at Psalm 62, it was plotters from within the court who were the problem and seeking to bring down the tottering wall and leaning fence. You could expect the surrounding nations to be seeking to bring about his downfall and disrupt the nation, but not those from within. The foes of this psalm are probably from within the court and they appear to be gaining the upper hand.
Paul experienced this in his ministry as people who were jealous of his success sought to undermine him and even brought in different teaching. He expected opposition from the Jews and Greeks, but not from those within the church. He finds he has to defend himself with the Corinthian church, take issue with the Galatians who have been knocked off course and even had to oppose Peter before the council. David before him often faced internal opposition because of ambitious people, and it was a source of bewilderment because he was supposed to be the anointed king and God seemed blind to his plight and deaf to his prayers.
Notice the frustration and provocative nature of the questions he poses to God in this psalm:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
There is a sense of abandonment in these verses. Time has passed and it has got him down. He has waited patiently and there is still no response. A serious inner struggle is going on, not least because his faith and trust is in God, but apparently to no avail. David feels it is worse than that: God is actually hiding his face from him and leaving him to face the situation alone. When the Old Testament talks about the face of God shining on someone, it is to know God’s blessing. This is the blessing God told Moses to pass on for the people of Israel says:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face towards you
and give you peace. Num 6:24-26
Here the shining of God’s face bring blessing. However, in Leviticus 20 when there is a warning about worshipping Molek, God talks about setting his face against people. That is not just withdrawing his blessing, but actively working against them. This is how David is feeling and he can’t work out why.
How would you help someone in those circumstances? How would you help a fellow Christian who feels God has forgotten them, has abandoned them or set his face against them? It is difficult because when someone is in that position, platitudes, telling them that God is there even though they can’t feel him or giving them the ‘Footprints’ poem is not helpful. It is even worse to tell them that they must have sinned in some way or that it is not God who has moved. It just puts the blame on them, when the experience they are going through may not be of their own making. What is needed is someone who will sit and listen and pray on their behalf. Someone who will stand with them through the darkest time and be an encourager. What we all need is to have established in our lives the discipline of prayer and worship that is part of us, so that when we hit times of challenge and despair, it is to God we turn, even when we don’t feel like it.
This is what David does in this short psalm. What we see in this psalm and others like it is that everything belongs in the conversation we have with God. Everything needs to be brought to God – even when we have a complaint against him, as David clearly does here. What is clear is that we don’t have to pretend we are walking in faith and victory, when the path of discipleship is a challenge and tough and quite frankly unrewarding. David didn’t pretend, but neither did he abandon walking with God. In this psalm, as well as others, we see that God does not have protected sensitivities, and everything is laid before him. We also see in the faith of Israel the darkness is not banished or denied, but embraced and brought before God; and it should be in our lives as Christians, There is no pretence that things are not bad and it is only the glasses we are looking through that bring the distortion.
The psalm sinks a little further as David makes the point that if there is no action on the part of God, he will face death and then the enemy will gloat in his triumph and the world will still be out of kilter. The threat here is that the wicked will prosper and not be held to account for their deeds. It is the age old question of why the righteous suffer and the wicked triumph and enjoy the fruits of their wickedness. It makes me think of the picture in Revelation where in chapter 7 there is the white robed army of martyrs – those whom God did not deliver from death as they remained faithful – enjoying the presence of the Lamb and being shepherded by him. We are people who believe that there will be justice and restoration; that ultimately the wicked will be held to account for their deeds and that whilst in the words of Psalm 14 “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’’ we believe that on the day of judgement they will know for sure there is.
This leads us to the final verses where there is a change of tone.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Whether there is a gap in time before he states this, an answer from God or clearer insight we don’t know. What we see though is an affirmation of his faith in God. What could be happening here is that he has experienced some sort of deliverance from his situation and he is giving thanks to God for that. However, I would read it differently. I think this is a conscious decision to trust and to worship in spite of current circumstances and in the light of previous experience.
One of the things the people were constantly called to do was to remember the acts of God in deliverance and bringing them into the promised land, as the bedrock to their faith and the assurance that God had not abandoned them. The psalms re-iterate the works of God as the basis for their faith in him and trust for the future. They look back to the past for encouragement now, looking to God to act in the future.
What we see in these last verses is the discipline of discipleship kicking in when the going gets tough. I’ve used the phrase ‘when the training kicks in before’ and I think that is what is happening here. At Gatwick Airport and every airport in the land is a fire station. The crew train for the eventuality of a crash on the runway. Thankfully it never happens, but if they let the training lapse and they become complacent, they won’t be ready for when it does happen. In that eventuality they will go into automatic operation mode in order to put out the fire and save lives.
If we have not put down roots as Christians. If we have not grounded ourselves in God’s Word, developed the discipline of prayer and worship so that is ingrained in our souls, and lived the Christian life where we are, then when tragedy strikes, when we fall ill either physically or mentally, or life takes a wrong turn, we will crumble and fall away. In those circumstances, we may not feel like praying or worshipping, but we choose to do so, because everything can be brought into the conversation with God and he is always worthy of worship.
Many of our Christian hymns and songs have been born out of pain, suffering and tragedy. I want to share one with you:
O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O Light, that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
(George Matheson 1842-1906)
Written by a young 18 year old in the 19th Century who was about to go blind and who said that it was through the pain of his situation that he was inspired to write this hymn of worship. He went blind and also went on to have a successful academic career and a successful ministry. That is not always the case with those who experience tragedy and suffering, yet still choose to trust in the unfailing love of God and worship him.
We have travelled into the depths of human experience in our journey through the psalms. Next week we begin to lift our heads.