I once read a story about a dog named Bailey. Bailey was a two -year old basset hound who had a gentle playful temper, eager to love anyone near him. But though this is true, Bailey has a bit of baggage. You see, Bailey was just a puppy when an F-5 tornado came through his backyard that he just happened to be playing in. He survived, his owners got to him in time, but it left a mark on Bailey that has never left, so deep a mark that anytime a storm comes to Bailey’s house and Bailey is in the backyard, he freaks out, runs up to the back door, and barks his tail off until someone comes to his rescue. It could just be a few rain drops, no big deal to any normal person but to Bailey, the apocalypse has come! A few years after this incident, wildfires were roaring about Bailey’s home and it did eventually catch on fire, and burn down. But the important thing to notice about this fire is that it came to the house through the backyard, where Bailey just so happened to be playing. His owners saw it, ran outside just in time to see his trees light up like fireballs, grabbed Bailey and got to safety.
During the next year a new house was being rebuilt for this family and they stayed in a little condo close by. As soon as they got into the condo Bailey had a moment. He walked in, sniffed around, found the bedroom, jumped onto the bed, found his owner’s pillow, and proceeded to pee. He knew immediately what this meant without the help of a vet. Bailey clearly felt the need to make something clear. Though they were now safe and secure away from these disasters, to him, life was simply out of control and he didn’t like it. He had been chased by not only an F-5 tornado, but by a blazing fire and now his home had been destroyed! He just couldn’t hold it inside any longer, he had to let out his feelings and make it known that he was not happy.
Church, Bailey’s reaction is similar to our reaction when we’ve been put through the ringer. We don’t pee on pillows, hopefully, but we do act out in different ways. When life brings seemingly cataclysmic events like this into our lives we feel displaced, confused, frustrated, angry, and eventually if these situations are hard enough or if we remain in these situations long enough, we reach our breaking point and we crack. This is a fact, even if you’re a Christian. How do we approach God in times like this honestly and truthfully and helpfully?
Welcome to the Psalms of lament.
Psalms of lament are called such because the Psalmist has, for whatever reason, reached a breaking point and cracked. Their lament is the type of language that comes out of the human soul when one cracks. Many people feel these Psalms are somewhat strange and inappropriate because they are filled with complaining and arguing, not only about the hard things themselves, but usually the language in these Psalms is directed at God, and Christians of all people shouldn’t complain or argue with God, right?! I mean, don’t we know Romans 8:28? That God is working all things for good? Don’t we trust Him? Didn’t Jesus Himself say that He’ll always be with us?
Of course, the answer to these questions are yes. Yes, we know Jesus will be with us, but we also know Jesus never promised to keep hard seasons from us. And yes, we know Romans 8:28, that God will truly work all things in our lives for our good, but we also know that all things that occur in our lives aren’t good. What do we do when these seasons come crashing down on us? We turn to the Psalms of lament. Out of all 150 Psalms, almost a third of them are laments! What do learn from so many being given to us in Scripture? By giving so many laments God intends to teach us, and even invite us, to speak the truth about our lives, our pain, our hurt, our anger, and our confusion back to Him. One thing horrific events and dark seasons do is rob us of words, push us into silence, because in the thick of pain the human heart can usually only think of questions and answers are hard to come by. Praise God that in these times He’s provided us with vocabulary to make our own and bring before Him. These Psalms of lament help us learn that when we hurt, we must hurt with God, rather than without Him.
So, as we continue on in our Psalm Summer, looking into Scripture’s hymnal full of songs fit for every season of the soul, this morning we come to Psalm 13, the quintessential Psalm of lament. It is a dark melody but it does end in hope. I’d like to call your attention to the three movements present in it.
The Questions (v1-2)
Let’s begin with v1, “How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?”
Many Psalms begin with a very high and lofty type of language, giving evidence that the Psalmist writing it and we reading it are entering into the presence of the King of Kings Himself. But David is lamenting in Psalm 13, there’s an urgency and sharpness to it as he begins quickly going straight to the source, questioning God three times in v1. We don’t know exactly what’s going on or why he’s in such a spot, all attempts to place it are only guesses. Many events in David’s life would give rise to such a prayer, which likely means these were David’s words on many occasions in his life.But we do know that whatever is going on it’s surely not a comfortable place to be.
David gets straight to the point here asking, “How long…!” People who ask the question “how long?” aren’t usually people looking for an answer. I know this because of preaching. Sometimes when a sermon is bad, you know…really bad…, people’s faces begin to twist and contort and I know exactly what they’re asking themselves, “How much longer is this sermon going to last?” If that question is being asked, the sermon has already been long enough! In the same manner, if David has reached the point where he is crying out “How long?” we can know for sure that it’s been too long already. And from it being too long already David, it seems, has become convinced of things that simply aren’t true. He says God has forgotten him, that God is distant from him, and that God has hidden Himself from him. We know these aren’t true because God is omniscient, knowing all things, God is omnipotent, always strong and never changing, and God is omnipresent, always and ever near His people. But if you’ve been in a place like David is and have arrived at the point where you’re asking ‘How long, O Lord?’ you know that David’s present trouble isn’t a speed bump in the road of life, it’s an Everest of pain he’s facing, and something as big as Everest tends to block your view from all that is good, true, and beautiful. Which is why to him in this moment the world has lost its color, grown cold, and feels unkind at every turn.
As v2 comes the painful realities and questions don’t stop, they merely change direction. Having begun by asking questions of God, David now asks a question about himself in v2a and asks a question about others in v2b saying, “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Four times now we’ve heard the ‘How long?’ phrase flow forth from David, but it seems his first two ‘How long?’ questions about God lead to his next two ‘How long?’ questions.Or think of it this way, because David believes God has forgotten him and because David believes God has hidden Himself from him, David is now feeling other woes. He’s filled with pain inside him and becomes worried of defeat outside him. This lament in v1-2 is quick and brief. But when you get inside it we feel what David feels. Short as it is this is language that’s condensed yet highly concentrated with electric current and extreme pressure, loaded with agony and misery.
David’s pain here reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ response to the death of his wife. In his book A Grief Observed he describes how he prayed time and time again for her cancer to be healed, thinking of it as knocking on God’s door desperately wanting Him to answer and make everything right that was wrong. But as Lewis kept knocking there didn’t seem to be any answer. He said his knuckles began getting raw and bloodied from doing it so much and so fiercely until the moment came where he stopped knocking because he was tempted to believe God wasn’t home.
Don’t miss who David is addressing in Psalm 13. He doesn’t just cry out, “How long…” David isn’t talking to one of his servants or soldiers, he isn’t asking one of his children. No, he cries out “How long, O Lord?” He’s lamenting directly to one Person – God Himself. Does this make you uncomfortable? ‘How dare a man or woman enter into the heavenly throne in such an audacious manner.’ No. David has cracked. He’s emotionally, spiritually, physically not just drained, he’s done! But what is his knee jerk reaction when he’s as low as he’s ever been? He could have gone anywhere else in the world to drown his sorrows, but he goes to God. David isn’t the only one to do this. Where did Jesus go when His sorrows seemed great? What was His pattern in suffering and trial? He went to His Father as well and was honest about what He was feeling.
We could learn from this in our day. We’re not just a people with constant noise around us, we’re a people with constant noise and distraction in the palm of our hands. Games, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, internet, and more all on our phones. When hard things land heavily on us or our family or hard seasons linger and don’t lift where do you go? Do we go to God and fight it out, or do we just turn up the volume on one of our devices? Don’t be too hard on David here, he’s going to the only place he knows to go – to God. David isn’t ashamed to ask his questions to God, and you shouldn’t be either. Questions about the way you feel God is treating you, about the struggle in your own soul, or the struggle with those around you.Church, where else can we go but to Him?
We’ve seen the first movement of painful realities in this dark melody, now see the second movement…
The Cries (v3-4)
“Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.”
It does seem a progression is present in both these first two movements. David begins in v1-2 with a theological problem, which led inward to a psychological problem, which then led outward to a social problem.Even though David is the king, in many other Psalms he rejoices in God as the true King and (when he’s in his right mind) loves that in this sovereign King he can take refuge behind His high walls or under His vast wings. But, if David can’t find God, if David can’t see God, he can’t feel God as his refuge and can’t feel the safety of being with God. So naturally for David and for us, it’s a theological problem that allows all sorts of other problems to flow forth.
As we saw this progression with David’s painful realities, from God to self to others, we also see here in v3-4 in David’s pleading requests. What does David do after crying out to God with questions he can’t answer? He pleads with God to show up in v3a. It’s as if David is saying ‘Even if You have forgotten me, I haven’t forgotten You. You’re my God, please look, please hear me, answer me, and help me!’He then moves once again to considering himself in v3b. When David says, ‘light up my eyes’ he is not saying that all he needs is physical light because he follows the statement with, “…lest I sleep the sleep of death” meaning, ‘If God does not show up and save me from this awful time, my life is done! Light up my eyes means – save me, restore the health of my heart and soul, I’m in anguish, show up and lead me out of this mess, or else I’m at my end.’ In the dark night of the soul, David’s longs for the light of the Lord to return. And if this light doesn’t return to him he says he’ll not only die, but that his enemies will claim victory over him. Notice the intensification here. Before in v2 it was only ‘my enemy’ but now in v4 it’s ‘my enemy’ as well as ‘my foes.’ Before in v2 this singular enemy was exalted over him strangely, now in v4 these plural enemies are about to prevail over him entirely, showing us the longer this darkness covers his soul the worse his predicament becomes.
Now, just as we we’re encouraged to ask our own questions from seeing David ask God questions in v1-2, so here in v3-4, learn that in your own suffering don’t just ask God questions. As good and right and healthy as that it isn’t healthy to just do that. Let those questions drive you despair of your own wisdom and strength so that you continue on with God in the pain pleading with Him to consider you, to restore you, to rescue you, deliver you, and vindicate you! Plead with Him and know His ear is not too far away to hear and His arm is not too short to save.
The Singing (v5-6)
“But I have trusted in Your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because He has dealt bountifully with me.”
What a change is present in the first word of v5! The rain has dried up, the storm is gone. Night has over, morning has come, the dark clouds have burst with deep mercy over David’s head and he rejoices! We’ve lamented with him in v1-4, let us now sing with him in v5-6!
It seems David has grown confident and sure from his pleading. v5 begins with one word, “But…” This word abruptly ends his cries for rescue and ushers him into a new and fresh resolve to trust God in v5 and praise God in v6. Now in place of dreadful questions is a delighted trust in God’s steadfast love. This phrase ‘steadfast love’ in English is one word in Hebrew, ‘hesed’, which literally means ‘covenant faithfulness.’ Which is a word loaded full of meaning, bringing to mind ancient promises of old, “I will be Your God and You will be My people.” Abraham heard this promise, believed it, and was welcomed into the family of God. Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph would have to enter into this themselves just as Abraham did, and praise God they did. God told of His promises to Israel through Moses, and they entered in as well, all the way down to David. He heard it, knew it, believed it, but in his lamenting, in this agonizing season he had to fight to remember it. That God would ever be his God and he would always be among God’s people. Remembering this reality in the midst of darkness, is the very thing that brings him back to the light.
And what happens once he’s back in the light? Oh my, how sweet this is! A melody begins within him, within his own heart v5 tells us, and he rejoices in God’s salvation. And where the heart goes the tongue soon follows. So naturally then, in v6 we see the symphony of the heart become the song of David’s tongue. What forms the content of his song? Notice v6 in full, “I will sing to the LORD…”, why? “…because He has dealt bountifully with me.” David hasn’t only moved from questioning, to crying, to singing, no. In v6, God has fully reversed the contents of v1. He once believed God had abandoned him, now he sees that Lord has always led him well.
And so, for David, his joy is all the higher because of the deepness of his sorrow. This was David’s experience here in Psalm 13, it was Jesus’ experience as death gave way to resurrection, and it is often our own experience as well as we follow Jesus in this fallen world. If we truly want to learn from Psalm 13 we’ll learn that in suffering we should hurt with God rather than without Him, and learn that in God’s timing He will bring us out to the light! Once that happens we’ll retract our dark dirge and replace it with a song of salvation! But be sure of this, David may have felt abandoned by God, he wasn’t. We may feel the same, we’re not. We have hope in our laments because Jesus was abandoned. On the cross, God abandoned Christ for our sake and because of this only Jesus is the true Man of sorrows who creates a people of praise!
I read this somewhere and cannot, for the life of me, remember where.
Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David – vol. 1 (Mclean, Virginia: MacDonald Publishing, reprint) page 151.
Harn and Strawn, Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009) page 70-71.
William P. Brown, Psalms (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2010) page 3.
Waltke and Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2010) page 226.
Mark D. Futato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 2007) page 203.
Harn and Strawn, page 71.
Harn and Strawn, page 71.
Spurgeon, page 153.