|RPM, Volume 19, Number 44 October 29 to November 4, 2017|
Dear congregation in Jesus Christ,
One of the problems in dealing with a psalm like this is that right now, at this very moment, we're not in the same place as the psalmist. After all, where are we? Well, we're in church. It's a nice familiar place. We sit with our family or friends. We sing happy songs. We hear good news about Jesus and his love. This just isn't a Psalm 13 kind of place; it's a Norman Rockwell kind of place, a comfortable place, a place of thanksgiving.
So when we approach a psalm like Psalm 13, a lament psalm, we honestly have to admit it: we don't want to go there. After all, that's why we hardly, if ever, sing the laments in our hymnbooks. That's why our pastors rarely preach on them. That's why we're shocked every time we come across one, and often flip to the next one in disbelief and embarrassment. But you know, there sure are a lot of these psalms of lament, a lot of these bitter, angry, hurt-filled protests to God. Maybe God doesn't want us to ignore them. Maybe we need them somehow.
But where do we begin? How do we sing a song like Psalm 13 with David? It's one thing to sing one like Psalm 40 with him. I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned and heard my cry. He lifted me up out of the pit, out of the mud and mire. But how do we sing Psalm 13? How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?! If we had to set Psalm 13 to music today, heavy metal would probably be the best choice… Can you imagine that in our hymnals?
To help us enter into this psalm I want to begin on some ground we all share: stories. We all have our own story that goes something like this: A kid is left standing on a curb. You're that kid. Cars are whizzing by. Every once in a while one pulls over, but it's never the right one. Classmates jump up and pile in, your friends shout goodbyes and head home. But there's no sign of your parent's car. And so you wait. Wait… and wait… and wait. Slowly you move from pacing around impatiently with both your backpack and instrument case, to setting the instrument case down in front of you, to eventually setting the backpack down too, and finally to sitting on top of one or both of them. The movement is all downhill. Your back starts to ache, shoulders slump, jaw drops, mouth starts to let out little groans, and finally you just sit there, chin in your hands, too dejected to even look up anymore. Anger starts to boil at the injustice of it all, but soon you feel it being joined by something else: fear. What's keeping them? Where are they? Did they just forget?
Or maybe your story is about being left behind at the grocery store. Or about your friends forgetting to call you or to pick you up so you missed the soccer game last week. Or about your boss promoting a lazy coworker instead of you. But the gut feeling is the same in all our stories: How could you?!
We're starting now to get to where David is at when he prays this prayer to God: a mix of helplessness and anger, boiling in a pot of fear, boiling until it finally bursts forth in accusation. That's how David felt.
But if we're honest David's pain goes even further down than that. The anguish here is deeper than that of a kid left at a grocery store. The anguish here is something more like the horror and fear experienced by a person like Christian Reger. Who is Christian Reger? His story is told in Philip Yancey's book, Where is God When it Hurts?
During World War II, Reger was a pastor in the Confessing Church in Germany. That meant he refused to obey Hitler's regime, and was soon turned over to the Nazi authorities by his own church organist. They sent him to Dachau, a concentration camp. There in the death camp, the smell of burning bodies and constant fear that he would surely be next, soon drove Reger to abandon all hope in a loving God. No good God could let such evil win. God had forsaken them.
Once a month, though, each prisoner was allowed to receive a single letter from a loved one. Reger got one from his wife. Though it had been carefully clipped up and censored by the authorities, at the bottom of it she had written a Bible reference, Acts 4:26-29. Reger read the verses in the Bible he'd smuggled away, but he didn't really get it. "The rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One" – sure, he could understand that part. The Nazi authorities were just like Herod and Pilate of Jesus' day. But how could he understand the end of the verse, its explanation for God's allowing such horrible things to happen: "They did what [God's] power and will had decided beforehand should happen." How could that be? How could God let such evil happen? How could there even be a God in the face of so much evil?
Reger, like so many others who went through the concentration camps, like so many others who have tasted bitter disappointment in their life, like so many others who live in places of despair and oppression, Reger was in the place of Psalm 13. His enemy was exulting over him, he had pain in his soul, sorrow split his heart all day long, and the face of the Lord was hidden. Listen to David's complaint and see if you don't agree: How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts, and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
There are really three accusations or complaints that David makes here to God – take a look. The first, in verse one, is a you-complaint, directed straight at God: You forgot me! You turned your back on me! He's shaking his fist in desperation at the Almighty here. The second is an "I complaint": I've suffered for so long! We find it in the first part of verse two. David's thoughts have quickly turned inward here to his own pain, confusion, and sorrow. And the third and final complaint is at the end of verse two: The enemy, they're winning! It's a they-complaint. So the totality of his life seems to be in the balance here – his relationship with God, with himself, and with others. And God is to blame. We flinch at that – I know – but that is what David is saying.
And he's not about to stop at complaints to God; no, he wants action. In verses 3-4 he storms God's throne room to make his requests, his demands. (Again there are three of these and they fit nicely with his three complaints). Look on me – answer me – give light to my eyes! There is really nothing modest or polite about these demands: Pay attention to me! Give me health and strength! Defend me, God! He wants help, and he wants it now. He even goes so far as to give God a series of three ultimatums: help me now, God, or else I'll die, my enemy will claim they've killed me, and they'll rejoice in my death. This is serious talk, deadly serious.
But what right does David have to think God will really listen to him? Does he really expect the Almighty God, the Great King of earth and heaven to answer to him? His argument rests on this: if God does not help, he insinuates, it is God who will look like a failure, before both him and his enemies – before him, because God will fail to uphold his covenant promises, and before his enemies, because they'll claim victory over God. The truth of this begins to really sink in when we find out that in David's day death was not just an impersonal, natural force, but that the Canaanites actually saw death as a person, as a god, the god Mot. In essence, then, David is provoking his King to battle against a competing god here: come on, God – are you really gonna let Mot win?! Prove yourself! It's God's honor and glory that are at stake.
We see now that there must be a tremendous amount of pain, of anguish, of long-term suffering behind David's words. So much he can't help but lash out at God. So much he would even dare to blame God directly, insinuating that God will be a failure if he fails to help him. He's probably lying on a sickbed, near the point of death. Reports of the enemy's advances are being read to him, and he can't bear to hear news of the losses. For all the world it looks like God has forgotten him, his people, his promises. And he's sick with fear. He feels abandoned, forsaken, left alone in his pain. His closest neighbor is death itself. He's desperate.
We think of when our own stories have taken us to such depths – a battle with cancer, a long winter of depression or loneliness, a prison of abuse or addiction, a grave of a loved one. How long can we endure it? How long can we stand the pain? An illness or injury that keeps us bedridden, a pink slip from higher management, a door slammed shut on our future hopes and dreams, a breakup that leaves our heart in pieces – where is God when it hurts? How could he let this happen? Why won't he help? Why won't he answer? Doesn't he even care? Our questions are more than fair; they are just.
But back to Psalm 13: does David get an answer? There are only two more verses in this short but supercharged psalm; and if the others shocked you, these two will astonish you. No straight answer from God. No, but something else. It's still David speaking, and still to God, but look what he says: But I trust in your unfailing love, my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.
What?! What happened? Has God answered? Has he acted? Has he cured David's sickness, or saved him from his enemies? Maybe… but if so, David sure doesn't mention it. Instead, he simply saysI trust, directing that trust to three things really: God's unfailing love, God's salvation, and God's goodness. We're dumbfounded. How?! David, how?! Have you sold us out? Have you given up our protest? Have you gone crazy? How can we trust the one we blame?
That is the real question that throbs at the heart of Psalm 13: How can we trust the one we blame?
Christian Reger learned to trust the one he blamed. When last we saw him he was in the depths, looking at that note he received from his wife, perplexed by that quote from Acts 4:26-29 about how a good God could allow the rulers of the earth to do so much evil.
That same day Reger had to undergo interrogation, the most terrifying experience in the camp. He'd be forced to name other Christians in the Confessing Church outside. If he gave in they would be captured and maybe even killed. If he refused, he'd probably be beaten with clubs or tortured with electricity. As he waited outside the interrogation room, the door suddenly opened and a man Reger had never met quietly slipped something into his pocket. But before he could check what it was, Reger was called to go in. He made it through the interrogation, which went surprisingly well. He'd been lucky, he thought, no torture. Going back to his barracks he tried to calm his quivering body down. Then he remembered the stranger. Looking in his pocket he found a matchbox, but when he opened it there were no matches, only a note. Neatly printed on it was this reference: Acts 4:26-29. It was exactly the same text his wife had sent him.
To Reger, a coincidence was unthinkable. He had never met the man, and there was no way that a fellow prisoner could have seen his wife's letter. God had arranged it. It was living proof that God "was still alive, still able to strengthen, still worthy of his trust." He hadn't rescued Reger, no, nor saved him from all his suffering; He had simply assured Reger that he was alive, he was there, and that he knew Reger was there too.
With his story in mind, listen to how Reger later explains his change of heart, his return to the faith: "Nietzsche said a man can undergo torture if he knows the Why of his life…. But here at Dachau, I learned something far greater. I learned to know the Who of my life. He was enough to sustain me then, and is enough to sustain me still."
Can Reger's faith help us understand David's? How did David come to trust the God he blamed? Maybe somewhere in that space between verse 4 and 5, God reached out and grabbed David, delivering him from his troubles, healing his illness, and driving away his enemies. Maybe God answered him with a quiet little note slipped to him by a priest, like he answered Christian Reger. Or maybe not. In the end, it doesn't matter. Either way, David comes to the same one Reger does, the same one we must when we're drowning in despair. Psalm 13 is all about that embrace.
Look at it one more time. Who is the accusation pointed at? Yahweh. Who is the demand made to? Yahweh. Who is trusted and rejoiced in? Yahweh. Three times David uses God's most personal name, and each time he can't help but grow closer to him. How long, Yahweh? he cries out in anger and despair in verse one. But at least he's still talking to God. Look on me and answer, Yahweh, my God, he demands in verse three. But notice, he's even closer now. He says so with that little word: my God. I trust in Yahweh whose love and salvation are unfailing, and I will sing of his goodness to me, he boasts in verses five and six. He's resolved to trust in God's promises based not on his own circumstances, but on who God is. So without giving any straight answer, even while David is screaming at him, the Lord has turned David's heart.
God met Reger in Dachau, and David on a sick bed in the midst of battle. Where will God meet us? How can we trust the God we blame? We've seen Reger and David move on to such trust, but how do we get there?
There is one other we can all look to who asked this question. He suffered, he felt pain, he faced the ultimate abandonment, and he too cried out to his Father: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He stormed the gates of heaven with the same pain-filled questions we so often do. He did it too. And he was God. Jesus Christ. Immanuel. God with us. God understanding us. In him our trust is born.
Dear heavenly Father, we thank you for your word. We thank you for the Psalms of praise—but also for the Psalms of lament. We pray for those who cry out to you. Hear their prayer! We thank you that Jesus went through his suffering for us. We put our trust in you—the God who hears our cries! In Jesus name we pray! Amen.
|This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor. If you would like to discuss this article in our online community, please visit the RPM Forum.|
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