When times are hard and God seems far away….
How long, Lord? Duncan’s sermon on Psalm 13 – 18 October 2020
An encouragement for us when times are hard, and God seems far away
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?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
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.
This particular Psalm, Psalm 13, has been of particular significance to me down through the years. It was the first Psalm I every preached on when I came to Inverness many, many years ago, and it has been on my mind in recent days. It’s a very prescient and significant theme for us all at this time, in terms of lament.
A reality check in the journey of faith
Psalm 13 is a welcome reality check in the journey of faith. It’s a song of deep grief and sorrow, even complaint against God. Life is hard. Terrible things happen in life – we see it every day of our lives on the news or in our own personal experience. Contrary to some peoples’ outlook on faith, faith is no insulator against difficult experiences. We all experience difficult times in our lives, and we journey with people all the time who are going through hard and difficult times.
A man under pressure
This Psalm of lament is attributed to King David, who wrote so many of the Psalms. But there’s no specific incident or reference which the Psalm leads us to in terms of what happened that’s causing him to lament. There are references to ‘enemies’ in the Psalm. We know that David himself was often on the run from enemies. He was often in situations of wanting to hide. We know that on more than one occasion David experienced very traumatic bereavements in his life. One of his children died in infancy, while a much-loved son called Absolom was murdered. We know that David used his royal power sometimes in very abusive ways. And we can imagine the depths to which he sometimes sank in terms of his own reality when he began to experience the repercussions of some of these abusive actions.
A Psalm which gives voice to our anguish
Because there is no specific reason given for the lament in this Psalm, I think it leave us in the situation when we come to this Psalm that we can fill in the gaps for ourselves this morning. We can reflect on the issues that are particularly pressing in and in upon our lives in terms of challenge, which perhaps even today are bringing us sorrow, and grief. Maybe anger and complaint against God. Things we feel deeply about, and we wonder where God is in the midst of these struggles that we’re going through.
‘How long, Lord. Will you forget me forever? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts, and day after day have sorrow in my heart. How long?’
Notice that in the Psalm the Psalmist repeats the question four times. Four times the Psalmist asks ‘How long o Lord How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?’ You get the impression in this situation that what David is facing has been going on for a very long time.
‘How long?…..’How long?’….’How long?’…’How long?’
You can just imagine, I certainly can, David tossing and turning in his sleep as this loop of question and anxiety and angst goes on in his mind. ‘How long, o Lord?’ And yet there is no apparent resolution to his sorry or grief or complaint. The Psalmist feels abandoned and alone. There is no comfort in terms of faith. It’s as if God is not there, the Psalmist is indicating to us. ‘How long will you hide you face from me?’
The necessity of perseverance
What then are we to make of the Psalm as we reflect this morning on our own trials and tribulations, on the sorrows and griefs which cause us to wonder if God has turned His back on us? What can we take from David’s experiences?
Well, I think the Psalm highlights a number of important things to have in mind as we find ourselves in these dark and difficult places in our lives. And the first, and I think most important for us is this reality that I don’t think David gives up on God in the midst of the challenges he’s facing. Even when his immediate experiences in his own mind point him to the absence of God.
The repeated ‘How long?’ is essentially saying to us that David, in the depth of his experience, actually kept crying out to God. Over and over again in this sense of darkness and absence of God, David keeps asking
‘How long, Lord? Look on me and answer, Lord my God.’ [Or ‘How long will you hide your face from me?’]
I think what we can take from this Psalm of lament today is a call for perseverance in the context of our faith and our following of God.
The necessity of honesty
But you’ll notice that it also involves deep honesty, and a willingness to say exactly what we think and feel.
I wonder if I could ask you to think of someone who’s close to you in terms of relationship this morning. Undoubtedly, Shona, whom I’m sitting next to is the person I’m closest to in my life at this moment. We’ve been together for thirty-two years. We trust one another. We place our faith in one another, and we’ve stuck together. Trust and faith in one another.
But that reality of trust and faith doesn’t mean that in marriage as in some of the Psalms we’re in wall-to-wall praise, in a continual sense of adoration of one another and ‘it’s all wonderful and fantastic and just amazing.’ In a real relationship there are ups and downs, there are joys and sorrows, there are high points and low points.
And that’s what we’re seeing in this Psalm of faith, this Psalm of lament from David. There are frank exchanges of opinion, there’s speaking from the heart, and that’s true of any relationship. And what we’re learning from Psalm 13 – and it maybe comes to a shock to some of us in terms of what we could be saying to God, what our prayers could be like. The life of relationship with God involves and needs on our part radical honesty and a willingness to say exactly what we feel before God, not the kind of rehearsed platitudes which don’t in any way touch with the reality of where we are in terms of our sense of God and our hopes in Him today. We’re called to radical honesty. And we’re called to remember too Psalm 13, with its very strong comments towards God. God is more than able to cope with our complaints and our anger and our anguish.
He invites us today, and He wants us to be real.
Eugene Peterson in his translation gets that sense of truth well when he says ‘Long enough, God. You have ignored me long enough!’
So the Psalm is encouraging us towards perseverance; it’s pointing us towards a relationship of honesty with God; and finally I think it’s also encouraging us towards patience.
The necessity of patience
Because we see a shift in the Psalmist’s words. ‘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.’
In the space of six verses, the Psalmist moves from desolation and isolation to speaking of his heart rejoicing and singing praises to God. We are given no time-frame whatsoever for this movement from isolation to praise. There’s no suggestion, even, that the Psalmist’s circumstances have changed. It’s quite possible that the situation was exactly the same as it was in that sense of isolation. But the Psalmist is actually able to see in the midst of his difficulties a new perspective on the reality of God in his life.
Sometimes it takes time to see and to discern God’s presence in the midst of our lives. It doesn’t come immediately. We only glimpse it here and there in the journey of our lives.
Perhaps the Psalm is teaching us today the key to this new orientation, the key to these glimpses is waiting on God as the Psalmist did; waiting on God as we look at last week in Psalm 40 ‘I waited for my the Lord my God, and patiently did bear…’
God is good
Waiting on God. Being radically honest. Perhaps that’s the key to that sense of new discovery, new glimpses of God in our lives. Perseverance, honesty and patience. Waiting on God. These are some of the elements which the Psalmist points to in this Psalm of lament.
Whatever our circumstances today, whatever your circumstances, it’s encouraging to read a hopeful Psalm in the midst of deep struggle and questions, especially in these difficult days for all of us around the world today. It’s a reminder to us that the Bible is very real. It doesn’t pretend. It speaks of deep sorrow, and struggle and questioning.
But let these final words, these final words of hope speak to us in the midst of whatever our experiences are now.
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.