In our passage this morning we meet an individual who is struggling to live out his faith in God in a hostile environment. The psalmist has enemies who are oppressing him, and he is feeling mightily down-trodden and depressed, and probably quite a bit sorry for himself. Sadly, this feeling is natural and normal. God’s people have always found it difficult to live out their faith in a public setting. We now live in what is best described as a post-Christian world. The days of respect for Christians and their faith are pretty much over. The cultural environment in which we live is becoming less and less tolerant of persons who are trying to live a life that is genuinely and consistently informed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And so we struggle with very much the same thing that this morning’s psalmist is struggling with.
We start out with a major complaint. The psalmist is feeling like he is all alone. He feels like he is the only faithful person in a huge sea of ungodly people. Now is this actually true, or is it just how the psalmist is feeling? The answer is probably a little bit of both. What really matters, though, is that the psalmist is feeling alone, and that he believes that he is the only one trying to be faithful. He’s encountered the opposition of enough ungodly people to make him feel isolated, and that’s really all that matters.
And we know, really, that we aren’t the only godly people in our immediate environments, too. There are always other godly people around us. We’ve got a whole church family to support us and care for us that we meet with week after week. Gathering for worship with one another is the highlight of our lives after spending days in a hostile environment. It is our cool drink of water. We know this in our hearts.
The psalmist cries out, “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people.” The psalmist is asking God for some whisper of confirmation that he is on the right path. He’s feeling really unpopular right now, and he feels like the only one he can get any support from is God.
That’s a really bad place to be. We’re more fortunate, or at least so it seems. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who can support us, stand behind us, affirm us, defend us, help us, and, most importantly, love us. Together, we can seek the vindication of God; together, we can know that we’re on the right path.
Just the same though, this feeling of aloneness and abandonment has plunged the psalmist into a state of depression. And it is a serious depression, because the psalmist is having difficulty reconciling what he knows to be true about God, and how he happens to feeling about God. That’s two different things, sometimes. He knows that God is his defender and so do we. He knows that God is his place of refuge and so do we. He knows that God is his support and hope and so do we. But he’s also feeling like God has abandoned him. When life is messed up, even God seems distant and remote and unable to help.
There isn’t one of us here this morning who hasn’t struggled with knowing in our hearts that God is the sole source of our strength and hope, but, at the same time finding ourselves completely frustrated when God doesn’t deliver that desperately needed strength and hope. Is God dead, or what?
Not all is gloom and doom, though. There is good news. There is always good news. The psalmist will act. He will not wallow in his depression and self pity. he will not savor his losses. He will choose to go back and re-visit the things that he knows to be true about God. This is a crucial step to wholeness. The psalmist has admitted that he is broken, he will now seek healing. And so he pleads with God for light and truth.
Light and truth will help him to deal with the lies that he has entertained in his heart about God. Feelings that we are all alone, feelings that we have been abandoned by God, feelings that God is dead, are all deceptive feelings, they’re not the truth. The psalmist knows this, and we should, too. God’s light and God’s truth will lead the psalmist and us out of the darkness of our depressions, and away from the feelings that deceive us.
But where is it that God’s light and truth leads us? It leads us to a place of worship. This is poetry, and the psalmist can talk about going to God’s “holy hill.” Jerusalem, the place of the temple, is always referred to theologically as “up”, even though it is situated in a valley. Pilgrims always “go up” to Jerusalem to worship. For the psalmist, “going up” is a “step up” from his depression. His depression has brought him low, and so now, he seeks a higher place. He wants to go to the dwelling place of God. There’s something profound here that’s not to be missed, the psalmist feels lonely. The psalmist feels like God has abandoned him. The psalmist feels like God is distant and remote. But what will the psalmist do in spite of his feelings? He will go to God. He will go to the place of worship, and he will allow God’s truth and light to lead him there.
It is impossible to underestimate the value and the power of worship. But, oftentimes, when we’re feeling depressed or alone, or abandoned by God, the first thing we do is stay away from worship. We don’t go up to God’s holy hill, we don’t seek out the dwelling place of God, we stay home.
Worship is absolutely essential to our spiritual well-being. I’m also convinced that worship is also essential to our physical and mental health as well. And yet, it takes an act of the will to come to a place of worship. It requires a decision, and planning, but mostly it requires that we move away from focusing on ourselves, and moving ourselves toward the presence of God.
Do we really understand what worship is all about? Do we understand that it is never self-focused and always focused on God? Unfortunately Christian culture often mirrors prevailing culture. And so we have learned to evaluate worship on the basis of how well it entertains us. We speak of how cold the sanctuary is, or how hot it is (often on the same Sundays!) we wonder whether the music was any good or not, and opine on the value or lack of value of the sermon. We consider if we have gotten our money’s worth.
But when we do that, we’ve got it all backwards. Worship is not for our amusement. It is not for our entertainment. Worship is solely for the adoration of God. When we come to church to be amused or entertained, or maybe even to be coddled, we commit idolatry. We end up worshiping the service rather than serving in the worship. Churches should never have audiences sitting in the seats. Concert theaters and movie houses have audiences. When we worship, there is only one person in the audience. That one person is God. Worship is a personal and corporate offering to God. It is an opening up of ourselves, our true selves, our sinful selves and a giving of our total selves to God. Coming to the place of worship for any other reason merely cheapens God’s experience of us and our experience of God.
In returning to the place of worship, the psalmist expected to exchange his sorrow and depression for joy. This is always the end result of worship. There can be no other out-come. One cannot be immersed in worship, glorying in God’s presence, and hold on to one’s depression and sorrow for long. To be in the presence of God is to experience joy. That’s a simple, but immutable truth. To worship God is to participate in joy. That joy is the joy of God, and the joy of others around us.
One final thing: I hope you’ve been snooping around in our passages this morning. And I hope as you’ve been snooping, that you’ve discovered something. And that is that Psalms 42 and 43 share a common refrain. That refrain shows up in Psalm 42 in verses 5 and 11. And then
again in Psalm 43 at verse five. The presence of this common refrain has led most scholars to believe that Psalms 42 and 43 are really just one psalm that got accidentally divided into two. Helping us to decide that is the curiosity that Psalm 43 has no title, no musical instructions and no named author. My theory is that it all comes down to coffee. Either the scribe needed a cup of coffee, or he’d just had one. And, either way, a short break is necessitated. And so the scribe who had been copying these psalms got up to take his break at the end of what we now call verse 11. When he got back, he unintentionally left a small space, and started in with verse 1, even though he had no clue that it would ever be called verse 1. And then, lots of years later, when chapters and verses were added to help us navigate through the Scriptures in a more uniform way, that little space between verses 11 and 1 carved out a whole new psalm. OK, big deal. One psalm that got hacked into two. Nothing spiritual about it, just educational. But if Psalms 42 and 43 really are just one psalm, that common refrain that I’ve been telling you about divides the psalm nicely into thirds.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
My help and my God.
The first time that refrain appears, it’s an honest question: “Why are you cast down O my soul?” And so he’s thinking to himself, let’s figure this out. Let’s think this thing through. Let’s ponder it out. The second time it appears, it’s an honest evaluation: we could phrase it, “Why(still) are you cast down, O my soul?” And again he’s thinking to himself, let’s explore this issue even more deeply. Let’s dig deeper into the depths of my heart. And the final time the refrain appears the question has become “Why(at all) are you cast down, O my soul?” This final question acknowledges that the psalmist is on the road to recovery, and for him, at least, its been a three step process. First, he’s identified the issue, second, he’s discovered that he still needs to do more work to get himself on the right path, and third, and finally, he discovers that he is on the road to healing and recovery.
But through all three steps, he’s known the answer to his problem from the very beginning. It is just that it has been stuck in his head. It hasn’t made it into his heart. The answer is to hope in God. The psalmist needed to learn to get this truth out of his brain and into his heart, and so do we. We know many truthful things in our brains. But those things need to migrate to our hearts, because it is only in our hearts, where true belief can occur.