Psalms 42 & 43
31 May 2020
There is the idea among some of the followers of Jesus that one must be happy all of the time. And I understand that. I don’t always agree with it, but I understand it. On one level, persons of faith ought to be giddy with joy. We’ve been embraced by God’s awesome love, we know that our sins are forgiven, and we’ve been promised that the life to come is free and clear of all of the trials and tribulations and sorrows and griefs and disappointments that so frequently invade our lives. And so we are a people who should be given to much celebration and to much joy. We ought not to miss any opportunity that comes our way to celebrate the awesome goodness of God.
On the other hand, it is hard to deny that trials and tribulations and sorrows and griefs and disappointments do, in fact, invade our lives. And the coronavirus has certainly reminded us of this truth. In addition to disease, our world is filled with death and destruction and hate. That brokenness touches us every single day. It is impossible to to avoid, and quite frankly, I don’t think we should try to avoid it. The temptation, of course, is to run from the brokenness around us; to hide from it, or worse, to try to ignore it, or to insulate or isolate ourselves from it. But that is no solution at all. To seek escape only serves to drive us deeper and deeper into despair and loss. To feel the pain, on the other hand, and to acknowledge it, is the first step to discovering wholeness and finding restoration.
And so the reality is that we who follow Jesus, are just not going to be happy all of the time. We can’t be happy all of the time. And in our passage today, the psalmist is definitely feeling the pain. He’s not happy with his situation, and he would definitely like to see it changed.
And so he asks, in verse 9, of Psalm 42, “I say to God my rock, why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because my enemy oppresses me?” That question is closely related to the question that the psalmist quotes in verse three: “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?”‘ Hmm…where is God? Why is there no visible manifestation of God’s glory? Why do we feel like God has forgotten us, why must we live day to day with so much uncertainty?
Well, there’s a safe answer to those kinds of questions, and that is that God has gone nowhere. God is right here; God has not forgotten us. And that is all very nice and all very true. Except, that is, when life is a mess. And right now, the psalmist’s life is so messed up that he can’t hear that answer, and it wouldn’t do him much good, and it wouldn’t give him much comfort if we fired that answer off at him. Sometimes, being well-intentioned is the worst thing that we can do.
Right now, the psalmist has enemies all around him. He knows people who are working really hard at destroying his life, and, to boot, they are questioning the reality of his faith. They’re telling him, You don’t have a God at all! Your God has run off! Your God is powerless to help you. Your God isn’t even a God, it’s your imagination! There’s nothing that can make us question our faith more, than when a person of no faith questions it for us. People of no faith question our faith by pointing out all of the ways in which God has failed us. That’s what a true enemy does. They use the broken circumstances of our own lives to prove that we have a defective God. The psalmist had these kinds of enemies and so do we.
And the irony of all of this is that the psalmist has not forgotten God at all! He remembers times of worship and of celebration. He remembers times of wonderful intimacy with God. He remembers leading a glorious procession of throngs of people up to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving. He remembers how festive it was to be connected so intimately in a worshipful setting. For me, this is the most difficult part of coping with the coronavirus. I miss corporate worship, I need corporate worship, I need to go up to the house of God in the midst of a glad throng. And prayerfully, next Sunday, we should be able to do that. There is no question in my mind that our time apart has been damaging to our souls. Many of us have struggled with no small amount of depression. We yearn for a “normal” that may never come.
And so the psalmist asks himself a very difficult question: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” That’s a question that literally searches the soul. It is a question that honestly acknowledges that there is something that is wrong. There is no boastful denial here at all. The psalmist is admitting here that life is not the way that he had hoped it would be, and he’s doing this without the slightest bit of shame or guilt.
Here I am, Lord, this is me, your servant. I’ve got enemies, people who ridicule my faith. I’ve got plenty of fears, and plenty of tears to go along with those fears. I feel really distant from you, O Lord, and I’m missing the love, and the joy and the protection and the peace that I so well remember. And I want to know what’s happened, or what’s now happening, and so I’m having this chat with myself, and I’m probing deep into my heart. And I’m not entirely pleased with what I see in there, but I also know that I just can’t ignore it or pretend that it is not there. Some of that stuff has got to go. It needs to be purged. I’m discovering that I’ve invited a lot of enemies into my life; in addition to the ones that just showed up on their own. And not all of my enemies are the kind that breathe. Some of them are my own thoughts and attitudes about others around me. And I’m letting these enemies, breathing, and non-breathing, to steal my joy. And joy is what I so desperately crave as your gift to me. O God, restore my joy! “My soul longs for you, O God”, O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.”
Some of that was my prayer, and some of it was the psalmist’s prayer. Part of having our joy in the Lord restored is to spend some serious time creating a prayer of our own; a prayer that honestly searches our souls and that appeals to God for the restoration of our joy. And a most perfect place to begin composing this prayer, is within the prayer that the psalmist has already begun for us. This prayer, in Psalms 42 and forty three gives thanks for the past, it acknowledges the concerns and cares of the present, and it holds out hope for the future. An equally important aspect of this prayer though, demonstrates the psalmist’s determination to offer praise to God in every situation and in every circumstance. If we can learn to do this and to do it consistently, our time in exile will be all that much more bearable.
So, pray, and pray with honesty and with meaning and with hope. Our prayers will sustain us when we are tempted to panic, for there are many unwanted changes that have been thrust upon us over the past three months, and undoubtedly there are more changes to come, not all of which will be pleasant to us. And then, there are all of the usual pressures, and trials and disappointments that seem to come our way on a regular basis. Oftentimes, those troubles are enough to take our joy away. So, is any among us disquieted in our souls? Are we disturbed, uneasy, agitated, unsettled, alarmed, uncomforted, and lacking in peace and serenity? Then we should pray. We should pray for ourselves, and we should pray for one another. Let us pray, as did the psalmist, that in this midst of all of the fears and challenges of this life that we will be able to live lives that are orderly and that glorify our God who is in heaven and who is alive in our hearts. And then, when the time comes, we can come up to the house of God in glorious procession, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving. Until that moment comes, let us rejoice in the sanctuary that God has placed in each of our hearts. For God, our God, is our exceeding joy.