John Michael Gutierrez, PhD
A reading from the Psalms
1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 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?
3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Please turn to Psalm 13 in your Bible or to page 281 in your prayer book.
Reading psalms, reading this psalm, on Sundays can give the impression everything happened at once. We don’t know how long it took to write any psalm. Yet we do know all psalms were written after a life experience. So as someone who tries to write, it seems to me “things” must have bounced around the psalmist’s head and heart a long time before they were put into words and then into, of all things, poetic words.
I have never been so low but couldn’t find a psalmist who was lower. And I never climbed so high but couldn’t find a psalmist who was higher still. I’ve never been backed into a corner, but a psalmist hasn’t already been there. It’s my opinion complete psalms express faith in a variety of ways in a lot of different situations. Unpacking Psalm 13, that is, understanding its literary and poetic progress allows for richer, more responsible exposition. Psalm 13 is a lament, the shortest of at least 60 psalms seeking relief from enemies or sickness. Whenever we sit before a lament psalm, I believe we are doing several things. As I hope to show, reading through Psalm 13, we are being led by the Spirit in and out of some difficult corners. We’ll set out on a journey of discovery, exploring suffering and misfortune poetically and the mystery of life in the presence of God with us. And we’ll explore the lively interaction between the spiritual and the physical, the divine and the human and social interaction in a faith community. Please keep this in mind: The Lord was really relating to his people before Christ came and it’s worth seeking to discover what He was saying to them. And it’s worthwhile discovering what this psalmist was bringing as God’s message to the people in his/her day.
Laments in Israel’s prayer book have several important features. Laments give us a pattern for prayer in times of adversity. Laments also give us insight into the variety of responses believers have to suffering. Laments let us hear nothing in life’s troubles are barriers to speaking directly with the Lord in the confidence of being heard. Laments are models of conversation with the Lord when the psalmist is plunged into a fierce reality where things go from bad to worse to worst of all. But note this, laments don’t usually provide specific information about specific controversy. Instead, they most often acknowledge the reality of misfortune/suffering while leading the hearer/reader to focus on the impending threat to the psalmist’s relationship with the Lord. That’s why Psalm 13 and many other laments are arranged around a familiar triangle of pronouns: a “You” that is, YHWH is the subject/object of the protests and petitions. There’s the, “I/Me”, that is, the psalmist who voices the protests and petitions. And there are the “they”, that is, adversaries who express open hostility toward the psalmist and often toward the Lord. In laments, suffering drives a psalmist to question divine, sustaining authority. In his/her suffering it is the adversaries who seem to have gained the upper hand. Laments are loaded with emotional expressions, protests, disillusionment and sharp swings such as we will read in vss. 5-6, where hope in search of YHWH’s covenant loyalty reshapes belief.
And here’s an observation of my own thinking and study. You can take it or leave it. There’s always the delete key. I propose laments are re-exploration of intense pain, grief and suffering voiced to the community gathered in the Temple. There is no such Biblical faith as self-managed “snuggled under the blankets with a cup of coffee and a Bible”. Biblical faith is community faith. So, it seems to me, laments bring folk together into the temple to sit alongside the psalmist with him/her in tears, acknowledging the pain, assuring him/her of their capacity to be compassionate. I suggest for your consideration one of the intentions of Lament prayer is to raise the issue of compassion in the listening community. It seems to me compassion is woven into Laments for the hearers to peek inside the inner world of the psalmist, to feel sorrow for what the psalmist is going through. Simply said, the point for those in the temple who hear this lament prayer after the event is for them to leave the Temple. Go home. Re-enter their situation. Be compassionate. Compassion, sympathy, empathy and kindness are Spirit-infused into believers and lead to lots of good. When believers see suffering in others, they can have similar feelings, especially if they have had similar experiences. Believers can share another person’s perspective. So go ahead, weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice. Since the Early Church, Christians have been especially noted for their care of immigrants and their willingness to care for the sick and the dying, especially in times of plague or natural disasters. Indeed, one could say, without exaggeration, compassion and kindness have been at the core of Christian witness. You don’t have to evaluate everything first. Maybe you don’t agree with someone. You can tell them that in due time. But they can know, especially since you are a Christian, you have been redeemed by someone who cares and that is why you care.
So, this morning I invite you to walk with me into the world of a lament having as its reality “We ask you in your goodness, O Lord, to comfort and sustain all who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness or any other adversity….”.
By now I suppose you realize I’m setting you up to hear in Psalm 13’s poetry severe distress. It’s a poetic ambush evoking an emotional response. Even for the psalms, it’s not the politest of conversation. The situation is so bad there’s no time for niceties. So may I suggest to you the four “How long will you…. How long must I….” in vss. 1-2 approach something of a scream. “It’s dark, too dark to see, it hurts and I’m helpless” says the psalmist, “So much pain, the sound of silence, the echo of darkness, so close”. Even time itself has become a destructive force wearing the psalmist down. Allow me to stretch the poetics a bit: How long Lord? How long will you forget me? Forever? How could you do that? (vs. 1). The growing intensity of an emotionally charged “forever” is played off the psalmist’s time bound anxiety “day after day, I have sorrow in my heart” in vs. 2. These aren’t merely wordy questions, but the intensification of reality woven into suffering pitched higher, higher again and higher still. The four “How longs?” directed to YHWH, express deep misgivings about His character and lack of activity. But here’s a poetic subtlety to which we will return in a few minutes. The psalmist’s questions also reveal faith wanting to understand and seek deliverance from the only person who can help.
In vss. 2, 4 the psalmist uses the “they”, the enemy or adversary, to punch up the lament’s intensity voiced in a strong, deeply affected protest “Your irresponsible absence has allowed enemies to get a foot in the door. How long will my enemy triumph over me…? how long my enemy will say, “I have overcome him and how long will my foes rejoice when I fall….”.
Feeling abandoned, forgotten, neglected, in the choke hold of adversaries, the psalmist resorted to self–advice “How long must I wrestle with my own thoughts?” (vs. 2). It’s a reflection on failed attempts to deal with his/her troubles. Failed plans only caused more grief. No longer a way out. Life was an emotional roller coaster rising and plunging so often his/her stomach couldn’t take much more. It’s Pepto-Bismol time!
Can you sense the psalmist feels hope slipping away? External and internal inability to keep everything together intensified adversity and suffering to a terminal level. He/she walks us up to the ledge of the most perplexing, most bitter and most feared experience in the ancient world – death: “Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death” (vs. 3). For ancient Israel there is an additional revealed factor: the sting in death is the result of Eden’s sin (Gen. 2.17). Hosea will one day tell us YHWH desires to remove that sting (13.14) but it will not be realized until the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15.54-57). Then death will become an opened doorway into life.
Well, this psalmist has walked us to a very certain ledge. Everyone travels across the space between birth and death. A journey that is shorter for some, longer for others. Everyone, sooner or later, will experience a time of tension, conflict, suffering. Isn’t it obvious to us in these four questions, the burden of suffering is keenly felt by the psalmist? And putting his/her experience into poetry resists demands for rational explanation from reasoned calculations. Suffering can mess with our heads, our emotions just as much as our body. Our whole life can become disordered. Everything we think and desire is slightly askew. Just like the psalmist, we can be moved along a complex and painful path of baffling, grievous harms and a cacophony of voices, some self-inflicted (vs. 2). The feeling is real and painful.
But remember this is a psalm voiced after an experience of deliverance. He/she didn’t fall over the edge. So, how does this psalmist take a step back from the edge? Earlier I proposed the psalmist’s four questions reveal faith wanting to understand and seek deliverance from the only person who can help. In one sense, the psalmist believes YHWH turned his ‘face’ away and doesn’t see “How long will you hide your face from me?” (vs. 1). According to this psalmist’s experience, YHWH’s not looking. But keep this in mind, instead of completely turning his/her face away from YHWH, the psalmist turned toward Him. During the psalmist’s twisting and turning from the uncertainty of feelings/experiences, he/she realized suffering needs YHWH’s presence. This question in vs. 1, then, is a plea for relationship. And the poetry of facial expression will be heard in vs 3 “Look on me…. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death”. In other words, when YHWH looks, he/she will see YHWH’s face and his/her eyes will light up. With all this light, he/she won’t slip into death’s darkness, that great adversary of all men and women. The psalmist embraces the truthfulness of Scripture grounded in the faithful presence of YHWH. We hear that hopeful embrace clearly voiced in his/her closing words “But I trust in your covenant loyalty; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (vs. 5-6).
The world’s wisdom is “live and learn”. Biblical wisdom is “learn and live”. The psalmist takes hold of the hope in covenant revelation. Scripture is the important ingredient in the wrestling match of faith in the experience of suffering. It gives guardrails to keep the path clear for revealed wisdom to have its saving effect. Honestly seeking YHWH doesn’t come easily especially when there’s been hurt. When I’ve had an experience like this psalmist, I certainly sensed hope slipping away and darkness closing in. Don’t you suppose for some unknown amount of time this psalmist wasn’t in a place to trust or praise either? Actually, I suspect most psalmists sometimes took days, weeks, even years before they could find the heart to face YHWH about hard times. Certainly, this has been my experience also. Yet the psalmist isn’t calling out, especially to me, to escape the reality of suffering, rather to discover hope in the scriptures, to step into reality and to experience transformation in the circumstances. So teachability is a big part of growth in Biblical faith. Biblical formation is a learning process involving day to day transformation of patterns of thinking, feeling, believing, and behaving. Biblical formation intends to create the capacity to embrace hope, to discover, envision and ignite my imagination in his Word. Again, the psalmist isn’t calling me to wishful thinking or living in a fantasy. Hope is “this worldly” inside the present ordering of reality. Working through issues, such as suffering, toward covenant faithfulness is not so much the invention of something completely new but making connections between revealed truths that haven’t been adequately linked in my thinking and experience. Faith comes by connecting dots already there. Hope in the biblical sense develops by connecting “belief dots” in a God who acts, a God who is with us, a God who turns his face to us, a God who can be trusted because He is loyal to the covenant He has revealed and sustains.
For the Christian community, Biblical hope has emerged unobscured in Jesus. In his crucifixion suffering, Jesus revoiced these questions from Psalm 22’s lament “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far from saving me?” (vs.1). As the letter to the Hebrews says “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death. He was heard because of his reverent submission. Son, though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Heb. 5.7-9). Christian hope is not the world’s elusive optimism, but truth based on YHWH’s character in real salvation events that have real assurance: Jesus has suffered, has died, is risen and will come again.
Ruth Graham’s father, L. Nelson Bell, was a missionary doctor in China. One of his patient’s, a convert, told him this story. While walking on a path a man slipped and fell into a muddy pit. The more he struggled, the more he sank into the mud. Hopeless in his suffering he began to fail. Suddenly he heard footsteps, looking up, he saw Confucius. He cried out for help. Confucius responded by saying if he had listened to him, he would not have fallen into the pit. He turned and walked away. The man sank further. Helpless. But in a moment, he heard more steps. This time he looked up and saw the Buddha. He pleaded for help. The Buddha only said, “if you come up here, I will show you how to not fall into the pit again”. He turned and walked away. The man despaired. Firmly in the grip of death, once again he heard steps. This time he looked up only to see the face of Jesus. But before he could cry for help, Jesus had jumped into the pit, substituting himself for the man, he lifted him over the edge to safety.
When you personally entrust yourself to Jesus who was willing to die to put everything to rights, giving every ounce of his life to bring life, you are entrusting yourself to someone who has turned his face to you, that is, someone who has experienced and has compassion for physical, emotional and spiritual suffering.
May the Lord bless you richly, my Beloved.