Some Psalms speak glowingly of the greatness of God. Others praise the Lord for His benevolent goodness. Others describe in overwhelming thankfulness the blessings God has given them.
And then . . . there are the ones without a happy ending. Like Psalm 38.
The writer, like Job, is suffering. Unlike Job, this writer is comfortable with the notion that his suffering might be because of his sin. He writes of his sinful folly, his guilt, confesses his iniquity, and is troubled by his sin. In his mind (and he would know would he not), his illness has been brought on by the “hand” of the Lord. It has made him vulnerable to paranoia (were people talking about him, or did he just imagine it? You can go both ways). But most of all, he suffers horribly.
Have you ever felt like your suffering was because of your sin?
Yes? Then you know how the psalmist felt.
No? Then perhaps you need to be more introspective. None of us who have ever sinned are beyond the retributive hand of God, and all of us have sinned. It’s not to say that all misfortune is the punishment for sin, only that misfortune is a possible result of sin.
So what do you do?
Do as the psalmist did. Take it to God. We don’t know the end of the story, but we do know the God to whom the psalmist prayed.
In the stories of Jesus’ crucifixion, it is amazing the number of Psalms that came to their minds. Even more amazing is which Psalms.
As Jesus hangs there, he calls to mind both Psalm 22 and Psalm 31, the latter of which likely most vividly describes Jesus’ torture. Anguish, distress, affliction, weak bones, the contempt of neighbors and dread of friends – all this is the experience of the psalmist, and the experience of Jesus.
Yet neither Psalm 31 nor 22 are psalms of despair. They are poems of hope. The writer has seen God act in his behalf before, and he knows God will do so again. And so, though help is not on a visible horizon, the writer can say “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.”
“God never closes one door but what he opens another.”
Or so we’re told.
Often, however, the hallway between the two is long, dark and foreboding.
Fully one third of the Psalms mention “enemies” of the psalmist, and Psalm 27 is one of those. The situation is only briefly mentioned. The writer finds himself in a tough spot because he’s been falsely accused. From the prayer itself, it’s obvious that the accusation is a serious matter. Resolution can go either way, and the writer takes his predicament to God.
God is his light, his rescue, and his protection. We take light for granted. Flip a switch, and you’re good to go. Power out? Use a flashlight. No flashlight? Turn on your cell phone. But to ancient people, light was always a fading commodity and absolute darkness filled half a day. It’s why God is described as “light.” He’s the path forward.
The psalmist does not believe God will empower him to overcome his accusers. The situation is beyond that kind of help. What he needs, and believes God will provide, is personal intervention. He expects rescue in the here and now, the “land of the living.”
The psalm ends without resolution. We don’t know the end of the story. Neither did David. But whatever the end, he placed his hope in God, and provides a prayer for all those who travel a dark hallway in life.
Who may dwell in God’s house? Who may ascend and live on His holy hill? Who may stand in God’s holy place?
These are the questions of Psalm 15 and 24, and each provides for us a summary of God’s law. Bottom line, what is important to God?
Let’s be careful not to misunderstand. These texts do not tell us how to become one of God’s people. That is an entirely different subject. These psalms, written to and for ancient Israel only address Israel. No one else had a shot at dwelling in God’s presence. But to the people of God, the Psalmist says that just being one of God’s people will not guarantee fellowship with God. Behavior is important.
While being a Christian gives us the right to call God our Father (because we have been born again by His power), it does not guarantee fellowship with Him. As a child may be disinherited, yet remain a son or daughter, so Christians can suffer the same fate if they do not pursue living up to their calling.
It may well be that Psalm 21 is a companion to Psalm 20. Psalm 20:4 requests God grant the “desires of your heart” and Psalm 21 says that God has granted them.
In any case, Psalm 21 is a prayer on behalf of the King.
Verse 8 pairs the Lord and the King in the work of destroying the wicked, and we wonder how much relevance such a Psalm can have today.
Ancient Israel lived in a theocracy where God was the true sovereign for the nation and the king his servant. The United States is no such theocracy. And yet, we should not be quick to dismiss the relevance of this Psalm. God is still sovereign over all nations. Our leaders, whether they be Christians or not, respectful of God or not, are still servants of God (Romans 13:4). Their task is still to bring punishment on the wrongdoer that we (God’s people) might live “quiet and peaceful lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:2). And our duty is still to pray for them.
Keep in mind that the Psalms comprise the music of the redeemed, the people of God. Among the many things they express is the notion that God’s people are favored (by God) above all other people.
The writer of Psalm 18 was in dire straits and if his position were not weak enough, his enemies used the occasion of his vulnerability to attack him. But God heard the prayer of his servant and in righteous indignation “thundered from heaven.” The enemies of the Psalmist were the enemies of the Lord, and God rescued his servant.
The Psalmist writes that God dealt with him according to the writer’s righteousness. One should not read that as saying God rescued him because he was good and deserved rescue. He simply wants the reader to know that the misfortune that befell him was not punishment for sin. In other words, God did not rescue him from what he deserved. In the end, God rescued him because he was God’s anointed (vs. 50).
Christians should remember they have a special relationship with God above all other people. We should live in a way that appreciates that exalted status, and trusts that because of it, God will come to our aid in times of trouble.
I remember studying for my first driver’s test. I’d asked the officer at the DMV when I picked up the book (no internet back then) what I should focus on. His reply was not comforting: “Everything between the covers” he said.
“How am I supposed to remember all this?” I thought.
You may have wondered the same thing about Israel earlier this year when you were reading through the Pentateuch. The Rabbis believed there were 613 precepts in the Old Testament. How was anyone supposed to remember them all, let alone keep them all?
And so, at various points in the Old Testament, there are places that narrow the focus to “just the essentials.” The Ten Commandments was just such a place. Micah 6:8 is another as is Isaiah 56:1. So also is Psalm 15, narrowing the law of God to ten statements: Walk blamelessly. “Blameless” has to do with “completeness,” a wholeheartedness that is not hypocritical. Do what is right, doing what God would do. Don’t say or do things that are hurtful to or about others. Honor people who live honorable lives, and stay away from those who do not. Keep your word. Help the needy without expecting repayment, and never bend the truth – especially not for money.
It’s surely a shorter list than 613 commands, but it’s a great place to begin.
As we shall see repeatedly in the Psalms, the frustration of Psalm 4 is continual. Holy people, like Abraham’s nephew Lot, are repeatedly “distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men” (2 Peter 2:7). The writer of Psalm 8 is so vexed he believes the “godly are no more.”
But he is also distressed with the fortunes of the wicked, who “freely strut about” apparently unhindered and unpunished.
In his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus said: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.” Psalm 8 is the prayer of a mourner. As D.A. Carson writes: “He mourns for the sins and blasphemies of his nation. He mourns for the erosion of the very concept of truth. He mourns over the greed, the cynicism, the lack of integrity. He mourns that there are so few mourners.”
What’s a holy person to do who is so mired in mourning?
Take it to the Lord (at least that’s what the Psalmist did) and trust God to protect us from the likes of those who distress us.
The creation is nowhere defended in scripture. It is presented as a fact, a nail pounded deeply into the hardest of wood. Hanging from this nail are tremendous truths – one of which is seen in Psalm 8.
God is the master creator of all things. He set everything into place. Nothing came about by random chance and the fact of God’s sovereignty is seen by the praise of the weakest in the face of the strongest (children and infants vs. foe and avenger).
And yet, this sovereign God has placed all His creation under the rule and authority of mankind, exalting this being, though also created and lower in status than the angels, to a position second only to God.
For this blessing, the Psalmist praises God.
But the importance of the Psalm has to do with the status of mankind. We are not just a piece of the cosmos. We are not just another type of being. We are different, superior, and in charge. But, of course, only if God is the creator. If He is not, we have no more moral authority than any other living thing in nature. We cannot claim authority because we are bigger or smarter or more powerful. And if we do so, we justify those of our own species who would oppress us because they are bigger, smarter, and more powerful.
God being creator is hugely important to our moral well-being, and His placement of us in charge should lead us all to praise His majestic name.
The fourth Psalm is actually a dialog between the writer and God. The Psalmist begins the prayer, but in verse two, God answers. We’re back to the Psalmist in verse three, back to God in verse four, and back to the Psalmist in verses five through eight. This brief dialog helps us to understand the distress the Psalmist mentions at the beginning.
The writer is distressed by his community, those who place their trust in anything and everything but the Lord. In fact, they are willing to trust in anyone and anything that they believe will bring them the desires of their heart – that’s what their statement “Who can show us any good?” is all about.
God addresses both the Psalmist and the community. He asks the community how long they will stray from Him. To the Psalmist, he says he has every right to be upset, but not to go overboard in his anger and sin.
The Psalmist points the community to God, and then, affirms his own trust in the Lord.
The community in which we live challenges our faith every day. We too should be distressed at their reluctance to trust God. We too should speak to them to urge them to turn to the Lord. But doing that, we’ve done all we can do. Our frustration must be poured out not to the community, but to God, and whether the community turns or not, we must live with joy, knowing that God is at least taking care of us.