How Long, O Lord?

Decca label image of "Nobody Knows De Trouble I've Seen" released as part of a five record 78 rpm album in 1939.

Decca label image of “Nobody Knows De Trouble I’ve Seen” released as part of a five record 78 rpm album in 1939.

The Book of Psalms is quoted in the New Testament more than any other Old Testament book. In fact, there are 78 direct quotations from one Psalm or another and over 300 indirect references to the Psalms. Within the large Book of Psalms, there are eight smaller “collections” or types of psalms. Not all psalms are the same. There are Psalms of lament, of thanksgiving, of praise, of wisdom, covenant, of ascent, of divine justice, and Messianic psalms.

The Psalms of lament represents the largest collection of psalms in the Psalter. That’s probably because during Old Testament times there was plenty of lamenting going on. God’s people were in almost constant need or facing one threat after another, and they cried out to God for help and deliverance. That’s what a psalm of lament is all about: a believer desperately pleading with God for help; to come into their lives or their home or their nation. Usually the psalm of lament dealt with some sort of national lament; the prayers of a nation directed to God to fill some need or provide some deliverance.

Over in the New Testament, we see this on a much smaller scale in the ministry of Jesus. There are many examples of blind people, lame people, lepers, poor people, and in the cases of Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter, the families of dead people, pleading with Jesus or summoning Him to come and provide what they need. Here’s a classic example of a New Testament lament:

He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Lord, I want to see,” he replied. (Luke 18:38 – 41 NIV)

“Have mercy on me” is a tiny prayer of lament. Each of the 68 psalms of lament is, of course, much longer than a single verse, but they amount to the same thing: the needy person or the lamenting person trying to bring God into his life so that God will help him. Most believers are taught that God takes all initiative. But is that always true? It certainly is in the case of salvation. Whether you believe in the idea of prevenient grace or the idea of regeneration before salvation, nobody just decides one day to “get saved.” God through the Holy Spirit is calling that lost soul, and somehow makes it possible for him to believe. But in other areas of life, does God always take the initiative? If we look at the example of Jesus and the blind man, the blind man took the initiative to summon Jesus to heal help him. So it is with the psalms of lament: they are designed to summon God into doing something, based on the assumption that if no prayer is offered, God won’t do anything. Getting God’s attention so that He will act is the basic purpose of each psalm of lament.

Karl Barth once wrote something along these lines:

Prayer causes God to do things He otherwise wouldn’t do.

That’s a very simple and primitive view of prayer, but when you are suffering and when your back is against the wall and you’ve run out of options, it’s what you believe because it’s all you have.

Psalm 4:1 – 8, A prayer for mercy

If Psalm 3 can be considered a “morning prayer,” then Psalm 4 is an “evening prayer.” Bible scholars believe that a devastating crop failure is behind the writing of this psalm. That is certainly a problem worthy of a lament! Oesterley remarked:

Written at a time when there was famine, or at any rate a shortage of food, in the land owing to a bad harvest, the psalmist glories in the spiritual satisfaction of joy within him through his love and faithfulness to God; compared with this, material wants do not trouble him.

That’s an important thing to keep in mind: a believer’s joy should never be rooted in anything other than his relationship with God through Jesus Christ. To find joy in anything or anyone else is to settle for at best a temporary second best.

Trial, vs. 1, 2

My faithful God, answer me when I call out to you. Give me rest from my trouble. Show me your favor. Hear my prayer. How long will you people turn my glory into shame? How long will you love what will certainly fail you? How long will you pray to statues of gods? (NIrV)

Typical of many psalms written by David, God is reminded of things He did for David in the past. Verse 1 is a very strong verse with no less than three imperative verbs: “hear me,” “have mercy,” and “hear.” Things were bad (or “tight”) for David now, but he could remember being in great distress before, and God helped him (“loosed” him) then. David just knew God could help him again if only He would hear his prayer.

Verse 2 is directed to a human audience, not to God. People (“sons of men”) were discouraging the psalmist, perhaps mocking his faith in God or even God Himself and in doing so, making light of this prayer. They preferred to seek help from other means (other gods). David would have nothing of this idolatry!

Teaching, vs. 3, 4

Remember that the Lord has set his faithful people apart for himself. The Lord will hear me when I call out to him. When you are angry, do not sin. When you are in bed, look deep down inside you and be silent.

This second stanza contains some teaching or instruction for people who don’t have the faith David has. But the truth is, faith is linked to understanding God’s sovereignty. David is teaching a profound truth in verse 3. God has sovereignly set apart the godly – faithful people – for Himself. Coupled with that fact is another one: we are able to call out to God – to plead with Him. So, on the one hand God calls and sets apart, but on the other He hears those who call out to Him. In one instance, God initiates the action, but on the other, people do.

The admonition in verse 4 can be looked at two ways. “When you are angry, do not sin,” or “Stand in awe (of God), and do not sin.” It is quoted in Ephesians 4:26, 27 like this:

Scripture says, “When you are angry, do not sin.” Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Don’t give the devil a chance (NIrV)

Either translation of the rare Hebrew word is possible since the same term may suggest “fear” or “awe” and “anger.” Paul’s advice of not giving the devil a chance is the key to either translation: if you fear God you won’t sin, thus you won’t be giving the devil a chance to trap you. If you are angry yet are able to control your emotions, you also won’t be giving the devil a chance to take advantage the situation to drag you further away from God.

Trust, vs. 5, 6

Offer sacrifices to the Lord in the right way. Trust in him. Many are asking, “Who can show us anything good?” Lord, let us see your face smiling on us with favor. (NIrV)

Lasting prosperity and happiness are not found in any man or man’s ways but in the Lord. Verse 5 is all about public worship. If you are going to worship God – offering sacrifices – then do it the right way! Worship of God without the corresponding trust is of no value. Yet how many Christians do just that every Sunday? They stand in church, singing hymns and worship choruses all about faith and trust all the while they none of those things. This seemed to frustrate the psalmist, and it certainly frustrates the pastor.

Not only that, but works without faith are dead. Going through the motions of appropriate worship while your heart is not in it, again, is useless. That kind of religion leads only to cynicism, as evidenced by the phrase, “Who can show us anything good?” Only faithless, unrighteous people could ask a question as cynical as that. A true believer always knows where good comes from!

Triumph, vs. 7, 8

You have filled my heart with great joy. It is greater than the joy of people who have lots of grain and fresh wine. I will lie down and sleep in peace. Lord, you alone keep me safe. (NIrV)

David has covered a lot of territory in just 6 verses. He has praised God for help and deliverances of the past. He has prayed that God would provide deliverance again. He has admonished people for being faithless in the present distress. In the final two verses of this psalm of lament, there is a sense of triumph or victory. And why wouldn’t David end this psalm on a positive note? He had faith in God. He had seen God’s mighty power firsthand in the past. He had no doubt that he would experience God’s provision and deliverance one more time.

David had something in his heart nobody or nothing could take from him: joy. Unlike the ungodly who find joy in things like a good harvest, his joy was in God. Harvesttimes for the Hebrews and other ancient people were, in fact, cause for celebration and rejoicing. But the joy found in the Lord is greater and will never end.

A New Testament writer, Paul, found the kind of joy David found and wrote a whole letter about it. Joy is the main theme of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The words “joy” and “rejoice” are used some 16 time in this short letter. What’s remarkable about the joyful tone of this letter is that it was written while Paul was under house arrest! That’s right. He had no freedom and no prospects for freedom, yet he wrote verses like these:

Are you cheerful because you belong to Christ? Does his love comfort you? Is the Holy Spirit your companion? Has Christ been gentle and loving toward you? Then make my joy complete by agreeing with each other. Have the same love. Be one in spirit and purpose. (Philippians 2:1, 2 NIrV)

But my life might even be poured out like a drink offering on your sacrifices. I’m talking about the way you serve because you believe. Even so, I am glad. I am joyful with all of you. So you too should be glad and joyful with me. (Philippians 2:17, 18 NIrV)

Always be joyful because you belong to the Lord. I will say it again. Be joyful. (Philippians 4:2 NIrV)

For the true believer, joy is all about having the right perspective. David was a true believer and he realized that his joy would not be hindered by famine or by godless people. When you find yourself in circumstances that seem more joyless than joyful, take a moment to ask God to help you IN your circumstances, then claim your joy IN SPITE of your circumstances. Your lament to the Lord should be based on His ability to provide, not on the size of your circumstances.

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