A sermon on Psalm 13 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 8 August 2021
How long, O Lord? To me it sounds like one of those forbidden questions, the questions that you quickly learn you aren’t allowed to ask.
Here’s an example of a forbidden question. “How long till tea, mum?” Now this is when I’m just a child. All I want to know is if I have time to have a bath before dinner or finish my homework or start my homework or something. But it’s taken like a complaint. Like I’m asking, “Why isn’t dinner ready already? How much longer is it going to take? How long till tea, mum?”
“I don’t know,” was the answer, “why don’t you cook it yourself?”
You see, I made the mistake of asking a forbidden question. Like, “What on earth were you thinking?” Or, “Miss, didn’t you say we have a spelling test today?” They are the questions you quickly learn you aren’t allowed to ask.
But Psalm 13 teaches us that there are no questions we aren’t allowed to ask our Lord. The psalms are great that way. They are there to teach us to pray. They exist to give us the words that we can use in pouring out our hearts to our heavenly Father. And there is a psalm for every occasion, for every human emotion. There are happy psalms. There are sad psalms. There are psalms of praise. There are psalms of urgent pleas. There are psalms for when you are walking down the sunny side of the street. And there are psalms for when you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
That is the great appeal of the psalms. Whatever kind of day we are having, whatever our need, there is a psalm to help us through and to put our feelings into words.
Psalm 13 begins, like most psalms do, in verses 1 and 2.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts, and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
It’s a lament. It’s a request for help wrapped up like a complaint. We don’t sing many laments these days. Our hymns, our songs, are happy, inspiring tunes. We want to feel happy so we sing songs that make us feel happy. We don’t like sad songs because sad songs make us feel sad. And feeling sad, we think, is bad. We think that sad people should pretend to be happy until they don’t feel sad anymore so they don’t make us sad too. We think that telling people that it’s okay to be sad will only make them worse. We tell them to cheer up instead so they’ll feel better.
I suppose, in a way, we treat sadness like it’s a disease rather than a normal reaction to abnormal events. Like we might catch it from them. No wonder that, with attitudes like these, sad people feel like lepers, like they don’t belong, like they are not allowed to show their true emotions. No wonder that, with attitudes like these, so many people are depressed.
And we don’t like complainers either. People who make a fuss. We call them whingers. We are outraged when they dare to speak out. We think they should just grin and bear it. And when complainers get what they want, it makes us feel even worse. We don’t want to be like them, but we are jealous of the things they get.
But here in Psalm 13, in black and white, in the Bible of all places, is a sad song. A lament full of complaints.
How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
You can’t ask your mum questions like that. You can’t talk to your boss like that. But you can say those words to God. You remember him? The creator of the world. The judge of the living and the dead. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. You can talk to him like that. With him there are no forbidden questions. There are no requests that are out of line. There is no complaint that will make him think less of you, that will end up with you being excluded from his favour.
And you are allowed to sing a sad song if you want to. Our culture may want us to suppress our sad feelings. But the psalms teach us that it is better to get these negative emotions out than to keep them bottled up. That we can sing our sadness and our anger and our bitterness and our disappointment to the Lord. He doesn’t feel threatened by them. He doesn’t put up with them now and then use them against you later. He doesn’t write you off as a whinger or as a toxic influence. He can handle it. With him you are safe. There is no human emotion that he wants you to keep to yourself. You can bring them to him.
Psalm 13 is a psalm of David. So what is David so sad about? What is it that lies at the heart of his complaint? I think he is sick and worried that he is going to die. He has brought his need to God in prayer. But he is sad that his distress has not ended yet. And his complaint is that God has not yet done anything about it. He feels abandoned, left alone with his anxious thoughts and unrelieved worries and his suffering seems never ending. Like it’s going on forever.
And it is true that when we are in distress, time seems to stop. I suppose it’s the opposite to the saying, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” When the world is a happy place, when we are distracted by joy and pleasure, we hardly feel the passing of time as it zips right past. But when we are in a world of pain, the results of our blood test never comes quick enough and every day seems the same. It’s like our suffering goes on forever and our relief never comes.
And it’s worse when we think that God has done nothing about it. This is how David felt. And when he did, he didn’t tell himself to snap out of it. He didn’t tell himself to look on the bright side. He didn’t tell himself “this too shall pass”. He didn’t tell himself to cheer up. He cried out to the Lord, “How long?” It’s a cry for justice. It implies that what he’s going through is wrong. It’s inappropriate. It’s unacceptable. As if something should have been done about it already.
Verses 1 and 2 have spelled out David’s complaint. Verses 3 and 4 clarify David’s request.
Look on me and answer, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
This is what he wants the Lord to do. He wants the Lord to look on him, to see his distress, to pay attention to his need. And he wants the Lord to answer him, to give him what he asks for, the healing he needs without which he will die.
Notice that David doesn’t say please. He doesn’t use all those weasel words that we add to our requests to make them more polite. “O Lord, if it isn’t too much trouble, if you can see your way to maybe helping me.” These nonsense words we use to placate the powerful, to butter them up to make them more inclined to what we want. That’s how our Anglo-Celtic culture work. But Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures save that kind of language for strangers, for the faceless government official, for the boss at the factory. But it is not the way they speak to family and close friends. With people who are close to them they use much more direct language that sounds almost rude to our ears. Like you can watch an Italian family eating a meal together and talking and you can almost think that they are all angry with each other. But to them, it’s rude to talk to each other the way you talk to a stranger.
When David speaks to the Lord in his psalms, he doesn’t talk to him like he is a stranger, but like he is family. He belongs to the Lord and the Lord belongs to him. And it is rude not to speak to him without using simple, direct language. “Look on me. Answer. Give light to my eyes,” which means something like, restore my health and strength. Because when you are sick, your eyes look dull and lifeless. They’ve lost that spark of life. But when you are feeling better, your eyes light up.
And David isn’t afraid to list the consequences if the Lord doesn’t give him the help he needs. He tells him, “I will die. And my enemies will think they have won.” Implying, of course, that the Lord’s enemies will think they have won, which for the Lord is a loss.
What the psalms are teaching is that you are allowed to talk to God like that. To simply tell him what you want and what you need and why. “Hear me. Answer me. Give me what I need. Do something to show that you are God or the unbelievers will laugh at you.” This isn’t the way I was brought up to talk to my parents. It isn’t the way I was taught to talk to my teachers. But it is the way that the psalms teach us to talk to God.
David mentions his enemy as if that should be motivation enough for the Lord to intervene. For God’s king’s enemy is God’s enemy and the enemy’s triumph is seen to be God’s defeat. The Lord should then intervene for the sake of his own reputation. For the Lord will be mocked and disrespected if he is not seen as good and all powerful in human affairs. The psalms are not afraid to add this kind of detail to their prayers, teaching us that if we want God to do what we ask him too it doesn’t hurt to give him a good reason to do it, so that he isn’t just doing it for us, but he is doing it for himself.
For example, we are right to pray for God to end the current pandemic. We are worried about our friends and family. We are worried about ourselves. But perhaps God’s reputation is at stake as well. And won’t people praise him if he heals them or saves us all. Perhaps we should take a leaf from Psalm 13 and ask the Lord to take away the coronavirus not just for us, but for his own reputation as well.
Verses 5 and 6 record David’s vow. Because if you are going to ask God to do what you want, it’s a good idea to be prepared to say what you are going to do about it.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.
This happy ending is not a contradiction of the lament and the bitter complaint in the opening verses. The pain David expressed in verses 1 and 2 didn’t come because he didn’t trust God. It didn’t mean he had given up hope in the Lord. He felt that pain because he did trust God and hadn’t given up hope. God is his light and salvation. God’s goodness brings joy to his life. God is his food and his strength. That’s why the absence of God’s blessing has hurt so much. But it is not a good enough reason to give up on him. David will trust in the Lord’s love that does not fail and he will continue to rejoice in the Lord’s salvation.
It reminds us that faith is a choice. It is a commitment we make. It is clinging to God in the darkness, knowing that the light will return with the dawn. It is refusing to give in to the momentary disappointment for the sake of the return of his blessing. It is the decision Jesus made on the cross when he cried out his lament,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
And yet died with these last words on his lips,
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
We all go through hard times and we feel the pain of disappointment. But don’t mistake that pain in yourself or in someone else for lack of faith. Instead it is the pain of faith being tested. It is the pain of following in the footsteps of Jesus. It is nothing to be ashamed of, but something to be endured.
However, when the Lord’s blessing returns, when the Lord answers David’s prayer, when he restores David’s health and strength, David vows to sing to the Lord, to sing his praise so that everyone can hear and join in in the celebration, for the Lord has been good. He is good. And he will be good. This is the same confident choice that we can make in times of stress and distress. The Lord has been good and the Lord never changes, even though our circumstances often do. And when the Lord’s blessing returns, we will sing his praise again.
The psalms are great. Even the laments like Psalm 13. They teach us to pray. They teach us how to pray. And we can pray, “How long, O Lord?” You can’t talk to your mum like that. you can’t talk to your boss like that. But you can talk like that to God.