Hope for the Distressed

March 22, 2020 ()

Bible Text: Psalm 42 |


Hope for the Distressed | Psalm 42
Brian Hedges | March 22, 2020

Well, let me say welcome to Redeemer Church, and most of you, sadly, are not here. I just have to say it’s sad to me to be preaching to a mostly empty auditorium; there’s just a handful of us here, kind of an essential crew who are helping us with the service today. But I hope many of our congregation, maybe all of our congregation, will be watching this. It’s Friday night right now; by the time you see it, it will be Sunday morning.

Our confidence is what we’ve just sung about, that our God holds us fast in his hands hand in his keeping. We don’t know how long these trials that we’re in will last, but we know the God that is in control, and we know that he is good, we know that he’s our Father, so we’re going to look to him together today.

I hope you’ll have a copy of the Bible out in front of you. We’re going to look together at Psalm 42. Last week I looked at Psalm 46 and we talked about fear and why we should not fear, because of who our God is, and while I wasn’t really intending to kick off a new series, it seems that with the turn of events over the past week that it’s appropriate for us to look into the Psalms together.

Calvin said that the Psalms gave us “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.” Spurgeon described the Psalms as “the mirror for the soul.” It’s been well said that while all of Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us.

So for the next few weeks, while we’re not able to gather in person but instead are sharing through video, we’re going to look at several psalms that I think are very appropriate to our situation in the world. Last week we talked about fear; today I want to talk about stress, or distress, to use the more biblical word. How do we find hope in the midst of distress?

We live in a world that currently is facing great distress. As of today, Friday, there are 15,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, with 200 deaths. Every day more states are in lockdown. Our community is mostly in lockdown, except for essential travel. So we’re facing this; we’re facing unprecedented things. It’s as if the world has changed in just a matter of days, and things that we had only seen in apocalyptic-type movies or TV shows, those kinds of scenarios seem to be upon us.

We don’t know how long this will last. We hope it’s short, but it could be a matter of weeks, it could be a matter of months. Many of us are, then, facing the repercussions of this in our families, our friends, economically, and wondering what’s going to happen next. The whole world is feeling this. We’re all feeling stress, we’re all feeling distressed, and we need hope in the middle of it.

Psalm 42 is a psalm that speaks to that distress, and I want to begin by reading it. Psalm 42, just 11 verses; let me read it in full, and then let’s dig into it together.

“As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?[b]
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
‘Where is your God?’
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

“My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock:
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?’
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
‘Where is your God?’

“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.”

This is God’s word.

So, three things that I want us to look at about stress:

I. The Symptoms of Stress
II. The Diagnosis for Stress
III. The Treatment for Stress

I. The Symptoms of Stress

First of all, the symptoms. This is a psalm that has a lot of emotion in it. It’s an emotional psalm, but it’s also a psalm with very vivid word pictures. The emotions and the word pictures that the psalmist uses convey to us what’s going on in his heart; his distress, his discouragement, his depression. The psalm is often used to speak to discouragement or to depression. He speaks of mourning in verse 9. He speaks of crying and of tears in verse 3.

But I especially want to dig into the images he uses, the word pictures, because he gives us four pictures of a person who is in deep distress, and they are pictures, I think, that convey a lot of what we are feeling right now.

(1) Here’s the first one. It’s a picture of thirst. You see it in verses 1-2. “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

Now, I used to always read those verses and think of this in terms of a person’s passion for God. I think it’s appropriate to use that language, to speak of a person’s passion for God, their desire for God. There’s certainly desire here. But the picture here is of a hunted animal, the deer that is being hunted for its life and is in a dry and a barren wilderness, a place of drought, needing desperately water, needing desperately a drink to sustain its life. It’s right at the point of death, and it needs water in order to sustain its life.

The psalmist views that as a picture of himself. He’s in drought, he’s thirsty, and he’s thirsty for God, for the living God. He feels separated from God. He wants to be in God’s presence. He needs to know that God is near him, but he can’t find God. His soul is dry and he’s thirsting in his soul.

(2) Here’s another picture: the picture of being burdened, of carrying a heavy load. Look at verse 5. He says, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?”

Robert Alter translates the first part of that verse in this way. He says, “How bent my being, how you moan for me.”

John Goldingay says, “The verb usually refers to a physical bowing down, a literal humbling or a self-lowering in connection with mourning.” It’s the picture of someone who is so grief-stricken, of someone who is so distressed, who is so burdened, that they are bowed over, as if they are carrying the world on their shoulders, a whole weight on their shoulders, bowing them down emotionally.

(3) Then there’s a third picture. They are also in turmoil. This is why I think it’s appropriate to apply this psalm to stress or to distress. Again, you see it in verse 5, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” The old King James says, “Why are you disquieted within me?” That’s actually a really good translation, because the verb here describes a loud sound or noise, the commentaries tell us, a great commotion or an uproar. It means to be clamorous or troubled. Its derivatives speak of a person groaning or roaring, of waters that are roaring, of a heart that is pounding.

The idea here is that his soul is noisy. His soul is roaring. There’s so much going on inside, there’s turmoil in his heart and in his life. He’s clamorous inside. He is anything but peaceful. To use our language today, he is stressed out.

(4) Not only that, there’s a fourth picture in verse 7. It’s a picture of drowning, of being overwhelmed. Look at verse 7. “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”

I know someone that a few years ago was on vacation in Hawaii, on the north shore of Kauai. He was out on the beach boogie-boarding, and he got into water that was too deep for him, and he couldn’t find the bottom. He told me afterwards the waves just kept coming and kept coming, and as soon as he’d get his head up above water, another wave would just come over. He could barely catch his breath. He was just getting pounded by the waves. He’s almost certain that he would have drowned to death if someone hadn’t come and pulled him out.

That’s how this man feels. The author of this psalm feels this way. He’s reflecting on the geography around him, the northern part of Israel and the Hermon mountain range, which is the source of the Jordan river. The commentaries tell us that those streams will come together to form the Jordan, and they pass through several waterfalls and cascades of crashing waters. So when he talks about deep calling to deep and the breakers and the waves coming over him, that’s what he’s thinking of. He’s thinking of being caught in the current of this river and not being able to catch his breath.

This is what it feels like to feel deep distress. All of us have faced this at certain times in our lives. We feel this when there’s deep financial problems, maybe when there’s relational problems, problems in marriage or with our children. We face that sometimes when we get overworked; when there are too many things to do, we feel overwhelmed. But the whole world is feeling it right now, and certainly we feel it, as so many things that we have taken for granted have been taken away, at least for a time, not least of all the closeness of friendship and community and being able to be with people. It causes stress, and these are some of the symptoms, some of the pictures of it.

II. The Diagnosis of Stress

What are some of the deeper, underlying reasons for the stress? What’s the diagnosis?

I think this psalm is very helpful, because it shows us the multiple factors that play into the way he feels. It’s important for us to notice these, and some in particular are very pertinent to what we are currently experiencing.

(1) There are, first of all, circumstantial factors. There are threats he’s facing. You see this especially in verses 9-10, where he talks about the oppression of his enemies. “Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of my enemies?” Evidently, his life was even in danger. In verse 10 he says, “...as with a deadly wound in my bones,” or the King James says, “...as a sword in my bones.”

Robert Alter, again, who’s actually a Jewish commentator, but very attuned to the language as well as to the literary structure of the Old Testament, he translates it this way. He says it’s with “murder in my bones,” and he says, “This shocking phrase is what the Hebrew actually appears to say.” He says it’s an “arresting expression of the imminent threat of death.” Here’s someone who has enemies who are hunting him down, and he feels that his life is in danger.

There’s also a legal component to this threat. He pleas for vindication in Psalm 43:1, and almost everyone agrees that Psalms 42-43 were actually one psalm, that they belonged together.

Then there’s the emotional component to this as he talks about the mockery and the taunts of his enemies, who are asking, “Where is your God?” in verse 10.

So there are circumstantial things, and it just shows us that it’s normal that when circumstances are hard we feel these kinds of emotions. It’s normal. If you’re feeling stress, if you’re feeling distress, if you’re feeling some emotions of anxiety, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a spiritual person, if doesn’t mean that you don’t love God or trust God; it means that you’re human. We need to learn, like the psalmist, to be honest with our emotions, to recognize that circumstances play into those; and then we have to learn how to deal with those emotions, and the psalmist will show us how to do that.

(2) There are also physical factors to his stress. I think the easiest way to put it would be to say that he is depleted physically. You see this in verse 3. He says, “My tears have been my food day and night, while they continually say to me, ‘Where is your God?’”

He’s crying a lot. His tears have been his food probably means that he’s lost his appetite, and he’s only crying. Notice he’s crying day and night, so he’s not sleeping well. When you have stressful things going on in your life, that’s sometimes one of the first things to go, is sleep, good rest. Instead of eating, all this person does is cry.

I’ve been helped by Christians in church history who struggled with discouragement and depression. One of those was Spurgeon, my hero, of course. Did you know that one time an artist tried to paint a portrait of Charles Spurgeon, and after a lot of frustration he said, “I can’t paint you; your face is different every day.” The reason was because Spurgeon was such an emotional man and struggled so much with depression.

Spurgeon said this about depression. I think he learned a lot, and if he had lived in our day where there is more advanced medicine, he probably would have been helped even more. Spurgeon said, “Do not think it unspiritual to remember that you have a body.” He said, “The physician is often as needful as the minister.”

It just reminds us of the importance of caring for our bodies, caring for the physical aspects of our being, getting enough rest, taking care of our health. It’s, of course, right that we’re doing the things that we are doing to try to protect our health as well as the health of others. But even when it comes to these emotional things in our lives, it’s important to take care of our health and to rest.

(3) There’s one more component, and it’s the social or relational component. This is the factor relationally, socially, that led to his stress, his discouragement. It’s in verse 4, and this is maybe the main reason I wanted to talk about this psalm. He said, “These things I remember as I pour out my soul, how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.”

You know what he’s saying? He’s saying that he’s looking back with longing at when he could worship with the community, and now he’s separated from it. He’s lost something. He’s lost the privilege of corporate worship. He’s lost close contact with his friends. And he feels like he has lost God himself, so he’s asking, “Where is God?”

Many of us feel that sense of loss right now, because social distancing means we can’t be with people, we can’t be with our friends. We can’t be close to people, so schools and churches and restaurants and gyms and coffee shops are all closed.

Of course, there will be other repercussions as well. For many, this pandemic will cause huge financial loss. I’ve already talked to someone who told me that 40 per cent of their retirement was gone because of what’s happened in the stock market—and that was early in the week. Another person just today told me they were losing a job. There will be repercussions that will happen, there will be a sense of loss, and the sense of loss that this man felt led to his feelings of distress and of anxiety. Again, it’s only normal that we feel some of those emotions when these kinds of things are happening.

III. The Treatment for Stress

The question, then, is what do we do with it? How do we treat it? We can’t solve a lot of these problems; all we can do is follow the directions that have been given to us, but virtually everything connected to the coronavirus and COVID-19 is out of our control, except for following the protocols of social distancing.

But we can do something with our emotions. We can do something with our hearts and the way we think, and this psalm shows us how to do that, shows us what to do. I want you to see two basic things to do to deal with this kind of stress and anxiety: we have to refocus our hopes and we have to replace our habits. Those are the two things: refocus your hopes and replace your habits.

(1) First of all, refocus your hopes. What is the source of our hope? We see it in the psalm: it is God himself. God is the source of our hope. What the psalmist is doing, even as he works through these emotions, he describes them so vividly with all these vivid metaphors, he expresses the feelings, he expresses the angst—he does that, and the Bible teaches us to do that, but he doesn’t just stay there. He refocuses his emotions on God. He focuses his hope on God.

You see it in the psalm in verse 5, again in verse 11, and then it’s also in Psalm 43:5; that’s why we think these two psalms were originally one, because there’s this refrain, and it shows up three times. I’ll just read it from verse 11.

He says, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God…” He’s exhorting himself. “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

In fact, in the two psalms, he says, “God is my salvation,” he says, “God is my rock,” and he says, “God is my joy.” I think each one of those deserves comment.

First of all, when he says, “God is my salvation.” When we read the word “salvation” we think eternal life. God is the source of eternal life, our justification, our sanctification, our living in heaven with God after we die, our resurrection in the new heavens and the new earth. And all of that is gloriously true and the source of our hope.

But I don’t really think that’s what the psalmist was talking about here. He’s using the word for deliverance. He’s in distress, he’s in turmoil, he’s in all of these difficult circumstances with these painful emotions, and he’s looking to God and saying, “God, you can deliver me!”

Brothers and sisters, it is right for us, when we are going through difficult circumstances, either personally or as a church or a community or in the world, it is right for us to cry out to God for deliverance. That’s one thing we should be doing. We should be praying for God to deliver us, to deliver humanity from this pandemic. Now, when we do that, there are two extremes to avoid in the way we think.

On the one hand, we must avoid the “name it and claim it” theology. There are a lot of people out there who essentially say if you just have enough faith, then you should never faith. If you just have enough faith, then God would heal you. Any time you’re going through a trial, it’s because you haven’t claimed the promises, it’s because you haven’t exercised enough faith, it’s because you’re not really looking to the Lord.

Of course, the Scriptures do not teach that. God is not a genie in the bottle. He is not at our beck and call. He’s not someone that we can just command and tell him what to do. He doesn’t fulfill every wish dream that we have. Sometimes God does not answer prayers. We know that. Reality teaches us that, even if our theology is wrong. Reality, sooner or later, teaches us that.

So we must beware of that, the health-wealth-prosperity mentality, the “name it and claim it” theology. We don’t believe that if we merely pray and have enough faith that God will automatically remove all of our trials from us.

On the other hand, we also need to beware of what I would call a “grit your teeth and bear it” theology, as if God were not our Father, as if God did not hear our prayers, as if God did not care when we suffer, as if God never delivered us from temporal trials as a response to crying out to him. The Scriptures over and over and over again show us examples of people who are in trial, and they do cry out to God, and does deliver them.

In fact, when you look in the Gospels and you see the many people who come to Jesus with a need, he never turns them away, not ultimately. He hears their prayers. We can have confidence that God will do what is good and what is right, that he will be compassionate, that he will be merciful, that he will be faithful. Even when we don’t understand his ways, even when sometimes he doesn’t deliver, or doesn’t deliver as soon as we would like, yet he is faithful, and therefore we should pray, we should look to him for that deliverance.

There’s a wonderful hymn that got the balance right. This was written by a German named Samuel Rodigast in 1675. I want to read two verses to you.

“Whate’er my God ordains is right:
Holy his will abideth.
I will be still, whate’er he does,
And follow where he guideth.
He is my God; though dark my road,
He holds me that I shall not fall,
Wherefore to him I leave it all.

“Whate’er my God ordains is right:
He never will deceive me.
He leads me by the proper path;
I know he will not leave me.
I take, content, what he hath sent;
His hand can turn my griefs away,
And patiently I wait his day.”

Well, that’s the heart we should have. We look to God to deliver us. He is our deliverer. “God is my salvation.”

Then also, “God is my rock.” You see that in verse 9. “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’”

What is a rock? A rock is something that’s firm, it’s something that’s stable, it’s something that’s steadfast, it’s not easily moved. It’s something that stands in contrast to the sand (not a good foundation) and to the sea, always moving.

Scottish Puritan Samuel Rutherford wrote in a letter to a friend, “Believe his love [that is, God’s love] more than your own feeling, for this world can never take anything from you that is truly yours, and death can do you no wrong. Your rock doth not ebb and flow, but your sea.”

God is our rock, and there’s nothing like trials to remind us of what’s really stable. Nothing’s stable except God, but he is stable. He is our rock, and we hold onto him, even when the sea ebbs and flows.

Then, “God is my joy.” Look at Psalm 43:3-4. It says, “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 lyre, O God, my God.”

You begin to see his recovery here. God is sending out his light and his truth, and it’s leading him back to the place of worship, and he declares God to be not just his joy, but his exceeding joy. This is an inner experience of God’s presence that brings joy that transcends circumstances.

There’s a book that I would like to encourage everybody to get. I know I recommend books a lot, but this one especially, especially right now. I started reading this book this week. It’s by Faith Cook; it’s called Singing in the Fire: Christians in Adversity. It’s just a series of chapters—I guess there are 14—14 chapters. Each one of them is standalone, so you could buy this and just read three or four that interest you. They are historical vignettes of Christians who have suffered and have suffered faithfully.

I read the chapter on Edward Payson this week. No one will really know that name, but he was a congregationalist minister some time ago. He was the father of Elizabeth Prentiss, who wrote a wonderful book called Stepping Heavenward. Edward Payson was really known as a praying man, he was a very godly man, but he suffered greatly by the end of his life. His health collapsed, he was crippled; he lost pretty much all mobility.

I want to read something that Edward Payson wrote, that Faith Cook quotes in this chapter. This is really comforting to me, and I think it will be to you, too. Payson said, “Christians might avoid much trouble if they would only believe what they profess, that God is able to make them happy without anything else. To mention my own case, God has been depriving me of one blessing after another, but as every one was removed, he has come in and filled up the place, and now, when I am a cripple and not able to move, I am happier than I was in all my life before, or ever expect to be.”

You hear what he’s saying? He’s saying, “God fills up everything he takes away! He gives me more of himself!” Because God is our joy. It’s not the gifts, it’s the giver. That has to be our hope, brothers and sisters, that God is our joy; not mobility, not even the privileges of friendship and community, as precious as those are, and corporate worship. We want those things, we should want those things, we miss those things, they are right; but they are not God! They are not God. Our source of joy is Christ himself. We have to refocus our hopes on God our salvation, God our rock, God our joy.

(2) Then, lastly (I’m almost done), we need to replace our habits. I have one habit in mind in particular, and it has to do with our self-talk. This is a psalm that shows us how to do biblical, sanctified self-talk. Notice the psalmist questions himself.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” He’s questioning himself. He’s addressing his soul, “O my soul.” Then he’s exhorting himself. He says, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

To put it very briefly, what this psalm teaches us is that we should not listen to Self, but we should preach to ourselves. Of course, I’m drawing this from Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I’ve quoted this many times at Redeemer over the years, but let me give you the quotation again from his wonderful book Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure.

Lloyd-Jones, with great insight, says, “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself.”

Listen, none of us know what to expect during this time social distancing and quarantine. We don’t know how long things are going to last. Is it going to be three weeks or is it going to be three months? We don’t know. It’s largely out of our control.

But there are some things we do know, and there are some things we can do. We do know that God is in control. We know that God is good. We know that God loves us. We know that God works all things together for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. We know that God is our Father and he cares for his children. We know that God himself is enough to give us joy, even when everything else is stripped away. Those are the things we know.

There’s something we can do. We can engage with one another, even from a distance, online and through phone calls and so on. We can pray for one another. We can feed on the word as we watch through a video instead of in person. And (and this is what I think is so important), we can feed ourselves.

You know, in the megachurch a few years ago (I think it was maybe Willow Creek or one of the megachurches like that), there was a study done of all these people who had come into the large churches, and they came to realize that one thing that had been neglected—this is something they themselves said. This isn’t a criticism at them; they were saying this about themselves. One thing they had neglected was teaching people how to self-feed by discipleship. It’s always part of the task of the church to disciple people so that they’re learning to feed themselves through the word.

Brothers and sisters, that’s never been more important than it is right now. You have to feed yourself. You have to be in the word. You have to preach the gospel to yourself, counsel yourself. Do it by getting in the word.

Let me close like this. The last two verses of the hymn I read a few minutes ago say these words,

“Whate’er my God ordains is right:
Though now this cup in drinking
May bitter seem to my faint heart,
I take it all, unshrinking;
My God is true. Each morn anew
Sweet comfort yet shall fill my heart
And pain and sorrow shall depart.

“Whate’er my God ordains is right:
Here shall my stand be taken.
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,
Yet I am not forsaken.
My Father’s care is round me there;
He holds me that I shall not fall,
And so to him I leave it all.”

The hymnist is telling us there that what God does is right, and that he will not forsake us. How do we know that? We know that God will not forsake us because of the gospel. We know that God will not forsake us in our distress because Jesus Christ, God incarnate, has entered into our distress.

Are you thirsty? He was thirsty. He knows what it is to thirst. Have you felt forsaken by God? He was forsaken by God. He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Do you feel burdened and overwhelmed? He knew that burden. He carried the burden. He literally carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he was overwhelmed with the waves and the breakers of the very judgment of God against our sins. He entered into our situation. He felt the same kind of distress.

We even read it when he’s in Gethsemane, how he began to be “greatly distressed and troubled, and said to his disciples, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’” He knew what it was to suffer in those ways, and he knows as our brother, as our priest, as our Savior, he knows what we’re going through.

Because he faced the ultimate experience of God-forsakenness, we can have the assurance that we never will, that the promise is true, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Why? Because Christ was forsaken in our place, so that we could be welcomed in.

That means that because of God’s great love, because of Christ’s great sacrifice, it means that all of our circumstances, all of our trials, all of our distresses, everything that happens in our lives, comes to us sifted through the loving fingers of a good Father who only ordains what is right, nothing that will ultimately cause us harm.

Brothers and sisters, I hope you believe and will hold to that truth, that you will trust in that truth, that you will preach that good news to yourself. Let’s pray.

Gracious and merciful God, we thank you for your faithfulness, we thank you for your word, we thank you for the truth of the gospel, that because of what Christ has already borne on our behalf, you will never leave us, you will never forsake us.

We thank you, Lord, for the practicality of your word, and we pray that you would use it in our lives to help us deal with our anxieties, to deal with our experiences of stress and discouragement, all the emotions that we’re feeling right now. Even as we face some of what this psalmist faced, being separated from one another, being away from corporate worship and those precious friendships, may we also learn what the psalmist learned: that you are our rock, our salvation, and our exceeding joy. Father, make it so in our hearts and in our lives; we pray it in Jesus’ name, Amen.