How Long, O Lord? | Psalm 13
Brian Hedges | April 5, 2020
Well, welcome to our service at Redeemer Church this weekend. Thank you to the worship team for leading us in worship. Every week it’s somewhat strange for just a handful of us to gather and then lead in worship to a pretty much empty sanctuary. We are longing for the day when we’re all gathered together once again, but we’re making the most of this. We’re grateful that we have the technology to do that, and we want to point one another to the Lord and to his word.
We’re going to do that this morning by looking at Psalm 13, if you want to turn there in your Bibles. While you’re turning there, let me just ask this question. You remember in high school biology when you studied human anatomy, or maybe you’ve looked through an anatomy book that showed the various systems that work in the human body. You know there are 11 or 12 of these systems; there’s the respiratory system, there’s the circulatory system, the muscular system, the skeletal system. It’s interesting, when you look at the various pictures, the various overlays of the human body, and you’re seeing something of a map of how the body is put together, to see all the different parts on the inside that make our bodies work.
Well, there’s also an anatomy book in the Bible, and it’s the book of Psalms. In fact, John Calvin called the Psalms “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul”; that is, the Psalms give us an inside look at the various internal systems of the human heart. Calvin said, “There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror, or rather, the Holy Spirit has drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”
I wonder how many of us, if we were honest, would say that we’ve also been agitated with some distracting emotions. I think we feel a lot of emotions these days. There are times, of course, when we feel peace and tranquility, when our eyes are on the Lord and we’re holding onto his promises; but there are also moments where we feel anxiety or fear or distress or discontentment. We’ve been looking at these various emotions in this little series on the Psalms, and today I want us to look at another one of these emotions. We have some of these same emotions represented in Psalm 13, but this time also with impatience.
This is the cry of a man who is still in the midst of his difficulties; in fact, written by David, we think perhaps when he was running from King Saul, so a time of great distress, enemies against him. He’s crying out to the Lord, and he says, “How long?”
Let’s read the psalm together, and let’s see what we can learn about prayer and lament and the life of faith as we walk through this journey together. Psalm 13, beginning in verse 1.
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
“Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
This is the Lord’s word.
This is a wonderful psalm, and it’s a psalm that in some ways mirrors the entire book of Psalms. There is a movement in the book of Psalms. It’s not just a collection of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, but there’s a movement, there’s a structure. When you read through the book of Psalms, it follows the structure of this psalm. It begins with lament. There’s a lot of lament in the first third or so of the book of Psalms. But then lament begins to give way to prayers of confidence and of hope and of trust in the Lord in the middle portion of the Psalms, and by the end of the psalter, the end of the book of Psalms, the dominant note is one of praise. That’s also the case in this psalm. That means that as we learn to pray this psalm, we’re really learning how to pray all the psalms.
I want you to just notice how there’s this movement in this particular psalm, and I want you to see the three parts to the movement. There’s only six verses, and stanzas of two verses each. Each one of these stanzas represents a movement in the psalm.
Verses 1-2 have to do with the questions of lament. Verses 3-4 have to do with the pleas of faith, the pleading of faith; this is where the prayer comes in. Then the final two verses, verses 5-6, show us the song of praise. Let’s look at each one of these three movements.
1. The Questions of Lament
First of all, the questions of lament. Let’s read verses 1-2 again, and just notice four times how the psalmist asks this question, “How long?”
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
It’s a lament, and it’s questions that the psalmist, David, is asking in his lament. In these questions of lament you have a potent cocktail of emotions. There is loneliness, there is anxiety, he’s on the very border of despair, and he’s impatient. He’s saying, “How long? Lord, hasn’t it been long enough?”
I wonder how many of us have started to feel that way in the last few days. The more the news comes at us, the more we see that this pandemic is going to last longer than two or three weeks. We have a long road ahead of us, so maybe you’re also asking the question, “How long, O Lord?”
For the psalmist, there were three dimensions to his questions of lament. There were his circumstances, he’s asking, “How long, O Lord?” about that. There’s also his faith in God, his own relationship with God. He feels forsaken by God, so his faith is at stake. “How long will you forget me, O Lord?” Then there is the inner landscape of his mental and emotional world, as he talks about taking counsel in his heart. He’s restless and he’s troubled.
Look at the circumstances for just a moment. It’s obviously a prolonged trial, with the four times he says, “How long?” Then he says, “Will you forget me forever?” so he feels that this is prolonged, he feels that it is enduring, and he’s impatient with it. There is what commentary describes as an intolerable need for it to stop now.
Sinclair Ferguson, in his wonderful little book on the Psalms, compares this to the feeling that someone has after they’ve lost a precious loved one. Many of you have experienced this. It’s that feeling that you have every morning when you wake up, and you’re in that slight kind of blurry-eyed state between sleep and consciousness, and then you remember, “Ah. He’s gone. She’s gone.” How long will this last? This is the feeling of the psalmist.
Those are his circumstances, and for him it was circumstances that had to do with his enemies, probably King Saul hunting him down. He references his enemies, his foes. For us it’s not so much human enemies as it is circumstances in our world. It’s the trials that we’re undergoing together through this pandemic, but I know that for many people it’s not just those trials, it’s also all of the personal trials on top of that. It’s the recent diagnosis, it’s the surgery, it’s the recent loss of a father or mother or a loved one, it’s financial concern because of a lost job; all of these things that are happening in our own community as well as in the lives of so many other people. It causes us to cry out, “How long, O Lord?”
That’s the circumstantial dimension, but then there’s the dimension related to one’s faith. You see that in verse 1. He says, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
This is part of the problem for the psalmist. It’s not just that the circumstances are bad, it’s not just that his enemies are against him; it’s also that he feels forsaken by God! “How long will you hide yourself from me?” He is experiencing what theologians have often called the hiddenness of God.
Have you ever had a time in your life where it seemed like God was hidden from you, where you couldn’t see him, you could not perceive his hand, you could not see what he was doing in your life or in the world? Job, of course, experienced this. You remember the story of Job. He was a rich man, he had a large family, he had every blessing; and yet everything was stripped away by the immediate hand of Satan, his adversary, but also under the sovereign hand of God. He lost his children, he lost his wealth, he lost even his health. It was all stripped away.
You remember what Job says in Job 23. He says, “O, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat!” He’s looking for the Lord, but the Lord is hidden from him. He says, “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand, when he is working, I do not behold him. He turns to the right hand, but I do not see him.” The hiddenness of God.
It reminds me of a film that just recently came out a few months ago, and I think it’s one of the best films that was made in 2019. It’s a Terrence Malick film called “A Hidden Life,” and it’s based on the true story of an Austrian farmer in the 1940s who refused to serve as a soldier under Hitler’s regime, under the Third Reich. He refused to become a Nazi.
So he was imprisoned. All he wanted was a quiet life with his wife and his child up in the mountains of Austria, just a simple life as a farmer, but everyone pretty much was against him. Even most of his village was against him, and he is imprisoned, and he just waits and he waits and he waits, and it seems like there’s no answer.
It’s a story that shows the hidden faithfulness of someone who serves in obscurity, who serves God, who is faithful to do what is true and to do what is right even when no one is looking; but it’s also a film about the hiddenness of God, who in our trials and in our sufferings is often not visible to us. We sometimes don’t see his hand at work.
That’s how the psalmist felt. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” So his faith is at stake. He has difficult circumstances, he has a crisis of faith, and then there’s everything going on mentally and emotionally.
You see that in verse 2. “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” Again, Sinclair Ferguson, in his little book on the Psalms, makes an observation that in Hebrew the word “counsel” has to do with the activity of the mind, while the word “soul” usually carries connotations that have to do with the emotions. He says these two words don’t usually belong together. You don’t usually have counsel in the soul.
He says that some translations actually change the wording a little bit in order to make it seem more coherent. So in the NIV we read, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?” But listen to what Ferguson says. He says, “Perhaps the very incoherence of these words is significant. Mind and emotions are frequently confused when we find ourselves overtaken by distress and disoriented. That’s part of the problem. We think with our feelings, or more accurately, we let our feelings do our thinking for us.”
That’s what’s going on with the psalmist. He’s thinking with his feelings. He’s taking counsel with his soul, but his soul is turbulent and distressed, the emotions are all over the place, and he can’t make sense of his life. In other words, this psalm describes for us the inner landscape of a very turbulent mind and heart. It describes for us the mind that is vexed with both actual problems and with potential problems. He’s scanning the possible scenarios. He’s pondering the potential outcomes. He’s analyzing the very things he feels anxious about, and it leaves him with no rest, with no peace, but just more anxious. So he asks the questions, “How long?” He laments before the Lord. “How long, O Lord?”
I think we all feel this way at some point in our lives, and one of the things that this psalm—and indeed, all of the psalms of lament—can teach us is simply this, that this is part of the ordinary walk of faith. Christians, believers are not immune to these emotions. We are not exempt from these experiences. We will at times feel the anxiety and the stress and the sorrow and the impatience with God, who seems hidden from us. That’s part of normal experience in a fallen world, even for the saints.
2. The Pleas of Faith
But this psalm also teaches us that the only context in which we can process those emotions and those feelings is in the context of prayer. That’s what this psalmist does. In fact, it seems that sometimes these struggles are the very means that God uses to bring us back to himself in prayer.
In his commentary, William Plummer said, “That is good for us which leads us to pray, and it is better to be praying in the whale’s belly than asleep in the ship,” alluding, of course, to the prophet Jonah.
Well, sometimes that’s what it takes, isn’t it? It’s when we’re going through the stressful circumstances, it’s when the trials are thick in our lives, that we finally begin to really pray. Most of us don’t have particularly great prayer lives during times of prosperity and ease and health and blessing, but when we’re struggling, when we’re suffering, that’s when we turn to the Lord. That’s certainly what happens to the psalmist here.
So we see not just the questions of lament, we also see the pleas of faith. You see that in verses 3-4. Read them. “Consider and answer me, O Lord, my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemies say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.”
Once again, you see the circumstances in which the psalmist finds himself. His concern for his life, he’s afraid of sleeping the sleep of death, he’s concerned about his enemies, he’s concerned that his enemies will triumph over him, prevail over him, and rejoice because he is shaken.
In that concern, he cries out to God, he pleads with God. Notice what he says. There are actually three parts to his plea, three requests. He says, “Consider and answer me,” and “light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.” He’s asking God to consider his situation, he’s asking God to hear and to answer his prayer, and he’s asking God to give him light. I think he means by that the light of his countenance.
In fact, this, I think, is one of the key insights this prayer has to give us. It’s a prayer that’s actually rooted in the promises of God, in the blessings of God.
David Powlison pointed out this to me years ago in one of his books, that so many of the psalms are really riffs on just a handful of passages that are given in the Law (that is, in the Torah, the Pentateuch). You have riffs on, for example, Exodus 15, the song of triumph that Moses and the Israelites sing after Pharaoh and the Egyptian armies are defeated.
But this psalm is kind of a riff on Numbers 6:24-25, what we know as the Aaronic blessing. Do you remember these words? “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” That was a promise, a blessing, that would be spoken over the people of God by the priests. It was a promise that God would shine the light of his face on his people.
David probably is thinking of those very words, and he’s praying them back to the Lord, and he’s saying, “Oh Lord, shine your face on me. Lighten me. Send me your light. Let your shine on me, light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.” He’s already said that God’s face is hidden from him; now he’s asking for God to turn his face to him, to shine on him, so that he would be encouraged.
It teaches us such a vital lesson about prayer, that the best way for us to pray is for us to pray on the basis of the promises of God. It’s to take the very word of God, the word that God has given us, and we are to pray it back to him.
Do you remember that wonderful scene from The Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian and Hopeful have gotten off of the straight and narrow path to the Celestial City, and instead they’ve gone off into Bypath Meadow and then they find themselves locked away in Doubting Castle? Do you remember this? They are being tortured and taunted daily by Giant Despair and by his wife (I think her name was Diffidence). They’re being taunted, and they linger there day after day after day, and it seems like they’ll never get out.
They’re absolutely in despair, until they finally remember something. They remember that they have a key, and the key is called Promise. When they pull the key out, they begin to try it against every door in Giant Despair’s castle, and sure enough, every door is unlocked.
That’s what David is doing in this psalm. He’s taking the key of promise, the promises of God, and he is praying it back to the Lord. You and I need to learn to do the same. Did you know that, no matter what need we have, there is a specific promise that applies to it? There are so many, but here are just a few.
Let’s say that you’re faced with a material need. Maybe you have recently been laid off or you’ve lost some income, or maybe you’ve lost a good portion of your retirement because the stock market has crashed or gone down, or whatever. What do you do with material needs? Well, here’s a promise. Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”
Remember the context, the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus is telling his disciples, “Don’t be anxious about what you’re going to eat, and don’t be anxious about what you’re going to wear. God feeds the birds of the air and he clothes the grass of the field, and your Father knows what you need before you ask. He will take care of you. Seek first his kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.”
Let’s say that you are in need of guidance, of direction. You need to discern how God is directing you in some specific decision of life. Here’s a promise, Psalm 32:8, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” That’s a promise that the Lord leads his people.
Maybe you feel anxious in old age. Did you know that there’s even a promise for those in old age? Isaiah 46:4, “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you; I have made, and I will bear, I will carry, and will save.”
If you’re going through suffering and you wonder if your faith will make it, if you can sustain your trust in God in the midst of intense suffering, think of those promises from Romans 8. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress...or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Or it may be that you’re feeling the weight of your own sins. Sometimes in times of suffering our conscience is reawakened and we begin to notice and remember the sins that we’ve committed, we begin to see how our hearts have drifted away from the Lord. We begin to feel the pricking and the probing and the prodding of the Spirit in our hearts, and we feel an intense conviction.
What do you do with conviction of sin, with guilt of sin? Well, again, there are promises. The psalmist in Psalm 130 says, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.” Or that wonderful promise from 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
I love the words of John Newton. In one of his hymns, he said,
“Thy promise is my only plea;
With this I venture nigh.
Thou callest burdened souls to thee,
And such, O Lord, am I.
“Bowed down beneath a load of sin,
By Satan sorely pressed
By wars without and fears within,
I come to thee for rest.
“Be thou my shield and hiding place
That, sheltered near thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face
And tell him thou hast died.”
That’s how we deal with guilt. That’s how we deal with these problems of the heart, this inner turmoil. We turn to the Lord in prayer and we say, “Thy promise is my only plea.” We take out that key of promise, and that’s what unlocks the doors of Doubting Castle, and that’s certainly what we see in Psalm 13.
3. The Song of Praise
It leads him, then, to a song of praise. That’s the third part of this psalm, in verses 5-6, the third stanza. Look at them again. He says, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
Here’s the amazing thing about those two verses. As far as we know, nothing had changed in his circumstances yet. It’s not as if the Lord has all of a sudden, in a moment, removed all of the trouble. We know that wasn’t the case in David’s life. There were years in which he was hunted by King Saul. Yet he turns to the Lord and, still in the midst of the difficult circumstances, still in the middle of it, he’s able to say, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” You see, he’s looking ahead, and he sees that whatever his present circumstances are as he trusts in the Lord, there is coming a day when he will praise, when he will sing, when he will rejoice. “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
It was the chronically depressed poet and hymn-writer William Cowper who said,
“Sometimes a light surprises
A Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in his wings.”
There are times when we feel like we’re in the dark, but we turn to the Lord, and without anything changing externally the light dawns. It dawns in our hearts because the Lord comes, and he ministers to us, he helps us, he gives us a change of perspective, he reorients us to his faithfulness, to his steadfast love.
That’s the focus of the psalmist’s faith in these last two verses. Notice the words. “I have trusted in your steadfast love.” It’s the familiar Hebrew word that denotes the covenant love of Yahweh for his people. The grace of God, the lovingkindness of God, the mercy of God for his people.
He says, “My heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” This is the Lord’s deliverance! And he says, “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me,” words that carried the idea of God’s full and complete and never-lacking supply of whatever we need. David puts his focus there.
That’s what faith does. Faith looks beyond the present circumstances and sees the promises of God, faith fixes its mind and its heart, its eyes, on God’s covenant love, on his faithfulness to his promises, on the salvation that he has promised to us, on God’s bountiful, gracious dealings with our souls. Faith lays hold of that, and in doing so is changed.
You know, David had great reason to trust in the Lord. He had seen the Lord’s faithfulness in his life. You remember that before he fought Goliath there in 1 Samuel that the reason he was confident that the Lord would deliver him from the hand of the Philistine giant was because the Lord had already delivered him from the paw of the lion and the bear. Remember that? He had seen God be faithful to him many, many times, and yet he would still have a crisis of faith and have to work through it again, and he would do so in his psalms. But he knew God’s covenant love to Israel, he knew God’s personal care in his life, and he trusted in that.
Brothers and sisters, we have so much more reason to be confident in God’s faithfulness to us, because we have the gospel. We have the new covenant. We have the record of what Jesus, our Savior, has done for us, who came as one of us in his incarnation, and who actually experienced everything that we experience.
We see it especially at the cross, for at the cross you have this most remarkable of all things in human history, where God incarnate, the Son of God himself, experiences the hiddenness of God. You have on the cross the Son of God, who is forgotten or forsaken, it seems, by the Father for a moment. He even says it, doesn’t he? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God hides his face from his Son on the cross. Jesus, then, experiences darkness on the cross.
Why did he do it? He did it so that we can know that the light of God’s countenance shines on us. He did it to take our guilt, to take our sin, to take our trouble, to take our suffering, to take it upon himself, so that we could know the Lord’s salvation, so that we could say, “The Lord has dealt bountifully with me.”
When we fix our eyes on that—on the cross, on the gospel, on the new covenant mercies given to us in Jesus Christ—when we do, hope begins to spring up in our hearts again, and the lament can change to a song.
Let me close with words that I think are profoundly moving, from one of my favorite of all books. This is from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It’s near the end. This is in The Return of the King, when the hobbits, Sam and Frodo, have finally made it to the borders of Mordor. They still have a long journey ahead of them as they are to cross this dreadful plain of Gorgoroth. Sam is just filled with dread in his heart, but he experiences something I want to read to you. This is from the chapter called “The Land of Shadow.” Very beautiful words.
It says, “There, peeping among the cloudrack above a dark tor, high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for awhile. The beauty of it smote his heart as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For, like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end, the shadow was only a small and passing thing. There was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. His song in the tower had been defiance rather than hope, for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate and even his master’s ceased to trouble him. Putting away all fear, he cast himself into a deep, untroubled sleep.”
I think something similar happens to us. When we look at the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for us; when we look beyond this land of shadows in which we currently live; when we look beyond that, the beauty of it smites our hearts and hope returns. We can remember that the things we’re going through right now are temporary. They’re passing. They will not last forever.
But the promises of God, what he will do for his people through Christ, the promises of our inheritance, of a new heavens and a new earth, of a world that is made new by the power of the resurrected Christ; that promise, like a light, can kindle hope in our hearts. I hope that you will look there today, as you hear God’s word, that you will respond with faith. Whatever you’re going through, whatever the lament is, be honest with it, take it to the Lord, but plead the promises of God and look to him for salvation, look to him for strength, look to him for new hope. Let’s pray together.
Most gracious and merciful God, we thank you for the promises of your word. We thank you for your faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ. We thank you for the gospel that gives us hope, even in the midst of such difficult circumstances in our lives. We pray that we would be able by faith to lay hold of those promises, that we would take that key of promise, that we would unlock every door in Doubting Castle, and that, rather than living in despair and in impatience, we would be able to say confidently that you are our salvation, that we will rejoice in you.
Lord, we know that’s the work of your Holy Spirit in our hearts, so I pray for that. I pray that for our congregation, I pray that for every person right now. You know them by name. You are able to give them that hope and that unshakeable peace, so we pray that you would, in Jesus’ name, Amen.