getting out of the depths

I’ve been spending some time in the Psalms lately. It’s been good for my soul. Very good.

One reason it’s been good is that I’ve been more or less able to stop my ears against the insistent bleating of the flock of interpretive questions I’ve gathered over the years. It’s (mostly) just been me and Israel’s hymnbook.

And yet there have still been a few puzzling moments — where I struggle to know what it means to take the Psalmist’s words to my lips (or even if I can).

As I Protestant, I have the obligatory difficulty with all David’s talk of his righteousness and longing for God to smash his unrighteous enemies. Added to this is my postmodern recoil from the potential social/relational implications of this kind of (apparently) self-assured, vengeful talk.

And as someone who’s had my fair share of emotional ups and downs, I’m also a little puzzled by what makes it possible for the Psalmists to pour out their hearts in agony and oppression and yet somehow suddenly reverse this and get out of the depths.

Psalm 13 is one example of this that I’ve sat with recently:

To the leader. A Psalm of David.

1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

I can follow the trajectory from complaint (I think the technical term might be ‘lament’) to impassioned plea down through verses 1-4. As the darkness around him descends, David begs God to give light — the light of life — to his eyes.

But what I don’t get is how he turns the corner into verses 5-6. What gets him out of the depths?

Obviously, the things he mentions here have something to do with it — God’s constant and steadfast love, the salvation he has effected (or will effect), the way he’s dealt bountifully with David (presumably in the past, although it could be in the present moment).

But what triggers these thoughts for David? What stirs him up and prompts him to attend to God’s character and (habitual) works?

Other Psalms trace the path more carefully. But this Psalm is silent. Something happens somewhere between verse 4 and verse 5. But what happened, where it came from, and how it happened… Who knows?

And maybe that’s the point. We can’t manufacture this or follow a pre-package recipe. God in his goodness has to lift us up — so that the glory goes to him.

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3 comments

  1. Hi Chris,

    I’m no Hebrew expert, but does the past tense of verse 5 help us here?

    If that is what he did when he was in trouble, it puts verses 1-4 back into the indeterminate past.

    David seems to be writing of a time gone but not forgotten.

    1. Hi Gordon. I’m no Hebrew expert either (I think I’ve probably forgotten more than I ever learnt at college). Your explanation could well be right. I’ll have to have a closer look – George Athas’ stuff on verbal aspect seriously muddied the waters for me on the Psalms.

  2. I sometimes wonder whether the more positive parts of the psalms are sung with more pleading and less certainty.
    Or perhaps, more faith than evidence.
    Even something like 119, when read has a whole has elements of tension.
    As for reading the Psalms, we read them as ours because we have been made sons by the Spirit. I have a hunch this applies to all the scriptures. They are written for the Son of God (the messianic king) to read and meditate upon. Which is exactly why they are ours to read.

    I appreciate your call about interpretive grids though. Often our biblical theology doesn’t go far enough to include us in Christ

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