Complaint, Psalm 64

spotted leafIn the Literary Study Bible’s introduction to Psalm 64, editors Leland Ryken and Philip Graham Ryken call it the “prototypical” lament psalm, the “specimen in which the conventional elements stand out highlighted” with “vivid poetic texture and memorable imagery” (p. 815). An awareness of this psalm’s lament construction and literary techniques helps us derive more meaning from David’s “complaint” (verse 1). We should never examine the psalms as a purely literary exercise. All scripture is the very word of God and is profitable for our instruction and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). But while the psalms teach our minds, they also touch our hearts.

Like most laments, this psalm begins with a cry to God: Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint (Psalm 64:1a, ESV). We know that God hears and answers prayer, yet he wants us to call to him. This complaint doesn’t equate with our modern understanding of complaining. It doesn’t mean whining about everything, never being joyful or content. It’s expressing your problem to God and your recognition that you need his divine help.

David strongly expresses his need for deliverance: preserve my life from dread of the enemy. Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the throng of evildoers (verses 1b-2, ESV).

The problems in David’s life are real and immediate. He expresses urgency as he begs God for help with imperative verbs: preserve, hide. His enemies fill him with dread, they plot secretly, and they are many (a throng!).

Like most laments, this psalm begins with a cry to God:

who whet their tongues like swords,
    who aim bitter words like arrows,
shooting from ambush at the blameless,
    shooting at him suddenly and without fear.
They hold fast to their evil purpose;
    they talk of laying snares secretly,
thinking, “Who can see them?”
   They search out injustice,
saying, “We have accomplished a diligent search.”
    For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep (verses 3-6, ESV).

These enemies are not obvious foes on a battlefield. They excel at manipulation and behind-the-scenes schemes. They stealthily attack innocent people without cause. Rather than simply slipping into sin or falling in with a bad crowd, these guys commit themselves to evil and conspire to trap others. They doubt anyone would catch on to their plans because they’re careful to cover their tracks. They pour their time and intelligence into searching out injustice, looking for ways to beat the system. They focus on criticizing and bringing down other people. They are verbally, emotionally–perhaps even physically and spiritually–abusive. The mind and heart of a person is very deep. No one knows the depth of depravity in some minds or the extent of evil in some hearts. Some people devote God’s good gift of mental acuity to scheme against others.

What a depressing description! Maybe David’s vivid picture of his enemies reminds you of someone you know. A verbal bully who rudely criticizes you in front of others, a manipulator who secretly persuades others that you’re not trustworthy or competent, a hypocritical person who acts friendly to many while refusing to smile or speak to you, or an intelligent and articulate person who manufactures narratives against you and God’s truth. These situations are enough to make a person feel hopeless. Within the context of the church community, they can make you want to leave, shaking the dust from your feet (Matthew 10:14).

Before you get too depressed, please read the next section of the psalm, which begins with these crucial words: “But God”!

But God shoots his arrow at them;
    they are wounded suddenly.
They are brought to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them;
    all who see them will wag their heads (verses 7-8, ESV).

These people won’t get by with their schemes forever. Their tongues cut like swords? Their words wound like arrows? (See verse 3.) God shoots his arrows at them! He wounds them suddenly and brings them to ruin, using their own back-stabbing tongues to cut them down to size. People will see it and shake their heads.

But the purpose isn’t your personal vengeance, attractive as that might seem. God brings them down to show his divine power and generate our human praise (verses 9-10, ESV):

Then all mankind fears;
    they tell what God has brought about
    and ponder what he has done.

Let the righteous one rejoice in the Lord
    and take refuge in him!
Let all the upright in heart exult!

People who see God destroy the enemies of believers will revere the Lord and witness to his deliverance. They’ll meditate on his amazing works. Believers can rejoice in the Lord and take refuge in him.

Ponder what God has done and rejoice! If you haven’t seem him bring down your enemies yet, trust that no enemy of God will ultimately succeed. Let your heart, brought low by the schemes and insults of others, exult in the Lord!

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God will answer, Psalm 38

Okay, I admit it. I’ve avoided writing a meditation on this psalm. Psalm 38 isn’t very cheerful or particularly inspiring. In fact, it’s downright depressing.

This psalm is a lament, the largest category of psalms. This particular lament is penitential, expressing sorrow for sin, but also contains striking descriptions of physical pain, personal persecution, and deep despair.  The heading tells us it was written by David for the memorial offering. It sounds more as if it might have been written from a bed in Memorial Hospital!

David cries to God in words that confess the Lord’s sovereignty over David’s afflictions:

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
    nor discipline me in your wrath!
For your arrows have sunk into me,
    and your hand has come down on me (Psalm 38:1-2, ESV).

Those first verses speak of rebuke and discipline, which indicate a recognition that these troubles may be a result of personal sin.  We see that more clearly as the psalmist describes his terrible physical state:

There is no soundness in my flesh
    because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
    because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
    like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me (3-4, ESV).

David clearly sees the depth of his sin within himself and feels a crushing weight of iniquities piled higher than his head. He realizes how his own foolishness contributed to his wounded body.

My wounds stink and fester
    because of my foolishness,
I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
    all the day I go about mourning.
For my sides are filled with burning,
    and there is no soundness in my flesh.
I am feeble and crushed;
    I groan because of the tumult of my heart (5-8, ESV).

He is wounded in body, but also in his mind and heart. He is feeble and crushed. He mourns and groans.

In verse 11, we see a glimmer of hope, even though it’s immediately followed by personal and relational complaints.

O Lord, all my longing is before you;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
    and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
    and my nearest kin stand far off (9-11, ESV).

David confesses that God sees all his longing and all his sighing, even though he feels terribly depressed and isolated. Not only do friends ignore him, but persecutors seek his life and relentlessly plot against him.

Those who seek my life lay their snares;
    those who seek my hurt speak of ruin
    and meditate treachery all day long (12, ESV).

He has become so ineffective that he feels deaf and mute.

But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear,
    like a mute man who does not open his mouth.
I have become like a man who does not hear,
    and in whose mouth are no rebukes (13-14, ESV).

Finally we see more than a glimmer of hope in verse 15 (ESV):

But for you, O Lord, do I wait;
    it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.

David confesses that he waits on the Lord. He expresses his sure confidence that God will answer. This would be a good verse to memorize so that you could repeat it to yourself when physical struggles cause you to despair.

In what seems like a postscript to that confession, David begs that his enemies will not be permitted to rejoice over him (16, ESV):

For I said, “Only let them not rejoice over me,
    who boast against me when my foot slips!”

Constant physical pain seems to bring him near death:

For I am ready to fall,
    and my pain is ever before me (17, ESV).

But David’s response is to confess his sin:

I confess my iniquity;
    I am sorry for my sin (18, ESV).

Even though he’s confessed his sin, he also reminds God of the strength and malevolence of his foes:

But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty,
    and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
Those who render me evil for good
    accuse me because I follow after good (19-20, ESV).

We may be persecuted by real people or we may be persecuted by spiritual powers. It may feel as if physical pain pierces us like arrows, but we can confess with David that even these come from God’s hand. And because everyone of us is a sinner, we can join David in recognizing our huge burden of sin and confessing that to God.

But we know from Job’s struggle that not all physical suffering is a direct result of sin. It can be. And it’s definitely part of living in a sin-warped world. Suffering isn’t always a result of our personal sin, however, it’s crucial to practice regular self-examination and repentance!

Whether or not we suffer as a result of our own sin or foolishness, there is only one thing for us to do: cry to God! David ends Psalm 38 with this heartfelt invocation and petition (21-22, ESV):

Do not forsake me, O Lord!
    O my God, be not far from me!
Make haste to help me,
    O Lord, my salvation!

Are you suffering great physical or mental distress? Maybe you, like David, struggle with both! Do you feel feeble and crushed, ready to fall? Cry to the Lord! Recognize that even these afflictions come from the hand of your loving and sovereign God. Confess your sins, but be assured that he sees your longing and hears your sighs. Tell him that you wait for him and trust him to answer:
But for you, O Lord, do I wait;
    it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer (Psalm 38:15).
If you tell God this often enough, you may even begin to believe it yourself!