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Psalm 40 starts out as an epic victory song of God’s faithfulness. After so many psalms that walk through suffering and struggle, Psalm 40 hits like a blast of fresh air. Until you get to verse 12…
One of the most striking observations about the psalms as a whole is how much they contrast the contemporary church’s worship and sermon messages. The vast majority of messages you hear in the church today have to do with God fixing your problems. These messages preach! On a pragmatic level, it makes sense why churches build their theology around these optimistic messages. In all sincerity, we want to encourage people and give them hope. We want to give them something uplifting to get them through the upcoming week’s difficulties. Underneath this, whether we want to admit it or not, is also the thinking that if we don’t preach and worship in this way, people won’t attend.
I’m not trying to be overly critical or cynical here. My heart is to make the observation that the Psalms give a very different theology and message than what we see in church, and I don’t think that is right. The Psalms are constantly weaving together the themes of adoration and victory with intense suffering and indefinite struggle. I’m also reminded that the Psalms were the song book of the ancient Jewish people. So the victory-suffering motif was not only happening in real life to the psalmist who lived it out and then wrote it down, it was also experienced over and over again by the Jewish people as they came together for corporate worship. The Psalms offer a healthy, diverse diet of life’s actual experiences, while the contemporary church only wants to serve the food items that taste the best. Because of these, we as God’s people have an impoverished palate and an undernourished and weakened body. Acting like struggle and suffering will never come or won’t happen if you have strong faith 1. is antibiblical, and 2. sets people’s faith up to crash and shatter to bits.
It’s not neat or pretty, but the Psalms have no problem being honest about suffering and struggle, while at the same time praising and adoring God for his great victory. They have no problem lamenting unending suffering while celebrating God’s unending hope that he gives us. Psalm 40 might typify this paradox the best of any psalm so far.
Verses 1-11 are so beautiful. They celebrate God’s faithfulness. They show the new life and joy we have when receive his love and mercy into our lives. They extol us to trust in the Lord. Verses 6-8 show us that it’s not religious rituals that God desires, but a heart-centered love relationship with him. The psalmist then describes his public display of celebrating God and of sharing this good news with others.
Then verse 12 hits like a car going full speed and blindsiding your driver’s side door, sending you and your automobile careening. One has to stop and ask how the psalmist can do all the worshiping he just did in verses 1-11 when “troubles without number” surround him. When his sins, which are more than the hairs on his head, have overtaken and blinded him. So much so that his heart fails within him. What intense imagery!
When suffering comes, the psalmist runs toward God, not away from him. When he’s overtaken by his sin, he runs toward God to be saved. He runs toward God for help and deliverance. He even asks God to come quickly and not to delay! But in all this, there is no entitlement. There is no faith deal made with God. There is no, “God you’d better come quick and fix things or else I’m going to abandon you.” There is an honest cry to God, asking for him to come quickly, but whether God comes quickly or not doesn’t change who God is. It doesn’t change God as the deliverer, nor does it change God as the one who gives mercy, love, and salvation, all truths Psalm 40 has already established.
Psalm 40 shows us that we can confidently approach God in our time of need, and that we can continue to worship and rejoice in him, even when our circumstances would indicate otherwise. It also sets a clear pattern that God doesn’t always tie things up in a perfect, red bow at the end. It doesn’t promise that “all who want to take my life be put to shame and confusion.” That prayer is prayed, but as far as we know, those attempted murderers are still on the prowl. What it does promise is we can go to God as our refuge and strength in the midst of this.
Psalm 40 is a lot more ambiguous that we are accustomed to in church today. We need to submit to this and build our practical theology about prayer and suffering and worship around this. If we do, then when suffering comes, our faith will stay strong as we run toward God, rather than the suffering shattering an unbiblical picture of God that we’ve created.
Invitation to reflection:
Prayer for the day: God help me to run toward you in my suffering and struggles. Help me to feel your arms of love and mercy wrapped around me. Give me gratitude for your mercy. Thank you for being my refuge and strength. Thank you that you desire a love relationship with me where I can love you and experience your love for me. Help me to listen to your voice of love here and now.
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