essens here, doesn’t it? We know this is the direction of the psalmist because he tells us in verse 3 where he has in fact been getting his water from: his tears. His tears have been his food day and night, with God nowhere in sight. God’s absence is noticeable even to those around him as people taunt him, asking him where his God is, in the midst of his pain.
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.
The pain continues but he doesn’t face it alone. It continues but he doesn’t act like it’s his fight to win. Even in the midst of blaming God for his pain, he knows that God is his hope and deliverer. This may not preach well, but there is a deep comfort in it for those who experience deep pain and deep anguish and pray very difficult prayers to God. When we know God could have prevented a horrible thing from happening, but it happened. When we know God can remove a horrible circumstance from our lives, but it continues. Satan’s temptation and our internal anger wants us to abandon God. To blame God and flee our faith. And if we did so, what would we be left with? Who would be left to win the war for us? Who would be our shelter and refuge? If we make that choice, we are then completely and truly alone, with only our feeble fists and beaten down strength to fight off all the evil that Satan and this fallen world bombard us with. The psalms chart out a better path. A path of hope. A path of victory. Even in your darkest hour, even when all hope seems lost, run to God. Cry out to God. Give him all of your emotion. Blame him if you need to, he can handle it. But keep your hope in him. Keep him as your shelter in the storm and refuge in the war. If you die from the bullets, die in his arms. If the storm overwhelms you, be overwhelmed in his arms.
I don’t think the lesson of Psalm 38 is meant to be a clear-cut “1. Bad things are happening to you because you sinned, 2. Confess your sins and the bad things will stop happening.” I say this because the psalm itself doesn’t have much clear-cut about it. The suffering the psalmist experiences is ambiguous in its source. It starts out as a result of God’s wrath toward sin but without announcing it, becomes stimulated by enemies who want to kill and harm without cause and the psalmist is once again seen as an innocent victim (verse 20). I think the lesson or point of this psalm is to once again guide us to run to God’s mercy and grace when we are experiencing suffering, even when the suffering continues. A unique feature of this psalm is its reminder to us that God’s wrath is real, so how much more should we 1. do our best not to sin, and 2. run to Jesus for his grace and forgiveness to cover our sin and satisfy God’s wrath. Once you are a Christian / believer, this is a once-and-for-all covering. Jesus’ work is finished. But it’s healing and freeing to remember what it is we deserve from God (apart from Jesus) so that we can so much better enjoy and experience his undeserved gifts of grace and mercy that he lavishes on us. When we start acting like God could never be wrathful because he’s just not like that (though Scripture says otherwise), we lose out on how big of a gift his mercy and grace to us really is.
We love these pretty red bows in our contemporary sermons and ideas of prayer. But the psalm does not stop here. The transition from verse 10 to 11 feels like taking a stick shift automobile from 5th gear to 2nd. One minute the psalmist is extolling God for rescuing the poor from their oppressor, the next he is writing about his ongoing, brutal oppression. Verses 1-10 paint the picture that God has throttled the oppressors and the poor (and the psalmist, written as one of the poor) are free. Verses 11 and following take us down the dark road of the real, daily, in-your-face oppression that the psalmist is still currently under.
It’s so helpful for me to hear the psalmist describe the simultaneous reality of his darkness and his refuge. In modern Christianity, it can often feel like results are supposed to come instantaneously when we cry out to God for help. That we are in the darkness, we pray that God would take the darkness away, and the darkness is gone! But time and time again, that is not the pattern we see in the Psalms. Yes, the psalmist is praying that God will take away the darkness, but the right now prayer is that God will be his refuge, shelter, and fortress in the midst of the darkness. This is something I can hold on to. This is something that actually gives my soul peace as I deal with my own seasons of darkness.