1. Some of us are prose people. We like things spelled out and clear. We want our truth to be linear and full of facts. Others of us are poetry people. We like to read in the gaps and to guess at the meaning or even make up a meaning of our own. T.S. Eliot said that “genuine poetry can communicate before it can be understood.” That’s not what a prose person would choose.
Do you remember the old Dragnet series with Sgt. Joe Friday saying, “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.” Some of us are like that. But then some of us are more like news reporters today who always start with, “What were you feeling when that happened? Just the feelings, ma’am. Just the feelings.”
Scripture is both because truth is both. It is prose and poetry. It is emotion and fact. The deepest parts of us are a combination of prose – sensible, linear, concise – and poetry – smells, sounds, imagination. In this psalm we read that “deep calls unto deep” and that is why Scripture is God’s way of calling to what is deepest in us. He often does that through the psalms. But, we need to let Him do it through both fact and feeling. If we over analyze it we will lose the power of it and if we just take it for the feeling it rouses in us we will not grow.
That is why this particular form of psalm is called a maskil. A maskil, while we don’t understand the term completely, is a way of instructing through the heart and the head both.
”It comes from a Hebrew verb that means to make someone wise, or to instruct. So when applied to psalms, it may mean a song that instructs, or a song that is wisely crafted. The psalms intend to instruct. “Blessed is the man whose delight is in the instruction of the Lord, and on his instruction he meditates day and night.” They intend to shape what the mind thinks, and they intend to shape the way the heart feels.” John Piper
2. It is important to know that this psalm is not written by David but likely by a family of Levites who were with David when he was driven out of Jerusalem by his son Absalom. So, we are not looking at an autobiographical psalm like you did last week in Psalm 51. This is a reflection of a shared experience but from the perspective of people who were there and not only saw what the effect was on David but wanted to express how they felt themselves about what had happened.
3. It is important to know the background of the psalm before we read it.
In 2 Samuel 15 we can read the story of David’s son Absalom who captures the hearts of the people of Israel by sitting at the gate of Jerusalem and listening to their complaints. He placed himself between his father and the people and turned them against him by telling the people they were not getting justice from the king. He stole their affections. He stole their loyalty. He used the power of listening to their complaints against to his advantage.
Ahithophel was David’s trusted friend and companion as well as the wisest counsel in Israel. Scripture says, “the advice Ahithophel gave was like that of one who inquires of God. That was how both David and Absalom regarded all of Ahithophel’s advice.”
But, his most trusted friend, joined Absalom’s rebellion and turned against him. He betrayed him and in a moment David went from being safe and secure to running for his life. Why would Ahithophel do that? It’s not obvious but a reminder of how deeply hurt he had been by David and how long he had waited to repay him for what he had done to his family.
Ahithophel’s granddaughter was Bathsheba and not only had David committed adultery with her but in trying to cover it up he had her husband, Uriah, killed through abandoning him. In 2 Samuel 11:14 David says to his general Joab: “Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.” Uriah died by David’s betrayal.
Ahithophel never forgot and he waited to get even.
David probably never understood what he had done – even as he describes Ahithophel’s deceit in Psalm 55:
Listen to my prayer, O God,
do not ignore my plea;
hear me and answer me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught
because of what my enemy is saying,
because of the threats of the wicked;
for they bring down suffering on me
and assail me in their anger.
My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen on me.
Fear and trembling have beset me;
horror has overwhelmed me.
I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee far away
and stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
far from the tempest and storm.”
If an enemy were insulting me,
I could endure it;
if a foe were rising against me,
I could hide.
But it is you, a man like myself,
my companion, my close friend,
with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship
at the house of God,
as we walked about
among the worshipers.
My companion attacks his friends;
he violates his covenant.
His talk is smooth as butter,
yet war is in his heart;
his words are more soothing than oil,
yet they are drawn swords.
Infidelity is repaid – even though it takes years.
4. It is a psalm of grief that comes, like all grief, in waves. It is a psalm of betrayal.
If we live long enough we will grieve the losses in our lives. The loss of loved ones. The excruciating loss of children. The loss of a relationship. Lost opportunities that never come again. The loss of a job and the hardship that follows. The loss of meaningful work and the sense of emptiness that comes with it. The loss of an organization for which we had a special relationship.
But, the grief of betrayal is a different kind of pain. To know that a friend or a hero or a family member you trusted and in whom you put your confidence turned on you and turned others against you takes away something more than a relationship. It steals your confidence. It attacks your courage. It makes you doubt everyone. You lose your willingness to trust. “His talk is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart; his words are more soothing than oil, yet they are drawn swords.” If you have been betrayed you will know that. If you have been betrayed you know what it means to say, “O, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest – I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”
Each section describes a picture of grief, I think. Each section reminds me of being waist deep in the ocean and being surprised by a wave catching me from behind and throwing me down below the water keeping me there by its weight. I would get free and catch my breath and then another would come right after it. Each time I would get up, catch my breath, see the sun and the shore and then be struck again. I couldn’t get out of the cycle. That’s, in a way, what this psalm describes. It is three waves that catch him, throw him into despair, and then are gone long enough for him to catch his breath and see the light of the sun before being capsized by the next.
This is exactly how Joan Didion describes grief in her book “The Year of Magical Thinking” about the death of her husband. “Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of “waves” that last from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing..”
That is almost exactly what we experience in this psalm – wave after wave of struggling to the surface and then a sigh.
Verses 1-5 describe the desperate desire we have for a relationship with God because we know that is the only relationship that will satisfy us. We are drowning in grief but dry in our souls. Even memories of the good times sometimes only make things worse, don’t they? We remember leading the procession but then also remember it is the very people with us who turned the hearts of the multitude against us. One of the most heartfelt passages in “The Year of Magical Thinking” is her writing how she tries to avoid those places with the most pleasant memories because it only reminds her of her loneliness and loss. There’s a moment of fondness and that is followed by “Why are you downcast, O my soul?”
Verses 6-8 repeats the psalmist’s memory of a time when he is on the heights and God is present with him. There is no doubting God or the rightness of that time but it doesn’t last long, does it? Once more, the wave catches him by surprise and sweeps over him.
In verses 9-11 he knows in his heart, the deepest part of him, that God is his Rock but he feels God has forgotten him and left him at the mercy of Ahithophel and Abasalom. There is no justice in this oppression of wicked men. “My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?” We know the fact is God does not forget but sometimes the feeling obscures the fact. It’s like the weather report that says, The temperature is 90 degrees but it feels like 101 degrees.” Both are real but only one is true.
As a freshman in college I pledged a fraternity. My big brother, Carl, took me under his wing and protected me from much of the informal hazing and abuse that goes on. But then there is Hell Week and no one can protect you from that. You are on your own. But for me the worst part was when Carl looked me in the face and said, “You thought I was your friend, didn’t you? That was all part of it. I never liked you and became your Big Brother intentionally so I could make it worse on you than anyone else. I’ve been waiting for this. How do you feel now, you fool?” Obviously, I have never forgotten it and that is what I sense when I read this. The very ones I thought were my closest friends and protectors now taunt me and tell me that was the plan all along. The ridicule was worse than anything. When you hear “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me” don’t believe it.
But the psalmist keeps coming back after every wave doesn’t he? He never gives in or loses hope completely because he knows, as did Job, that his Redeemer lives and that one day he will see him face to face. He knows that in spite of all this he will praise his remain faithful. Or, as Paul says in Ephesians, “after you have done everything, to stand.”
In fact, if we read the psalm in the best way, he is not wallowing in despair but instead questioning his own soul. “Why are you downcast?” What reason do you have to be downcast? He is examining his soul and not giving into the temptation to be overcome. He is challenging his own soul and not simply reflecting on why he is disturbed.
He is preaching to himself. He is instructing himself and in doing so we can do the same.
“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says,: “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.”
Listen, self: If God is for you, who can be against you? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for you, how will he not also with him graciously give you all things? Who shall bring any charge against you as God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for you. Who shall separate you from the love of Christ?
Learn to preach the gospel to yourself.” John Piper
In life, we will all grieve the loss of something – even betrayal. That is why we are assured that Jesus was a man acquainted with grief. Not only grief but betrayal. Only grief can make God fully human. Don’t avoid or deny it. We know it comes in waves and every grief is different. Some fade away and others stay for the remainder of our lives in one form or another.
But we will yet praise him our savior and our God.