Lament and hope (Part 1)
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance. Psalm 42:5
This Psalm, if it teaches us anything, is that a good man may become greatly dejected and even feel waves of hopelessness wash over him. The rest of the Scriptures teach the same lesson over and over again. John the Baptist, the greatest of all men, became greatly overcome with doubt and hopelessness as he lay in prison: “Are you he that should come, or do we look for another?” Elijah, having just vanquished the false prophets, became so depressed that he wished God would take his life; it just wasn’t worth it anymore. The patriarch Jacob at one point expressed the view that “all these things are against me.” The apostle Paul confessed that at one point, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1:8-9). The whole book of Habakkuk is in some sense the cry of a prophet in despair. It begins with the words, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” Certainly, though Job never lost his faith completely, he did struggle with hopelessness and bitterness. The Scripture is not a record of men and women riding off happily into the sunset, at least not in this world. “In this world, you shall have tribulation,” our Lord warns us, and so it is.
Psalm 42 is in that category of those psalms which are laments; this one is an individual lament. Lamenting is not something that happens at the beginning of the psalm only to be overtaken by the bright rays of hope; it is something that goes through the entirety of it. The psalmist cries out his lament in vs. 1-4, 6-7, and 9-10. He keeps having to fight off the anguish of his soul for it keeps returning. Thus, we learn a further lesson: depression of soul is not something which is necessarily easily thrown off. We may fight it off, only to find it to return. Satan left our Lord “until an opportune time;” even so, discouragement often leaves but only for a time. We should not think that growth in sanctification is parallel with a lessening of inward struggle.
I think this is especially important to point out, because there is a segment of popular Christianity today that teaches that a strong faith will protect us from certain trials, or at least will enable us to keep our chins up through whatever the world has to throw at us. But surely the experience of our Lord, as well as this psalm, demonstrates the folly of such belief. Our Lord was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
However, it is one thing to admit to the reality of the specter of depression and discouragement; it is another thing altogether to surrender to it. And that is the one thing a Christian must not do. A Christian may weep; they may feel the sting of loss and deprivation. But they must not allow themselves to weep as those who really have no hope. We must maintain a distinction, not only for our own perseverance in the faith, but ultimately for the sake of the glory of God in this world.
So the question is: how do we do this? How do we maintain hope in the face of hopelessness? Certainly, it can be done. The faith of Abraham is described in this way: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations” (Rom. 4:18). This psalm also contains a mirror into a the heart of a man of God who struggled to in hope believe against hope, and shows us how to do so in a way that honors the Lord.
Well, consider the state of the psalmist. We don’t really know who the author is, though many think it was David, and that the background of this psalm is David’s running from Absalom who wanted to murder his own father and usurp his kingdom and crown. For a time, David became exiled from his own land, his very life hanging in the balance. Not only his own son, but some of his closest friends (like Ahithophel) had abandoned him. Betrayed, exiled, and in mortal danger. That sounds pretty bad. And I doubt very seriously that many in the audience to whom I am preaching have experienced anything on that level.
Whoever the author was, he was exiled. The first four verses are an expression of longing to be back at the temple in Jerusalem worshiping God – and this was evidently not at all possible: “when shall I come and appear before God?” The times of worship in the house of God was a thing of the past (verse 4). And we know this was not a voluntary exile because of the taunt of his enemies: “Where is your God?” They had been defeated and exiled; it seemed that God was not on their side, he was (seemingly) on the side of their enemies.
And then add to this the fact that at this very lowest point in his life, the psalmist also felt alone in the worst possible sense – for he felt utterly forsaken by God. He was not thirsting for a present God, but for an absent God. He was like a deer on the run, pursued by hunters, who was in dire need of a drink of water but had not had a chance to stop and take a drink. Or perhaps the picture is of a deer who had been chased away from water by its pursuers, and now plaintively looks back towards the flowing streams of water. Perhaps worse, he not only felt forsaken by God, he felt like he was under God’s judgment (verse 7). Not only were his enemies putting to him the question, “Where is now your God?” – he was asking the question himself: “I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” (verse. 9). He was bracketed by his own doubts and the taunts of his enemies.
And yet he did not break. And the question is, why? And how can we follow in his footsteps when we find ourselves in a similar predicament?
First of all, his hope was in God. This is obvious but is perhaps the most important point. If his hope had been in men, he certainly would have broken. Men failed him. If he had hoped in his own ability to deal with it, he would have broken, because he had failed. On the other hand, God is a rock (verse 9) that cannot be broken no matter what is thrown against him.
The only real hope anyone can have is hope that reaches beyond the grave. This is why those who don’t know Christ have no real hope (Eph. 2:14) and is why Paul said that if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15). I don’t see why if this life is all there is to it that we shouldn’t despair. But Jesus has conquered the grave. The Son of God is the only one who can give true hope in the sense of offering resurrection and eternal life. And though the psalmist did not have the New Testament and the full revelation that came with Christ, yet he had true faith enough. He recognized that no matter what happened, he could hope in God, because “I shall again praise him” (vs. 5, 11). As Spurgeon put it, “If every evil be let loose from Pandora’s box, yet is there hope at the bottom. This is the grace that swims, though the waves roar and be troubled. God is unchangeable and therefore his grace is the ground for unshaken hope.”