Our first Psalm is Psalm 6. Traditionally one of the communal songs of penitence – often sung in anticipation of Easter during Lent but the early church.
Lent helps us reorient our lives and remind ourselves that we do need salvation. That there are things that are fundamentally flawed with us that need to be rectified. Where we need to take stock of our lives and cry out with hopeful desperation that says Ywhw save me. And the Psalms give us a beautiful avenue to go about this, because of how multifaceted these kinds of songs allow us to enter into the song and prayers in a way that the words someone becomes our own.
It is an interesting note that this prayer has, since the early church been considered a psalm of penitence. But this psalm “lacks both any explicit confession of sin and a plea for forgiveness” NICOT
I want to highlight a few elements of the Psalm before offering what amounts to my own reader-response reading to it.
Our Psalm starts at the source of the turmoil
I cannot imagine a more desperate and emotional yet intimate opening to a Psalm than what we see in Ps 6. Yahweh don’t rebuke me; don’t judge me even though I know you have the right to… Instead, show compassion. Be merciful to me. Yahweh is God’s covenantal name… the name that was only revealed to Moses and through him, Israel. It is the name of intimacy and relationship. From a relationship, the Psalmist continues to detail a condition of weakness and pain. There is physical agony, spiritual distress. Terror at the very core of who they are… Their whole purpose cannot happen… In death, in Sheol they cannot praise and glorify God- they cannot serve him… which was their role in the covenant with God. They are weary for death seems inevitable… worn-out eyes is often a metaphor for death
The Psalmist says Yahweh I cry myself to sleep every night and when I wake up my pillow is sopping wet with tears.
All of this conveys a language of desperation and longing…
Sorrow, fear, pain… the human condition writ large.
And in the middle of this section are 2 pleas…
How LONG until you act to restore me
And the follow-up…
Return, Yahweh, and rescue me. Grant me salvation because of your HESED.
But the trouble for us is that the Psalmist seems to function from the point that Yahweh himself is the problem, not his foes, God is the problem. The Good News though is that God is not merely the problem but he is the solution.
In v. 8-10 there is a sudden shift, an almost inexplicable one. Both in rhetoric and mood, tone, and audience. Sandwiched between 2 comments about enemies and evildoers are 3 actions of God.
For Yahweh heard my weeping
Yahweh heard my plea
Yahweh answers my prayer.
It is hard to grasp why the shift, there was no transition verse of repentance or word of affirmation. Whatever happened in the silence between vs 7 and 8.
The Psalmist comes to recognize the faithfulness of Yahweh and that some or someway God has acted on his behalf.
The gaps and uncertainty have led many to try and figure out what the Psalm is about.
Many have read this Psalm as an illness song. A plea from someone who is deeply ill, who thinks that they are about to die and are pleading with God to spare them.
The thinking goes the pain is explained by the illness The concern about death. The enemies are rejoicing because sickness was often viewed as a sign of God’s punishment, so they are celebrating and insulting them because it was their guilt that put them there. And then the flip side… when God hears and acts their celebrating will shame them when the afflicted one recovers. The idea is that they would be gloating over the suffering of this person but when their early celebration makes them look foolish, like the runner who pulls up at the finish line only to be passed and ended up in second place. This is a very possible reconstruction of the situation, but I am not sure that it is important. Because what matters is not the back story of the Psalm as much as what is important is when a prayer like this is appropriate to pray. Or how does this prayer function in the life of the faith community or in the life of the individual member of the faith community? Psalm 6 proclaims to us that lament is ok… feeling like God is out to get you is ok. Sometimes in your life, it feels like God is both the problem and the solution.
Part of the genius of the Psalms is that we can read ourselves into them. We crawl into them and the prayers and back story to them suddenly become our own. We no longer are reciting an ancient prayer but we are caught up in our actual stories. When I read Psalm 6 and other Lament Psalms, it is me there crying out in anguish.
I am fascinated by Lament Psalms and songs. I do think one of the fundamental issues with the church in North America is that we are both incapable and unwilling to fully embrace lament. If some of the Lament Psalms were modern worship songs, I doubt they would make it to song select and I doubt you would hear it on many Christian radio stations nor sung in most churches. The Vancouver based Praise 1065 would certainly not play it. In Psalm 6, the Psalmist is pretty much saying, my life is FUBAR and you know what God is all your fault. God! why does it feel like you are out to get me…
In light of that, isn’t some often our first response to say something like ‘Don’t say that Mat, that is unchristian language, unbelief or heresy.’ Your anger is misplaced; it’s because of your fallen nature – God is distant because of your sin. But that is not the story of the Psalms and many other people and stories in the bible. Our experience of longing, of distance and frustration, of disquiet questioning, is common… and sometimes it is downright anger. Walter Brueggeman calls Psalm 6 and others like it, Psalms of disorientation. He says “Human experience includes those dangerous and difficult times of dislocation and disorientation when the sky does fall and the world does come to an end. The figure of disorientation may be taken psychologically and sociologically. It includes all facets of our common life and experience. The times of disorientation those when persons are driven to the extremities of emotion, of integrating capacity, and of language. In the company of Isaiah, we are ‘undone’ (Isa 6:5). There is no speech, and there is no safe reality about which to speak”
There is a refreshing honesty to this, some comfort that this disorientation and dislocation is normal, and authentic human experience.
What you need to realize is that part of my life over the past decade is living in that reality of disorientation and dislocation. So much so that I felt a deep experience angry and frustrated with God… Where I see my life and look at God feel like he is playing for the other team and his sole purpose is to keep me off the scoresheet if we continue the sports metaphor.
We don’t really have the time to get into it why but there are things we experience in our lives, problems we face, challenges we must endure that do not contribute to at all that grind us deep with to our very core, that essence of who we are. This is what the bible calls the soul/ our very lives (Nephesh.) But our adultery with Platonic Philosophy makes us think disembody “pure form.”
Are there times when I do contribute to these things a little or a lot to this, I know I do. But still, it is part of the human journey to feel and experience and be emotional and know that those emotions are part of who you actually are. They aren’t the whole story but they make us who we are and sometimes we face ‘skubalon’ and it isn’t of our making.
And we cry out why and how long and we moan and we curse. I am convinced that these are authentic and valid feelings that shouldn’t be minimized or white-washed and dismissed as unholy and unspiritual.
Do we and do I need to be careful that I don’t blame God and stay in my place of lament indefinitely and thus becoming callous? yes. But neither should we just gloss over our feelings that again and again ask how long until you move to act. So how do we move forward, how do we ensure that we don’t stay put in the place of lament?
Recognizing this reality is why I think Lent and Ash Wednesday are so important for us, to put our cards on the table and I recognize the fleetingness and fallenness of our condition. But what gets me through, what pushes me onward is the twofold understanding of the steadfast love of CHRIST while recognizing that he gets it and has felt this way too.
One of the most famous laments is Psalm 22:1-2
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief.
This Psalm speaks to the reality we were getting at, feeling completely abandoned by God. In the words of Sufjan Stevens it asks “OH GOD WHERE ARE YOU NOW?” In Matthew 27:46 On the cross, Jesus quoted this Psalm… At the climax of his redemptive work, Jesus cries out why have you deserted and abandoned me. Why did you leave me? Why do I feel so alone? Jesus understands, he knows what it feels like to feel the experience of abandonment yet he endured to the end anyway. What exactly did he feel and how exactly did God forsake him and all the other incredible important theological questions, are irrelevant to me today, Jesus on the cross had that experience of longing… the cry of pain and desperation of dislocation and disorientation of lament and sorrow. The very word of God, through whom everything is held together hung on a cross and experience the human experience that we all face… and cried out some of the most famous words of lament in the Hebrew bible.
HE GETS IT. HE GETS ME AND MY PAIN AND ANGER, HE UNDERSTANDS MORE THAN WE CAN IMAGINE.
Jonathan Merritt says “Jesus is better than I imagined because He understands my anguish in those moments when I beg God to provide a way out and God stares at me mum. Christ demonstrates what it looks like to cling to God when it feels like God has turned His back on me, and He teaches me that a sense of divine absence can be a waypoint on the road to redemption.” ― from “Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined”
My rational mind cannot comprehend the love of God. Why the all-powerful God of the universe condescends to dwell with humanity is just too much for me. But he did. The bible has a special word for this kind of love, HESED… It is what our Psalmist appeals to. And the reason for which God acts on his behalf, your behalf, and my behalf.
The Good News we proclaim today is that in your lament and brokenness, Jesus knows it, experienced it, and will love you through it.
The Good News is somehow, someway, Jesus loves you with the familiarity of having experienced the same.
Thursday, as I was thinking about this, I was constantly reminded of the John Mark McMillan Song. How He Loves. I like it a great deal because there is one thing I am certain of and it is not the permanency of my love for God but the permanence of his love for me. But that song was written out of a place of brokenness and sorrow. Written on a porch after hearing a good friend of the Macmillan had been killed in a car wreck. (Here is the story) There is a beauty to the redemption offered by this song gives. But it speaks to the heart of the hope that the Psalmist experienced… THE LOVE GOD HAS FOR HIM as part of his covenant people. Speaks to my heart, even in the moments I am angry. And it can speak to you too.
There is a third verse, that I only heard on Thursday, which I will read and then pray.
Oh, I thought about You the day Stephen died
And You met me between my breaking
I know that I still love You, God
Despite the agony
Listen, people, they want to tell me You’re cruel
But if Stephen could sing
He’d say it’s not true, ’cause
‘Cause He loves us
Whoa, how He loves us
Whoa, how He loves us
Whoa, how He loves
Yeah, He loves us
Whoa, how He loves us
Whoa, how He loves us
Whoa, how He loves
The scriptures tell us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. The agony of Psalm 22 culminates in our salvation, the new covenant, and that rescue mission that commences that restoration of all things.