Psalm 13: From a scream of pain to a song of trust


Tragedy and trauma, shock, grief, pain and suffering – these are words that are on our lips much since the 7th of October, the “black Sabbath”. And for a good reason.

How are we supposed to deal with this terrible situation?

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

There is a psalm which clearly expresses the feelings of one who is suffering and senses that suffering to the depths of his being for such a long period that there seems to be no end. This psalm, Psalm 13, can truly help anyone who is ready to adopt it in a personal way. This is a short psalm that opens with a cry and a complaint, moves to a prayer, and finishes with a song of trust and joy. Each of these stages has an important role and the order of movement from one stage to the next is critical in what we can learn from the psalm.

The scream (1-2 [Heb. 2-3])

The first stage, and critically so, is a scream of anguish! David, who according to the title is the author, opens in a shout of pain because he feels that God has forsaken him completely. The question “How long?” is repeated four times and reveals a deep sense that there is no end to the difficult situation. Here we are not talking about an injury that causes pain that quickly disappears. The writer has lost the sense of time in connection with the trouble he finds himself in and the pain is deep, excruciating, and endless. The character of the repeated question (how long?) also points to the fact that this is not something that is whispered quietly. “O LORD”, he shouts, “You have forgotten me and turned Your face from me! I feel forsaken and alone. You didn’t protect me. You left me with no help, no defense, and no comfort.” (verse 1: How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?). This is not a polite appeal to God. Rather, it is an honest opening of the heart, the opening of a wound in a way that leaves no question about the psalmist’s feelings. And there is more. He continues to pour out to God what he is going though in his inner self. “I look for solutions and counsel which could help – but with no success. The sorrow and inner anguish continuously overwhelm me” (verse 2a: How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart all the day?). The feeling of inner torment came from a situation which unceasingly caused pain, a foe who unabatingly sought his downfall. David, therefore, pours out his complaint and the feeling of helplessness against a cruel enemy who overcomes him and boasts that he is stronger than him (verse 2b: How long will my enemy be exalted over me?).

This shout of complaint could well sound like it crosses a line. God is faithful and knows everything. How could anyone accuse Him of “forgetting”? David knew this, but he was in a place in which he couldn’t come quietly to God. The expression of his pain, his questions, and his doubts in a real and honest way enabled him to move on. He did not try to hide anything, to push his pain into a corner, or to ‘control himself’ – he poured out everything. He opened his heart which honesty and without holding back on anything he was thinking or feeling. And he did this directly to God.

The fact that David did not remain with his complaint points to the fact that his intent was truly to express his feelings and not to drown in them or get stuck in them. He had a personal connection with God and precisely because of that he chose, and was able, to voice his inner anguish. It was this pouring out of everything deep inside in such an honest, if painful, way that enabled him to move from a scream to a prayer. Without having done this he would not have been able to bring his request to God because there would have been a stifled, but paralyzing, cry deep in his heart.

The prayer (3-4 [Heb. 4-5])

David had emptied his heart of his complaint. The situation, however, remained the same. Previously he had not been able to talk quietly to God, only to throw at Him his questions and express his pain. But having poured it all out, he is in a place in which he can pray. Now, therefore, he brings to God his threefold request: to look at him (this is the literal meaning of the Hebrew word – and relevantly since he had felt that God had ‘hidden His face’ from him), to answer him, and to enlighten his eyes (Consider [look] and answer me, O LORD my God; Enlighten my eyes…). Firstly, David asks that the LORD turn to him and take regard of him and his situation in mercy, in his defense, and in helping him (all this implied in the request “look, consider”) and that He will answer him. Here we hear for the first time that David calls the LORD “my God”. This is hugely significant. David is not shouting at a God who he does not believe in, or that he thinks of as one with whom he has no connection. He honestly pours out his heart to one with whom he has a personal relationship and who he honors as his God. His prayer, therefore, is not just that God will respond but that He will work in David to strengthen and encourage him (in I Sam. 14:27, 29 the enlightening of the eyes signifies strengthening and, conversely, in Psalm 38:10 [Heb. verse 11] the lack of “the light of the eyes” signifies a sorrowful heart and a lack of strength). In this appeal to God, David already knows, and says here clearly, that without the help of his God he is hopeless. Therefore, he now says that if God does not help him, he will die and his enemy will be happy that he can defeat him (3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,  4 And my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” And my adversaries will rejoice when I am shaken).

This prayer, which includes David’s admission of his absolute dependence on God and his help, takes him another step forward. While making the request, he remembered who God is. The eyes of his heart, which were fixed on his pain and difficulty, now turn beyond his current situation, to God and he remembers that God is faithful, merciful and generous, and saves those who turn to Him and put all their hope in Him. It is the change of focus, from the pain to God, that changes his heart and awakens his faith.

The Security and the Joy (5-8 [Heb. 6])

Now David takes a decisive step and lifts up his voice in the song. The outpouring of pain and the subsequent turning of his heart to his God reminded him of who God is. Despite the circumstances, he knows God and knows what His character is. Therefore, despite the situation, he bursts into song and declares that he will trust in God’s grace, His lovingkindness (But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness;). ‘Grace’, often translated ‘lovingkindness’ in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the faithful love of God, something that does not depend on us or our situation and is given to those who are simply willing to believe. David says that he will trust in this grace. He is no longer looking at the enemy, nor at his own weakness. He trusts in God’s love that is given without us deserving it. It’s a sure thing. It is a solid foundation for security. Whatever the situation, the difficulty, the tragedy we have gone through, this grace of God is unshakeable. Because he has already poured out before God the grief that darkens his eyes and covers his heart with a heavy fog, and turned to Him in prayer in a way that reminds him of who God is, his heart can now rejoice that God is a Savior (My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation). ‘Salvation’ is being rescued from a situation in which you can only survive with outside help. And so, David goes from a situation where he shouts ‘how long?’, to a place where he sings because he knows that God desires his good and that despite all the bad that happens to him God has mercy for the one who trusts in him. This is confidence in the very essence of who God is and the fact that he acts for the good of the one who turns to him (I will sing to the LORD, Because He has dealt bountifully with me).

Psalm 13 and me

This psalm gives us a window into the heart of someone who has gone through a terrible experience that hurt him deeply and caused him such heartache that he could not have imagined coming out of it. But the psalm also shows us that he did come out of it. Or, perhaps, it is more correct to say that he himself came to a different place in his heart. The psalm talks in only five verses about the process of getting out of grief. That doesn’t mean it was a simple matter. And although the process is not simple, it does outline a path for us.

The first and decisive thing is the scream! To express clearly and fully the pain, the disappointment, the shock, the feelings, the anger, and anything else that is within us. But not just by shouting into the air. David turned everything to God. He hurled at God the harsh accusations that were hidden inside him. And yes, I also need to open my heart to someone. Otherwise, everything secretly simmers, rots, continues to ferment deep in the heart in a way that will affect everything without my controlling it. Only when I cry out honestly and express the pain I feel inside can I move on and not get stuck. David did it directly to God and there is no one more willing to hear my pain. When I honestly pour everything out before God I can then turn to Him in prayer. This raises the personal question: do I know him? Can I, like David, honestly call Him “my God”. For those who find the psalmist’s relationship with God a source of envy, there will be nothing like continuing to read the Bible, because it teaches us that God wants us to know him personally and shows us the way that that is possible. Hence, those who put their trust in God’s grace, trusting in what the Bible teaches about his faithfulness to those who trust in him (Psalm 1:12) will also be able to sing to him.

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