PASTOR’S CORNER, David Harris, Fellowship Baptist Church, Liberal
I love the Psalms. In them I have found consolation when I was hurting, light when everything around me felt dark, and encouragement when my heart felt beyond the point of being encouraged. But there is something else I love just as much about the Psalms, and that is the grim and realistic way they give voice to the aching of the human heart. Psalms don’t just offer hope, they give a powerful script for all of the suffering that makes us crave hope.
God’s people praying and singing the Psalms are then given a kind of bifocal: transparent gritty details about the darkness of the fallen world with rays of glorious light bursting through.
Psalm 89 is like that (you should take some time to read it now, before proceeding). That this is known as a lament may be a little surprising, because the author takes the first 37 verses to praise God. But there comes in verse 38 a shocking change of tone. Sometimes in the laments the composer complains about an enemy: but here, it is not the enemy that causes the despair, but God himself (or, so it seems).
So what is going on here? It may seem that this is two different songs combined into one. But that is not the case. The first section is necessary to understanding the more difficult one that follows. In those cheerful, first 37 verses, the writer is building his case that he is about to make: he is explaining why God has failed to meet his expectations.
The king’s crown is in the dust, despite God’s promises of blessing. Israel’s armies are on the run. By all the usual signs the enemy seems to have the upper hand. God’s people are losing. Here then is the problem for the Psalmist: he has formed certain expectations based on God’s promises, but the circumstances have dashed those expectations to pieces.
Whichever event this was, the important thing is that it was enough to lead this writer to conclude God had been a divine let-down. So, the Psalm ends in verses 46-51 with the composer calling out to God to remember his promises.
While I am not going to give a through exposition of the whole Psalm, I come away from it with a couple of reflections. Perhaps, some of these will resonate with you.
1. Just the fact that this is in the Bible shows us that God is big enough to handle our perplexity. God is not weak and unable to hear us voice our struggles. The largest book in the Bible offers maps to help us put those very things into words.
2. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Certainly, the Psalmist has doubts. He has questions. He is perplexed. But he still trusts God: after all, that’s why he is praying in the first place. He would not be crying out to God to remember his promises if he didn’t think he would, or if he didn’t think there was a God who had made such promises. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, unbelief is.
3. God is not the same as the expectations we have created about God. It is dangerous to confuse the two. I have met, prayed and cried with people who have told me frankly, “God failed me.” Technically, this isn’t true, but it can certainly feel that way, even for sincere believers (who often feel extreme guilt with such thoughts). What can we make of such a sentiment? They constructed their own expectations or demands of God, and those expectations were never realized, those demands were never met. This can happen in our own lives. When those things happen, it is not God that is failing us, but our assumptions we have made about him.
4. Perhaps God does not meet our expectations because they are too low. Think about the Psalmist: he is looking at the wreckage of some sort of military loss, and thinking, “How can the kingdom of God survive?” Of course, for us in the kingdom of Jesus the ancient question borders on the ridiculous, though in his time it was quite serious. We live after the cross: Satan’s head has been crushed, the way God saves is made plain, and sin and death have been defeated. The Psalmist had a limited perspective. You and I have limited perspectives as well.
5. When our expectations of God are not met, we have two things that remain: his promises, and his character. Whenever we have to set our expectations aside, we are often left with who he is and what he has promised to do. This can of course be a disastrous end to personal faith. Or it can be the place of reconstruction. “Praise be to the Lord!” is after all how the song ends. Your assumptions about life with God may have failed you, but he has not. Keep singing, all the way until the end.