The 2010 French film "Of Gods and Men" details a true story about a small monastery of Trappist monks in Algeria, in 1996, during the Algerian civil war. Of the 9 monks that were there, 7 were martyred. The film explores their trials and discussions as they made the painful decision to stay rather than flee. A decision which would cost most of them their lives. In the film, the men struggle with radical doubt, unknowing, and a profound sense of divine absence.
How do we keep going when circumstances tell us that God has abandoned us? The monks circumstances may not be familiar to us but perhaps their feelings are. What do we do when we suffer and God feels far away? That's the theme of our psalm tonight. Three lessons that I hope we can draw from this Psalm which will allow us to trust and hope in God even when it feels like he is far away.
1. Remember God's track record, v1-10
2. Cry out to God in your distress, v11-21
3. Praise God for salvation in Jesus, v22-31
1. Remember God's track record, v1-10
David actively remembers God's track record of faithfulness in his own life and in salvation history as he wrestles with his present suffering.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
David cries out to God asking why he has forsaken him? Why does God feel so far away; why doesn't he intervene to help David in his distress? Why doesn't he hear David's cries in both day and night. Why has David been left abandoned; hopeless and restless?
We don't know David's circumstances precisely. The tune set can be translated 'Doe of the morning' or 'Help at daybreak' suggesting David has spent a dark night in prayer, desperate for help or may picture him as a hunted deer. Later verses suggest that there is a physical threat to David's life in addition to the insults we see him receive in v6-8. Certainly David is in distress compounding his distress is the feeling that God is far away, removed from the situation.
But this contrasts dramatically with the God David knows and with how he has acted to hear and to save his people in the past. Verse 3:
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
God is the subject ofIsrael's praise because he saves those who put their trust in him. Time and time again he is proved faithful in his promises to save his people; they trusted in him and were not put to shame.
But for David salvation feels far off. So David's heart is in tension; his present experience tells him that God is far off, that God does not hear his cries or answer his prayers. But God's record in history testifies in stark contrast; God is a God who hears the cries of his people and not just hears but acts to save them. How will David know what is real? Will he trust what his present experience tells him or will he trust in God's impeccable form guide? Read on with me from v6:
6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 'He trusts in the Lord,' they say, 'let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.'
David describes himself as a worm; he is mocked and despised. The people also question God's salvation;'He trusts in the Lord,' they say, 'let the Lord rescue him' as well as God's love and care for David; 'Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.' The crowd verbalises what David is surely contemplating in his heart; if God really loves you then why doesn't he save you?
David looks know not to God's past dealings with his people generally but to his dealings with David. David looks to his own story, his own experience of God. Verse 9:
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother's breast. 10 From birth I was cast on you; from my mother's womb you have been my God.
God is David's creator, he made him and it was God who called David to faith in him. God has been God to David from birth and he has been consistently faithful to him up until this point. Polycarp just before being burned at the stake for his Christianity said: "Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" David too had experienced God's goodness to him throughout his life. How can he know say that God has abandoned him?
David's knowledge of God's dealings with him and with his people more broadly act as a brake on his interpretation of his present suffering being evidence of God's abandonment of him.
We recently watched a drama where the bad guy had secretly taken one of the major characters hostage. All was revealed though when the next day, to cover his tracks, the bad guy sent a text from the hostage's phone saying that she was ill and wouldn't be in work that day. This was inconsistent with her character; she never took a day off and had no idea how to send a text message. The inconsistency with her past record, with who the others knew her to be uncovered the truth. Similarly as David recalls God's track record as he deliberately reminds himself of who God is the inconsistency is revealed. David feels abandoned but God is not a God who abandons his people, David's present experience in fact masks reality.
David's suffering, his anguish was real but he didn't give his present experience the sole right to define reality. David's reality was grounded in the truth about God and so must ours be. In fact it is only by finding our place in relation to God can we access true reality. Truth is defined by God.
Cling to God's track record. In your own life but also in his dealings with his people. God is a gracious and a compassionate God. God hears his people and answers their prayers; the Scriptures bear this out page after page.
Most especially cling to the cross. There we see Jesus cry out when he really was forsaken by God on our behalf. Look at the one who was despised, who was rejected, who was mocked and who died in love for you whilst you were still an enemy of God.
Memorise Scriptures like Romans 5.6-11 which remind us of the proof of God's love for us, look to passages like Matthew 28 or John 16 where Jesus promises not to abandon us but rather to be with us always, to dwell in our hearts by his Holy Spirit. Take these things to heart so that when hard things come your default response is to assess your present experience against the reality of God's love.
To explore further our place in God's loving plan I'd recommend a series of talks by Don Carson called 'The God who is There'. You can find audio and video versions of the talks for free online.
Finally, let's help one another to celebrate God's faithfulness in our lives. When your prayers are answered tell someone. Ask someone this week how they first came to know Jesus or what God is doing in their life. Let's discipline ourselves to keep actively remembering God's grace to do as we're about to do, following Jesus' instruction to us, in communion shortly.
David actively remembered God's track record of faithfulness as he wrestled with his present suffering and so rather than rejecting God in his suffering he flees to him for help. That's what I want us to look at in our second point.
2. Cry out to God in your distress, v11-21
David cries to God for rescue; passionately and with brutal honesty.
In verses 11-18 David cries out to God again asking him not to be far off but to save him from the enemies who encircle him and threaten his life. David is threatened from without but in the middle of this section in v14, 15 he openly confesses the turmoil within:
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth[d] is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
David is emotionally drained, his resolve is weakening; he is 'poured out like water', his heart 'has turned to wax'. David is weighed down but now he brings that heaviness to God. David comes to God in desperate prayer despite him feeling far off. He presents his concerns plainly, listing them and his heaviness of heart before God.
There's a particular type of performance beloved by football pundits that's when a team earns a hard working draw after a misfortune. Preferably they have a player or two sent off or lose their only decent attacker to an injury and then they resolutely defend for the rest of the match. They come under attack from the numerically, or otherwise superior team, but they but their bodies on the line throwing themselves into blocks and tackles with no concern for their own safety. They might not be able to do much damage to the other team but they work harder and so achieve an heroic result.
David is working hard, labouring. Brings to God his burdens, confessing his weakness honestly. But David moves beyond pure introspection and looks externally to God 'his strength' for help. David is exercising his faith here.
In suffering cry out to God. Discipline yourself to do so even when it feels like hard work. Cry in desperation, cry bringing your fears, your doubts and longings honestly before God. Be honest about the state of your heart and ask for help.
Prepare for suffering by cultivating an intimate prayer life. Do the drills as it were so that when hard times come your first response is to flee to God.
Pray for those who are suffering. Grieve with those who grieve. We are one body - if one part suffers the whole suffers with it.
3. Praise God for salvation in Jesus, v22-31
David resolves to praise God even in his suffering because of his certain hope in God's coming salvation.
22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honour him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
David decides by an act of the will to declare God's character - his name in praise. He even calls on all God's people to join him in praising, honouring and fearing God. What a turnaround from v16-19! Yet there is no indication that David's physical situation has altered, no hint that he has been delivered from his enemies. Why then does David resolve to praise God?
David chooses to trust in God's track record to believe that he is a God who hears and not to interpret suffering as evidence of God's scorn. David understands that God has not abandoned him and no joyfully rescinds his earlier complaint in v26-31:
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him – may your hearts live for ever! 27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 28 for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. 29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him – those who cannot keep themselves alive. 30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. 31 They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!
David looks forward to a day when fortunes will be reversed: 'The poor will eat and be satisfied', he looks forward to a day when 'All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him' a day when 'future generations will hear about God and proclaim him' - that's us! David looks forward to God's coming salvation, the fulfillment of his promises and places his trust in them. These things are a certain reality for David and so David praises God for them. I occasionally get an email which ends something like 'thanks in anticipation for your prompt response to this'. Well this is David's 'thanks in anticipation' though it is somewhat more magnificent than any email. God's promises are so credible that David can put his full trust in them even though they're fulfillment is still to come, David speaks in the past tense in v31 'He has done it!'
How do we know this? How can we say with David; 'He has done it!' The answer is Jesus' death and resurrection:
The Holy One is afflicted, abandoned on our behalf so that we may never be abandoned. We see the grace of God who loved us whilst we were his enemies. Jesus is risen as evidence that God will come again to judge the earth banishing all injustice. Jesus is risen and ascended having left us with the promise of his presence by the Holy Spirit.
In suffering trust in the cross. We will never be abandoned. Nothing can come between us and the love of God. Hope in heaven the day is near and is guaranteed by Christ's resurrection. Look forward to and long for a day when God will make all things new banishing pain and death forever.