For the music director; a psalm of David.
Jacobson, while recognising that this is identified as ‘a Davidic psalm’ represents the psalmist as female. This seems slightly odd.
The context seems to be the same as that of Psalms 9-12 (NBC). Any precise background, however, is difficult to establish. Harper’s Bible Commentary thinks that the psalm describes a desperately ill person (v3) abandoned by his friends. (This is odd, because clearly the psalmist feels abandoned by God, v1!). More plausibly, David’s troubles with Saul, or with Absalom, come to mind. But whereas ‘the original crisis may have been a physical, emotional, social, or economic crisis,’ the psalmist understands it as a spiritual and theological crisis (Jacobson).
The ‘enemy’ is mentioned several times, but without elaboration. It is possible that this is a metaphor for death (WBC), illness, or for evil generally, but it is more likely that the reference is to real people who were threatening David’s life (see v4 in particular).
The three pairs of verses give a fairly straightforward structure:
- Lament, v1f
- Petition, v3f
- Thanksgiving, v5f
Kidner characterises this psalm as a ‘climb up from the depths to a fine vantage-point of confidence and hope’. Accordingly, (and closely following Lane) we could propose:
- Down in the depths
- Climbing upwards
- Approaching the summit
An adaptation of Wilcock’s outline:
NBC, along with a number of commentators, recognises three dimensions of distress: (a) spiritual (Has the Lord forgotten?); (b) personal (sorrow); (c) circumstantial (enemy triumphs). These are answered by the three dimensions of prayer: (a) spiritual (Look on me and answer); (b) personal (give light, save me from death); (c) circumstantial (lest my enemy says…). Then, there are the same three dimensions of transformation: (a) spiritual (I trust in your unfailing love); (b) personal (my heart rejoices in your salvation); (c) circumstantial (the Lord has been good to me [has made full provision for me]). (NBC) Jacobson rightly describes such a classification as slightly artificial: the three elements are interwoven, and the fundamental problem is theological.
Wilson observes: ‘Within the Psalter, divine hiddenness is a dominant theme in the first two-thirds. Both lament and thanksgiving acknowledge the reality of God’s absence.’
13:1 How long, LORD, will you continue to ignore me?
How long will you pay no attention to me?
13:2 How long must I worry,
and suffer in broad daylight?
How long will my enemy gloat over me?
This pair of verses analysis David’s predicament in relation to (a) God himself; (b) the turmoil of his own thoughts; (c) the apparent triumph of his enemies.
How long? – This expression occurs some 20 times in the Psalms.
Psalm 89:46 How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?
It is not so much a question as a complaint. Jacobson recognises an increasing sense of crisis in the fourfold repetition here. This repetition indicates the deep and unremitting experience of anguish. It is a question asked even by the saints in heaven, Rev 6:10.
In the repeated expression, ‘How long…’, David expresses his feeling that God was slow to act on his behalf. We too can feel impatience. We feel that evil goes unpunished, while the people of God suffer. David came to affirm that he would trust God to be as gracious to him now as he had been in the past.
Lord – As Mays remarks, these opening words are not ‘interior reflection or meditative musing but direct address’. The seeds of resolution are, then, already being sown. The very name by which God is addressed ‘bestows the possibility and the promise of prayer.’
How long will you continue to ignore me? – ‘He thought God had forgotten him, had forgotten his promises to him, his covenant with him, his former lovingkindness which he had shown him and which he took to be an earnest of further mercy, had forgotten that there was such a man in the world, who needed and expected relief and succour from him.’ (MHC)
This experience of alienation from God seems almost like a foretaste of hell. (Ash)
As Broyles remarks, there is something almost shocking to our ears about the psalmist’s forthright (irreverent?) complaint. If the Lord is not held to be actually responsible for his distress, then he is accused of failing to act promptly to alleviate it. ‘Were we to hear someone praying in this fashion today, most of us would take offense at such irreverence against the holy and faultless God.’ But David’s complaint argues a high expectation that God ‘ought’ to be, and usually is, present to bless.
Just as there are important differences between acute and chronic physical pain, so there are between short-term and long-term spiritual anguish. Happy memories of sweet communion with God begin to fade and we begin to imagine that this sense of abandonment will never come to an end. Andrew Fuller (quoted by Spurgeon): ‘It is not under the sharpest, but the longest trials, that we are most in danger of fainting.… When Job was accosted with evil tidings, in quick succession, he bore it with becoming fortitude; but when he could see no end to his troubles, he sunk under them.’
It has continued so long that he fears that God will never remember him again. But the Omniscient has no lapses of memory. The divine Father does not forget his beloved child. Isa 49:14f ‘But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!’
How long with you pay no attention to me? – ‘…hide your face from me?’ (NIV). To see God’s face is the height of joy (cf. Psa 11:7; 17:15; 27:4, 8; 31:16; 34:5; 67:1). For God to hide his face is, for the sensitive soul, the depth of misery: it is the opposite of the Aaronic blessing of Num 6:24-26.
The psalmist’s complaint is possibly more pragmatic than we realise. It is not only the felt presence of God that has gone missing, but any evidence of practical help. David is in trouble, and he doesn’t feel that he is getting the divine help he needs and asks for. It is not merely, then, that God seems absent, but that he appears to have withdrawn his blessing. As Boice remarks, when a Christian marriage goes sour, when the work of a Christian businessman stagnates, when church life becomes hard graft, when personal spiritual life slumps, we may feel that God has withdrawn his favour for ever.
‘God sometimes hides his face from his own children, and leaves them in the dark concerning their interest in him; and this they lay to heart more than any outward trouble whatsoever’ (MHC). We are subject to darkness of various kinds: physical, intellectual, emotional. But just as there is no joy so great as the Father’s smile, so there is no darkness so dreadful as spiritual darkness.
God may hide his face, but he does not forget. ‘A hidden face is no sign of a forgetful heart’ (Spurgeon).
How long must I worry? – His thoughts are in turmoil, his feelings possibly a mixture of guilt and of wishing for what might have been.
There is a sense here of ‘laying up pain’ in the soul: of ruminating on trouble, of chewing a bitter pill. David turned over in his mind countless possible solutions to his despair, and gives them all up as being to no avail. Sorrow has a habit of lingering: an old French proverb says that ‘troubles come on horseback but go away on foot’.
‘Anxious cares are heavy burdens with which good people often load themselves more than they need.’ (MHC)
How long must I …suffer in broad daylight? – ‘He had a constant disposition to sorrow and it preyed upon his spirits, not only in the night, when he was silent and solitary, but by day too, when lighter griefs are diverted and dissipated by conversation and business…The bread of sorrow is sometimes the saint’s daily bread. Our Master himself was a man of sorrows.’ (MHC)
How long will my enemy gloat over me? – or, ‘triumph over me?’ (NIV). As Kidner says, David would find this not only humiliating, but a threat to his kingship and to his faith in God’s justice.
While, on the one side, God seems absent, the psalmist’s enemies are very much present.
‘Long afflictions try our patience and often tire it. It is a common temptation, when trouble lasts long, to think it will last always; despondency then turns into despair, and those that have long been without joy begin, at last, to be without hope.’ (MHC)
As noted above, some (including Craigie) think that the ‘enemy’ is death itself. But Jacobson is probably correct in saying that, in original context, some real person or persons is meant (Saul is a likely candidate).
God seems to be forgetful, hostile even. How strange that David in his despair has not forgotten God, yet he believes that God has forgotten him! It is sustained: How long…? a question repeated four times. How the time drags when the heart is cast down! A week of imprisonment is longer than a month of freedom. Chronic pain has a peculiar grinding, weakening character, and so it is with unabated sorrow.
Let this psalm be a consolation to many. Remember the man who lay at the pool of Bethesda, who had an infirmity thirty eight years, Jn 5:5; the woman who was a cripple for eighteen years, before she was “loosed.” Lk 13:11; Lazarus, who lived all his life in disease and poverty, till he was released by death and transferred to Abraham’s bosom, Lk 16:20-22. ‘Let every one, then, who may be tempted to use the complaints of this Psalm, assure his heart that God does not forget his people, help will come at last, and, in the meantime, all things shall work together for good to them that love him.’ (W. Wilson)
‘The same sense of a friendship that has clouded over is hauntingly expressed in Job 29:1ff.; 30:20ff., and again in Psalm 22:1ff.’ (Kidner)
Rubbing salt in the wound; when Satan contrives to make comedies out of our tragedies. They triumph for a while, but we must take the long view, Ps 73:17.
13:3 Look at me! Answer me, O LORD my God!
Revive me, or else I will die!
13:4 Then my enemy will say, “I have defeated him!”
Then my foes will rejoice because I am upended.
The great turning-point; the dawn of hope; the turn of the tide. ‘What should we do if we had no God to turn to in the hour of wretchedness?’ (Spurgeon).
Jacobson notes how the three complaints of the first stanza are matched by the three requests of the second:
- ‘You’ – ‘How long, Lord’/’Look at me! Answer me, O Lord my God!’
- ‘I’ – ‘How long must I worry and suffer?’/’Revive me, or else I will die!’
- ‘They’ – ‘How long will my enemy gloat over me?’/’Then my foes will rejoice because I am upended.’
Anything which causes us to pray is good for us. ‘It is better to be praying in the whale’s belly than asleep in the ship’ (Plumer).
‘It is some ease to a troubled spirit to give vent to its griefs, especially to give vent to them at the throne of grace, where we are sure to find one, who is afflicted in the afflictions of his people, and is troubled with the feeling of their infirmities’ (Henry).
He pleads his covenant relationship with God.
Look at me! – ‘Look on me’ (NIV). A natural plea, when God seems to have been hiding his face (v1b).
Answer me, O Lord my God! – God must act speedily, or it will be too late. He bears a responsibility towards those who name him as ‘my God’. (Broyles)
Revive me – ‘Give light to my eyes’ (NIV) – ‘Let the eye of faith be clear, that I may see my God in the dark’ (Spurgeon).
Referring to the image of ‘giving light to the eyes’, Broyes remarks: ‘This image may, in fact, derive not from the speaker’s circumstances but from the poetic imagery of a face-to-face relationship evident elsewhere in the psalm. It may be an echo of the Aaronic Benediction, “May Yahweh cause his face to give light to you” (Num. 6:25, lit.).’
Alternatively, the sense may be: ‘Restore the sparkle to my eyes’, indicating an upturn in mood and energy.
Or else I will die! – Although some commentators see this as an indication that David’s plight involved serious physical illness, the language may well be metaphorical, and reflective of his emotional and spiritual depression.
God must return, else I shall die broken-hearted. Note, death is normally viewed by believers as ‘better by far’, Php 1:23, but is here dreaded.
‘Nothing is more killing to a soul then the want of God’s favour, nothing more reviving than the return of it.’ (MHC)
Then my enemy will say, “I have defeated him” – This is a prayer which will certainly be answered: before Satan can defeat us, he must first conquer God.
To be upended is to stumble because of burdens too heavy to bear.
‘When Jonah was trying to get away from God, he thought that being abandoned by God would be desirable. But when he was thrown into the sea, was swallowed by the great fish, and finally did sense himself to be abandoned by God, he found that he did not like the feeling at all. He compared his state of abandonment to Sheol or hell and cried out in distress, asking God to save him (cf. Jonah 2).’ (Boice)
13:5 But I trust in your faithfulness.
May I rejoice because of your deliverance!
13:6 I will sing praises to the LORD
when he vindicates me.
What a change between the beginning of the psalm and the end! The clouds have lifted; the sun shines again. The mourners’ sobbing is replaced by the praise of the worshiper.
We may well marvel at the dramatic change of mood in the space of a few short verses. Indeed, as Ash suggests, there was probably no change in David’s circumstances as he moved from the despair of the opening verses to the anticipated joy of the final couplet. But Broyles remarks that ‘a psalm is not an autobiographical poem reflecting on a poet’s recent personal experience. It is written for other worshipers to guide their responses to their own experiences.’ The psalm expresses well the mixed emotions that, in the midst of hardship, we often feel towards God: a mixture, that is, of complaint and trust. Moreover (notes Broyles), the praise expressed at the end of the psalm is not present, but anticipated.
Similarly, Mays writes: ‘The psalm leads those who read and pray it from protest and petition to praise; it holds all three together as if to teach that they cohere in the unity of prayer. There is a coherence that holds the apparently separate moments together.’
I trust in your faithfulness – ‘in your unfailing love’ (NIV). He reflects that the Lord has been his strong castle for many a year, and he rests secure behind those battlements still.
God’s giving far exceeds man’s asking.
Your deliverance – ‘your salvation’ (NIV). God grants wholistic well-being: assurance of divine care, victory over one’s foes (the world, the flesh and the devil), together with healing of depression and self-pity.
In these two latter verses, we find what it is that has been put right: his heart (‘my heart rejoices’), his voice (‘I will sing’), his judgement (‘for he has been good to me’).
This verse, along with v1 and v5, recalls that it is through prayer that struggling faith is strengthened and confirmed. Prayer is to the soul what exercise is to the body.
I will sing praises to the Lord when… – or, ‘because’. After considering and weighing the matter, David recognises that he has ample reason to sings God’s praise.
In v3, the psalmist expected his enemies to rejoice upon seeing him fall. Here, he himself looks forward to rejoicing in God’s deliverance.
He vindicates me – ‘He has been good to me’ (NIV); ‘he has dealt bountifully with me’ (RSV) – ‘I thought he had forgotten me, but now I know that even when I could not see his face or sense his presence, he was dealing graciously with me.’ David refutes his own charge that God has forgotten him (v1). We too can draw encouragement for the future from remembrance of past mercies. Let not our sorrows drive us from prayer, but to it. Then we, like David, may kneel down to pray as he kneeled down, full of darkness, and rise from prayer as he rose, full of light.
‘Thus his faith lays the cloth, expecting a feast ere long to be set on: he that now questioned whether he should ever hear good news from heaven, is so strong in faith as to make himself merry with the hopes of that mercy which he is assured will come at last.’ (Gurnall)
Taking the NIV’s meaning (‘He has been good to me’) Wilcock asks how such a sufferer can say this. ‘There are three answers:
(a) ‘This is a ‘prophetic perfect’ such as we have seen before, and behind the psalmist’s very real anguish is an equally real certainty that he will be lifted out of it, and will then say, ‘God was good to rescue me.’
(b) ‘It is also a recognition that God has undoubtedly been good to him in the past, and ‘he who began a good work … will carry it on to completion’.
(c) ‘It is, finally, a grasp of the fact that even at the time, without ever saying (as some seem to do) that evil is good, he could rejoice in the great truth of Romans 8:28, that God was working all things for good to those who love him.’ (Formatting added)
Concluding thoughts on this Psalm
Days of spiritual darkness are no new thing. Christians are apt to look back at the past with nostalgia, imagining that those were days of golden sunshine, these are times of ever-increasing darkness. But there has always been a mixture of sunshine and showers, and of longer periods of brightness alternating with overcast skies which, it seemed, would never clear. Even the sinless one cried out in grief, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
To feel forsaken by God for a period of time is a most terrible thing. How much more should people fear actually being forsaken by his for eternity!
It is often said that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. To share our thoughts and feelings with a sympathetic friend may be all that is required to reach a resolution. How much more should we value the opportunity to share our problems with almighty God! It is through communion with him that we regain a correct perspective and recover our sense of peace and joy. The sorrower turned into the singer because of the supplicator: he pleaded with God. Let us spread our troubles out before the Lord. And, just as we might leave a legal problems in the safe hands of a solicitor, let us leave our spiritual problems in the far safer hands of Almighty God.