The thirteenth Psalm is, first, the outcry of a heart that is overburdened with grief, chief of which is the feeling of forsakenness; second, the prayer for relief in the face of jeering enemies; and, third, the song of a grateful saint.
In the first part of the Psalm, that speaks of forsakenness, we hear the cry: How long? four times.
The first cry sounds strange. There is a great contradiction in it. Or so it seems. Attend to this: “How long, Jehovah, wilt Thou forget me perpetually? It seems to us that if Jehovah would forget us perpetually, there would be no point in asking how long this perpetual forsakenness would last. In the English translation this difficulty is removed by simply divorcing the last word from the first outcry and making it an outcry in itself. Then the outburst reads: How long wilt Thou forget me, O Lord? Forever? The sense is then: I feel forsaken by Thee, O Lord! How long will this condition last? And the saint answers this inquiry with another question: Forever?
Against this translation is the fact that the word: forever, belongs to the outcry. It is part of the sentence.
The German translation evades the difficulty by translating the word forever, for: entirely; the sense then being: How long, O Lord wilt Thou forget me entirely?
The French translation evades the issue by translating the word, forever, for: without ceasing. Then the sense is; How long, O Lord, wilt Thou forget me, without a glimpse of Thy presence being left me?
I think that Delitzsch properly explains this seeming contradiction by pointing out that the experience of forsakenness partakes of its eternal character. He says: “It is in the nature of the Divine wrath, that the feeling of it is always accompanied by an impression that it will last forever; and consequently it becomes a foretaste of hell itself.”
You find another glimpse of it when an inspired poet exclaims: “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me.” (116:3).
You see, there is an awful “power in His anger” (Psalm 90:11).
Yes, I think that Delitzsch is right: when God hides His face from us, it seems as though the darkness of an eternal night has settled round about us. Then we feel like the saint who complains: Will God forever spurn? Shall we no more His favor see? Will mercy never return?
That was the experience of David in this Psalm.
It seemed to him as though God had forgotten him with that forgetfulness that lasts forever. It seemed to him as though God did not think about him anymore. And the quality of that forgetfulness was eternity. “Clean gone forever.”
We hasten to add, however, that such is impossible. We may experience such in our consciousness, but there is no objective reality that corresponds with this. God never forgets His saints. He cannot forget them. Their names and image are in the very palms of His hands. He always beholds them in Christ Jesus as perfect and holy.
You may ask: how is it then that both David and we and all the children of God experience such feeling of forsakenness at times? And the answer is: such comes over us for several reasons. Sometimes it is because we have sinned against God in a very grievous way. Then God makes us to feel His displeasure against such sins. Sometimes it is because God withdraws His grace from us to teach us our absolute dependency upon Him. Sometimes it is because the Lord wants to try our faith by it. So that we may come out of the crucible, or, rather, that our faith may show through these trials its heavenly and precious character.
At any rate it does not mean that God really has forgotten us. It is rather like David says in the second cry: How long wilt Thou hide Thy face from me? Yes, that is the real, objective situation. In heaven such a thing is impossible. In heaven, now and forever, the saints and the angels see His face perpetually. But, ah yes, here on earth we do not see His face at all times. We are still walking in the valley between the mountains and His face is oftentimes hidden from our view. Even at our brightest moments we do not see that Face unobscured. We see in a glass darkly. The Face is in heaven, revealed in Jesus Christ, our Lord. A reflection of that Face we have through the Spirit of Christ in the Bible. Further, when that selfsame Spirit of Christ illumines our mind’s eye, we see in that glass (the Bible) the beauteous Image of God. And we rejoice, in part.
Now you will understand that many things can come between our view and the Face of God.
The wicked, even though thy look into that glass, do not see the Face, because their foolish heart is darkened and because the devil has blinded their eyes, II Cor. 4:4.
And we, although reborn and converted, oftentimes do not look, or when we look, we look awry and with prejudice, or with sin in the mind and the heart, or without the right attitude, that is, hungry and thirsty.
And when we continue like this we become miserable and finally cry: How long wilt Thou hide T:hy face from, me?
But there is more.
David tells the Lord all his sorrow. At night he would lie awake and cast and recast his sorry plight before his mind’s eye, trying to find a way out of his present misery. He would take counsel in his soul. He would make all kinds of plans and schemes which would haply bring him his erstwhile peace of mind. But it did not help. All through the day, upon awakening from a troubled sleep, he would carry sorrow in his heart.
And that is very miserable. The heart should be filled with gladness. Thus we were created. The heart of man is the life of man at its source. All the thoughts, desires and issues of your life are colored by your heart. You can readily understand that when the heart is sorrowful, your thoughts, reflections, meditations, outlook on all life is also sorrowful. Nothing looks nice, nothing tastes good, nothing is agreeable to the sorrowful.
Who among us, poor mortals, does not know that state?
There comes one more: How long!
It has to do with the enemy of David. He seems to have had trouble within and without. Yes, very often do we read of the enemies of David. These enemies are very foolish people. David means: Beloved. That is, beloved of God. And I would say that if you want to make enemies the worst way, do not make enemies with God’s Beloved. You lose before you start. David brings the enemies to God.
I do not think though that the enemies of David were the cause of his greatest misery in this history. Just because the enemy is over against us is no indication that God has forsaken us. Even in the midst of those that breathe cruelty you may be able to rejoice in the God of your salvation.
But here is the point: they do not improve the misery of your soul and heart. They aggravate our trouble. And since David was pouring out his troubles before the face of God he made a. clean breast of it. Therefore we hear from the enemy last of all.
It is with this matter even as with the passion of the Lord Jesus, and remember that also here in this Psalm is a clear Messianic note, Jesus suffered from two causes: the Lord His God and His enemies. But chief of all His sufferings is the awful, unutterable experience of forsakenness which He suffered. When He hung on the accursed tree in deepest darkness, He suffers most because: My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?
Enemies, yes, but to be apart from God is the very core of eternal death.
Well, David has uttered his despairing cry and it seems as though it has prepared the way for quiet prayer. What now follows is calmer, sweeter, more hopeful. He asks for positive blessing. He asks for light. Now light, life and happiness are closely related. David knows that if only he may see the face of God and receive from that face the beaming light rays of life and strength: all will be well with him. There is a final remembrance of his woe: O my God, give me this light, because if I must go without it, I will sleep the sleep of death and my enemy will draw the conclusion that he has prevailed over me. Let Thy light and Thy truth have the victory, O Lord!
Is it not wonderful that in such a short Psalm we see the reward of persistent crying to God? With giant steps David proceeds from utmost misery to heavenly joy and rejoicing. His first cry reminds us of hell and his final chant is the song of the angels, in between are supplication and weeping. By it Jacob prevailed and received the reward of God’s communion which he craved. So also David. And so also we, if we walk in the faith of the fathers Jacob and David.
Yes, there is a moment in His wrath but there is an eternity in His mercy. The Bible speaks of the eternal mercies of God. Also of the sure mercies of David.
Mercy is exactly what David needed in this instance. He found sorrow, also hunger and thirst for- God’s presence, peace, light and life. He wept at night and groaned by day. In a word: he was miserable.
Well, the sure mercies of David, that is, of Jesus, are God’s longing to deliver out of all our troubles. That longing is realized in Calvary. Jesus dying for us and raised again is the mercy of God for you, my brother, who art in distress.
Certainly, even while David is writing all his sorrows on paper, writing slowly because that his eyes are continually filling with bitter tears, even while he must pause a bit and sigh some more, even while the four times repeated: how long! ascends to God—our Father hears.
Witness the last verses: David trusts; he rejoices in God’s salvation; he sings unto the Lord; he has eyes for the bounties of the Lord.
I think that when David handed the document to Haman or Asaph for temple worship, his tear-stained face was already illumined with the smile of heartfelt happiness.
He saw the mercy of Jehovah. That mercy is salvation. Which is the same thing as though you and I would say with Paul: But we see Jesus. . . .