Bread to Take to Bed

Psalm 42

We are now in the season of Lent, that period of time during which we’re especially to examine our hearts in preparation for Resurrection Day/Easter.

In this entry, we turn to a psalm of lament: Psalm 42. It begins with a notation at the beginning: “For the Director of Music, a maskil of the Sons of Korah.” These words were likely meant to suggest that the psalm was to be added to the collection of works used by the director of music or spoken by the leader of the choir or sung by the choir itself. This psalm is called a “maskil” and, while we’re not absolutely certain what that means, “meditative poem” and “skillful song” are among the translations that have been suggested.

The writer of this psalm of lament is a worship leader as well as a member of the Korahite choir. The Sons of Korah sang in the temple in Jerusalem. The psalmist is now in exile in the land of the Jordan River. That river lies north of the Sea of Galilee and contains many waterfalls as it cascades southward. The psalmist tells us that he is feeling overwhelmed by the spiritual “waves and breakers” that have “swept over” him.

He recalls leading groups of people to worship, singing songs of thanks! Those were special times – but the psalmist is singing a different song today. Today his heart is broken and he can’t seem to locate God. With this background, hear some the words of the psalm:

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and meet with Him? Day and night, I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, ‘Where is this God of yours?’ My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks -- it was the sound of a great celebration! Why am I discouraged? Why so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again -- my Savior and my God!”

Can you remember a mountaintop moment of worship?

I can remember many. I remember a retreat with folks from a church I once pastored where we gathered around the Lord’s Supper. All of us were taken to a place of deep emotion in worship that moved all of us to tears, bonded us together, and warmed us to our cores.

I remember a Maundy Thursday service and the depth of intimacy and overwhelming love I felt for the Lord as I knelt to wash the feet of one of the members of the church.

I remember moments when I’ve been praying as I’ve stood before congregations in worship when the presence of the Holy Spirit was so powerful that I felt transported and filled to the brim.

All of these mountaintop experiences have something in common: I could feel in every fiber of my being the presence of God. Worship was good not because it was entertaining or emotional but because the Spirit of the Living God--His grace, His mercy, and His mysterious majesty--surrounded the assembly.

Well, just as you may remember worship experiences like this, perhaps you also recall times of worship that seemed routine and stale. Maybe you even remember days you didn’t bother to worship at all because you just didn’t have it in you. Not that you were lazy or wanted to do something else; no, you just felt numb and cold inside. No matter how loud you sang or how catchy the songs--even if the preaching was better than usual--something was missing. Think of a deer in a desert, panting for water, crying as it looks for water, unable to find even a trickle of a stream to quench its thirst.

That’s the way the psalmist describes his spiritual state. He is dry and parched. He’s not thirsty for water but for God. His soul is thirsty. He longs to be near God--to experience the mountaintop but instead he’s in the desert. Tears, salty tears, are the only drink he can find, but saltwater only increases one's thirst.

No songs of praise come from his parched lips. His swollen, red eyes see no sign of God’s face. He is only blinded by the sun. In the desert, his tragedies are exploited by an unbelieving world that taunts with sneering questions, "Well, where's your God now?! Can't you see how useless all religion is? Give it up!"

But even more troubling questions can come from those who profess to be Christians: “Why do you think God abandoned you like this? Maybe it’s something you did? Maybe there is some unresolved sin or pride in your life? How is it that you’ve fallen out of favor with God?”

And then there’s another question that we sometimes hear: “If you don’t feel close to God, who do you suppose moved?" That last one is actually a good question. If you were to ask that of the writer of today’s psalm he might surprise you and say, “Well, it seems to me that God did!”

The psalmist feels abandoned and forgotten. Being forgotten is one of the worst feelings. Being forgotten means being alone and defenseless before enemies and the forces of nature. Being forgotten means losing stability and security--nowhere is safe, darkness surrounds.

The psalmist wants to know why God has thrown him aside. He is lost in darkness; enemies have taken advantage of his misfortune. And he feels shame--an embarrassment for God. He has praised God like an adoring child praises a Father--confident in the Father’s goodness and boasting that the Father can do anything! And then in the moment He is needed most, it seems the Father isn’t there. And the child is--abandoned. All the praise and boasting about the Father becomes embarrassing.

Whose psalm is this? Any of us who feel thirsty for God’s presence. Anyone who hears people prattle "Where is Your God?" when something terrible has happened. Those who find themselves in oppressive surroundings as family members or co-workers insult them for their faith. And those who feel stressed and disappointed because God hasn't seemed to do much to help them out of a difficult situation. This song is for the thirsty, parched souls who long for God – those who long to be immersed in His mercy and rescuing grace.

The song “His Eye is on the Sparrow” came to mind as I was preparing this message:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Here is the same admission of sadness and despair. Like the psalm, it starts off with a little self-talk: Why am I discouraged? Why so sad?

Despair is a vicious thing. It attacks your soul and then turns your soul against you for feeling sad. But the chorus in both the hymn and the psalm yields to hope. Like the deer, the psalmist, who now decides to become a pilgrim, is going to sniff out the source of water.

I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him, my Savior and my God!

Being a pilgrim means accepting the wilderness, but settling for nothing on the journey except the deep waters of God. That’s why we need this psalm – to send us on our pilgrim journey, to prepare us for the spiritual life. Too many people settle for poison in the wilderness. Feeling better has become more important to us than finding God.

In his autobiography, "When You Can’t Come Back," Dave Dravecky (a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants who lost his pitching arm to cancer) says that he "learned that the wilderness is part of the landscape of faith, and every bit as essential as the mountaintop. On the mountaintop we are 
overwhelmed by God's presence. In the wilderness we are overwhelmed by His absence. Both places should bring us to our knees; the one, in utter awe; the other, in utter dependence."

Jesus once spoke to a thirsty woman in the wilderness of Samaria (John 4). She felt far from God and so it wasn’t unexpected that she would ask, "Where is God?" Like many of us who long for God, she’d turned to other people, other avenues looking for satisfaction. She was thirsty and so when Jesus spoke of living water--deep water--that not only satisfies thirst but taps a spring of gushing water in the soul--she wanted it! Wanted it ike a deer panting for water!

Scott Hoezee recalls having seen a bumper sticker that featured the picture of a telescope along with the words, "If you see God, tell him I'm looking for Him." The psalmist would appreciate that bumper sticker. But in this psalm, as in so much of our experience, you can't always find God with the "telescope approach." Sometimes we try to scrutinize our present circumstances to see if we can locate precisely where God is, hoping we can zero in on Him the way a telescope zeroes in on a star. But it doesn't always work that way.

To stick with the astronomy analogy for a moment: it’s interesting to note that in stargazing, the best way to see some stars is to not look directly at them. Because of the way our eyes are designed, faint objects can be seen best when you look from the side. Look just to the side of a dim star and you will suddenly see it in your peripheral vision.

Sometimes faith is like that, too. It seems to have been the case for the writer of Psalm 42. Unable to locate God in the present moment of crisis and pain, he instead looks to the past. Not only was the psalmist able then to see God in the past, but somehow it energized his hope in the present moment too. By looking just to the side of his current circumstances God appeared in the "peripheral vision" of his soul once more. A simple act of remembering turns this psalm around and transforms this poem from an ode to despair into a statement of bold faith and audacious hope.

We don't always know just where to "find" God in any given present moment, particularly in moments of great pain or uncertainty. We don't always know what God is "up to" or why it seems He is failing to answer our prayers--only the truly arrogant would ever dare to claim they always know what God is doing and why. Often we just don't know. But perhaps the recovery of our hope doesn't depend on making sense of the present moment. Maybe in life's darker, deeper valleys it is our memories of who God is and what He has done that can pump a little air back into our deflated balloon of hope.

To those who are in the wilderness aching with thirst, you are invited to join the pilgrim journey. There is a beam of light we are heading for--it leads to God’s mountain. The source of his kindness and joy is there--deep waters to wash over us, soak us, cleanse us. On the journey we sing the song left to us by the psalmist:

Why are you so discouraged? Why are you so sad? Put your hope in God! We will praise Him again –our Savior and our God!

But, you know, if we will not admit our pain, we can’t deal with its consequences. Is there a sense in which you feel isolated from God and God’s purpose today?

Perhaps the problem is your sin, and the first step is honest confession and contrition. Perhaps, like the psalmist, you have been oppressed by others in their sin; now you are innocent of guilt but nonetheless suffering its consequences. Are you dealing with pain or fear that you feel God should have prevented or healed? Are you facing physical or financial setbacks that God has not remedied? Stress in your marriage or family that God has not lifted? In what way do you feel far from God today? Don’t wander off. Cling.

Cling to the memories of what God has done, cling to the unchanging, always loving nature of God. Cling to the Word of God, cling to your family of faith, cling to what Jesus did on the cross, cling to hope.

Christians have worshipped God not only in brightly lit sanctuaries, not only in soaring Gothic cathedrals or in the splendor of Saint Peter's basilica in Rome. Christians have also gathered together in catacombs and prison cells, on the run from Communists in China and on sinking ships in the Atlantic. Christians have shared the body and blood of Jesus not only while organs played fugues by Bach but also while air raid sirens cut the air outside the church with their shrill warnings of Nazi bombers over London.

Again and again, often in dark circumstances where they could no more see God on the move than could the poet of Psalm 42, Christians have remembered Jesus -- they've glanced to the side of any present darkness to recall the cross and what that cross has meant through their lives. And as they've done so, they have again and again discovered that Jesus is no mere memory--He's here! He's alive!
And so sisters and brothers in the faith, trust this God in whom we have placed our faith. We can hope in Him and we can know that His is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

Whether some of us can sing the doxology right now with as much gusto as we can remember singing it in the past, the promise is that you will yet again. If you’re in dire circumstances today, if you’re mourning the passing of a loved one today, if you’ve lost a job, are challenged financially and are pondering your next steps, if you are depressed and feeling all alone, Psalm 42 validates what you're going through as an experience well-known to good people of the faith.

Where does this psalm find you this week? How can it help you express your honest pain to God? How will it help you trust God’s future redemption for your present burdens?

At the close of World War II, Allied soldiers found hundreds of starving children at one concentration camp. They quickly fed and clothed them, and they tried to help them sleep. But the children could not sleep. The children tossed and turned all through the night. This went on for weeks without resolve. Finally a child psychologist hit on a solution. She specified that each child was to be given a slice of bread to take to bed--not to eat, just to hold. The children’s knowledge that they would have food in the morning was enough to bring them peace. Take this psalm to bed with you tonight. Let it help you sleep.

(NOTE: I've composed the foregoing using some notes that date back five years. I apologize for any failures in attribution that may be found here.)

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