Psalm 13 – Frustration, fear and faith
The psalms are chronicles of the human heart. They express the movements of emotion that typify the human experience as the writers pour out their feelings in honesty to God. They are often masterclasses in talking to oneself as the psalmists preach to their hearts, exhorting their inmost being to greater trust, and higher praise. Psalm 13 is a brilliant example of this skill. It falls neatly into three short stanzas, each consisting of two verses in our modern translations and each expressing a different emotion.
Stanza one (verses 1-2) is a heart-wrenching cry of desperation. How long will God remain silent and apparently uninvolved? How long will David have to struggle with the thoughts that plague him? How long must he be in sorrow while his enemies seem to succeed? Of course we know that the God of Scripture is never absent, never uninvolved and never disinterested – David sings about these truths in some of his other psalms. The problem is he doesn’t feel it right now. In this moment, it feels like God is distant and there is nothing in David’s experience that says otherwise. The dominant theme of this stanza is frustration. This is part of the life of faith – the longing to see more of God, to understand His ways more, to have some glimpse into what He is doing and why. A longing that is often unmet, at least within our preferred timescales.
In stanza 2 (verses 3-4) the tone changes from frustration to fearfulness. David is gripped by fear of failure and fear of death – these are the thoughts he has been wrestling with and the real reason for his frustration. As so often in our experience, anger is the fruit of fear. Yet if frustrations come from fear, fear itself is rooted in the reality of death. When I am afraid of a spider or of the dark or of an exam, what I am feeling is a sense of loss of control. Our minds cannot process the overwhelming uncertainty or disgust we feel and our bodies respond in profound ways. Yet these smaller fears are all echoes of a deeper fear. The ultimate power that causes us to admit our lack of control over our destinies is death – facing death (whether our own or that of a loved one) we are truly powerless, despite all the advances of modern medicine. We are enslaved by the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15) and uncertainty about what lies beyond it (for ourselves and for those we leave behind).
In stanza 3 (verses 5-6) fearfulness gives way to faith as David expresses his confidence in God and pledges himself to three things: trust, rejoicing and praise. The tenses can probably best be understood as an expression of confidence that he will (future) praise God for future deliverance because he has (past) trusted in God. In other words, because he has put his trust in God he is confident (or wants to be confident) that God will vindicate him before his enemies. There is, undoubtedly, an element of preaching to himself – trying to bring the reality that his head understands into the recesses of his frightened heart. Yet the words he uses are not merely wishful thinking. The pages of Scripture resound with a thousand testimonies to the power, goodness and faithfulness of God. The New Testament tells us that Christ has delivered us from death’s power (Hebrews 2) and describes death as a defeated enemy because of His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). We can have confidence about our own destiny beyond the grave and that there is One who can look after those we love after we have left them. We can defy death with boldness. The gospel calls us to trust in God’s plan to bring His people to glory and to find rest in knowing that this plan was made certain through Christ’s death and resurrection. As the old hymn puts it: “This is all my hope and peace, Nothing but the blood of Jesus”.
Whenever you feel frustration with life or with God, try to understand what fears lie at the root of your emotions. Then remind yourself of the gospel – remember who God is, what He has promised and why that promise is secure in Christ. Pray it to God and preach it to yourself, letting God’s Spirit apply God’s truth to your heart and mind. In other words:
“do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7).