How Long O Lord?

Lament does not forget about joyful praise. Lament is about how to get to joyful praise when we’re in a place of sorrow and darkness.

JDudgeon on August 27, 2023
How Long O Lord?
August 27, 2023

How Long O Lord?

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Passage: Psalm 6
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A famous pastor wrote a book that was designed to help pastors lead churches that would grow. In that book, he had a whole chapter on music, which he said was one of the most important aspects of his church’s success. And in that chapter, he wrote that pastors should “decide what mood you want in your service, and use the style that creates it. At [our church], we believe worship is to be a celebration so we use a style that is upbeat, bright, and joyful. We rarely sing a song in a minor key.”1Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, pp. 286-287.

In other words, keep it positive.

Apparently, David, and Asaph, and the sons of Korah, and the other writers and final editors of the Psalms did not get the memo. While we don’t know what keys these songs were sung in, we do know that at least 30% of Israel’s songbook—a full 60 Psalms, by one count—are Psalms of lament. Songs written to God from a place of sadness or trouble, pouring out a complaint to God and asking Him for deliverance from a bad situation.

Lament was a substantial part of Israel’s worship. And as we think about our own worship here in these weeks together, we want to make sure that we don’t miss this note. We want to think this morning about lament and it’s role in our lives and worship today.

A. APPROACHING PSALM 6 - The King in Anguish

1. David’s Situation

But we want to start right here with Psalm 6, and see what’s going on in this particular Psalm. And our first stop is to take stock of David’s situation. What’s going on here with Israel’s king?

And the obvious answer is that he’s not doing well. In verse 2, he says that he is “languishing.” This comes from a word that speaks about being feeble or faint.

Verse 2 goes on to say that his “bones are troubled.” This word for “troubled” can be translated “terrified” or “horrified.” David feels something is wrong in his very skeleton. In verse 3 he says “My soul also is greatly troubled.” Same word. It is not well with his soul. Inside and out he’s consumed with a sense of dread.

Verses 6 and 7 describe David’s very low emotional state: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with teas; I drench my couch with weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief.” David can’t stop crying. He’s cried his eyes out. His bed floats on a sea of tears and he’s exhausted himself as a result.

So that’s how David is doing, but what’s the situation here? Some people who study this Psalm think that David is just sick. He’s got a disease or something causing pain in his body.

But other people who study this Psalm, including me, aren’t so sure. Verse 7 gives an important clue when it says that his eye “grows weak because all my foes.” Whatever is going on, David’s enemies have a big part in it.

As well, whatever is going on, David’s own sin has a big part in it. Verse 1 speaks about God’s “anger,” “discipline” and “wrath.” Verse 2 asks the Lord to be “gracious” to Him.

All of this suggests that David’s sin has put himself in a situation where his enemies are after him and he is overcome with grief and his whole body feels like its falling apart as a result.

And that tells me that Psalm 6 is probably connected to the situation with Absalom. David’s sin with Bathsheba kicked off a chain of events which resulted in a civil war, and David on the run from his enemies which included former friends and his own son.

And God had warned him about this. God has told him, because of what he did, “I will raise up evil against you out of your own house” (2 Samuel 12:11).

As David runs from Absalom, he knows that this is his fault. He knows that this all went back to a night of foolish passion, and because he’s the king, his sin has brought the nation crashing down around him.

And the grief at what he has done is too much for him. His body can’t handle it. Some of you know what this is like, or you’ve seen it happen to other people, who feel grief and remorse so deeply that their body feels like it’s falling apart and they can’t do anything but cry.

And that seems to me to be the best way of understanding what’s going on here with David. That’s his situation.

2. David’s Requests

So now we’ll consider David’s requests. What does he ask God for? Let’s look at verse 1 and 2:

“O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious o me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled” (Psalm 6:1-2).

You know how we could sum up David’s requests here? “Stop treating me like your enemy.” And I say that because these words David uses here are words associated with God’s anger towards his enemies. In particular, “anger,” “discipline” and “troubled” are words used in Psalm 2 where God promises to do these things to the people who rebel against His anointed king.

You get that? God established David and His sons in Jerusalem, and when the other nations threatened to rebel against them, God said he would “speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury” (Psalm 2:5). And those are some of the same words that David picks up on in Psalm 6, saying, “please stop doing that to me. Stop treating me like your enemy.”

Instead, in verse 2, he asks for grace—for favour. “Be gracious to me.” Verse 3 contains the simple question, “how long?” How long will this keep going? How long until you show me kindness?

“Turn, O Lord, deliver my life” says verse 4. Change what you’re doing. Turn around from judging me and instead deliver me and save me.

So that’s what David asks for. He asks for God to turn aside from judgement and give Him grace instead.

Before we move on, we don’t just want to notice what David asks for. We also want to notice how he asks for these things. Do you notice how David talks to God in these verses?

“O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger” (Psalm 6:1). Do you see how direct he’s being? “Be gracious to me… heal me… turn, O Lord… save me.”

David is telling God to let up. And I wonder if the use of words like “gracious” and “rebuke” can kind of hide from us the sheer force of what David is really saying to the Lord. What might this sound like in contemporary English? “Stop treating me like your enemy, Lord. Stop being so angry with me. Stop this yelling. I’m completely falling apart here. How long until you let up?”

Does that surprise you? That’s the tone of much biblical lament. It’s incredibly honest and incredibly direct. And those are David’s requests, spoken in that way.

3. David’s Confidence

But that’s not where Psalm 6 ends. Psalm 6 ends with David’s confidence that the Lord has, indeed, heard him. Look at verse 8: “Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.”

David knows who God is and David knows that God has listened to Him. Verse 9: “The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer.”

And the Psalm ends with David’s assurance that God is going to do to His enemies what He promised: “All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment” (Psalm 6:10). God will stop treating David like an enemy and will instead treat his enemies like enemies, like he promised to do.

B. UNDERSTANDING PSALM 6: How Is This Worship?

Now what we’ve done at this point is walk through Psalm 6 and really just get a lay of the land. But there’s some crucial aspects of this Psalm we still need to come to grips with if we’re going to understand it.

And we’ll get at this by asking a simple question: “How is this worship?” Or, “What does this have to do with worship?” I mean, I thought we were in a series on worship. And more than that, I thought that Psalms was Israel’s hymnbook. Why in the world do you have a Psalm in here where the king is falling apart like this and basically begging God to stop punishing him? Why would that have anything to do with worship?

If worship is supposed to be a joyful response to God, why do more than 1/3 of the Psalms deal with these themes of sadness and lament?

Let’s just start with Psalm 6. What does this have to do with worship? And I can see four answers to that question.

1) First, Psalm 6 worships God because David is actually going to God. He’s not complaining to someone else, “God is treating me badly.” He’s going right to God.

Some of you know what it’s like to have someone upset with you, but you don’t find out from them, because they’re refusing to talk to you. You find out from someone else. Or you just get the silent treatment. And that does not feel very great.

Compared to that, it’s actually wonderful when someone actually comes to you and says “I’m upset with you, and I think you’re treated me badly here.” Seriously, I love it when people tell me that they’re not happy with me, because they’re actually telling me, instead of gossiping to everybody else which is the easy and common thing to do. They’re treating me like an actual person.

When someone comes right to you with their complaint, they’re saying that they value you and they value your relationship. They’re willing to fight for it. They’re not giving up.

And in a similar way, Biblical lament is worship because it’s directed to God. We honour God when we take our complaints right to Him.

2) Second, Psalm 6 is worship because it recognizes God’s sovereignty. David asks God to stop what’s happening because He knows that God is sovereign over what’s happening. This is God’s discipline, not just random events. God directs the decisions of people. God rules over the nations. God alone has the power to change events and rescue David from His sin.

Lament is therefore a way of submitting to God. David laments to God because He knows that God is in control and God is the only one who can step in to rescue Him.

3) Third, Psalm 6 is worship because it’s based on trust in the promises of God.

The whole backdrop to this Psalm is the covenant God made with David, recorded in 2 Samuel 7. God had promised him there, “I will give you rest from all your enemies” (2 Samuel 7:11). God also promised him, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (v. 16).

And those promises are what get picked up on in Psalm 2, where God laughs at those who would challenge David (Psalm 2:4) and says he’ll terrify David’s enemies in His fury (v. 5).

And here’s David, crumbling and falling apart as God treats him like he is one of those enemies while his actual enemies seem to be getting off the hook. Sure, David knows that some discipline would come his way after his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:11), but this seems like way too much.

So he laments to God. And this lament comes from a place of trust in God’s promises. “God, you said this would happen, and it’s not happening, so what’s going on?” We could almost say that David is holding God to His word.

But even in that, David knows that God is trustworthy. He knows, in verse 4, that God is a God of steadfast, covenant-keeping love. He knows God hasn’t changed. And his confidence comes out especially in verses 8 and 9. David believes that God is not ignoring him. David believes that God has heard his prayer, and David believes that God is going keep His promises.

So, Psalm 6 shows David wrestling with what God is up to, but he wrestles because he believes that God is who He says He is and is going to do what He promised to do. And that wrestling expresses itself in lament. He laments because he believes. And that struggle to believe honours God.

4) Fourth and finally, Psalm 6 is worship because worship is David’s whole goal here. Here’s what I mean by that. What is the main reason David wants to be rescued by God? Is it just so that he can stop hurting? Is it just so that he can stop crying? Is it just so that he can be at peace again in body and soul?

No doubt, that’s a part of it. A big part of it. But what is the main reason David asks to be spared from all this punishment? Look at verse 5, which we’ve saved until now on purpose: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Psalm 6:5).

“Sheol” is the grave, the place of the dead in the Old Covenant. The Jews believed in a soul that lived on after death, and they knew that the souls in Sheol had some awareness of reality (Psalm 16:10-11, 17:15, Isaiah 14:9-10, Ezekiel 32:21-32).

But they also knew that the dead were confined to Sheol. The dead couldn’t join in the praise of God at the temple. The dead can’t sing! The dead can’t tell about who God is and what He’s done.

So, like many other places in the Psalms, David asks to be spared from death for the sake of God’s worship. He wants to live so that He can praise the Lord.

And so his lament is pointed towards worship. Even if he’s not praising right now, he wants to. He’s saying, “God, please save me so I can do Psalm 33. So I can do Psalm 150.”

And that honours God. It honours God when His people say, “God, I don’t feel joy in you right now. But I want to. I’m not praising you right now, but I want to.”

The desire to worship God is a reflection of how much He’s worth to us.

So, is Psalm 6 worship? Absolutely. This is worship because it goes to God, recognizes His sovereignty, trusts His promises, and has praise as the goal.

C. APPLYING PSALM 6: New Covenant Lament

Now that we’ve approached Pslam 6, and seen how Psalm 6 is worship, we want to ask some really important questions about how to apply Psalm 6. What does this all say to us?

1. Lamenting This Side of Calvary

And our first stop is to consider whether or not it’s even appropriate to lament on this side of Calvary. Now that Jesus has come and suffered and given us eternal life, is there any place for lament?

Someone asked me this question about four years ago after we looked at a Psalm of lament for the first time, and I think it’s an excellent question. It’s excellent because it recognizes that Jesus is the turning point of history. All of Scripture, including the Psalms of lament, are fulfilled in Him.

Just think about Psalm 6. Jesus was the true son of David who, though innocent, was treated like He was God’s enemy. Though a perfectly faithful son, on the cross he was punished like a rebel—for us!

As Jesus looked forward to the cross, he lamented. John 12:27, the night He was betrayed, He told his disciples “Now is my soul troubled.” That’s an echo of Psalm 6. And the next day, as he carried the fury and wrath of God on himself in those hours, what did Jesus do? He lamented. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words of Psalm 22, a Psalm of lament.

Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3), and every Psalm of lament found its truest expression on His lips.

But does that mean, now that He’s risen from the dead and ruling at the Father’s right hand, that there’s no more lamenting? And the answer from Scripture is “not yet.” One day there will be no more lament. But right now, we live between the already and the not-yet.

Jesus has already come and already saved us, but He has not yet put all of His enemies under his feet. Our souls have been raised from the dead, even as we wait for resurrection bodies.

And while we wait, because we already have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” That’s Romans 8:23, and I think we could argue just on the basis of that verse that lament is a reality for us this side of Calvary.

We could go other places. We could go to 2 Corinthians 6:10 where Paul describes himself “as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

But perhaps the best place to see this is in Revelation chapter 6, where we see in John’s vision “the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’” (Revelation 6:9–10).

Do you catch that? These souls are in heaven. They’re in the presence of God. And they are lamenting. They are lamenting as they wait for justice to be done and as they wait for their new bodies in a new creation.

So yes, Jesus has come, and our lament is forever changed this side of Calvary. We can see so much more clearly now as we look to Christ who suffered and lamented and was raised by the Father’s power. But as we wait for Him to return and make all things new, lament is still a part of our vocabulary. Lament is for us.

2. Learning to Lament

And in the rest of our time this morning, I want to make a simple point as strongly as I can: we need to lament. Psalm 6 and the more than fifty other Psalms of lament are in the Psalms on purpose. David’s words became Israel’s words as they sung these words together. And you and I need to be able to do the same.

And I think this is so important because, if you haven’t noticed, us Christians don’t lament very often or very well, if at all. We see it in the Bible, we see that they did it back then, but we have a hard time doing it ourselves.

I saw this up close and personal in late spring when we had our church camp out at Torch Trail in June. For one of our chapels, Josh walked us through Psalm 13, a Psalm of lament that had just been preached on that Sunday. And Josh told us to use that Psalm as a basis as we prayed in small groups for our church, our community, and our world.

And I was there in a group with some very godly Christians whom I respect very much. And guess what? In that whole prayer time, not a single person prayed anything that sounded even remotely like a lament.

And I’m not saying this to criticize any of them as individuals. What I’m saying is that this is a cultural problem that affects all of us. We’ve never been taught how to do this, we’ve never been shown how to do this, and so we don’t know how.

And I think that needs to change. We need to learn how to lament.

And here’s why: life is messy. God’s promises are so very often not fulfilled in the way we expect. When David heard that God would give him rest form his enemies, he probably didn’t expect to be running for his life from his own son and most of the nation a few years later. He couldn’t see how all of this was going to end. He felt the tension between what God promised and what was actually happening, and David wrestled through that tension with lament.

So it is for us. From our perspective, there is tension between the way things should be and the way things are. And I’ve seen that many Christians have no idea what to do with that tension

For some Christians, it’s really bad, because they first came to Jesus because someone told them that God had a wonderful plan for their life. Others might have a better understanding of the gospel than that, and even believe that God is in control and that He has a purpose for our suffering, but we still might have no idea what to do with the grief that swells up in our heart as we sit in the doctor’s office with a cancer diagnosis, or watch our prodigal child ruin their life, or feel the crushing weight of depression for what feels like just one day too many, or stand in shocked horror as yet another hero of the faith comes out as a fake or an imposter, or just turn on the news and see the darkness in the world.

And what do we do with that tension, when it doesn’t feel like Jesus is with us always, or we can’t see any way that God is working this for good, or we’ve confessed our sins and it still doesn’t seem like we’ve been cleansed from anything, or it doesn’t look like God is showing any concern for the glory of His name or the good of His people?

We know what some people do with that. They totally lose their faith. Their faith can’t handle the pain of reality, and so they walk away completely. Some people keep their faith, but it retreats into a private corner and stops making any difference in their lives. Others give in to fatalism, knowing that God is in control but basically saying “what will be will be,” and they lose all sense of a warm and tender relationship with Him as they walk through life.

I’m sure we could add to this list more ways that Christians try and cope with the gap between what seems like it should be and what seems like it actually is. But what I hope we see is that each of these coping mechanisms ends up doing real damage to that person’s soul or their faith or their witness or their ability to walk with God in this world.

And it’s so sad, because there’s this huge chunk of Psalms that show us the better way: the way of lament. Psalms like Psalm 6 show us that God is big enough for us to go to Him with our complaints. They show us how to bring our complains in a way that recognizes His sovereignty and trusts His promises. And they show us how to fight for joy in God even when we’re not feeling it at all.

I’m convinced that your spiritual health, long term, depends on your ability to pray honestly through suffering. Which means you need to lament.

Now some of you may already be good lamenters and you just don’t know it. You know how to pray and tell God, “Lord, I don’t know what’s going on right now. I have no idea what you’re up to. Please have mercy.” Those kinds of honest prayers are forms of lament.

But I want to encourage you to take up the Psalms of lament and make them your own. This doesn’t mean ripping them out of context. We want to understand what these Psalms meant on David’s lips, and how they’re fulfilled in Christ. But then we want to be able to pray them ourselves as we take our complaints to God, fighting for trust and faith and joy.

Here’s a very simple suggestion on how to get started with this idea of actually lamenting: I encourage you to incorporate the question “how long?” Into your praying? “How long?” is one of the most basic cries of lament, showing up here in Psalm 6 and about 14 more times in the Psalms.

And I have found that simple question is a very profound way to give voice to my lament as I pray to the Lord about my own suffering or the suffering of others. “How long, O Lord?”

You might feel uncomfortable the first few times you pray those words. It might feel disrespectful. But it’s not. You’re asking God. You’re recognizing that He knows the answer and has the power to fix this. You know that He has promised to return and bring all pain and suffering to an end, and even though you’re struggling, you’re asking Him in faith to do what He’s promised.

What might happen to the richness of our faith if we began to work this simple prayer—“How long, O Lord?”—into our prayer vocabulary? It won’t mean we strop struggling, and it won’t make everything better, but what it will help you do is actually walk with God in the midst of that struggle.

Lamenting Together

Now finally we want to think about lamenting together.

If Christians have a hard time lamenting on their own, it seems like we have an even harder time lamenting together. Not only do we struggle to lament, but when we gather we face this cultural pressure to make it look like everything’s fine. And church can become a place where we all put on our best faces and act like everything’s fine, fine, fine, fine because we’ve all got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in our hearts.

But if we don’t, and if we’re not doing well, and if our week wasn’t great, it can be hard to actually tell someone because experience shows us that people often don’t know what to do with that. People have no idea what to say or how to respond when we’re honest with them. And truthfully we ourselves often have no idea what to say or how to respond to someone who is not just doing great.

And here’s where lament can help us. The Psalms of lament show us that it’s normal to not be okay. It’s normal for God’s people to be in a hard spot. And we don’t have to know what to say. We can just pray for someone, and be honest with God. We can pray, “Lord, my brother or sister here is in a hard spot, and we have no idea what’s going on. We don’t know what you’re doing. Would you help them? Would you have mercy on them?”

Don’t we long for our church to be a place where we can be real? Where we can come, broken, and help each other draw near the Lord? If so, then lament is a language we need to be fluent in.

As we pray together more formally, we want to get more fluent with lament. Did you hear Brad as he prayed for us last week, and he used the language of lament? As the elders lead us in prayer, and as we pray once a month at our prayer services, we want to get better and better at lamenting together.

Finally, let’s think about lamenting our singing. Remember, 1/3 of Israel’s songbook was lament. What percentage of the songs we sing together could be classified that way?

The answer is close to zero. There aren’t many good, singable laments out there. I hope that changes in the years ahead. Because just like we see in the Psalms, we need to be able to come together and give corporate voice to our laments.

On any given Sunday, there are probably a bunch of us in this room who are not doing great. And we want to be able to sing songs that those people can sing.

We already work at this by avoiding songs that are unrealistic. For example, I love Fanny Crosby, and I think I believe her when she writes “this is my story, this is my song, praising my Saviour all the day long.” Maybe that was true for her. But that hasn’t been my story and my song. And it is helpful to ask a roomful of people to sing about an unrealistic experience that is probably not true for most of us?

So we try and be realistic as we sing, but in the years ahead I hope that we find at least a handful of good, Biblical laments for us to sing together.

Now remember, in all of this, we’re not forgetting about joyful praise. We’re not forgetting about Psalm 33 or Psalm 150. Joyful praise is the goal of lament. It’s where lament is headed. And it’s how we get there. Lament is about crying out to God from a place of sorrow to bring us to a place of joyful praise.

So we’re going to end here this morning with a song, taken from the Psalms, that we’re going to sing for you. Perhaps we’ll sing this song together in the future, but for now we encourage you to take this in, and reflect on how these words, or words like this, could help you and us together  draw near to God when you, or someone you love, is in Psalm 6 type situation.