[Fourth in series: “Summer Psalms”]
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” Our first reaction may be to view these words through the cynical lens of our contemporary culture. “Out of the depths…” seems so over-the-top dramatic – I mean, really? – How bad can your life be to cry from out of the depths of your despair? – Get a grip! Our cynicism, however, is misplaced when reading this psalm.
Let us pray…God of mercy, you promised never to break your covenant with us. Amid all the changing words of our generation, speak your eternal Word that does not change. Then may we respond to your gracious promises with faithful and obedient lives; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I read a story recently about the chapel at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Tourists visit because of a set of stained glass windows created by the artist Marc Chagall. The beautiful panels are set into a domed ceiling that draws the worshiper to gaze heavenward. What’s unusual about this installation is that, directly below the windows, the floor is sunken down, with a pulpit in the center of the depressed area. Guides explain: “The floor beneath the windows was made this way because we believe all prayer should be offered ‘out of the depths’.” This image reminds us of the key role LAMENT plays in biblical prayer. The chapel setting leads us into a proper way to approach God in prayer. You see, the key components of biblical lament are complaint and petition. This form of prayer is intended to allow the worshipper to complain about injustice and to call on God to hear the cries of those who suffer. It has always been part of our relationship with God. We should not think, though, that this prayer is all about complaining and asking God to fix everything – that is not the point here. LAMENT is rooted in our covenant relationship with God. Within the covenant, lament not only cries out to God, it also offers praise to God. It is this combination that reminds us that faith is worked out in the midst of hardship, hurt, and loss.
Think of the ancient Israelites, for example, as they escaped from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. First, God tells Moses that he has heard his people crying out from the despair of their slavery and he sends Moses to bring them home. Once their release is finally secured, the people go into the wilderness and wander for 40 years. They experience hardship, pain, and loss, even as they follow after God’s promises. Their faith was tested and sometimes it was found wanting; eventually, their faith was renewed and rebuilt from the depths of their despair. But, could their faith have been worked out in the middle of their distress without God’s promise in the covenant? – I don’t think so. Without the promise, I think the people might have given in to their despair. God’s covenant with Abraham and with us remains always in front of us. That is what helps us to work out our faith no matter what gets in the way. God’s people have always been able to cry out from the depths of human suffering, expecting and insisting on God’s hearing. Sometimes I think that we look at the stories in the Bible and think that those are ancient stories that are irrelevant to us. We do not wander in the wilderness as the ancient Israelites did. We do not experience famine and disease in our modern world with supermarkets and hospitals. We have lost our need to lament before God. I think we are mistaken.
We still need to cry out. Grief, depression, illness, poverty, abuse – any of these experiences, and so many more, can plunge us into a darkness so deep that it can feel almost like death. You or someone you know can slip into an abyss where you see no way for God to reach you. It can happen to anyone at any time. It is important to notice that the prayer of lament does not come from a sense that God is absent. Lament cries out from the assurance that God is listening and that God cares. That is why our covenant relationship with God is so important. Lament trusts the promises God has made and waits for their fulfillment. “I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in His word I put my trust.”
So, we’re sitting here “in the depths” – at a low point in our life. We are crying out to God, either for our own problems, or on behalf of someone else. We trust that God is listening and yet, the best we can do is wait…That’s hard to do. Waiting…
It is helpful, I think, to understand the use of this word “wait” in the psalm. It comes from the Hebrew word “qaváh” and it denotes a sense of “tense expectation.” Imagine pulling on the ends of a rope, waiting for it to snap…Unsure of when it will happen, but believing that it will. It is this sense of expectation that drives the psalmist to wait for the Lord. He waits for the Lord, “more than those who watch for the morning.” The image of a night watchman may not be something we can relate to in our era of home security systems and surveillance cameras. We sleep peacefully unaware.
In ancient times, sentinels stood guard on city walls watching in the darkness for danger and waiting expectantly for the safety that comes with the sunrise. During the watch the tension was high and any danger was hidden by darkness. The guards were sure that morning would come so they waited, expecting the safety of daylight. We have heard how the voice of the psalmist rises in hopeful expectation of God’s presence.
Thus far, we have only thought about this voice as an individual crying out for himself. Imagine now the voices of the people of Israel. They travel in large groups, on their way to Jerusalem for one of several major festivals. Along the way the tell stories, they laugh, and they sing familiar songs. First one voice, then another, and others join in. Imagine a single voice singing, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” Another voice and soon others join this hymn that everyone knows. Together they express the despair that grows from the injustices of the world in which they live. Together they express the hopeful expectancy that God will prevail. These people believed, as should we, that only God can redeem us from our “iniquities”…Only God can save us from our misguided ideas of what is right and wrong in the world; of what is just or unjust. Our only hope is that God’s will can penetrate the depths of our hubris and greed. We may cry out from the depths, but do we make any effort to climb out? We are waiting expectantly for God; at the same time, God is waiting for us. Waiting…
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.