Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 19, 2020
Psalm 40:1-11 Commentary
Did David (or whoever wrote this psalm) write it backwards? You can divide Psalm 40 rather neatly into two halves (though most of the second half is left out by the Lectionary). The first ten or so verses are full of confidence and gratitude for God’s deliverance. As usual in the psalms, we cannot detect precisely what prompted this exultation of thanksgiving for God’s goodness but it must have been something pretty big. So the psalmist heaps up the gratitude in verse after verse. What’s more, he goes on to note that this is not merely thanks but also praise because he has told of God’s goodness in the congregation of God’s people.
That is the difference between thanksgiving and praise, by the way. You can thank me privately and that is a fine thing. But when you want to widen the circle of appreciation by publicly declaring my goodness and so invite others to chime in, then you shift over to praise. Thanks is when you tell a restaurant server “Please give my compliments to the chef.” Praise is when you write a TripAdvisor review to encourage others to visit the restaurant and then also express gratitude to both the chef and a wider public.
The poet of Psalm 40 had done both: he has thanked God over and over for his deliverance and he has declared God’s goodness to others in order to invite them to join this psalmist in the chorus of praise to God for all God’s faithfulness. Thanks and Praise: this poet has rendered up both because God has been so great at delivering him from troubles.
Or has God done so? Because starting in verse 11 (but then becoming much more prominent after this lection technically ends in verses 12-17) it seems like all hell has broken loose on this psalmist all over again. The balance of Psalm 40 is almost a lament, an urgent plea for help as some enemies and troubles have surrounded this poet once more. As effusive as the first 10 verses were in thanking God for deliverance, the final 8 verses are the dead opposite of all that in the strenuous pleading for help, help, and more help. It’s desperate almost!
So what gives? How can Part A of Psalm 40 be a litany of thanks for deliverance and Part B be an urgent plea for help once again? Is this the result of some haphazard editing? Were the final 8 verses actually supposed to come first and then the thanksgiving would come in second to indicate that God had heeded these prayers for deliverance? That surely would make more sense. Then it would seem to be a seamless narrative. We move from Trouble to Deliverance to Thanks/Praise. It’s linear that way.
But suppose the order of this psalm and its movement from thanksgiving back to desperate cries for help is exactly how this poem was intended to be structured. Suppose this is actually an accurate reflection of just how life goes for all of us sometimes. Haven’t we all now and then had to pivot from a season of profound thanksgiving to God to a time of uncertainty and trial? Isn’t this just how life goes sometimes? You sing your praises in church on Sunday and proclaim how awesome God is, how good God has been to you but then suddenly by Wednesday or Thursday of that very week the ground seems to have shifted under your feet as you deal with a sudden illness in a loved one, the loss of a job, or some other event that feels to you like a disaster.
It is difficult (at best) to know why God seems to answer some of our prayers—for which we then give God thanks—only for us to then go back to a season when we wonder if our prayers are not just bouncing back at us as our new pleas for help seem to go unanswered (or they seem to go unanswered for a very long time). Cynics might say that probably this is because we were wrong about God’s answering certain prayers in the first place. Sure, when someone’s cancer goes into remission (or just gets cured altogether), we chalk it up to all the prayers of God’s people that got offered up for that person. And yet simultaneous to this in any given congregation is another person who dies of her cancer despite an equal number of prayers having been offered for her healing and restoration. So are prayers really answered or is it all a crap shoot?
People of faith will affirm that God hears prayers, invites our prayers, and works through our prayers. When we give thanks to God for what seems to be an answered prayer, we need to realize that in so doing we even so cannot see all ends. We cannot know all that God knows, cannot see the interconnectedness of things. But our belief in a loving God of providential care makes it right for us both to pray in the first place and to give thanks in the second place.
However this also means we cannot see all ends when trouble returns to our lives much less why, despite the incessant pleading of many people in prayer, sometimes what we most wish for humanly speaking does not happen. We should no more claim we knows the whys and wherefores of this than we really know the whys and wherefores of even prayers that do seem answered. Our proper posture is humility.
Psalm 40 reminds us of both truths. And if we feel a little whiplash as we move from verse 10 to verses 11 and following, that’s OK. That, too, is a reflection of real life and of our lived experiences. And the Book of Psalms exists for that very reason: to let us see the full gamut of life’s experiences reflected in these songs and prayers. We can all recognize ourselves in not just this or that individual psalm at any given moment but in the spectrum of all the psalms across the span of our lives. That makes the Hebrew Psalter a real gift to us. And it is further cause to join the psalmist of Psalm 40 in giving God robust thanks and praise.
C.S. Lewis once gave one of his many memorable images for dealing with some questions about prayer. We know of Jesus’s invitation to knock so that the door may be opened to us. But, Lewis wondered, what might happen when the door opens? Well, in regard to any given prayer and request, God may open the door to say “Sure, yes, I can do that.” Or he could open the door to give us the disappointing reply “No, I’m afraid not—not this time.” But it’s also possible the door will be opened to us only to have God invite us to come inside, take a seat, and then we will have a chat about all of this. There may not always be a straightforward yes or no answer. It might be more complicated than we know and that might require some patient learning over time on our part. But, Lewis said, the good news is that God welcomes also this conversation. And he is always there to be part of it.
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