Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 1, 2020
Psalm 43 Commentary
My Old Testament professor back when I was a seminary student and the Old Testament colleagues with whom I have taught the Psalms since becoming a member of the seminary faculty would not like the Lectionary’s choice of preaching on Psalm 43 alone. The reason is obvious: it is all-but certain that what we now call Psalms 42 & 43 were originally one poem. The proof of that is not difficult to discern. Not only are those two psalms thematically the same, but the final stanza of Psalm 43 is the refrain of—and also the final line of—also Psalm 42. There is a sense in which you cannot meaningfully preach on Psalm 43 without reference to Psalm 42.
So I will leave it to my preaching colleagues reading this sermon commentary as to what to do with that but it is not too difficult to bring in Psalm 42. Just invoking the image of the deer panting for streams of water in Psalm 42:1 will ring bells with most people who are at least somewhat familiar with Scripture and with the Psalms.
In any event, both poems are about longing for God during a time when the psalmist cannot seem to locate God in the present moment. In Psalm 42 the psalmist ultimately takes some refuge in remembering past times when God had come through for him in vivid ways. Somehow that act of remembering provided some solace and hope in the present moment after all. When I preached on Psalm 42 years ago, I was reminded of what we are sometimes told to do if we want to see a rather faint star in the night sky: namely, look just to the side of it. Because of the way the rods in our eyes are put together, sometimes a sidelong glance at a faint object makes it pop into view in our peripheral vision after all. That seems to be the psalmist’s tactic in Psalm 42: trying to stare straight at God in the moment was not working so he glanced to side, to past events, and suddenly God popped a bit more into view after all.
This longing for God continues into Psalm 43 as the poet asks for vindication. Psalm 42 mentions “enemies” near the end of the poem and this theme dominates a bit more in Psalm 43. Whoever the psalmist’s enemies were, they were good at taunting him (think of the sneering question “Where is your God?” from Psalm 42) and making fun of him and just generally making his life miserable. So he needs God to come through. And then—as is true of many Psalms of Lament—the psalmist makes a promise: “If you do this for me, O God, I will return the favor by going to your holy place and making sacrifices to honor you.”
Probably not many of us would feel terribly comfortable praying this way. It feels a bit untoward to make a bargain with God! But you do see this a lot in the Bible. A little-remembered fact about the famous Sunday school story of Jacob’s Ladder is how Jacob actually responds to his dream of those angels moving up and down the ladder. Yes, we all know that he exclaimed “God was in this place and I did not know it” and hence he dubbed it Bethel or “House of God.” But that’s where we stop reading. Yet next up Jacob says, “So tell you what, God of Bethel: if one day you bring me back safely to my land and people after I have to go on the lam for a bit, THEN I will let you be my God and I will worship you.” Apparently until that happens, all bets are off! (Ah, you gotta love crafty old Heel-Grasper!)
If we are honest, though, we understand this instinct. No, we would never say to God that we will believe in him only if he comes through for us. We don’t make the entirety of our faith a bargaining chip. The psalmist doesn’t either: after all, Psalms 42 & 43 are addressed TO God. This is the irony of Psalms of Lament that I have noted before here on the CEP website: the psalmists have way of lamenting God’s absence to God’s face. In one sense that seems weird. It would be like coming home after work, seeing your spouse in the kitchen, and then saying, “Why aren’t you here?” Well, your spouse IS there—that’s why you could ask him or her the question!
On the other hand, we all know the experience of being in someone’s presence and yet the other person feels as though he or she is the proverbial “million miles away.” When we are distressed, distracted, preoccupied with this or that we are not very good listeners and sometimes are frankly not very good company. That is how God seems: present and yet absent too; present yet a million miles away. Still, the belief that there IS a God over Israel is always there. So whatever bargaining the psalmists may do with God in Psalms of Lament—vows to praise God again when life gets better and when God does something to deliver them—they happen on a more narrow bandwidth than wholesale faith in God vs. no faith in God.
Even so, bargaining with God feels wrong to most of us. But maybe it’s less actual bargaining and more an honest admission that when we are down, when we are feeling beat up by life, when we are sunk into sorrow or uncertainty, it flat out is more difficult to sing the doxology than when times are better or even when times are just normal. Yes, we all know people who are pretty good at denying this, at repressing any negative moods or feelings or even whole seasons of life. “I’m fine!” some will say when the rest of us know full well they are anything but fine and we wish they would just fess up about how crappy they are feeling and be done with it.
Probably the Psalms of Lament, including Psalms 42-43, give us permission for this way of being with God. And perhaps in preaching honestly about all this we as pastors can signal this permission to the congregation. That is one of the better acts of pastoral care we can perform from our pulpits: give people permission to be honest with God.
And, of course, we never leave it at just that. That is why the final lines of both of these Psalms (or the final line of the single Psalm this probably was originally) is so important: Put your hope in God for you will yet praise this God who is your Savior and your God for certain. To signal hope in the midst of raw honesty is a bold thing to do. And a loving one as well.
In a sermon, the preacher Tom Long once told the story of a minister he knew whose wife—on the day before Easter one year—fell suddenly ill in the morning, got worse in the afternoon, and by evening was dead. The pastor obviously could not preach the next day, though he still showed up at worship somehow. But he could not sing that day. He could not, he said, even believe in the resurrection. Not that day, Easter or no. And so he said he let the faith of the others in church carry him that day. They had to believe for him that day. They had to sing for him that day. And that’s just the way life goes sometimes. Like the psalmist of Psalms 42 & 43, we just have to acknowledge to God that when times are bad, we may just have to wait a bit until God smooths things out or heals us in some other way before we can go to the house of God with rejoicing in our hearts again. That’s just being honest with God.
And God surely understands that. The Bible tells us so.
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