How long, O Lord?

Psalm 6

3 April 2005

Woodley Baptist Church

Evening service


Where was God?

That's the question so often asked when tragedy strikes, isn't it? Where was God?

But a better question, for those who take God seriously, would be, not where is God, but where are we in relation to God? God is where he always is, but how are we going to deal with him in the midst of our tragedies?

I read a heart-breaking article on the BBC news website during the week. It was the story of a woman who had experienced the Tsunami disaster.

Malar lost 10 relatives when the tsunami hit, including her only son, nine-year-old Manimaran.

Before the tsunami, she used to run a tea stall in front of the church and attended Mass each night to thank God for her takings.

Now she has vowed never to set foot in it again.

"When the tsunami hit I ran to the church and begged for the life of my son," she said, crying.

"All I got was his dead body. God cheated me."

In the Bible, Job was a good person, and he too was prosperous. If anything, the tragedy that struck Job was worse even than Malar's. But when his wife urged him to curse God and dieref he refused to do so. We are told that In all this, Job did not sin in what he saidref.

Now, I'm not speaking on Job this evening, but it is striking that personal tragedy never leaves a person's faith unaffected, it invariably pushes the sufferer's faith to one of two extremes. There are those for whom the experience of tragedy will strengthen their faith; it is a time when they throw themselves on God's mercy and emerge stronger, more faithful and more godly from the experience. And there are others for whom the experience of tragedy will cause them to reject God; they will blame him and turn away from him, perhaps forever.

I'm sure we've all seen, or perhaps even experienced at first hand, one of these reactions to tragedy. And I'm sure we've all felt what a double tragedy it is when it causes someone to abandon God. In a world where Jesus Christ holds the keys to death and hell, to lose one's faith is the greatest tragedy of all.

How can we make sure that whey the day of testing comes for us that we will be those who emerge stronger and godlier people? When disaster strikes at the heart of our faith, who will be the survivors and who will be the victims?

In Psalm 6 David shows us what it takes to be a survivor. His experience of dealing with tragedy is our survival guide.

Whatever you may have thought at first hearing, this Psalm is not just David's incoherent outpourings of grief, but it has been structured and formalised. The preamble at the top makes that clear. David has written his experience up as poetry and addressed it to the choirmaster. It has been set to music and recorded in the Scriptures. God has put this Psalm here not as a curiosity—an insight into the life of David—but for our instruction; it is here to teach us what a life lived with God ought to look like. How to survive when tragedy comes.

What I want to draw out is how fundamentally God-centred David's reaction is, so we'll look at it in the four sections the NIV gives us which I've headed David's anguish drives him to plead with God, David's appeal is founded on the person of God, David abandons all pretence before God and finally David is assured of the promise of God.

Anguished pleading

First, David's anguish drives him to plead with God, which we see in verses 1 to 3.

We can only guess the personal circumstances that lie behind this Psalm. It comes in a series of Psalms starting with Psalm 3 each of which presents prayer as the right response to hardship and trouble. We're told that Psalm 3 is set in the context of David's flight from his son Absalom when he tried to usurp David's throne. So perhaps Psalm 6 also comes from this time as well, which was a huge ordeal for David.

He speaks of his foes and enemies in verses 7 and 10, but is unspecific. In the end the details of the background to the Psalm are not particularly important; we'd have been told them if they were. David's response to his agony can be an effective guide for us because it is not explicitly tied to a particular set of circumstances.

What we do know is that David is in anguish which we see from verses 2 and 3. The words agony in v2 and anguish in v3 translate the same word in Hebrew, so his body is in agony and his soul is in agony: he is suffering to the core of his being.

It could be that some physical injury or sickness has led him into a state of spiritual turmoil. His soul is in agony because his faith in God is threatened by his circumstances.

Or perhaps some inner spiritual agony—an experience of the wrath of God—has manifested itself in his physical body as he's fasted and neglected himself; as he's gone sleepless night after night.

We don't know, but in the end the point is clear: David was suffering inwardly and outwardly, in soul and in bones, to the core of his being. The details of his sufferings don't matter, the point is how he responded to them.

So we see that in his suffering David's first instinct is to turn to God. O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony...Turn, O LORD, and deliver me.ref

Time and time again he pleads "O Lord... O Lord,... O Lord" . He brings his pain to God.

Matthew Henry comments "Whither else should a child go with his complaints, but to his father?" , so like our daughter crying out in the night, "Daddy! Daddy!" David brings his pain to God because he knows that only God can rescue him from his suffering.

His cry How long, O Lord, how longref shows his faith, his expectation that God will act to rescue him at some time in the future.

So often, our first instinct in suffering is to turn away from God, isn't it? That is what it is to be sinful people. We habitually turn away from God every day of our lives, so it's no surprise that we do it too in the midst of tragedy. We seek to justify ourselves: "I'm not a bad person; I don't deserve this!" We sit in judgement upon him: "How dare you do this to me, God!" Or we give him up for a weakling, "you've let me down, God, you can't save me after all."

But David knows where he stands before God. He knows that in a just world all he deserves are the fires of hell. Yet he dares to ask God for his mercy. There's no hint of self-justification in his plea; no suggestion of "I don't deserve this" . Spurgeon's comment is that "This is the right way to plead with God if we would prevail. Urge not your goodness or your greatness, but plead your sin and your littleness."

What will be our response when tragedy strikes us? Will we turn to our Father, or turn away? Are we going to beg for his mercy, or sit in judgement on him?

Appealing to a person

David's anguish drove him to plead with God. But what were the grounds of his plea? On what basis did he even consider it worthwhile coming to God at all? We see in verses 4 and 5 that David's appeal was founded on the person of God. Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. No-one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from his grave?ref

David appeals to God because, although at the moment he feels only God's wrath, he is convinced that God's essential nature is unfailing love. And because, although at the moment he feels a chasm between him and God, he is convinced that God's ultimate desire is relationship with his people.

Save me because of you unfailing loveref he pleads. The unfailing love—the covenant love—of God is a constant theme of the Bible. It's often translated "steadfast love" , and it is the word used in many of the Psalms when they proclaim "His love endures for ever" , which Psalm 136 does no fewer than 26 times.

David's firm belief was that God is loveref. Whatever his circumstances, whatever his pain and suffering, he believed completely that what lay beyond them was a God who is love. With that as his starting point he could begin wrestle with his tragedy.

When Penny and I got married nearly nine years ago I had engraved inside both our wedding rings the words "His love endures forever" . The jeweller was a bit startled to be doing two his's rather than a his and hers, but there we are, we live in modern times. But of course, I was referring to God's love. I wanted the inscription not as some sentimental wishful thinking, but because we are convinced that at the heart of our marriage, deeper even than the love which binds us together, is a God who never fails in his love for us. Whatever tragedy comes our way, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, God is constant, and God is love.

So David relies first on God's love, and he relies second on God's relational character. In verse 5 he says No-one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from his grave?ref

David's understanding of the afterlife might not be as clear as ours, but his point is clear. Death breaks relationship.

If we die out of relationship with God then we are eternally out of relationship with God. But David knows that God is a relational God he will never break his relationship with us.

In Isaiah chapter 38 God heals King Hezekiah from a near terminal illness. Hezekiah's response is similar to David's.

Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back. For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living—they praise you, as I am doing today.ref

God is not glorified by losing us; he is glorified by saving us and winning our praise. So we can trust him in our suffering.

The danger, if we haven't built a deep knowledge of the things of God is that we will begin to believe lies about him. When we suffer it is easy to imagine all sorts of terrible things about God. It's all too easy to conclude that he is evil or malevolent, or that he has abandoned us. Or even that he is a God who cheats us. If people start to believe things like this no wonder their faith collapses.

We've just entered into a so-called Party Wall agreement with our neighbour. We need to do this because we are having some building work done alongside her existing extension. The problem is that if our foundations have to extend deeper than her foundations we might undermine them, and her extension might fall down. Not good for neighbour relations. What we're hoping is that her existing foundations are deep enough that we won't need to strenthen them.

But personal tragedy doesn't abide by the Party Wall Act 1996. It doesn't care if your theological foundations are undermined and your faith collapses. All we can do is to make sure our foundations are deep enough that they can never be undermined.

This is what King David has made sure of. His theological foundations are so deeply dug that this tragedy can't undermine them. His faith is built on a solid foundation of knowledge of God.

We need to learn again and again these great truths of our faith. We need to embed them so deeply within our hearts when times are good that no pain we face will ever be able to undermine them. That is why Paul prays for the Ephesians that they may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christref. A solid foundation indeed.

So, right theology will help us, even in the midst of tragedy. Especially in the midst of tragedy! If the first thing we should cultivate in preparation for suffering is a readiness to plead with God, then the second is a deep understanding of the person of God.

Abandoning pretence

So David prayed to God, he read his Bible and everything was all right. Is that how it was?

Sometimes in evangelical circles there seems to be an expectation that this is how it works. You come to me and pour your heart out. I pray with you. I give you some Bible passages. You force your face into a grin and mutter "Praise the Lord!" in the least miserable voice you can manage. No wonder evangelicals are sometimes characterised as cold and uncaring.

Verses 6 and 7. I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.ref

Before he truly found healing, David had to abandon all his pretences before God. He had to pour himself out before God. He had to do business with God in his deepest places.

As we've seen, good theology is essential, but it's no good if it just stays in the head. Good theology needs to move from the head to the heart, and this can be a painful process in itself. David experiences a contradiction: on the one hand he fears the wrath of God; on the other he knows God's love.

The collision of his hope with his actual experience drives him to despair until his theology becomes reality, through his tears.

David was a man who cried a lot.

He wept when he had to flee from Saul and say goodbye to Jonathan. It says He and Jonathan wept together, but David wept the most.ref

He wept when he found that the Amalekites had destroyed the town of Ziklag: David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep.ref

He wept when Abner was killed: the king wept aloud at Abner's tomb.ref

He wept when his son by Bathsheba died in infancyref.

He wept when one of his sons, Absalom, killed another of his sons, Amnon: the king and all his servants wept very bitterly.ref

He wept when he had to flee from Absalom later, weeping as he climbed the Mount of Olivesref.

He wept when he heard of Absalom's deathref.

And that lot doesn't even cover the times he writes about weeping in the Psalms.

In many ways David is an example for us of how to live in a right relationship with God, yet he spends so much time weeping! Was the mighty King of Israel a great big wuss, or is there something important going on here? I think what we learn from him is that tears are part of our relationship with God. Any theology that says we should be happy all the time, that life is a breeze and we should smile because Jesus loves us, is a fake theology. It's a superficial counterfeit.

Sure, there will one day be a time when God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.ref, but that's then, not now.

In the mean-time we share in the pain of this world, and we express it in our tears before God. This is being real with God, and David was nothing if not real with God.

What's the picture in your mind's eye when you read that shortest verse of the Bible, John 11:35 Jesus weptref, which happened after Lazarus has died? Do you imagine a little tear emerging from the corner of his eye and trickling silently down his beard as he quickly regains his stiff upper lip? Surely it was more of an outpouring than that! I imagine he wept with abandonment; with great heaving sobs as he felt the pain of death intruding into the world. So when the Jews saw him they remarked See how he loved him!ref

Do you think that's right? If so, we can learn a lot from our Master.

You know how we greet each other in church. "How are you?" we ask. How do you reply? The truth is, the cat's got kidney stones; the car failed its MOT; you've been summoned to see your child's headmaster; you're putting in 60 hour weeks at work; you've argued with your wife and you haven't prayed for a week. So what do you say? You say "I'm fine. How are you?"

Isn't that how we are with God so often as well? We say to him in our prayers, or more often by our lack of prayers, "It's fine God, I'll deal with it" . I don't expect that in our present culture that we'll ever truly be able to be real with each other, but we should at least strive to be real with God, to bring our tears to him.

David shows us how, because his tears are tears before God. He has abandoned any pretence of self-sufficiency before him, and his tears are the mark that he is doing serious business with his Lord.

How do we know? Because it is not the end of the Psalm! And in the last section David is quite unashamed in describing his weeping as a prayer.

Assured of the promise

The tunes of the Psalms are now long lost, of course, but I'm pretty sure that the beginning of verse 8 would mark a modulation from a discordant and sombre minor key into a triumphant major key.

Away from me, all you who do evil, for the LORD has heard my weeping. The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace.ref

So we see that the plea of the opening verses, "O Lord, O Lord, O Lord" has been transformed into "The Lord, the Lord, the Lord" .

The basis for his change of heart is not down to the power of positive thinking. He hasn't simply snapped out of it. He hasn't attended a course of neuro-linguistic programming.

No, the basis of David's change of heart is simply that God has heard his prayer. For God to hear is for God to act, so David is assured of the promise that God will act to save him.

Whatever the answer to the question, "How long?" , David now knows that there will be an end when he will be rescued.

The assurance that God has heard us can only be a work of the Holy Spirit in us. It is precisely this that is the peace of God, which transcends all understandingref that is promised in Philippians to those who commit themselves to prayer.

David's God-centred approach to tragedy has been vindicated as it always will. His anguish drove him to pray to God; his appeal was founded on the person of God and he abandoned all pretence before God. Only by this deep God-centredness could David finally find assurance of the promise of God.

This is both an encouragement and a warning to us.

The encouragement is that with God-centred hearts we can face tragedy and survive. God's steadfast love endures forever. He will always protect our relationship with him. The Easter story of the cross and resurrection of Christ is our guarantee of a pain-free world to come.

The warning to us is that without God there is only tragedy. The NIV doesn't make it clear, but in verse 10 the word translated "dismayed" is the same word as that used for the agony that afflicted David's bones and soul. Those who are enemies of God will face the same tragedy as David, but theirs will be never-ending. That's why to abandon God in the face of tragedy is doubly tragic.

Let's do all we can to prepare ourselves for when the time comes to make sure our hearts are as God-centred as they can be.


It may be that you are facing personal pain this evening. Perhaps you've come to realise that your only way forward is to begin to be real with God. Or perhaps your question is "Where is God?" If you'd like prayer, support or advice there will be people available after the service whom you can see in the strictest of confidence. Whatever you are facing - please don't leave without doing business with God.