Worship when life is tough

Psalm 42-43

13 November 2005

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


What is it on a Sunday morning that brings you to "the heart of worship" ? That makes you know that you are in the presence of God?

For many of us it will be the singing that brings us to that place, for some it will be modern songs that make us want to lift our hands, for others it will be the centuries old classics.

Others of us will do our business with God in the prayers, or at communion. For still others the presence of God revolves around the people of God as we encourage people, and are encouraged by people. The most important part of this morning for you will be the coffee time.

In general what thrills my heart and convinces me that I've been in the presence of God is a rattling good sermon. It's during the sermon that I generally have the strongest urges to leap around and shout "Hallelujah!" . Being thoroughly english I generally manage to suppress these urges, but in other cultures it's definitely allowed. Actually, in a church I used to preach at there was a lady who would sometimes shout "Alleluia!" in the middle of the sermon, which was a terrific encouragement for the preacher. I'd like to see more of that.

So, there are many things that we do together that empower us for worship of God. But what if you go through all these things, and God just seems as distant as ever? What if the songs just jar with your mood, the sermon washes over you, the prayers don't address your needs, you don't feel like you've got anything in common with the rest of the people here? What if you regularly walk out of church just as far from God as when you entered it? What can you do when everyone around you seems to be having a great spiritual experience, and you're just getting nothing from God?

That's where we are in our series on worship this morning, "Worship when life is tough" . And the text I want to look at is Psalms 42 and 43.

Read 42&43. Check people have Bibles.

There's plenty of evidence that what we have as two separate Psalms are really one Psalm that somehow became divided. In the Psalm we get a refrain that is repeated three times Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my Godref And the three parts of the Psalm roughly reflect the three parts of this repeated verse, although it's not completely clear-cut. So I've titled the three parts, a soul downcast, a soul disturbed and a soul with hope.

The first section is verses 1-5 of Psalm 42 where we find "a soul downcast"

A soul downcast (v1-5)

Have you ever felt like God is a million miles away?

Sometimes, we'd like him to be a million miles away, wouldn't we? There are plenty of times when I wish my life wasn't an open book to God: that he'd just go and busy himself somewhere else for a while.

But there are other times when we long for him, we thirst for him. We ache to know that he is close, that he hears us, that he accepts us, that he guards us, that smiles upon us, that he loves us.

This psalmist is thirsty for God, desperate to come to him As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?ref

But he finds himself in a spiritual desert. Instead of refreshing streams of living water flowing from the throne of God, all he has are salty tears to drink My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, Where is your God?ref

It is clear that the Psalmist isn't just having a bad day. It's not that he just doesn't feel like worshipping God today. This despair goes to the heart of his being, his very soul. Again and again he reveals his downcast soul, verse 1, verse 2, verses 4, 5 and 6. His despair goes to the core of his being. Where is his God? When will he be able to meet with God again?

In verse 4 we find him recalling the good times. He knows what it is to praise God with all his heart. He used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.ref But now, that all seems very distant. His hands are no longer lifted up; instead his soul is cast down.

We get a possible clue to why the Psalmist feels so far from God in verse 6. He says he will remember God from the land of Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from mount Mizar.ref He feels separated from God, because he is, in effect, separated from God. It seems that this temple musician has found himself in the far north of Israel, near mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan river. If so, he is a long way from home, and a long way from Jerusalem and the temple of God.

The point is that for the Old Testament believer the tabernacle or the temple was the focus of their worship of God. That was where the ark of the covenant was installed, where God's presence was most clearly concentrated. This is where God was enthroned on Earth. Of course they knew that God was everywhere and anywhere, but it was at the temple that he was most particularly present. So to truly worship God you had to go up to the temple: that was the meeting place of God's people before God himself. And now both of these were denied to the psalmist: he could not meet with God's people; he could not meet with God. He was in despair.

We don't know how he ended up so far away. Perhaps he had fled with King David when David's son Absolom staged the coup in Jerusalem. Perhaps later he found himself prevented from returning to the temple when the kingdom of Israel was split into two in 922BC after Solomon's death. He might have been captured when Jehoash king of Israel raided the temple and carried off its treasures and people to Samaria in 2 Chronicles 25. We just don't know.

But there is another possibility. It is possible that the psalmist was actually still in Jerusalem, in the midst of God's people, but so deep was his spiritual despair that it felt as if he were a million miles from God. That's possible isn't it? I'm sure there have been times in each of our lives when we've sat amongst God's people as they praised, and all we've been able to feel is despair at how far from God we seem to be. Even if we have never yet felt like that, there will be times when we shall. That's why, wherever we are at today, we need to hear this psalm.

In verses 1 to 5 we find a soul downcast. A soul in despair. A soul in the desert, a million miles from God. Why are you downcast, O my soul?ref

A soul disturbed (v6-11)

In verses 6 to 11 of Psalm 42 we find a soul disturbed. Why so disturbed within me?ref

The Hebrew word translated "disturbed" by the NIV in verse 5 can be translated a number of ways. Others versions I have use "troubled", "disquieted" and "in turmoil", which I like the best.

The word actually has a sense of "thundering" or "roaring" which fits in well with verse 7, Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.ref The scene has moved from the parched desert, to the source of the river Jordan. Water is pouring from the melting icecap of Mount Hermon, thundering down the mountain side and sweeping our psalmist away in the turmoil and turbulence. All your waves and breakers have swept over me.

Last weekend Penny and I managed a rare trip to the cinema together. We went to see the Wallace and Gromit movie, which I can highly recommend. Before the film started there were all the usual adverts, but one in particular was very striking. In it the screen was filled with an enourmous wave, a few dozen feet high, with a little figure on a surfboard riding it. The wave starts as a huge swell and gradually steepens and steepens until the surfer is half way up a vertical wall several times his height. Then the crest starts to whiten and curl over, and you begin to think the surfer's pretty much a goner now. Majestically the top begins to crash downwards and the little figure disappears from view, and you begin to wonder what it must be like to be pulled apart by the immense forces of turbulence. But then, miraculously, at the very last possible moment, he shoots out of the tunnel crouching low on the board and races ahead of the huge roaring mass.

I haven't a clue what it was advertising, but it certainly left an impression.

We'd love to ride the waves of life like this, wouldn't we? Surfing through the turmoil and turbulence, riding ever bigger and bigger waves. But sometimes we just fall off the surfboard, and we find ourselves helpless in the midst of forces that we can hardly fight, in severe danger of drowning: All your waves and breakers have swept over meref.

We saw first that the Psalmist's soul was in despair. Now we see that it is overwhelmed. He's fallen off the surfboard, and the wave has crashed over him. The psalmist just can't cope with what God is throwing at him. He knows full well that God is in charge—this is not just random stuff happening to him—but that just makes it all the more painful to bear. How can he worship God with all this going on? The thundering roar of stuff happening in his life just overwhelms his efforts to cope.

We see his difficulty played out in verses 8 to 10. Verse 8 is a great surprise, isn't it! By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life.ref Where has that come from? It looks like he's trying to pull himself up by his bootstraps, to get going with praise. But he doesn't get far, soon it's back to the turmoil, verse 8 I say to God my Rock, Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, Where is your God?ref

His troubles quickly drown out his song of praise, don't they? The world is strong against him; his enemies oppress him. In the Psalms we often read about the psalmists' enemies, but they are almost always spoken of in very unspecific terms. We're not told who they are, or what they are trying to achieve, but only that they have set themselves up against the man of God, and therefore against God himself.

The world we live in often provides our equivalent of the psalmist's enemies. Our world has set itself up against God, and therefore against us. The world is not neutral, it is opposed to us, so it is no wonder we experience its hostility from time to time as God allows. Things happen to us over which we have no control. What is it that is overwhelming you at the moment? Are you riding the wave, or is it all crashing around you?

It's hard to leave our troubles at the door of the church, isn't it? But so often we feel that that is exactly what we ought to do. We feel that to admit we're not coping is to let the side down, especially if we were to admit it to God. So we try to lose ourselves in worship for a while, but it is empty and ineffective as long as our real lives remain outside the door of the church.

The first thing I want us to take away from this Psalm is that true worship is startlingly honest. It's easy to overlook, but this Psalm, with all its questions and accusations, is worship! In the title we're told that this outpouring of a downcast and disturbed soul was written for the Director of Music. This lament has been sung and said in temple and church worship for three thousand years! To pour out your soul in all honesty before God, is worship, and the psalmist shows us how to worship God, in this Psalm just as much in the "praise him on the trumpet" types of Psalm.

So, there's no need for a brave face; if tears are all that you can manage, then your tears are your worship. If what you need to say to God this morning is when can I go and meet with you?, verse 2, or why have you forgotten me?, verse 9, or why have you rejected me?, Psalm 43 verse 2, then pour out your heart and soul before him. My definition of worship is "doing business with God" , and we begin to do business with him when we begin to be completely honest before him.

Pause. However, the psalmist doesn't stop at pouring out his soul before God. Notice that he talks to God, but he talks to himself as well. Three times in these two Psalms he repeats the refrain Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.ref So the second thing I want us to take away from this Psalm is the need to instruct our souls.

I'm no expert on depression, but my observation is that emotional depression tends to feed on itself, and spiritual depression is no different. Sometimes we need to give our souls a good talking to in order to break the loop.

In this matter I can do no better than to give you the wisdom of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who thought and wrote deeply on the subject of spiritual depression. He says,

You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: 'Why art thou cast down'; — what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: 'Hope thou in God' — instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: 'I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God'.

I wouldn't advocate taking this line with another person who is suffering from spiritual depression, but Lloyd-Jones is right, isn't he? Sometimes we need to be hard on ourselves, don't we?

So, we need to pour out our souls and we need to talk to our souls. But if we truly want to return to worship God properly we need something else as well. And that's what we find in Psalm 43.

A soul with hope

Remember that Psalms 42 and 43 are really a single poem, so here is the third of the three stanzas, where we find the climax, a soul with hope.

The point is that, ultimately, we cannot rescue ourselves from spiritual depression by our own strength. How can we bridge the distance between ourselves and God? How can we overcome the troubles that we face on our own? Pouring out our souls and talking to ourselves might keep us afloat, but eventually we need someone to rescue us. And that's what the psalmist prays for in Psalm 43.

In verse 1 he prays for God's help against the enemies that are overwhelming him: Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; rescue me from deceitful and wicked men.ref And in verses 3 and 4 he prays for God's help to return to joyful worship; to find his presence again. Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.ref

The psalmist has discovered what we've all experienced: that it is impossible for us to whip up worship in ourselves. If our souls are downcast and disturbed within us then no matter how great the music, no matter how much we close our eyes and raise our hands, no matter how fervant the leader, we will ultimately never find the presence of God that we long for.

I had a little illustration of this this morning. I was standing on our landing having a stretch and touching the ceiling with my hands when our daughter, Rebekah came along. She put her hands above her head reaching up as far as she could, saying "Becca reach it! Becca reach it!". Since she only comes up to my knees this was a bit of a vain hope, no matter how hard she tried. Only when daddy picked her up could she touch the ceiling and be happy. Sometimes perhaps we are a bit like that: we stand here with our arms raised, desperately trying to reach him, but what we really need is for our Daddy to pick us up and lift us to himself.

The psalmist certainly knows that if he is to find the way back to God then he needs a guide. God himself must bring him into his presence. So he prays Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.ref

As Christians, we are in a privileged position. We can see God's answer to the prayer of the psalmist: an answer that encompasses not just the psalmist, but millions and millions of people across the world.

He prayed that God would send out his light and truth. Who was it who said "I am the light of the world" ? Who was it who said "I am the way, the truth and the life" ? Who is it who has made a way for us into the presence of God?

If life is tough and worship seems impossible, then your way back to the presence of God is the same way all of us who are Christians are able to approach him: through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is no coincidence that for the psalmist the focus of his restored worship is the altar, the place of sacrifice: Psalm 43 verse 4 Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight.ref

And it is no coincidence that Jesus as he headed to the cross says Now is my soul troubledref. As he hangs on the cross he suffers the humiliating taunts of his enemies. And as he dies on the cross he cries out My God, why have you forsaken meref—a quote from Psalm 22, but it could easily have been from here.

Jesus lived and died this Psalm. He suffered all the soul-thirst and soul-despair of this Psalm as he was ripped away from his Father by death. Wherever you are in the spiritual depths, Jesus has been there, and more.

Like the Psalmist, when we arrive in God's presence we will find an altar. But this one is empty; it's made of wood, not stone; and it is in the shape of a cross. Because of this altar there is nothing that prevents us from worshipping God, in spirit and in truth.

So here is our guide through the darkness of spiritual despair. Here is the One who can bring us back to worship in the presence of God. If, in your inner being, you can only think about one thing, then think about Jesus. Read about him, meditate on him, pray to him. His Spirit in us is our only hope and only guide back to to heart of worship. As Matt Redman has put it "I'm coming back to the heart of worship, and it's all about you, Jesus, all about you Jesus."

If, in the depths of our despair, we can only fix our eyes on Jesus, then the cry of the Psalm takes on a new tone, doesn't it? With Jesus as our guide we can say with a new confidence Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.ref