|"He set my feet upon a rock and gave me a firm place to stand."--Psalm 40:2b. |
This huge basalt rock wall is about 30 miles from my home.
When there’s no chance of survivors in a disaster, the language among responders changes from “rescue” to “recovery.” For the massive March 22 landslide that swept away the Western Washington river community of Oso, that word change came early as workers and machines picked at the mammoth mucky debris pile. Photos of the mess brought to mind the opening lines of Psalm 40, which by coincidence I was studying at the time:I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire…(vv. 1-2)
Sadly, few were “lifted out” alive from the tons of debris. Some dead may never be found. But Psalm 40 isn’t about an Oso-style landslide. David used a metaphor for an “entrapping situation” to illustrate difficult times in his life.
It’s worth noting, however, that the Bible does tell about a “slimy pit” experience of a prophet who lived about four hundred years after David. As punishment for his negative prophecies, the king had Jeremiah dumped into a city “cistern,” a huge water collection hole with a small opening at top. Though empty (otherwise Jeremiah would have drowned), its accumulated mud bottom sucked his body down. He would have perished there without the kind intervention of a palace official. Jeremiah 38 says it took thirty men pulling on ropes to extricate Jeremiah.
We could dismiss that as an interesting historical aside—except for its powerful symbolism of the “pits” any of us encounter in life’s journey. I often use the analogy in my prayers for people I care about: “Lord, I pray that they’ll escape the grips of their emotional/spiritual/relational ‘stuckness.’” A good definition of such pits comes from the late James Montgomery Boice in his book Psalms Volume 1 (Baker, 1994, 348-349):
*The pit of sin. Those who’ve turned away from sin know its powerful downward pull. Romans 1 describes how one depraved choice leads to a worse one. King David surely knew its pull in the whole Bathsheba mess.
*The pit of defeat. Some people complain of defeat in relationships, education, or work. They’ve never succeeded enough at anything to want to keep going, so they give up instead of believing that God has important things for them to do.
*The pit of bad habits. These may be destructive addictions (drugs, cutting, anorexia) or life patterns (temper, self-pity, laziness, overeating). But, Boice added, with Christ these can be overcome.
*The pit of circumstances. For a what-can-get-worse example, Boice pointed to the extremes of physical, emotional and spiritual distress that Paul experienced in telling his world about Christ. Yet Paul was able to say, “We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9).
One way to outline the message of Psalm 40 is through four R’s: Rescue (1-2), Response (3-5, worship and proclamation), Reamed (6-10, ears “opened” to hear and obey), Remembrance and Reprise (11-17).
RESCUEDPsalm 40 opens significantly with a phrase of hopeful anticipation. David doesn’t cry, “I’m in a terrible mess! Where’s God in all this?” Instead, he says, “I waited patiently for the Lord.” He believed God saw every detail of his life. A couple psalms earlier, he wrote, “All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you” (Psalm 38:9). Romans 8:30 reaffirms that absolutely nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” David trusted, and God turned and heard David’s cry, lifted him out of the pit of negativity, and set his feet on a rock of renewed hope. For us, that Rock is the Lord Jesus!
RESPONSEDavid didn’t mope, “Well, it’s about time you showed up, God.” Instead, he praised God with a “new song” with the desire that “many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord” (v. 3). What a lesson for the rest of us—to use our stories of help to bring glory to God and woo others to Him!
REAMEDSome members of my family have problems with earwax buildup, requiring occasional medical help to remove the compacted wax so they can hear again. Although the outline word “reamed” implies a sharp tool (which would be dangerous for ears!), that’s the basic idea conveyed in Psalm 40:6. David wrote that obedience to God is the best sacrifice, and that God had “opened” his ears (v. 6). The Hebrew word for “opened” is kara and in other scriptures is translated "dig," "make," and "pierce."
Older commentators connected this to the practice described in Numbers 21 of piercing a hole in the ear of a slave wanting to stay with his master after his six-year required labor. This marked him physically as a servant for life. But “ears” in Psalm 40:6 is plural, and that rite pierced only one ear. More recent commentators believe it refers to "dug" or "opened up," to imply that the obedient person's ears have opened up to take in God's truth. Open to God’s counsel, that person says, “I desire to do your will, O my God, your law is within my heart” (40:8). Living out divine truth is how he is rescued from his pits of sin, defeat, bad habits or circumstances. More than that, he wants to share the good news of a relationship with a loving God with all around him (vv. 9-10).
REMEMBRANCE AND REPRISE
With verse 11, David seems to continue to face troubles and enemies. But he comes back to where he began: to patiently trusting God for life in this imperfect world: “You are my help and my deliverer,” he says (v. 17). “Oh my God, do not delay.” We have an even more encouraging word from the Lord Jesus: “In this world you will have trouble. Take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Next blog: Psalms 42-43