I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD. Blessed is the man who makes the LORD his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after a lie! You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told.
Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; behold, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD. I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
As for you, O LORD, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me! For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me.Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me! Let those be put to shame and disappointed altogether who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt! Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the LORD!” As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!
I’m doing something a bit radical today and preaching on today’s Psalm!
Some of you might not have even realised that we had a Psalm of the Day. And in truth, in the seventeen years I’ve been at this parish, I think that this is only the second time I’ve preached on the Psalm! But we who follow the church lectionary (which determines what Bible readings we have each week) do actually have a Psalm assigned for each week of the year!
We don’t overlook the concept entirely here. If you read in the rubrics (the small red-letter instructions that you find in the prayer book) you’ll see that in the spot between the readings it says, “a psalm or hymn or anthem may be sung”, and we normally just sing a hymn or anthem, and so the Psalm doesn’t get a guernsey.
Well today I’ve decided nonetheless to preach on the allocated Psalm, and it’s Psalm 40.
Now if you’ve just taken the time to read through it, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. You might be fogiven if I’ve given you the impression that we were about to unearth some treasure that’s been kept from you for all these years but now, having seen it brought to the surface, you might feel quite happy to see it buried again. After all, it’s looks like just another Psalm, and if you’ve read through any of the Psalms before at any point in time, the experience of reading through Psalm 40 may not seem particularly exceptional. Psalm 40 reads like any number of other Psalms, and indeed it has elements in it that are found in many Psalms:
- The author of the Psalm is in trouble
- He prays to the Lord for Salvation
- He experiences God’s saving power.
Scholars would classify this sort of Psalm either as a ‘Psalm of thanksgiving’ or a ‘Psalm of Lament’, and indeed it has elements of both, and along with the more general ‘hymns’ and ‘liturgical psalms’, these are exactly the standard sorts of psalms that make up the entirety of the book of Psalms.
‘Distress’, ‘prayer’, ‘salvation’, ‘thanksgiving’ – these are the common elements that we find interspersed across all the psalms, and frankly, they are the same fundamental elements that we find at the heart of most of our modern hymns and anthems. We struggle. Things go wrong. We pray. We find salvation, healing and hope. Time and time again, this is the Christian experience (thanks be to God) and so we find ourselves regularly celebrating it in song. Clearly too it was an ancient experience as well, for we find the Psalmists of old sang of it with equal regularity.
So what, you might be wondering, so struck me about this particular Psalm that I by-passed the other three readings today to focus on this Psalm? What was it that left me so captivated by it? Well, it’s because this Psalm – which admittedly has all the classic elements in it of distress, prayer, salvation and hope – has them all in the wrong order!
“I waited patiently for the Lord’ and he inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up from the pit of roaring waters, out of the mire and clay, and set my feet upon a rock and made firm my foothold!” (Psalm 40:1-2)
This is a testimony to the saving power of God who has rescued this guy from an impossible situation. This is what we expect to hear in church and expect to find in the Psalms. Things were going bad until I met the Lord, but since I’ve known Jesus I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol, and the girl at the office has dropped the sexual harassment claim (thanks be to God)!
And so we expect to find this word of thanksgiving as a fitting conclusion to the happy ending of the story – a story that started in tragedy but finished in triumph, and yet in this particular psalm these words of thanksgiving kick the whole thing off and it just seems to go downhill from there!
By the time we hit the half-way mark, the psalmist has changed his tune:
“O Lord do not withhold your mercy from me. Let your living kindness and your truth ever preserve me. For innumerable troubles have come upon me. My sins have overtaken me and I cannot see. They are more in number than the hairs of my head Therefore my heart fails.”
Our faithful friend is in trouble and, moreover, he is quick to acknowledge that it is trouble of his own making. His sins have caught up with him. The binges of late-night drinking have returned. Indeed, as he looks back now he can only confess with pain that he was never really able to maintain control for long!
And so his creditors bang at the door and the world seems to have abandoned him:
“Be pleased to deliver me,. O Lord make haste to help me! Let those who seek my life to take it away be put to shame and confounded altogether. Let them be turned back and disgraced who wish me evil: let them be aghast for shame who say to me “aha, aha'”. (Psalm 40:17-19)
And so the Psalm ends on a rather pathetic note: “As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord will care for me. You are my helper and my deliverer. Make no long delay O Lord my God!” (vs. 22)
It’s interesting, when you read so many of the commentators on this Psalm, that they say,‘obviously this Psalm is an artificial creation – something put together for some unusual liturgy of sorts, or it’s a compilation of different psalms that have been accidentally mixed up together’.
But as one scholar I was reading pointed out, there is no external scholarly reason for assuming that this psalm is not the integrated work of one person. And indeed the only reason commentators feel bound to divide it up is because it they feel impelled to make it follow the proper order that starts with the cry of distress and ends with thanksgiving rather than the other way round
The assumption is that all Psalms must follow this predictable pattern, but what if these psalms simply follow life instead, for life is rarely so predictable!
Sometimes indeed – and many times in fact – we have a problem, and we pray and we get an answer and God heals us, lifts us up, raises us, saves us. But there are also times when even only just after the period of thanksgiving has subsided, the problem comes back and grabs us again!
It happened like that for our mate Ted, you might remember. God gave him a miraculous healing from cancer – an unbelievable, unexpected and entirely miraculous healing, but a couple of years later it came back again, and this time it got him!
And that’s a reasonably inoffensive example, I think. So many of us, I suspect, have our own secret histories of struggle, with things we have brought before God and have found healing from, only to find that further down the track the struggle returns, and we find ourselves saying with the Psalmist: “I am poor and needy … You are my helper and my deliverer. Make no long delay O Lord my God!”
I almost laughed out loud when I read the rubric that the authors of the Prayer Book added to this Psalm. The rubrics are the margin notes, written in red, and you’ll notice that at the end of each of the psalms there is a rubric that asks you to pray for something that is particularly relevant to the Psalm. For Psalm 140 the rubric asks us to, “Pray for ordination candidates and others preparing for full-time church service”, and I thought, ‘yeah, that sums up my experience of seminary exactly!’
I remember another ordination candidate said to me back then, “God spoke to me and called me into seminary, and He hasn’t spoken to me since!” This is a common experience. It starts with a great thanksgiving and just goes downhill from there!
Indeed, a lot of the time the walk of faith is like that! It begins with God lifting us out of some terrible struggle and then it seems He gradually lets us slip back into a struggle (though not of course necessarily the same struggle).
Jesus did warn us of this of course:
“Come to me”, He said, “all you that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest”, but then followed it immediately with, “Take my yoke upon you!”
As Martin Luther said, only Jesus would call the tired and heavy laden to come to him, and then offer them another yoke – another burden to carry! Of course Luther’s point was that He offers us a different burden, a more worthwhile burden, one that is worth carrying, but a burden none the less!
Even then, I think it’s not always that simple. Sometimes we just find ourselves with the Psalmist. The Lord lifted us up out of the mire and put us on a solid rock, but now our sins are catching up with us, our enemies closing in on us, and people are starting to say, ‘ah ha!’
Even then though – whether we have gone from lament to thanksgiving or from thanksgiving back to lament, if we follow the pattern of the Psalmist, we never end up in despair, for even the deepest cry of anguish is also a cry of faith: “You are my helper and my deliverer. Make no long delay, O Lord my God!”
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.