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A Psalm for Dark Times

Psalm 39; Numbers 13:17-27; Luke 13:18-21

Psalm 39 day three: I think I was so struck by the image of amygdala overloading that I was misreading the rest of the Psalm. When the Psalmist opens their mouth, it is the cry to the Lord in verse 4 that comes out. In the presence of injustice and wickedness in the world, they've been holding their tongue, but when they're anger can't be contained, they cry something like "How long, O Lord?" Still that's not asking how long injustice will continue, but how long will they live. It is a kind of resignation into meaninglessness: "everyone stands as a mere breath." There are echoes of Ecclesiastes here. "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity."

Sometimes speaking such things out loud lets you here how extreme your case has become. It can divide you against yourself for good purpose: "I give up; I wish I had never been born." To which you reply to yourself, "Listen to what you're saying it can't be all that bad." The Psalmist finds the logical hole in their own resignation. All that time holding their tongue is waiting. Waiting for something to change. It's not the same as resignation, which gives up and stops waiting. The Psalmist realizes that they are waiting for something and that their only source of hope is in the Lord.

The rest of the Psalm turns into a prayer of confession and petition for release from deserved punishment. "Deliver me from my transgressions." The wickedness that they complained about in verse 1 is no longer external, but in the Psalmist themselves. In trying to check their behaviors ("I shall not sin with my tongue"), they've allowed sin to build up in their heart. "Remove your stroke from me." The Psalmist blames themselves for what they're going through; their own sin has drawn God's punishment. "Give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears." The Psalm has moved from amygdala overload and anger at the beginning to self-anger and guilt here in verse 12.

The saddest part of the Psalm to me is at the end. "Turn your gaze from me, that I may smile again." This doe not sound to me like a prayer of confession, "Forgive me so that we can be reconciled and can look at each other again without anger or guilt." This sounds like despair, "I have been so bad that I would be better off not being in relationship with God." In verse 7, their only hope was in God, and in verse 13, they want God to turn away.

On the whole, I find this to be a difficult Psalm. At times it is similar in theme to Ecclesiastes and Lamentation and Job. It does not seem very hopeful to me. Still, if everything in the Bible was happy and upbeat all the time, it would not seem to be relating to us in our dark emotions. The presence of stories of despair gives us permission to "feel all the feels" when we're in dark times, too. We feel them within the context of God's presence in the world. The Psalmists wishes God would look away, but I find it comforting that God sits with us in our dark times. In Pastoral care, we have noted that the best thing to do is sit with someone, and not to talk to them in intellectual ways while what they need is emotional support. I think if I were the Psalmist, I would not ask God to break God's silence, but seek comfort in God's silent compassionate presence.