By the Rev. Nicholas Beasley
Getting ready for a new class on the Psalms, I was reminded how helpful these ancient praise poems are for modern lives and certainly for the days we are living. The Bible study guide explains that the book of Psalms is “actually dominated by prayers that complain to God about a specific dire situation of an individual or group.” The words jumped off the page! We have all done a little whining this last month, even those of us with relatively little to complain about. For some, these days have been dire, leading to profound questions about God and human life, questions that may sound like complaints.
Several of the early Psalms open with questions, big questions, that the singers in the Temple and current readers of Scripture are led to offer to God, particularly in dire situations. Psalm 2 asks “Why do the heathens rage?” causing suffering for others. Psalm 10 wants to know why God stands so far off and is hidden in time of trouble and why the wicked should then be allowed to revile the Lord. Psalm 15 asks who is holy enough to approach the Lord. Nearest to our present concern is Psalm 13, which asks “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? “ The Psalm never offers a simple answer to its question. The answer is not, “until you humans start doing right” or “until I, the Lord, am done being angry.” Instead, having asked the question, the Psalm writer resolves to put his “trust in your mercy” and to “sing praise to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly.” It seems that asking the complaining question opens the door to reassurance from God, to a renewed sense of what the gifts of God have been. We all know that spiritual cycle, don’t we? When frustration or low feeling or spiritual aridity have gone on too long, and we finally turn to the Lord about it, something happens, some gift is given. God acts, and raises our eyes to the gifts and the goodness of God.
“How long?” is also the refrain to U2’s rock psalm 40, which Selah led us in singing not many months ago at St. John’s. Bono lifted the song’s lyrics from the first two verses of Psalm 40, in a last minute song-writing session as a recording studio was about to kick the band out. He added the plaintive cry how long, seemingly from Psalm 13. Psalm 40 offers a key to reading all the Psalms of complaint and question: “I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to hear my cry…lifted me out of the desolate pit…set my feet upon a high cliff…made my footing sure…[and] put a new song in my mouth.” God heard, God lifted, God gave a new song. That new song of praise is the one Bono asks about the duration of; how long will I sing this song of joy in the Lord? That is a wonderful inversion of Psalm 13’s “How long,” asking not how long God will hide but how long we should sing the song of joy God gives to those who turn to him, even (especially?) those who turn to him in prayer of complaint. We should sing that song forever.
These psalms (and even Bono’s synthesis of them) together teach us that God hears the cries of his people, that God responds in many ways, including movements within us, prompted by the Holy Spirit. Our cries of complaint matter to God, and God transforms them into confessions of faith and thanksgiving, for the mercy of God we have received. We lose track of and are reacquainted with the mercy of God in our days. That dynamic is not forever; we are being moved toward a serenity, toward wisdom, toward the fullness of God’s presence and love. This season of pandemic is itself a spiritual experience and season, a time to ask “How long?” and to hear God’s answer in the faith and hope he renews in us. The pandemic won’t last forever; the love and glory of God in Christ will!