The Howling Psalm
Psalm 13 is a psalm composed by David. It is a “Psalm of Lament”. The Psalms of Lament express rage, frustration, and/or grief. Many Christians tend to avoid them. They are, after all, pretty gloomy, and express images of God that can feel uncomfortable. We may even feel that the expression of such negative feelings is unchristian. However, between a third and a half of all the psalms are psalms of lament. That very fact ought to clue us that they are important expressions of the believer’s life with God.
Charles Spurgeon in his classic “A Treasury of David” says that Psalm 13 ought to be called the “Howling Psalm” because of its repetition of the question “How long?” It is more than merely a complaint about less than ideal circumstances. It is the cry of the soul which is at the end of its resources. It is the howl that arises when the cancer returns after years of remission. It is the angry shout of the parent whose child is killed by a drunk driver. It is the despairing sigh of one who feels that all hope is gone. If you haven’t experienced Psalm 13 in your life yet, you will—maybe many times.
We read in this psalm that David feels abandoned by God. Sometimes we may leave people with the impression that they will never feel this way once they become a disciple of Jesus. But this is clearly not the case. There are times when God feels distant, and David felt those times. So, what can we do when we feel abandoned by God? Let us consider what David says in Psalm 13.
How Long? (13:1-2)
Prolonged struggle and feelings of abandonment (vs. 1a)
As previously noted the first thing we notice as we read this psalm is the repetition of the question, “How long?” David asks how long God will forget, how long God will hide His face, how long he must wrestle with his thoughts and sorrows, and how long will his enemies triumph. Four times David cries out to the Lord, “How long?” We are left with the understanding that whatever David is crying out about has been going on for quite a long time. The length of David’s suffering has been so long that David asks if God is going to forget him forever. We have all been in such times of despair when it is difficult to even remember when better times existed in our lives. The feelings of loss and abandonment are so great that one is unable to see when the end will come. It is important that we recognize that this is the nature of trials. Very rarely are we able to see when the trial will end. Even worse, we are unable to see what the outcome will be from the trial. This is the type of emotion upon which David expresses these words. When we consider the life of David, being a man after God’s own heart, it is easy for us to only recall the positive things that happened in David’s life. Yet we cannot forget the suffering, trials, and traumas that David endured. He lost a son because of his sins. He was chased for his life by Saul and by his own son Absalom. Things were not all “good times” in the life of David. David became a man after God’s own heart, in part, because of how he handled the suffering and trials he encountered. Therefore, though one of our spiritual heroes of the Old Testament, let us see the agony David is in when he cries out, “Will you forget me forever?”
God’s blessings appear to have vanished (vs. 1b)
David goes further and says, “How long will you hide your face from me?” This is more of an idiomatic expression used in the scriptures to speak about the blessings of God (cf. Numbers 6:24-26). God seems so far removed that it seems that God is no longer blessing David. The protection, refuge, and safety of the Lord seems to have been taken away. This expression also communicates being in “good graces.” To be facing someone shows love and favor, while hiding the face indicates a turned back, implying rejection. This is a common feeling that most experience. When things go wrong or trouble comes, many times we say the very words, “Where is God?” What happened to the Lord watching over us? This is the type of language David uses. Why is God hiding His face from me?
Dark thoughts and feelings of sorrow (vs. 2a)
Not only is David dealing with the feeling of abandonment toward God, but he is also wrestling with his own flood of emotions. David says that he wrestles with his thoughts and has sorrow in his heart every day. David simply describes the depths of his despair. David declares to the Lord that his emotions are eating him up inside. David is fighting the negative thoughts that are in his mind. How many times we must wrestle with our emotions when we are suffering or during trial? Our minds may tell us to give up, to give in, and tell us things that are not truthful. This battle has already been expressed by David. David knows that God has not left him, as we will notice later in the psalm. So, there is a battle being waged with what David knows to be true and what he feels. David feels abandoned by God and out of His favor. Therefore, David is wrestling with what he knows versus these feelings because of the suffering he is in. David describes the depths of his despair even further when he points out that he feels sorrow in his heart every day. The suffering is so significant that every day that goes by he feels the weight and burden of sorrows in his heart. David is standing in the valley of despair, looking for a way up and out. Let us not downplay the great sorrow he feels.
Triumphant enemies (vs. 2b)
David also asks the Lord how long his enemies will triumph over him. It seems that when things are going bad, there are plenty of others to pile on the pain. It always seems that there are people ready to kick someone while he is down. David expresses that feeling as the enemies continue to rule and triumph over David. I believe we can relate to this feeling also. We can feel like that just as when we think we are about to get up off the ground, another enemy comes along and puts us back down. Our sphere of enemies mainly comes from the spiritual warfare we are engaged in. The enemies are the forces of evil that we must fight against. We must be prepared, understanding that if we want to be godly, we will have a fight on our hands and we will have many enemies.
David’s Prayer (13:3-4)
Look on me (vs. 3a)
The first thing David does is turn to God in prayer. This psalm is really a petition to the Lord about what he is enduring. The first thing to do is pray. No matter what situation may come upon us, the first thing every person must do is pray. In verse 3 David says “look on me.” Literally, David is asking God to turn His face, see what is happening, and give David regard and consideration. It is strange to me that this is often the last thing we may do when we feel abandoned by God. Many times, when in such a sorrowful situation, we bemoan that we feel that God has turned His back on us. Yet, that is not what we are to do. Notice that David tells God he feels this way and asks God to look at him again. Instead of throwing in the towel and giving up on God, we need to turn to God and tell Him to give us consideration and regard. Why would we feel that we could not tell God to look at us and pay attention to us? Yet we will throw our hands in the air and say that God does not care. Do not do that. Instead, call out to God. Tell Him to look upon us.
Answer (vs. 3a)
David not only asks God to look upon him and give him consideration, but also asks God to give an answer to what he is asking. Sometimes we wonder why we have not received an answer to our prayers. We have many things to consider that the scriptures tell us concerning unanswered prayer, such as asking selfishly or not according to God’s will. But there is another thing that we must ask ourselves. Have we asked God to answer? We may respond that we would not have asked if we did not want an answer. But that is not necessarily true. Sometimes prayer is used to appease the conscience or to tell others that we prayed, therefore justifying in our minds that we can take matters into our own hands. But prayer is not simply about asking God for something, but also asking God to answer our request according to His will. This means that we have a heart that is truly ready to accept any answer the Lord gives. How often we only accept God’s answers to prayer if the answers match what we want! But to truly want an answer from God means that we are ready to accept the “no” answers from the Lord.
Give light to my eyes (vs. 3b)
Many times in the scriptures this phrase refers to spiritual knowledge and enlightenment. However, that does not seem to be the idea in this passage. I believe there are two concepts that are being pictured. First, this seems to refer to making David whole again. Instead of being lost in death, David desires light to be given to his eyes, thus being made alive again. David no longer wants to be in the misery he is in, feeling that he is at the point of death. Second, and I believe more important, is the idea that David can see things the way God sees them. When we look at what we are suffering through our own eyes, things simply do not make sense. We do not understand why we endure the things that we go through. We need to ask the Lord to open our eyes so that we can see God working in the situation. We need our eyes to be enlightened so that we see life the way God sees life. Instead of having a carnal, fleshly, physical view of life, let our eyes look at life with the spiritual eyes of the Lord.
Give no room for the enemies (vs. 4)
David does not want the enemies to be able to think that they can overcome a servant of the Lord. David makes his appeal based upon the name of the Lord, as many in the scriptures have done in the past. The name of the Lord is given reason for scorn if the wicked can triumph over the righteous. Therefore, David asks that he overcome the enemies for the Lord’s sake. Moses made a similar argument to the Lord. When the Lord was about to wipe out the nation of Israel and create a new people through Moses, Moses argued that the name of the Lord would be ridiculed if all the people died in the wilderness (exodus 32:12). I do not believe this is an argument we tend to use with the Lord, but it was a point that many of God’s people made before. Let the righteous be victorious over the wicked. We are trying to be righteous, so do not let my enemies triumph and rejoice over my fall.
Hope for Tomorrow (13:5-6)
Trust in God’s unfailing love (vs. 5a)
David now changes gears in the last two verses and describes the hope that he has in the Lord. Despite all that we have noticed in this psalm concerning David’s despair, David still has hope. Why does David still have hope? How does David still have hope? Let us notice what David says to these things. David points out that these things are a matter of faith in God. David has put his trust in the Lord. How can David trust in the Lord? Is David exhibiting blind faith? Not at all. David says that he trusts in the Lord’s unfailing love. God says that He loves the righteous (Psalm 146:8). Combine this knowledge with the fact that God’s love is unfailing. God’s love does not quit toward us. There is no point at which God does not love us. There is no boundary or line that can be crossed at which point God will stop loving us. Further, since God’s love is unfailing, He never lets us down. He is always there and meets every need perfectly. Even in our sins, God continues to love us. How do we know this? We know this because God has already proven His love for us by sending His Son to die while we were in our sins (Romans 5:8). If God would show this much love when we were completely helpless, hopeless, and lost, why would we doubt the love of God now that we are trying to serve Him? We have reason to trust in the Lord and have hope for tomorrow because of the Lord’s unfailing love. God will not let you down when you put your full trust in Him.
Rejoice in God’s salvation (vs. 5b)
The next reason that David has hope in the Lord taking care of the situation, knowing the Lord has not abandoned him, is because of the Lord’s salvation. There is reason to rejoice today and in the future because no matter what we are experiencing, our salvation is secure. Though we may be going through the pits of despair and abyss of sorrow, we know that our salvation is secure and we can rejoice. Paul says,
35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our LORD (Romans 8:35-39).
I believe Paul was making the same point. Consider what Paul says they were enduring. He sums up their suffering by saying they were being put to death all day long and were like sheep counted for the slaughter. In all our suffering, we cannot say we are suffering to this extent. Yet, even if we were, we could rejoice in our salvation because it cannot be taken away from us. Nothing will separate us from the love of God that offers us salvation.
Sing for God’s goodness (vs. 6a)
Finally, David says that he will sing to the Lord for He has been good to him. Previously, David had expressed that the Lord’s face had been hidden from him, meaning that the blessings of God had been removed, David now recognizes that this is not the case. How can we know that God has not turned His face from us? How can we know that God will bless us? I believe the answer is simple and it is the same reason David could know that God would remain with him: because God has done so in the past. Notice that David speaks in the past tense. God has been good to him. God has done far more for us than we usually can remember. If God has done these things in the past, why would He not continue? He loves His children and His love is unfailing. Why would we doubt that God would not continue to take care of us? We need to sing about the goodness of God. God has given us more than we can imagine and treated us far better than we deserve.
When we feel abandoned, let us turn to God in prayer. Then let us know that God’s love is unfailing toward us. He will not turn away from us. Let us rejoice in the salvation we have in the Lord because no matter what happens to us, our salvation cannot be taken away. Finally, let us sing to the Lord for He has been good to you and me.