How Long, O Lord? | Psalm 13

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  • How Long, O Lord? | Psalm 13
  • There are two kinds of musical keys: Major and Minor. Songs in major keys are typically pleasant, joyful, and happy. Songs in minor keys are often sad, somber, or serious. Psalms work the same way. We do not know the original musical arrangement of the Psalms. Their contents betray their tone. Many psalms are songs of praise, worship, and thanksgiving. Other psalms are in the minor keys of life. They are called Psalms of Lament.

    A lament is when the psalmist sings the blues. It is more than an expression of sorrow. It is a prayer of faith. Laments are not the kind of God-talk we are accustomed to. In our worship, songs, prayers, and sermons are often triumphant. Spiritual pep rallies have no place for wrestling with sin, pain, or grief. This “Don’t worry, be happy” philosophy robs us of the blessings of lamentation. Suffering, heartbreak, rejection, betrayal, and injustice are inescapable realities of living in a fallen world. It is not godly to deny these facts of life. The godly thing to do is to bring all of life’s vicissitudes to God in prayer. 

    How do you pray when you’ve run out of words? Psalms of Lament give us language to pray when it is hard to pray. Psalm 13 is a quintessential lament. The ascription reads: To the Choirmaster. A Psalm of David. We do not know the occasion of this psalm. It could have been written during multiple occasions when David found himself at wit’s end. David did not write this lament in his private diary. He submitted it to the Choirmaster. This is a song God’s people should learn to sing. 

    • Worship sings the victory. 
    • Worship also sings the blues. 

    David was troubled, frustrated, and defeated. He did not suffer in silence. He did grow bitter. He did not complain to people. He did deconstruct his faith. He did not become angry with God. He talked to God about how he felt. Prayer changed his perspective. Prayer can turn your pain into praise! How do you pray when you’ve run out of words? 

    Ask God Your Questions.

    “Don’t question God” is well-intended advice that is not biblically sound. The faithful ask God questions throughout scripture. In Matthew 27:46, Jesus asked, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 13 begins with David asking God questions. It is the keynote of lament: “How long?” The question is asked twenty-two times in the Psalms. It is asked four times in verses 1-2. “How long” is not a request for information about God’s timing. It is a protest against God’s activity. David brings three complaints to God. 

    Divine Abandonment. Verse 1 asks an urgent question: “How long, O Lord?” David was in a prolonged struggle. He will not survive if it lasts much longer. The Lord is able to deliver him but has chosen not to. David demands to know when the Lord will intervene. It is holy, honest, humble God-talk. David brings his complaints to God in prayer. He feels forgotten and forsaken by God. 

    Forgotten by God. Verse 1 says, “Will you forget me forever?” “Forget” is not a failure of mental recollection. It is intentional neglect. The Lord’s care for his people is described as him remembering them. David accused God of withholding practical help. It can be heartbreaking to be forgotten by someone who should remember you. It is worse to feel forgotten by God. Faith tells God when you feel forgotten by God.

    Forsaken by God. Verse 1 asks, “How long will you hide your face from me?” God’s face represents God’s favor. Numbers 6:25 says, “The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.” God hiding his face is divine rejection. It is often a punishment for sin. But there is no indication here that David had done anything wrong. That’s what makes this rejection so painful. What do you do when it seems God is hiding from you? Tell him about it. 

    Spiritual Depression. 

    • Verse 1 is David’s spiritual complaint. 
    • Verse 2 is David’s personal complaint. 

    Verse 2a tells God about his emotional anguish, “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” 

    Unsuccessful Plans. “How long must I take counsel in my soul?” Scripture commends godly counsel. David had no one to counsel him. He had to take counsel in his soul. His soul was consumed with making plans to overcome his struggle. No plan prevailed. No strategy succeeded. No remedy relieved. David grew weary of devising plans that were doomed to fail. 

    Unrelenting Pain. David asked how long I must “have sorrow in my heart all the day?” Joy is a characteristic of godliness. But godly joy is not the absence of sorrow. It is joy in the midst of sorrow. There is nothing godly about acting like life doesn’t hurt when life hurts. David had sorrow in his heart all the day. Unrelenting sorrow is spiritual depression. If David had a professional to talk to, he would have. But David prioritized talking to the one who could change your heart. Who do you believe?

    Prevailing Opposition. David complains about God’s treatment and emotional distress. Then he complains about his interpersonal problems. Verse 2b asks, “How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” We do not know who this enemy was. The singular could be individual or collective. What is clear is that David had people problems. He was in a conflict against opposition. His enemy had the upper hand. There was nothing he could do to turn the tide. David knew God could defeat his enemy. Yet the Lord permitted the enemy to keep his foot on David’s neck.

    Some of us work hard not to make enemies. Some enemies come ready-made. Most of David’s troubles were because he was in the will of God. And you will have enemies to fight for doing the will of God. That’s bad enough. It’s worse when the Lord permits the enemy to prevail over you. What do you do when you are losing the battle? Tell God about it. 

    Tell God Your Fears. 

    A lament is not about venting your frustrations. We tell God our complaints to ask God to intervene. This is what David does in Psalm 13. 

    • Verses 1-2 ask, why?
    • Verses 3-4 cry, help!

    Notice three elements of David’s cry for help. 

    The Invocation. I call my wife, Crystal,  “Mrs. Charles.” She calls me “Mr. Charles.” To hear us address each other this way seems awkward. But our strange language is filled with affection. The same is true of David’s lament. Verses 1-2 suggest something was wrong with David’s relationship with God. Verse 3 clarifies where he stands with God. David calls him, “O Lord my God.” 

    “Lord” is the covenant name of God with which God revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14: “I am that I am.” God is the self-existent one. David calls him “Lord” to acknowledge he is in control of the situation. David also calls him “my God.” This is the language of personal relationship. He is mine through election, redemption, and covenant. God is ours but not owned.

    • He is “the Lord” who does as he pleases. 
    • He is “my God” who will take care of me. 

    Thomas was absent when the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples. He did not believe their report. Then Christ revealed himself to Thomas. John 20:28-29 says, “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”

    The Petitions. Verse 3 makes three prayer requests. David prays, “Consider.” It means to look upon, take note, or gaze intently. Verse 1 complains that David felt forgotten and forsaken by God. Now he asks the Lord to pay attention. It is a faith-filled request. To ask God to look assumes God will do something about what he sees. Psalm 119:153 says, “Look on my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law.” 

    Verse 3 also asks, “Answer me.” This request applies to the questions in verses 1-2. David is not asking God to deal with his enemies. He is asking why God has not dealt with his enemies. The request is not for a favorable answer. David just wants an answer. Prayer is talking and listening. A person devoted to prayer is more concerned about God’s response than their requests.

    Verse 3 further asks, “Light up my eyes.” This metaphor can refer to instruction or encouragement. It is more than that here. David felt he was at the point of death. He asks God to revive him. When your eyes are dark, weak, or heavy, God can put the light in your eyes again. 

    The Motivations. Verses 3-4 record three requests. It also records three reasons why the Lord should answer. These motivations to answer teach us to tell God our fears. Verse 3 says, “Lest I sleep the sleep of death.” This is a metaphor for death. David felt his struggle would kill him. He asked God to keep him from the long sleep. Faith desires life. Prayer preserves life. 

    Verse 3 expresses David’s fear of death. Verse 4 expresses David’s fear of his enemies: “Lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.” God cares about what people say about you! The enemy was waiting to gloat over his ultimate demise. “Rejoice” is a worship term. The enemy will find a twisted joy in seeing you shaken. “Shaken” means to fall to the ground and not be able to get up again. Psalm 16:8 says, “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” God is able to keep your feet!

    Give God Your Trust.

    Psalms that begin as laments rarely end that way. Psalm 13 exemplifies this. It starts with complaintbut ends with confidence. David’s mood at the end of this psalm is so different that commentators suggest some interval between verses 1-4 and 5-6. But there is no indication that David’s circumstances have changed. The Lord changed David as he prayed. That’s the point of the psalm: Prayer can turn your pain into praise!

    • Praise is not a denial of reality. 
    • It is a recognition of a greater reality. 

    1 John 4:4 says, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” How do you turn pain into praise?

    Trust God stubbornly. 

    • The keywords of verses 1-2 are “How long?”
    • The keyword of verses 3-4 is lest.”
    • The keyword of verses 5-6 is “But.”

     Verse 5 begins with a great adversative: “But.” Your feelings, troubles, and enemies are real. They do not have the last word. Stubborn trust overcomes stubborn troubles. The only way through, out, or overis to trust God. Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the Lord will all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” 

    • Where is your trust? 
    • What are you leaning on? 
    • Who’s pushing your swing? 

     Faith is only as good as its object. Verse 5 says, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love.” This is a testimony, not a vow. David can talk the way he does because he trusted God’s steadfast love. “Steadfast love” is the covenant-keeping love of God. It is loyal love that is faithful, not forced.

    Verse 5 moves from the past to the future: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. In verse 2, there was sorrow in David’s heart all day. But David’s trust in God’s steadfast love made him confident that his sorrows would not have the last word. God would save, rescue, and deliver him. The emphasis is on his response, not his rescue: “My heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”

    • The enemy planned to rejoice over his demise. 
    • David planned to rejoice over his deliverance.  

    Trust God joyfully. Verse 6 says, “I will sing to the Lord.” David submitted this song to the Choirmaster. But he did not intend for the choir to do his singing for him. How could David sing through his sorrows? His singing was not based on his fickle feelings. It was his sacred vow to God. 

    We owe God a song of praise! Psalm 96:1-2 says, “O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sign to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.” Why is God worthy of your songs of praise? Verse 6 says, “I will sing to the Lord, who has dealt bountifully with me.” “Dealt bountifully” is more than I deserve. Have you thought about that?

    • It is okay to complain to God about how bad things are. 
    • It is better to praise God that it could have been another way. 

    The Lord has been better than you deserve. The NIV reads: “He has been good to me.”

    In A Turtle on a Fencepost, Allan Emery tells of accompanying Ken Hansen to visit a hospitalized employee. His operation had taken eight hours, and recovery was long and uncertain. “Alex,” said Ken quietly,” you know I have had several serious operations. I know the pain of trying to talk. I think I know the questions you’re asking. There are two verses I want to give – Genesis 42:36 and Romans 8:28. We have the option of these two attitudes. We need the perspective of the latter.” Hansen read the two passages, prayed, and left. Every day we choose one of these attitudes amid life’s difficulties. To say with Jacob in Genesis 42:36: “All this has come against me.” Or to say with Paul in Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.”  


    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.