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The literary structure of Psalm 13

Psalm 13 is really powerful; full of intense and honest struggle, but also faith. And I want to hold it up for you as a model for when you are being overwhelmed by difficult circumstances.

As we get started, a few words about –

Psalm 13

It is the shortest prayer for help in the book of Psalms. There are shorter Psalms, but these are not requests to God.

In terms of how it is put together, there are three obvious parts to this psalm.

  • In vs.  1-2 the Psalmist pours out his heart to God.
  • In vs. 3-4 he makes his request
  • And in vs. 5-6 he expresses his faith and hope in God

And each of these sections has the name of God or “Yahweh” in it, indicated in English by the capitalized “LORD.”

We don’t know the specifics of his situation, but it involves enemies and the threat of death. This is a Davidic Psalm (written by him or in honor of/about him) perhaps referring to his time in the wilderness hiding from King Saul, who was trying to kill him. Whatever the case may be he is facing a very serious situation and needs God’s help.

Let’s look at the first section, which is a cry of despair.

1How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

There is no indication in these verses that the Psalmist has sinned or has been unfaithful so that his difficulties are the result of this. He is simply in an overwhelming time of testing and trial.

Notice the phrase “How long?” This is used several times in scriptural prayers, but this is the only place where it is repeated four times, and in such a short space. There is an intensity in this prayer in asking this question of God. These questions also show us that it’s OK to ask God questions like this. God can take it. We don’t have to put on a smile, or fake it when we come into God’s presence. After all, he already knows what we are thinking and feeling. We only need be careful that we do this with proper respect for God.

You can feel the raw emotions and the brutal honesty of this prayer as you read these two verses.

  • In relation to God the Psalmist feels abandoned and ignored by God. God has hidden his face, that is it feels like God has turned away and is not looking out for him; he feels that God has forgotten him.
  • In relation to himself he feels greatly distressed within. “Taking counsel in his soul” perhaps has to do with trying to sort out what he should do, since God doesn’t seem to be acting for him; it has to do with anxious worrying. And he has sorrow in his heart.
  • In relation to his problem , his enemy, he feels defeated. His enemy has the upper hand and this means that his life is in danger.

Also notice the time indicators, the “how long?” questions, the word “forever” and the phrase “all the day.” The sense is that he is barely hanging on. He is worn down. He is at the breaking point. The test is so hard that he can’t take it anymore. So if God doesn’t act soon, it will overwhelm him and be too late.

Next we have his request to God.

3Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 4lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.”

In general, he wants God to consider him or take note of his situation to answer him. He’s saying, ‘God, don’t forget me or hide your face from me.’ He wants God to act to bring him help him in the midst of his difficulty.

Specifically, he wants God to “light up his eyes.” In Scripture to have dim eyes means that you are overwhelmed, weak and weary (Job 17:7; Deuteronomy 34:7). And to have eyes that are lit up has to do with being strong, full of life and vigor (Deuteronomy 34:7; Ezra 9:8; Proverbs 29:13). Even today we can tell how someone is doing by their eyes, right? We can tell whether they are full of energy and life or whether they are worn down and discouraged. You can see it.

So, being worn down by his trials, he is asking God to give him strength, new life, vigor, encouragement and hope.

And he doesn’t just make his request for help, he gives God three reasons to act:

  1. lest he die, because he is in danger of death.
  2. lest his enemy win
  3. lest they rejoice at his downfall

In this situation the Psalmist understands himself to be in the right; he is doing God’s will but is being persecuted by evildoers. And so, yes, he wants to be saved and vindicated, and have his enemies put down. But it is bigger than this. He is appealing to God in all this to act for your Name’s sake. Since he is representing God and the righteous, it’s not good that evildoers think that God doesn’t care about their evil, or about the well-being of his own. He needs to act for his Name’s sake and for the sake of righteousness.

In section one the writer is hanging by a thread. In section two he is asking God to give him strength. And then we have a tremendous change of tone in vs. 5-6 where the Psalmist speaks of his faith and hope.

5But I trust in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

Two things are going on here:

1) He is given strength to trust in God. God has indeed begun to enlighten his eyes, even as he has been pouring out his heart and asking God for help. (It is healing to pour out our hearts to God.)

 Now, instead of seeing just his outward circumstances and choosing to give up, he sees God’s faithfulness; that is his “steadfast love” or “unfailing love.” This is God’s covenant love or commitment to him and his well-being. So he has his circumstances on the one hand and then God’s character and promises on the other and he chooses God. This  is called faith.

2) He now looks forward to God’s salvation; for deliverance from his trial and testing. We know he is not yet delivered because his salvation and rejoicing is spoken of as a future reality. But he can now move forward in faith and hope that God will save him, since his faith has been renewed.

  • Even though he may still have some “sorrow in (his) my heart,” – v. 2, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when “(his) my heart shall rejoice” – v. 5.
  • Even though his enemies are exalted “over (him) me” – v. 2, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when God will have dealt bountifully “with (him) me” – v. 6.
  • Even though his enemies are “exalted” – v. 2 over him and seek to “rejoice” – v. 4 at his demise, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when he “shall rejoice – v. 6 in God’s salvation.

And this will not just be a minor thing. God will “bountifully” deliver and save him.

Finally, I want you to look at –

Psalm 13 as a model prayer

It is a model for when you find yourself in times of testing and are ready to give up. Follow the threefold pattern we find here:

1. Pour out your heart to God. Be honest with God. Express your emotions to God – about how distant he seems; about how you are in inner turmoil; about how your problem has the upper hand. And ask God questions, What’s going on? Why, God? Or as here, how long?God, I’m barely hanging on.

2. Ask God for strength. God, enlighten my eyes. Give me renewed life, vigor, vitality and encouragement. And tell him why; so you don’t give in and fail in time of trial and thus dishonor his Name; so that others will see and know that God is faithful to his own and upholds righteousness.

And then, 3. Receive renewed trust in God to make it through. Let God work a work in you as you pour out your heart and as you make your request known and as you think of his unfailing love for you and commitment to you.

Receive the strength to choose to trust in God and stand on his character and promises despite your difficult circumstances. And having been renewed, look forward to God’s salvation; deliverance from your trial when you will rejoice and sing praises to God.

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We are in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 today. It seems especially appropriate to share on this passage and its message, given that a number of our congregation are going through some real times of testing and hardship right now. Let’s look at this Scripture and see what God has to say to us this morning.

“3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

5For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, producing in you an endurance of the same sufferings which we also suffer. 7Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

8For we do not want you to be ignorant, sisters and brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”

Let’s break this down into four points.

1. Paul talks a lot about going through hard times in these verses

The word “affliction” shows up four times. It means “trouble that inflicts distress” due to the outward circumstances of life. It can also be translated “trouble” or “tribulation.” It also refers to “inward experiences of distress.” The pain that we have because of our difficulties.

The word “sufferings” occurs four times, once as a verb. It means “that which is suffered or endured.” It can be translated, “to be in pain.”

In these verses Paul is referring specifically to suffering because of his ministry – suffering lack and being persecuted. In v. 5 he talks about how “we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings” as he and Timothy fulfill their calling to preach the gospel. Later in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29 we get a taste of what Paul is talking about: imprisonments, beatings, near death encounters, including being stoned; being shipwrecked, adrift at sea, exposed to dangers as he traveled, exposed to the cold; often hungry and thirsty.

But also v. 4 broadens the scope of what’s being talked about in these verses to include “any affliction.”

In our verses, he is giving thanks to God for a specific deliverance. v. 8 mentions  “the affliction we experienced in Asia,” that is, in the Roman province of Asia in what would be Western Turkey today. We don’t know specifically what he’s talking about, but probably the Corinthians do.

This is what we know. In v. 9 he says, “we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” And in v. 10 he called it a “deadly peril.” He thought for sure he and Timothy were going to die. The result was that “we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (v. 8). Now notice he was not just burdened, he was “utterly burdened,” weighed down, or crushed. So much so that he had no strength to deal with it and had no hope of living. So this was really intense testing he was in.

And certainly sometimes we feel “utterly burdened beyond our strength” by the circumstances of life that we are in. So much so that we think we aren’t going to make it. That is, we too can have despair; we can give up hope. This is a part of the inward pain that such suffering and affliction bring to us. This is what trials can do to us.

2. But also these verses say a lot about God’s mercy and comfort

v. 3 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” This whole passage is blessing God for God’s mercy and comfort.

The title that Paul gives to God, “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,” doesn’t just point to God as being merciful and comforting, but to God as the source of our mercy and comfort.

God’s mercy is seen in that God delivered Paul from his trial. He didn’t die. God’s comfort has to do with God’s help in the midst of his trial.

The word “comfort” here can also be translated “encouragement,” or “consolation.” In its verbal form it means to give strength, to give hope; to lift another’s spirits; to ease their pain and sorrow. And this is a real theme in vs. 3-7. The root word shows up 10 times.

Paul is saying that he has experienced this from God. God comforted him in his desperate trial. In v. 4 he speaks of him “who comforts us in all our affliction” and talks about being “comforted by God.” He experienced God encouraging him and giving him strength. He experienced God’s presence and love which allayed some of the pain he was going through.

He also teaches us in v. 5 that God’s grace is sufficient to our need. “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so though Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” He is saying that if we have many afflictions, we can have a corresponding measure of comfort as well.

Well, just as God comforted Paul, God will comfort us in our sufferings too. God is there with us and for us in our hard times. God can encourage us, let us know that he loves us, strengthen us and hold us up, so that we endure (v. 6). And so, like Paul, we should look to God to do just this.

Paul also makes the point in the verses that –

3. God can use our sufferings for good

He can redeem our afflictions. This shows up in two ways in our passage:

1) Paul talks about how, because he has suffered and been comforted by God, he can now give comfort to others who suffer. v. 4 – God “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

Suffering equips us to minister to others; to help and bless others who are enduring suffering. And through such comfort we strengthen them to endure, as Paul says in v. 6.

2) He talks about how God used his trial to help him grow in his faith. Specifically to teach him to rely fully on God. v. 9 – “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

His situation was beyond anything that he could take are of, and since it involved him dying he had to look to the one who can raise the dead. Death isn’t fixable by human means, only by God. He has to learn in a new way what full reliance on God meant.

Now, none of us like to go through trials.

  • But it is true that often, we minister most effectively when we are in the midst of trials or have gone through deep waters. As here we are enabled to minister comfort to others.
  • And it is true that often, we grow in our faith the most when we are in trials. As here we are taught to rely on God more fully.

And so although we pray to be spared trials, we also pray to be effective ministers to others and to grow in our faith. Although we pray to be spared testing, we also pray, your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done.

So we don’t want trials, but we have to trust God to sort through all this in terms of what is truly best for us from the perspective of our faith and of eternity, and what will bring glory to his name and advance his kingdom purposes.

We also learn in this passage –

4. How to respond to those who are suffering

1) Like Paul, we can comfort others with the comfort God has given us in our times of suffering. Again, v. 4, God “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

We can share how God has been faithful to us. We can encourage them to hang in there; to look to God for help. We can ask what practical things we can do to ease their burden. But most of all we can simply be present and express our love. Love is more powerful than evil or whatever evil we find ourselves going through. Love is what truly comfort and heals.

And God uses us when we do these things, to give his comfort to people in need.

2) Like Paul asks the Corinthians to do, we can pray for others, for deliverance from trials, both now and in the future.

v. 11 says, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” Paul is speaking of future ordeals he will no doubt go through. And by the help of their prayers he wants God’s deliverance from these. This is what he means by “the blessing granted to us.”

Now, Paul was not always delivered. According to tradition he was eventually killed by Emperor Nero. So this praying is subject to God’s will, of course. But nevertheless he asks for prayers for deliverance so that he can continue on with the ministry that God has given to him. And we can pray the same for those who are going through hard times.

William Higgins

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