Suffering Psalms

The suffering psalms described both the trouble and the effect on the author as he poured his heart out before God in prayer.
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In our study of the Psalms, we must not lose sight of the fact that these writings are not merely religious poetry divided into various categories, but are also an inspired record of experiences that people have had in their relationship with God. For example, they contain:

  • The questions that arise when a man recognizes that God is present and judging his life.
  • The awe one feels when contemplating God's creation and the revelation that is given through His word.
  • The relief felt by those who come before God to acknowledge and repent of their sins, and receive forgiveness.
  • The joy for those who completely give themselves over to the worship of the true God.

There are times, however, when life is filled with hardships, calamities and death. In times such as these God wants His people to come to Him in prayer and petition. The Suffering psalms were written during such periods and describe the troubles as well as the requests made to God by those whose lives were upended by adversities common to people in every generation and culture.

Types of Suffering Psalms

There are two main categories in the Suffering psalm type:

  1. General: These describe, in a general way, the suffering common to mankind (illness, depression, loneliness, oppression, etc.). Some are like Wisdom psalms, asking the question, "Why?" Many times there are different lessons and ideas that overlap but are contained in the same psalm.
  2. Imprecatory (from the Latin word meaning "to pray for"): These psalms call on God to curse and destroy the enemy who is responsible for sin or the suffering of the writer.

General Suffering Psalms

Psalms 42 and 43

Background: These two psalms are believed to have originally been one poem. In several Hebrew manuscripts they are joined together. Psalm 43 is the only poem in the second book of Psalms to lack a superscription, all the others have instructions except this one.

The theme for both is similar in that the author is grieved because he has been excluded from the sanctuary of the Lord. Verses 42:5; 11; and 43:5 are the same and divide the two poems into three major stanzas, and thus can be studied as a whole poem in three parts with a single theme.

Apparently the author plays the lyre (43:4) and was accustomed to leading ceremonial processions to the Temple in Jerusalem on various holy days. For some reason he is now in hiding or has been imprisoned by his enemies in the northern part of the country (Mount Hermon) and longs for a return to the city and practice of worship there. His enemies, who are not believers, taunt him when he expresses these longings to them (42:3; 10). The writer's suffering is intensified because he thinks God has abandoned him (42:9). Despite this difficult situation, however, he continues to ask God for deliverance and a return to Jerusalem so that he can once again participate in worship.

42:1-5 - Yearning and Regret

1As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So my soul pants for You, O God.
2My soul thirsts for God, for the living God;
When shall I come and appear before God?
3My tears have been my food day and night,
While they say to me all day long, "Where is your God?"
4These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me.
For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.

In verses 1-4 he expresses his deep yearning for a return to his former activity in leading public worship. Note the imagery of his soul's experience: frightened and breathless like a frightened deer, thirsty and parched needing refreshment.

5Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him
For the help of His presence.

With the first use of the refrain the author reflects on his suffering (talks to himself) and responds with an upsurge of faith and trust that God will indeed save him.

42:6-11 - Dejection and Hope

This section describes the struggle of faith caused by this man's suffering.

6O my God, my soul is in despair within me;
Therefore I remember You from the land of the Jordan
And the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
7Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls;
All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me.
8The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime;
And His song will be with me in the night,
A prayer to the God of my life.

His surroundings (the waterfalls and mountains) remind him of God's presence and power, but also how his troubles have flooded his life and overwhelmed him. Nevertheless, he continues to hope, trust and pray.

9I will say to God my rock, "Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?"
10As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me,
While they say to me all day long, "Where is your God?"

He wonders why God allows his enemies to taunt him without response, "Has God forgotten me?" His natural struggle of faith is to think God does not know or care that his troubles seem larger and stronger than he is.

11Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.

In this final refrain the author again reflects on his condition and again reaffirms his commitment to continue hoping despite the apparent evidence that God has abandoned him. He realizes that no one else can help him and only the Lord ("the help of my countenance") is His God.

43:1-5 - Confidence in God

1Vindicate me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation;
O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man!
2For You are the God of my strength; why have You rejected me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

Here, the poet calls on God to be his defender against his enemies. Perhaps, after a time of hesitation, he has now reluctantly put the entire responsibility for his salvation into the hands of God, his defender. Even though God is silent throughout his sufferings, the author is content to let the matter be with the Lord, contrary to his previous efforts of defending himself.

3O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me;
Let them bring me to Your holy hill
And to Your dwelling places.
4Then I will go to the altar of God,
To God my exceeding joy;
And upon the lyre I shall praise You, O God, my God.

Here, the author repeats this idea in another way and adds one more thought. He calls upon God's wisdom, truth and power to rescue and return him to his former place of worship in Jerusalem. He not only asks to be returned to that physical place but to the very presence of God and the joy of that presence as well (this is like a Worship psalm here). It is in this state that he will be able to offer, once again, his praise to God as a man renewed in faith.

5Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why are you disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.

He offers a third repetition of this refrain to end the poem (meant to be read with different tone). This psalm is about a man in trouble who is experiencing a crisis of faith and sharing his internal dialogue concerning these matters with his readers:

  • In 42:5, his faith rebukes the hopelessness he feels at the suffering experienced and described in verses 1-4.
  • In 42:11, his faith exhorts him to believe despite his bewilderment at God's silence during his suffering.
  • In 43:5, his faith declares triumph over the present distress because he knows that God still rules and can save him no matter what.

These psalms teach us that continued faith during trials is what God requires of us and what gives us strength. Whether or not the trial ends before we die is of no importance, and yet the subject of much prayer (we want to get back to normal living as soon as possible). What is truly important and worthy of our petitions to God, however, is remaining faithful until we die, regardless of the state of our health or position until that time.

Imprecatory Psalms

These are suffering psalms where the author boldly asks God to destroy his enemies. Many have problems with these psalms because they seem to contradict the spirit of love and forgiveness found in God's attitude towards men. Many who read these prayers ask, "How could God inspire men to say such things?"

Psalm 58

This is a poem written as an inditement against false rulers and judges.

1Do you indeed speak righteousness, O gods?
Do you judge uprightly, O sons of men?
2No, in heart you work unrighteousness;
On earth you weigh out the violence of your hands.
3The wicked are estranged from the womb;
These who speak lies go astray from birth.
4They have venom like the venom of a serpent;
Like a deaf cobra that stops up its ear,
5So that it does not hear the voice of charmers,
Or a skillful caster of spells.

In these verses we see that the term "O gods" refers to men in rulership positions as judges, governors or kings. The writer claims that these leaders have been wicked, hypocritical, violent and unjust, and have been so all of their lives. He charges that nothing can stop their evil (e.g. a deaf snake cannot be tamed by a charmer), and they listen to no one including God Himself.

6O God, shatter their teeth in their mouth;
Break out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord.
7Let them flow away like water that runs off;
When he aims his arrows, let them be as headless shafts.
8Let them be as a snail which melts away as it goes along,
Like the miscarriages of a woman which never see the sun.
9Before your pots can feel the fire of thorns
He will sweep them away with a whirlwind, the green and the burning alike.

The imprecations or pleas for punishment of these people are made by describing six images of damage or suffering that the author urges God to inflict upon them:

  1. Young lions that have their teeth torn out.
  2. Water that is quickly eliminated after a downpour.
  3. Broken arrows.
  4. A snail that is drawn up into its shell.
  5. A miscarriage.
  6. Thorns that are quickly burned up when lighted under a cooking pot.

All of these thoughts carry with them the idea of quick and total destruction of these enemies.

10The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
11And men will say, "Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
Surely there is a God who judges on earth!"

The author concludes that the righteous will rejoice when the wicked are destroyed. In addition to this, God through His judgment will be seen to be the true Judge, and the righteous who have suffered will have their faith in God and personal righteousness vindicated.

Imprecatory Psalms in Light of the New Testament

In the New Testament we are taught to love our enemies, not to curse them, and to wait upon the vengeance of the Lord (Romans 12:19). How do we then explain the presence of such curses in the Bible? Here are some possible explanations:

  1. These writings reflect the culture of a people who had not yet received the full gospel message but honestly portray their feelings at that time.
  2. The Israelites identified sin with the sinner and so to destroy one meant to destroy the other. For example, Baal worship was destroyed when Baal worshippers were destroyed. Also, God had used Israel to bring judgment on the pagan tribes in the Promised Land and so it was natural to see judgment as something that God began here on earth.
  3. In II Thessalonians, Paul uses a similar idea, "... for after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you." (II Thessalonians 1:6). The idea of God's judgment falling on the wicked and vindicating the righteous is a true one. However, in the Old Testament the language that this truth was couched in was more forceful and reflective of the culture, conditions and enlightenment of the people at that time.
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