Where is God in the wilderness? A reflection on Psalms 42-43
In the 42nd and 43rd Psalms, a son of Korah reflects on his current experience, and it is not good. His tears are his food day and night, he is surrounded by enemies, he is generally cast down, he is thirsty, and is feeling lost.
Boy do I relate right now. These past few months in Illinois have been harder than they should be for me: I’ve had intense periods of longing for Iowa State, to go back and be where I am comfortable, to be back with the friends that I cultivated for four years, to be back with my church and the small groups I was leading. I miss my friends from school and my old job at the library, and I miss my friends from Des Moines. I miss my family. A lot of nights are spent feeling generally lonely (though I have friends here whom I love), yet something feels…missing.
I am a part of a great church in Lombard, and joined a small group the first week in. The students are around my age and seem like a lot of fun. Some of the families at the church have gone through some great pains to ask me into their homes and spend time with me. The teaching is better than what I could have asked for, and the songs are excellent in both sound and doctrine. In all, though, God seems…silent.
The enemies of the Psalmist ask, “Where is your God?”
I’m tempted to answer them: “Even I don’t know.”
The Psalms exist, in part, to give comfort to the reader. As an extended reflection on the Law, the Psalms allow us to express our thoughts and emotions through guided worship rather than haphazard moaning. When we pray the Psalms, we pray through an emotive reading of the Law. By stressing the Psalms, we stress the matured worship of the Church rather than our sterile imaginations. When we learn the language of the Church, we learn to handle our emotions better and express them more fully. It’s ironic, right, that using someone else’s words is more full than using our own?
Before Israel could have entered the Promised Land, they were cursed to spend years in the wilderness, wandering until the first generation died out. This Psalm seems to find itself in the Wilderness with some of the terms invoked: Korah, Jordan, Hermon, steadfast love, and rock (cf. Deuteronomy’s name for God). The Wilderness was a time in which Israel looked forward to entering the Promised Land, a promise guaranteed by God based on his covenant with Israel. In the meantime, though, Israel seemed to be without her God, wandering, lost and aimless, waiting for something to change, dying in the process. Israel may be facing new life in Canaan, but the original generation wasn’t. They could only hope for death, so how do they relate to God? It could be a hopeless time.
What do you do in a rut?
As I struggle with where I am in life, moving from one stage into another, feeling that I’m in a wilderness, some aspects of the passage have been especially helpful. It’s not that I’ve come to accept these truths and integrate them fully, but these are aspects that I am learning to accept and integrate.
One of the most important aspects of the song is the courage that the Psalmist has in confronting his problems face to face. He knows that his position in life is wrong: as a child of God, he thinks he can expect better and he says something about it. “Why have you forgotten me?” “why have you rejected me?” The Psalmist, based on the covenant with God, knows that God has promised to be faithful to him because of his covenant. He knows that God is as much liable to be reliable on his side of the covenant, so he says something. The Book of Job rests on the same principles: Job knows that he is blameless and righteous according to the covenant, and he feels that he is being unjustly punished according to the covenant curses. Because he is faithful to the covenant, Job and the Psalmist believe that they are able to challenge their position. Based on my covenant faithfulness through the Spirit joining me to the covenant faithfulness of Christ, I can call upon God to fix my position according to the covenant blessings I gain through the blood of Christ.
In practicing my freedom to challenge my position, I can be more active in actually changing my position. I’m usually a really passive person, who usually waits for something to happen outside of me to change my position. In that, I become lazy and usually fall even deeper into my problems and my despair. By being able to speak to God more candidly, I can better engage with God. I think it’s most likely that God works with your honesty better than your half-hearted prayers, so in this case, I’m taking this as liberty to be more honest with God and speak candidly based on the covenant God cut with me.
The next part is that the Psalmist knows who God is based on his experience. He was, at one point, the liturgy leader who walked in front of Israel to lead them to the Temple, leading them in worship. When he calls on God and challenges God, he addresses him with the theological truth he knows about God based on his experience. He calls God his Rock and that he takes refuge in God. It may not be that the Psalmist recognizes right now that God is his refuge and his Rock, but he can still preach these truths to himself. By continually reminding himself about God, he can bring himself back into a place where he might start to believe it again. It’s like CS Lewis says: even if you don’t believe in God right now, if you act like you do, you stay in a position of continually practicing your Christianity even when you don’t believe it.
Like I said, I act really passively when something happens to me or I fall into a funk. By addressing my prayers to God as I know that God is, I can continue to act like I’m not in a rut, as if I still believe and feel about God the way that Scripture describes him as, and prevent myself from falling even more deeply into the rut and even start to move out. It’s not simply reciting Scripture verses (though that is extremely helpful sometimes), but like this Psalmist, it is describing God as I personally know him to be. By calling to mind the things I remember about God, I can reinvigorate my love for God by remembering the good things he has done for me.
Finally, I see the active work of God to speak into the wilderness. In one verse, God actively commands “steadfast love” to the Psalmist. Steadfast love, hesed, is love that is a fiercely loyal love based on the covenant God cut with us. When we call on God to remain faithful to his covenant (to not forget us nor to reject us), God actively works to show his faithfulness to the covenant. This means that love is not an abstract feeling God has toward us, but actively works to love us in a real, tangible way. Not only that, but God’s love works against our despair. The Psalmist notes that his tears are his food day and night, but God is actively commanding steadfast love toward the Psalmist by day and puts his song with the Psalmist by night. God’s love here is specially tailored to combat our despairs and worries exactly. Though we don’t know it, I’m sure there are times that it can be encouraging enough knowing that God is tailoring his response to us precisely. This certainty gives us hope, knowing that God is leading me into his promised dwelling.
In my wilderness, when I can’t find God, Psalms 42-43 give us directions to get out of the wilderness. This doesn’t mean it’s easy, and it doesn’t mean that I’m out. Knowing that our High Priest’s sacrifice gives us access to the Promised Land, the new Jerusalem, we can look forward to our time with God and our exit from the wilderness. With the Psalmist, we can pray:
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”