“He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.” (Psalm 40:2, NLT)
Repeatedly (18 times to be exact) the Psalmist finds himself in a pit and cries out to the LORD to be rescued. We’ve all had this experience. The odds are that either you’re in a pit now or you know someone who is.
No one wants to fall into a pit. Even worse is to be put there by someone. It’s dark. You’re hurting and alone. Probably you feel bad about yourself. Maybe you’re angry. You desperately want out of your circumstance, but you’re stuck!
And yet, much to our surprise, in the pit we can learn to find refuge under the wings of the LORD. Jesus Christ himself offers us to gather us under his wings (Matt. 23:37).
Crying Out From the Pit
The Psalmist’s references to the pit are not spoken as generalities or factual principles, but as desperate cries in painful experiences. For instance, David fell into the pit when Saul’s armies were hunting him, when he was caught committing adultery, and when his son mounted a coup to overthrow his rule as king.
The pit is a metaphor. The Psalms poet is using evocative language that invites us to reflect on our own distress. Today I offered pit prayers to God over physical pain I’m experiencing, being judged by a colleague, and feeling rejected by a loved one. Also Kristi shared a pit with me, as did one of our children and a pastor I care for.
What pit are you facing today?
Lord, we hurt! We’re sinking! It’s not fair! We’re angry! And it’s too slippery in this muddy mire to climb out. We cry out to you to lift us up on angels’ wings and set us on solid ground. Help us to trust you and to forgive as you’ve forgiven us. Lead us by the hand along the path of life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Pit of Denial
But sometimes instead offering an emotionally honest lament prayer in the manner of the Psalmist I push down my negative feelings by getting busy, staying in my head, or distracting myself.
Often I talk with people who don’t want to be emotional or needy. Maybe we’ve learned in life that it’s not safe to be vulnerable. “Snap out of it!” we may say to ourselves in the same tone that our parent used when we were little.
Denial of feelings or neediness is a sure way to get stuck in a pit. The prophet warns us: “God can’t heal what you won’t feel” (Jer. 6:14, paraphrase).
The Lament Psalms are Therapy For Your Soul
The most common type of prayers in the Bible’s Prayer Book are not celebratory songs of thanksgiving and praise, though based on the songs we sing in church you’d think that to be the case! It’s actually the Psalms of Lament that are most frequent. There are 67 Sad Psalms that are themed on complaining and crying to God.
When Jonah was stuck in the belly of a whale he used Pit Psalms to help him pray (2:1-7). We need these distress prayers because in our daily lives we keep finding ourselves in a “valley of the shadow of death” (23:4, KJV) or a “horrible pit” (40:2, KJV). If you’re a pastor I urge you to incorporate the Laments into your worship services to help people learn the Psalmist’s way of praying and praising God in difficulty.
Like a spiritual psychotherapist, the Psalmist helps us to feel our emotions, own them, and vent them to God. By opening our heart to God we discover that he listens, empathizes, validates, and responds. He comes to our aid to comfort us and strengthen us.
So the Psalmist prays: “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings” (17:8). 43 times the Psalmist says he’s taking “refuge” in the LORD! Really, it’s the attitude of all 150 psalms in the Bible’s Prayer Book. We sing praise to the God of Angel Armies, our Rock and our Fortress, our Strong Tower and our Deliverer, not only in times of blessing, but also in our trials.
Finding Refuge Under the Wing of the Lord
Often we pray from the pit and our prayer is not answered how or when we want. The healing doesn’t come. Finances remain short. Our dream doesn’t materialize. Our loved one keeps hurting us. God feels far away. But by praying Lament Psalms with Jesus in these situations I’ve learned to trust that even in a pit, “God is our refuge and fortress, an ever-present help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
When it’s pitch black, arrows are flying at us, and pestilence is stalking us… When people are dying all around us… We can go to Christ the Lord to find refuge under his wing. Even if we’re suffering or dying, we can stay close to him in his shadow, like little chicks in the nest snuggled in their mother’s soft feathers and then following her wherever she goes. The LORD helps the little chick to trample on the lion and the serpent! He promises that when we take refuge in him he will deliver and honor us. He promises to give us long life — really loooooong, as in eternal life! (Psalm 91)
Did you know that story was the theme of Psalm 91? Read it closely and you’ll see. Here and all through the Bible God is showing us that we’re bi-habitional creatures. We’re created by God from the dust of earth and also the breath of heaven; we’re physical and spiritual beings. We’re designed to walk on earth and in the heavens that reach down to our feet. This is Jesus is teaching us when he comes announcing: Think again about your life, the Father’s heavenly kingdom is now at hand (Matt. 4:17, par).
The Kingdom of the cosmic Christ is still among us! The eternal refuge of God is right beside you now and you can live from this heavenly realm, drawing on the divine supply to meet your needs today.
Participating in the Rhythm of the Psalms
In Praying the Psalms Walter Brueggemann describes three movements of life with God that the Psalms (especially the Laments or Pit Psalms) teach us: orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. We need to learn this divine flow in order to be able to live on earth from the resources of the eternal world.
The Proverbs in the Bible present a world that makes sense and in which we find secure orientation: those who follow the path of wisdom are blessed, but the wicked suffer. This is generally true. We reap from what we sow (Gal. 6:7). This is a world that makes sense and provides us with equilibrium because it is obvious that God is ordering life. We feel safe and settled. We’re motivated to be responsible because we’ll experience the benefits.
Psalm 37 is an example of secure orientation. It’s collection of wise sayings would find a home in the book of Proverbs. Other examples include Psalms 9-10, 25, 34, 111, 112, 119, and 145. But most of the Psalms cannot fit in the Proverbial literature — they’re from another world.
Brueggemann says, “While we all yearn for [equilibrium], it is not very interesting and it does not produce great prayer or powerful song.” (p. 3)
When trouble hits we feel disoriented. Losing a job. A bad diagnosis from the doctor. Family conflict. Just turning on the evening news can throw us off balance and make it hard to sleep at night!
When life is not good we can lament to God with the Psalmist to find that we’re not alone in the pit. A man of prayer has gone ahead of us, as has the Man of Prayer. Jesus prayed the Psalms as a man and he still prays them as the Cosmic Christ at the throne of God. The Spirit of Jesus meets us in the Psalter, authorizing the prayers of people as the word of God.
In this school of prayer we learn that we don’t need to be polite, nice, or religious when talking to God. In fact, God wants us to be honest — brutally honest. The raw language of the Psalmist helps us to pray out our dismay, grief, doubt, fear, and anger and know that God hears, God cares, and God acts.
Psalms 13, 22, and 88 are prime examples of prayers in times of disorientation. All of the Complaint Psalms fit here.
The third movement in prayer that we see in the Psalms is that of reorientation. Here we enjoy the blessing that God makes all things new. This is not a return to normalcy or a naive and false security that everything is okay in the world. Nor is it an automatic third stage in a progression. Reorientation is a surprising gift of grace that appears like a rainbow during a storm.
But we might miss the rainbow. Most often God’s provisions are more subtle than things like physical healing or financial windfalls — they’re spiritual blessings. To appreciate what God is doing we need to train ourselves to notice the unseen world of his kingdom. “Yahweh is King!” the Psalmist exclaims (96:10, 97:1, 99:1). “Give thanks to the LORD for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (136:1)
All of the many celebratory songs of thanksgiving and the hymns in the Psalms demonstrate divine reorientation. As do the Royal or Messianic Psalms.
Pray the Laments to Reorient in the Lord
One day life seems to make sense and the next we may be in chaos. We pray for clarity, healing, or resolution, but it doesn’t come. Secure orientation has given way to painful disorientation. Praying a Lament Psalm can move us into serendipitous reorientation even if our circumstances haven’t yet turned around. In other words, we may still be in the pit and yet find refuge and comfort under the wing of the LORD.
Psalm 3, the first Lament in the Psalter is a good model for how we can train ourselves to be reoriented by the loving presence of the LORD in the midst of our trials.
David opens Psalm 3 addressing God by his personal name, Yahweh (v 1). Incredibly, Jesus shows us that we can even pray to God Almighty as “Abba” or “Dear Papa!” (Mark 14:36)
How many are my foes…
Then David gets real concrete. He talks about his painful trial in detail. The superscript says that this is a psalm of King David’s when he fled from his son Absalom. His own son committed treason and rallied an army to overthrow him. David didn’t want to fight his flesh and blood and so he ran away into the desert. Alone and publicly humiliated he cries out, “O Yahweh, how many are my foes… Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him.'” (vv 1-2)
But you, O Lord, are a shield around me…
Tens of thousands surround David, some ready to kill him with their spears and others trying to destroy him with their contemptuous words (v 6). But he knows the LORD as a shield around him (v 3). He trusts in him as the one who answers prayer (v 4). Amazingly, even though David is physically encircled by a vast horde of bloodthirsty enemies he’s so confident in the LORD’s spiritual presence protecting him and acting in support of him that he’s able to sleep like a baby! (v 5).
Indeed, being able to sleep at night is a great indicator of how we’re doing with actually trusting the LORD in the midst of our problems. When we’re anxious we toss and turn in our beds. But not David. He’s learned to think of Yahweh through the watches of the night (Psalm 63:6). When he awakes he meditates on Torah like the Psalm 1 Man and falls back asleep.
This is transformation! Even in great danger in which David says “many rise up against me” (v 1) he basks in the glory of the LORD “who lifts my head high” (v 3). Yahweh is giving him supernatural confidence and alertness.
A third time the poet-warrior speaks of rising when he prays for the LORD to “rise up” and deliver him (v 7). Using graphic, angry language he freely asks the LORD for just what he wants: “Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked” (v 7). He wants those who have slandered him verbally to have their jaws wounded and their teeth broken so they can’t speak against him anymore!
Hateful feelings and vengeful desires seem ungodly to us. So we usually edit out these “cursing” lines in our public readings of the Psalms. As we mentioned, very few of today’s worship songs teach us how to grieve or express anger. So we tend to internalize anger and get depressed or react in anger and hurt people.
But the complaining, cursing Psalmist is showing us how to entrust our anger and our cries for revenge to the LORD God as the judge, the one who is just and merciful. This helps us not to react in anger or to suppress our anger and become resentful or depressed.
May the Lord bless his people…
David concludes his Lament by praying for deliverance and blessing on all of Yahweh’s people. He’s sharing with others the spiritual riches of God’s favor that he’s enjoying. He’s living in the joyful overflow of God’s love! That’s where you and I want to live!
Reorientation in Psalm 3
There’s a great lesson for us from Psalm 3 that we don’t want to miss. May God help us to learn this and live it out! David experiences a surprising personal restoration in the midst of suffering unjustly.
Apparently, he hasn’t yet been physically delivered from his enemies or public scorn, but, nonetheless, he’s found peace and glory in the LORD as his shield and the lifter of his head. He poured out his hurt and anger to God, asked for deliverance, and went to sleep still surrounded by his enemies. The glorious peace that David enjoys is not from changed circumstances, but from taking refuge under the wing of the LORD.
He’s placed himself and his circumstances in the Kingdom of God. He’s so wonderfully blessed and reoriented in the loving care of his LORD that he enthusiastically prays for all of Yahweh’s people to be blessed too!
Did you notice that the armies of Absalom that are trying to kill David are among the people who belong to Yahweh? In other words, the same enemies he was angry at and asked God to punish he now prays blessings upon!
One thousand years later this is what the Lord Jesus Christ, David’s seed and the Messiah, teaches as the pinnacle of godliness: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28).
How did David do this? How did he become so fully reconstituted and restored by God as to pray blessings upon his enemies? That’s the therapeutic and transformational power of praying a Lament Psalm!