So far in our studies in unfamiliar psalms we have considered Psalm 6, an individual lament with its quite typical interplay of faith and grief in the Christian’s life. We then considered Psalm 14 and the way it teaches us to connect the strength of a person’s belief in God with the goodness of his or her life. We then looked at Psalm 26 and considered how it is possible for a still-sinful but believing man or woman to claim integrity or blamelessness before God as David does in that Psalm. Jesus Christ makes his people righteous, not by forgiveness only but in their living, even in this world. Next was Psalm 33 and the connection drawn in that great psalm between creation and providence; how the conviction that God is the maker of heaven and earth inevitably determines the strength with which we believe that he rules over heaven and earth. Then came Psalm 47 with its wonderful witness to the place of deep emotion in the Christian life. Finally, last time, we considered Psalm 62, a confidence psalm, and learned from it that, no matter the circumstances of life, Christians have every right to take their stand on the unchanging character of God: his faithfulness, justice, and love.
Tonight we take up Psalm 74, another lament, but one that leads us into the consideration of a spiritual reality that is, in my experience, never talked about in most churches and very rarely in the rest. I am speaking of what the old writers used to call “divine desertion.” But first let’s read the psalm.
v.1 It is usually thought, and for obvious reasons as we will see as we read on, that this psalm dates from the time or shortly after the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. and the subsequent exile of the Jews to Babylon. As one commentator puts it, “This tormented psalm has the marks of the national disaster that produced Psalms 79 and 137.” [Kidner, ii, 264-265] It includes a number of striking similarities to expressions in Lamentations. [Hakham, ii, 155]
The “forever” in v. 1 is a way of expressing the psalmist’s grief and fear. It seems to him as if the present situation will never end.
v.8 The question of verse 1 is put so urgently precisely because it is the Lord’s own people, the people he made his very own who have been crushed and the Lord’s own sanctuary that lies in ruins. The hardest thing to face is that the Lord has permitted this destruction. It is precisely the psalmist’s faith that produces the questions in his mind. How can the Lord stand by and do nothing about his own inheritance? The two great facts that the psalmist is remembering are Israel’s redemption and Yahweh’s dwelling among her.
The reference to “meeting places” in the plural is interesting. Is this another indication that there were already synagogues in the various towns of Judea at the time of the Babylonian invasion? [Tate, 249-250] After all, we know from other evidence that Israelites went to worship on the Lord’s Day just as we do and they did that in their home towns; they couldn’t go to Jerusalem every week.
v.9 While the enemy’s “signs” are now visible in the ruins of the temple, the people of God can see none of signs of God’s favor or presence or power. Nor is there any prophet to tell them how long all of this will last. That raises a question, of course. If we are talking about the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was certainly a prominent prophet and had in fact told the Jews of an exile that would last 70 years. Perhaps the psalm originated in the group left in Jerusalem after Ezekiel had been taken to Babylon and Jeremiah to Egypt. And perhaps the psalmist is wondering about the people’s restoration in other respects than simply the return of the exiles. They know enough about the world in which they live. They know that Israel is now virtually a minor speck on the international map.
v.12 Vv. 12-17 are a recollection of what God has done in the past. In other words, the Lord is certainly able to repair the fortunes of his people as he has done in the past. The remembrance of the past “forestalls our hasty conclusions” about what is happening in the present. The psalmist looks beyond the immediate problem to the total scene of history which is under God’s control. [Kidner, ii, 269]
v.14 Leviathan, or a many-headed sea monster, a figure of ANE mythology, here represents the pagan nation of Egypt. As so often in the OT, whether Baal or Asherah or Dagon, the Lord is regarded as smashing the pagan gods that are really nothing at all.
v.18 The suffering remains and the psalm ends with a series of urgent prayers. [Kidner, ii, 269] And again, faith is the context of these prayers. In v. 18 the concern is for the vindication of God’s name that has seemed to be belittled by the destruction of his people and sanctuary. These enemies of Israel are taunting Yahweh! The psalm writer knows this should not be.
v.19 “…the soul of your dove” is a term of tender affection. The psalmist assumes that God still loves his people! A helpless dove is in danger of being consumed by a wild beast.
v.20 In making a covenant with Israel God has taken on obligations on his people’s behalf. It is a daring thought but the psalm writer is virtually saying that God is obliged to help his people. [Tate, 252-253]
I said that the older writers – I mean particularly the preachers and spiritual writers of the Reformed tradition – used to speak and preach quite commonly of “spiritual desertion,” by which they meant the Lord’s withdrawal from the individual soul or from his people as a whole for some length of time. By such withdrawal they meant that the Lord withholds his blessing, does not communicate his presence to the soul, and does not answer their prayers, at least does not answer them quickly. It is as if he had simply left and gone elsewhere! They attributed the times of trouble and darkness in a believer’s life to this divine desertion or withdrawal. Apparently the subject of divine desertion has often been eclipsed in Christian preaching. Here is Thomas Boston, the 18th century Scot pastor and theologian.
“Upon a particular occasion…I treated of divine desertion; a subject which, together with that of communion with God, was, in the early days of my hearing the gospel, much in the mouths of the old experienced ministers, though now much worn out of our practical divinity, through the decay…of soul-exercise and experience among ministers and people.” [Memoirs, 160]
I have been reading this past week a series of sermons by Richard Sibbes, the Anglican Puritan of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a very popular preacher in his day, on the subject of the Lord’s desertions. Sibbes was concerned to show why the Lord withdraws himself from his people, how Christians experience this, and what Christians are to do in such a time of spiritual “desertion.” His approach was very like that taken by Samuel Rutherford in the next generation. [Letters, CCXXXIV]:
“I know that, as night and shadows are good for flowers, and moonlight and dews are better than a continual sun, so is Christ’s absence of special use, and that it hath some nourishing virtue in it, and giveth sap to humility, and putteth an edge on hunger, and furnisheth a fair field to put forth itself, and to exercise its fingers in gripping it seeth not what.”
Other spiritually minded men, men who have much experience of the presence of the Lord and have thought a great deal of his ways with the soul, simply take for granted that sometimes the Lord is near and sometimes he is not. Here, for example, is the 19th century Scottish pastor Alexander Moody Stuart [Memoir, 270-271].
“The soul of every child of the kingdom ought always to be in some right state towards God; if not of joy for his presence, yet of grief for his absence; if not of victory, yet of true conflict…”
Now, obviously, terms like “presence” and “absence” need to be carefully defined. God is omnipresent. We cannot think of him as being in one place and not another. We are, of course, not talking about the Lord leaving the part of the world where we are to spend time in some other place! “Divine desertion” is rather a way of speaking about the believer’s experience of the Lord’s nearness, about the signs and marks of the Lord’s blessing, and about a way of explaining what happens in a Christian’s life. Such a desertion, John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, defines as the Lord’s “withdrawing of the [customary] influences of his grace, love, and favour towards them…” [Works, iii, 121]
One work I read on Psalm 74 describes it this way:
“A cry of the Church, on the brink of despair, to God, who seems to stand with face averted and arm inactive; and yet it is certain he wrought wonders of deliverance in the past, and that he is still the living God in his works around.” [Ker, 101-102]
“With face averted…” that’s the idea. The Lord seems to have turned away. Is that not a faithful summary of this psalm? What this concept of divine desertion does is to relate all our experience in life to the Lord Jesus Christ himself and to our communion with God through him. Surely the psalm writer knew that God had not rejected his people, even more that he had not rejected them forever. It is precisely this man’s confidence in God’s faithfulness, his covenant, and his love that produces his anguished lament. But it seems as if God has. Circumstances conspired to make this man and many others with him feel as if God had left them to themselves and to their dismal circumstances. By speaking of this as “God forsaking us or casting us off” the entire situation is profoundly personalized. Now it is a question of God drawing near or stepping back, a question of what God has done, a question of our communion and fellowship with him. The idea that Christians have troubles is, of course, not controversial. But the idea that our troubles ought to be seen in terms of the Lord’s nearness or distance is an idea that is not regularly taught. It is not the way our troubles are usually accounted for: that the Lord has left us, or averted his face from us.
The motif – that is, the recurring theme – of the Lord’s presence, enjoyed or lost, is key to all Holy Scripture. God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden but after they sinned they were driven away from God’s presence. Yahweh made his presence among the Israelites in the wilderness; he often even speaks of “his presence” being with his people. That presence was mediated especially through the sanctuary, the tabernacle, but in the pillar of cloud and fire as well, in the glory on Moses’ face, and so on. Later on, of course, the incarnation of the Son of God, we read in John 1, was a matter of God making his dwelling among us. When Jesus ascended to heaven his presence was continued by the Holy Spirit. And someday he will come to us to be present with us forever. Well, in the same way, on a smaller scale, the fortunes of the church and of every individual Christian are, in Holy Scripture, a function of the Lord’s presence, more or less.
And I don’t think we always find it easy to think of our lives in these terms, in personalist terms, in which everything is a matter of how near the Lord is to us. In one of his letters Samuel Rutherford speaks of the Lord coming to him and going from him seven times a day. He sensed it. Well, that is not perhaps the same thing we have illustrated here, but it is a reminder that the Christian life is, after all, a matter of walking with the Lord, of communing with him, of loving and being loved. And we all know we experience the Christian life in varying degrees, don’t we? It is not the fact that we are always walking with the Lord with the same sense of his nearness, the same measure of joy, peace, or love.
The Puritans were frank almost to a fault as to how much trial and affliction there is in a Christian’s life. I was actually somewhat taken aback by the way Richard Sibbes spoke of this in his sermons. Here is the opening sentence of one of his sermons on divine desertion:
“Thus we see that the life of a Christian is trouble upon trouble, as wave upon wave. God will not suffer us to rest in security…” [Works, ii, 110]
I’m not sure I would say it quite so strongly. There are certainly times in most Christian lives when peace and joy are the rule more than sadness and tribulation. But here is the point: Sibbes wants us to think that every time we feel ourselves in trouble as Christians, every time we are despondent or discouraged about something, every time life does not seem to be going well for us, we should think about that, as this psalmist did, as a matter of the Lord himself turning away from us. That is what has happened. That is what has caused our circumstances to darken. We are not inclined to think this way, I think. We think that the Lord’s faithfulness will keep him near us no matter what. That is true, of course; wonderfully true. “I will never leave you or forsake you,” he tells us in many different ways. But then, there is a way in which he does leave us and does forsake us, as we read here and in many of the psalms.
Our trials, on the one hand, and our triumphs on the other, can be fairly represented, as they are in the Bible, as the direct result of differing measures of the Lord’s nearness to us, whether to us as individual Christians or to the church as a whole. The good and the bad in our lives, the easy and the very hard, are the direct result of what the Lord brings to pass in our lives and the measure of his nearness that he communicates to us.
It makes a difference doesn’t it – it does to me – to think of what is happening in our lives as the direct result of the Lord stepping closer to us, as it were, or stepping back. Of course such ways of speaking are metaphors, but the purpose of them is precisely to personalize the circumstances of our lives and make us look to the Lord Jesus himself as actively involved in what has come to pass for us or in what has not come to pass. He is there, right behind the veil of sight and sense. He is there whether he is listening intently to your prayers but not responding, or whether he is stepping toward you as you pray! This way of speaking – of the Lord as distant or as near – both in the Bible and in the history of Christian preaching has precisely this purpose: it teaches us to think about our lives in a way that keeps our attention fixed on Him! We are looking for him, at him, even if we are looking as it were at his back because he has turned away from us.
We know, of course, from a great deal of material in the Bible that the Lord has a great many different reasons for “deserting” his people, or withdrawing the greater measure of his blessing. It may be for the sake of punishment and discipline as in the case of the events from which the 74th psalm came. It might be for the demonstration of God’s glory to unseen powers, as in Job’s case, or as Paul says in Ephesians 3. It may be to create in his people a hunger and thirst for his presence. It may be to break the power of this world’s grip on our souls. It may be to test faith and obedience. There are many purposes the Lord may have in drawing back from his people. But I say again, it is biblical and logical to speak of our trials and afflictions, of our times of weakness and of spiritual doldrums in these terms of the Lord coming and going, even if they are metaphorical expressions.
You have had some golden days as Christians. You have felt the delicious pleasure of the love of God in your heart, of the majesty of Christ, of the greatness of his redemption, of the splendor of heaven awaiting you. You have felt the power of these things in your soul. And that is obviously from the Lord. You felt that he was very near you. It was natural for you to describe it in just those terms. It is what the Scripture itself teaches you to think when it speaks of the Lord “drawing near” or “coming” to help his people. And it is a way of thinking about our lives taught as much in the New Testament as in the Psalms. One of the great images of the Christian life painted in the gospels, as you remember, is that of the Lord coming across the waters of the Sea of Galilee one night to join his disciples battling waves and wind in their boat. Night in the Gospel of John particularly is an image of life in its darkness and woe. And that night Jesus came near to them and all was well. The Savior’s walking on the water was the fifth of the seven signs that in John’s Gospel are designed not only to reveal Jesus as the Son of God but to depict the way of salvation and the nature of the life of faith. Jesus always knew where his disciples were; he always had his eye upon them, but it made all the difference in the world to them when he came to them on the lake, when, in other words, he drew near. [John 6:16-21]
Here is a church father drawing precisely this conclusion from that scene:
“The labour of the disciples in rowing against the contrary wind is a type of the various labours of the holy Church, which amid the waves of an opposing world…struggles to attain to the quiet of the heavenly country… But the Lord, though himself stationed on the land, beholds the toilers on the sea; for although He may seem to defer for a season the bestowal of his help on those in tribulation, none the less, that they faint not in their trials, He strengthens them with the thought of his love, and at times even by an open [display] of his aid (treading under, as it were, and allaying the surging waves), he overcomes their adversities and sets them free.” [Bede, cited in Trench, Miracles, 299n]
Is that conclusion not forced upon us by the logic of the situation? If the Lord “comes” to his people, it is perfectly obvious that at other times he is at a distance, so to speak. If he “comes,” he must have “come” from somewhere else. He was before, as it were, still on the shore watching his disciples from a distance as they struggled against the wind. If he could come to his disciples isn’t it perfectly obvious that he might never have left them in the first place. His presence and absence, his coming and going are obviously intentional, part of his way with our souls and part of his way with the church.
This wise man who wrote the 74th psalm knows this. Verses 12-17 are a reminder that he knows very well that sometimes the Lord draws near and sometimes remains at a distance; that sometimes he shows his people the glory of his power and love and sometimes he, as it were, draws them back so that his people can see them only at a distance, in the pages of the Word of God or in the recollections of one’s past life.
Take one of my favorite stories from the life of Charles Simeon, the great English preacher. He came as a young bachelor to Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, appointed by the bishop against the will of the congregation – the bishop knew what that church needed – and that congregation made Simeon’s life as miserable as they could through those early years. They made it obvious at every turn that they didn’t like him and didn’t want him. They refused to attend services and locked their pews so that those who did come had to stand around the outside walls of the sanctuary. They made noise when he preached and in every other way showed themselves unreceptive to his ministry. In those early years of what would prove to be a 50 year long ministry at that church and a ministry of incomparable effect he accomplished between little and nothing. He was rowing, it seemed, all by himself against a stiff contrary wind. Simeon knew the Lord was there, knew what he was going through, but he did not feel the Lord’s presence or power. It seemed as if the Lord was not there. But then…
“When I was an object of much derision in the university, I strolled forth one day, buffeted and afflicted with my little Testament in my hand. I prayed earnestly to my God that he would comfort me with some cordial from His Word, and that on opening the book I might find some text which would sustain me… The first text which caught my eye was this: ‘They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; him they compelled to bear his cross.’ You know Simon is the same name as Simeon. What a word of instruction was here – what a blessed hint for my encouragement! To have the Cross laid upon me, that I might bear it after Jesus – what a privilege! It was enough. Now I could leap and sing for joy as one whom Jesus was honouring with a participation in his sufferings… I henceforth bound persecution as a wreath of glory round my brow.” [Hopkins, Charles Simeon, 81]
What was that but Christ coming across the waves to help his weary disciple to the shore? What had happened but that the Lord had drawn near? Simeon was no longer “deserted” as the old writers would have said. Simeon was no longer lonely and his persecution was now something he not only could bear, but something in which he found real satisfaction because the Lord was with him.
But the same thing happens in every other kind of situation that can be described as a divine desertion. How many of the Lord’s saints, when they are being battered by the storms of sickness and disease, when their life seems to lie in physical ruins, have found the Lord coming to their rescue through the storm, and standing there right next to them.
I think of my sister’s case, when the Lord came walking across the water to her, at the very end of her life, and gave her such a sight of the heavenly country and such breath to say so – though by that time her lungs were filled up with fluid so that she had been hardly able to breathe much less to speak. Hard rowing it had been for her; then suddenly to the shore! The Lord had appeared to her. We can hardly describe such a situation in any other way than by saying the Lord came to her, or drew near.
Or, what of those at the very point of death? I will always love that letter that the Covenanter martyr, Archibald Campbell, the earl of Argyle, wrote to his daughter-in-law, the morning of his execution in Edinburgh.
“What shall I say in this great day of the Lord, wherein in the midst of a cloud, I have found a fair sunshine. I can wish no more for you, but that the Lord may comfort you, and shine upon you as he does upon me, and give you that same sense of His love in staying in the world, as I have in going out of it.”
What is that but the Lord coming over the waves at the end of a long night and bringing the assurance of his presence that his disciple needed?
I have seen the Lord walking across the waves to me and I know that many of you have as well. A long night of hard rowing, weariness, discouragement at lack of progress, and, then, suddenly, he was there! And, let me tell you something, my brethren. Once he is there, all the rowing is forgotten, all the waves, all the weariness, all the fear. Not only forgotten, even appreciated. We would never fully know what it means to be near God if we did not have plenty of experience of being at a distance from him.
This man who wrote this great psalm was still on the lake battling wind and waves when he finished his psalm. I don’t know when the Lord drew near to him or to the people whose experience he was transcribing. I’m sure there have been some true believers, faithful Christians, who, for reasons known to God, have lived long years and then died without that divine coming near. They have prayed Psalm 74 until their breath was taken from them.
But even to pray this prayer to ask why the Lord has rejected you, to plead the covenant, to appeal to the years of the right hand of the Most High (Ps. 77:10), is to confess that whether the Lord seems far or near, he is there and will not, cannot desert his people who cry to him in faith. The fact is, the opening statement of this psalm, while it is a perfectly true description of the psalmist’s experience, is only a rhetorical statement as the rest of the psalm makes clear. This man knows that the Lord is his God, that he is able to save, that he has bound himself by covenant to his people, and that he will hear their prayers. Had he doubted any of this he would not have written the psalm!
Do you think the disciples regretted that long night of rowing after they saw the Lord Christ walking on the water, took him into their boat and made it immediately to the shore? When the sun began to rise and they greeted the dawn, do you think they heaved a sigh of relief that the night was finally over? Do you think they ever once thought to themselves that, if the Lord were going to help them, why didn’t he just calm the sea and the wind before they set out across the lake? No! There must be the storm for the Lord to come through it to deliver his disciples. No storm, no wind, no walking on the water! Every one of them would have said to the end of his life that he would row through any number of stormy nights just to see once again the Lord Jesus come walking across the lake to help him. To know that he could do it and would do it I’m sure sustained them throughout the rest of their difficult and dangerous lives. How many times do you imagine they thought back to that night on the Sea of Galilee – sitting in a prison where they were thrown for preaching Christ or, even like Paul, in some other terrible storm at sea. – thought back to that night and the glorious experience they had when Jesus came near of a sudden? And I imagine that almost as often as they remembered that night the Lord Jesus drew near to them once again.
If the Lord seems far away, you pray the 74th psalm until he draws near. No matter how long you must pray it, pray it with all your heart. And when he comes – and he will come – you will not begrudge a moment you spent with this lament in your heart or on your lips!