Psalm 139

A SONG OF ANGER AND DEPRESSION  —  Pete Bauer

This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on June 23rd, 2013.  To listen to the audio, just click on this link – Ps 139.

At first glance this seems like a happy Psalm – all about how God knows us – or perhaps, for some, a threatening Psalm all about how we can’t get away from God.   But as the Psalm goes on there are hints that the psalmist is struggling and suffering with a kind of depression.  The Psalm moves from an affirmation of God’s care – back and forth and increasingly towards a sorrowful and angry frustration with evil, ending with a request for help; “see if there is any hurtful way in me”.

This morning, we want to see, in this Psalm, a way of addressing deep sorrow and anger by affirming the faithfulness of God, and by openly expressing to him our troubles and asking for help.

God Pursues Me When I am Depressed.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from Your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, You are there;  If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there…

My Running from or Pushing God Away Does Not Determine God’s Faithfulness:  “If I take the wings of the dawn…”  This is a very poetic sounding phrase, and it is easy to miss what the Psalmist is saying.  To take the wings of the dawn is to take flight – dawn being a very brief and quickly moving moment of the day.   The Psalmist is suggesting that when he is angry and depressed, he wants to push God away – to get away from God.  However, rather than condemning the Psalmist, he finds that God pursues him, graciously.

The fact is that God does pursue us when we push him away in our anger and depression.  God continues to care for us – he does not leave us alone in our misery.  God is faithful even when we are faithless (2 Tim.2:13) – He continues to show us grace.

God Leads Me Out of Confusion and Gives Me Guidance and Stability:  …if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me.

Again, the words sound beautiful and poetic, but the image is horrible. The sea is a place of confusion and dark powers.  The Psalmist is describing the experience of depression in which the mind is confused and tossed and full of fear and instability.  And he is not merely in the sea, but dwelling in the remotest part – believing himself to be cut off from God and any help.  Yet, even there, says the Psalmist – God is leading him back to a place of stability and peace.  God’s right hand (picture of strength) lays hold of him and causes his confusion to abate.

My Darkness and Despair Do Not Shut God Out of My Life:  If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,” even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day.  Darkness and light are alike to You.

Being overwhelmed by darkness, (depressed and angry and sorrowful), even though there is light around (people enjoying themselves and being happy) – telling ourselves that the darkness is overwhelming, is again, a picture of depression – and more specifically, of despair.  But even when the Psalmist feels despairing and overwhelmed by darkness, he sees that his darkness cannot shut God out of his life.  God is not overwhelmed by his darkness or by despair.

 God Knows and Values Me Though I Hate Myself.

God Searches Me Out and Knows Me: O Lord, You have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up;  You understand my thought from afar.  You scrutinize my path and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways.  Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O Lord, You know it all.

Part of depression is the desire not to be known – feelings of worthlessness and self loathing.  The Psalmist’s desire is to withdraw and to be isolated.  But God will not let him withdraw.  The effort that God puts forth to know the Psalmist is impressive and suggests that God greatly values him.   God has scrutinized him and become intimately acquainted with his ways.  The Psalmist may try to withdraw, but God sees his thoughts from afar – and can finish his sentences.

The point is that God’s view of the Psalmist is not worthlessness.  God does not hate him.  God invests in knowing the Psalmist, “You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it.”   In fact, God knows the Psalmist beyond what the Psalmist is able to know about himself.  There is a suggestion here that God sees something in the Psalmist which he does not see in himself – a value, a worth.  In other words, the Psalmist’s self evaluation is wrong.

God Knows MY Complexity, Mystery and Worth:  For You formed my inward parts;  You wove me in my mother’s womb.  I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;  Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.

This idea, that the Psalmist has not grasped his own worth, is expanded on here.  God sees and knows things about the Psalmist that he could never know about himself.  The images of being woven together, of unformed substance, and the formation of frame and inward parts – suggest a very intimate act of creation – of the care and pride taken by God in making a person – in the development  and purpose of a person.

In fact, this understanding, says the Psalmist, is so vast and so amazing that when I begin to think about it, I lose consciousness – and when I regain consciousness, God is still there, dwelling on, taking delight in, the person he has made,  How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!  How vast is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand.  When I awake, I am still with You.” (vs.17-18).  This is what the Psalmist has come to see – the ray of hope that has inspired his song and his thankfulness in the midst of depression – that God is taking delight in knowing him – and that, therefore, he has worth.

Therefore,  I Will Call On God to Help Me.

I Will Express My Anger:   O that You would slay the wicked, O God;  Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed.  For they speak against You wickedly,  and Your enemies take Your name in vain.

Unless we see the things the Psalmist is working through in the Psalm, these verses would make no sense – they would be a rant at the end of what would otherwise be a very positive Psalm.  But now, we see that the Psalmist is finally expressing what he was working up to – his anger at evil men – the enemies of God.  He wants God to destroy evil people – those who speak against God.

However, in the next few lines, he also begins to express a level of anger and hatred that he, himself is uncomfortable with…  Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord?  And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?  I hate them with the utmost hatred;  They have become my enemies.  This is more than just an impersonal response to evil men – the Psalmist seems to be responding in a very personal and angry way towards those who have done him wrong – and who, in doing so, have spoken against God – without seeming to have suffered any consequence.  What the Psalmist expresses here is rage and longing and sorrow.  And this is also part of the Psalm.  Psalm 139 does not say, “God understands, so get over it” – rather, the Psalmist wants us to find a true expression for our anger and sorrow, and perhaps freedom.

Help Me:  How do we find our way out of the self hatred, guilt, hopelessness and helplessness of depression?  This is no easy method – and there is no easy method – which is, perhaps, why the Psalm ends with a prayer…

  • Search me, O God, and know my heart – We need to be known.  The Psalmist invites God to know him completely – to know his heart – which he has already said God knows.  Nevertheless, he has come to a point where he is saying that he does not want to push God away any longer.
  • Try me, and know my anxious thoughts – The life of depression is in the anxious, condemning, fearful thoughts to which we cling for reasons we do not understand.  The Psalmist invites God to weigh and question and judge the worth of these thoughts – and to bring renewed understanding.
  • See if there is any hurtful way in me – Depression maintains itself through “hurtful ways”, or habits and behaviors which feed into guilt and self loathing and isolation. The Psalmist asks God to reveal any of these things that might be maintaining his brokenness.
  • And lead me in the everlasting way – Finally, the prayer of the Psalmist is that God will lead him into true ways of understanding, believing, living – into life and light.
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