If there were only one Psalm that I think could capture the essence of Christian existence, it would perhaps be Psalm 40. I hesitate to use such sweeping and broad terms to speak of one out of 150 prayers in the Psalter, but Psalm 40 is a favourite of mine so I’ll admit I’m a little partial to it. In reality, the framework of Psalm 40 reflects the framework of many other Psalms. The Psalmist is currently in a difficult situation and needs God’s help to get out of it. In this instance, his own sins have come back to bite him (v. 12). He is asking God to intervene and help him out of his current troubles (v. 13), and is appealing to God’s past deliverance as the basis for God to act in his current situation (vv. 1-3). Although the order is often different in other Psalms, the basic elements are there: 1) A need for God’s intervention; 2) A reminder of God’s past faithfulness in a similar situation; 3) An appeal to God on the basis of past faithfulness; 4) An expectation that God will respond. This is the gospel about Jesus Christ in its most basic and succinct form: God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves – God rescuing us from our sin and misery.
One of the reasons I like Psalm 40 so much is the vivid imagery with which the Psalm opens:
I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand. ((NIV, 2011), Ps 40:1–2).
The image of the slimy pit here is that of the bottom of a cistern, which would have been filled with clay. A bottomless “pit of despair” from which there is no way out without help.
The Psalmist vividly describes the depths to which he had fallen and the hopelessness of his past situation. There, God “heard my cry” and “lifted me out” of the bottomless pit, placing “my feet on a rock … a firm place to stand”. No longer does the Psalmist feel like he’s sinking and stuck, but he has sure footing because God has rescued him. But notice the opening line: “I waited patiently for the Lord” before any of this happened. The Hebrew here denotes an intense type of waiting – not like waiting for the bus waiting, but waiting for the doctor to come back from life-in-the-balance surgery ona loved one waiting. When we find ourselves in such difficult and dire circumstances, it is extremely difficult to wait. Yet, as the Psalmist remembers, and as he even reminds us, God’s timing is rarely, if ever, the same as ours. From a human perspective, God’s timing is painfully slow. But the wait is always worth it, as the Psalmist reminds us here. For, when God finally arrives to deliver and rescue, a “new song” rises up from within the Psalmist (v. 3). And songs are meant to be sung … aloud.
Although the Psalmist is speaking of a personal experience of God’s faithfulness in the past, his experience is not meant only for his own benefit. IN verse 3 he moves from “he put a new song in my mouth” to “many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him”. The word Lord here is the divine name of the God of Israel. In other words ‘my experience of God’s deliverance will encourage others to place their trust in him as well’. But how will others know unless they are told?
I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
I do not seal my lips, LORD,
as you know.
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
from the great assembly. ((NIV, 2011), Ps 40:9–10).
It’s quite clear from these words that the Psalmist cannot, will not, keep his experience of God’s salvation to himself. He cannot hide it from the public eye, he will not conceal it from the people of God. No, he will sing aloud for all to hear how great our God is! The Psalmist wants the people of God to know that the Lord is faithful. The Lord will rescue. The Lord loves his people and does not, will not, abandon them. The waiting for deliverance was painstakingly slow … but it was worth it!
Are you waiting for God’s deliverance right now? Remember his past faithfulness in your own life and in the lives of the saints who have gone before you. Lean on this collective memory and experience to carry you through the time you may be experiencing. Have you experienced God’s faithfulness recently? Perhaps after a time of intense waiting? Proclaim it! Let others know God’s story of faithfulness in your life. Do not keep it to yourself. This is what the Psalmist intended to do with this Psalm. He needed to hear again the good news of God’s saving acts in his life, but he also wants others to know that God will do it for them too.