The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached May 16th, 2021*
Sermon Audio: Waiting Through Despair (Psalm 130)
Let’s begin today with the story of a king, Israel’s first king. In so many ways, Saul seemed like an ideal choice; he fits the bill of many successful politicians today. 1 Samuel tells us that he came from a family of great wealth, and was tall and handsome (1 Sam 9:1-2). He had the status and looks of a king (cf. 1 Sam 10:24). Further, he also had the decisive leadership of a king. Saul has been able to unite the army together, command men to battle, and deliver Israel from destruction (see 1 Sam 11).
Two years later, Saul is faced a crisis that requires leadership. The Philistines have invaded Israel and have gathered a massive army of chariots, horsemen, and troops, “like the sand on the seashore in multitude,” (1 Sam 13:5). Saul musters an army, but everyone is afraid of the Philistines. Even worse, the prophet Samuel is late. Saul cannot start the battle till Samuel offers the necessary sacrifices to God and while they wait people begin to peel away and scatter. So, Saul makes another decisive leadership move: he offers the sacrifice instead of waiting. But as he is wiping the blood off his knife, Samuel appears walking over the hill and asks Saul: What on earth are you doing? And Saul, looking to justify himself, explains: Look man, I waited for you but YOU didn’t show up and the army was breaking apart and I didn’t want to but I HAD to. You forced my hand by being late and…and…what else was I supposed to do? (see 1 Sam 13:8-12).
Let’s look at another story of a king, one living hundreds of years later, but in a similar situation: King Jehoshaphat. An alliance of enemies has come against Israel that totally outmatch their own strength. And as Israel is preparing for battle they catch wind that there is another massive army planning on attack on them. What does the king do? “Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD,” (2 Chron 20:3-4). Jehoshaphat assembles the whole of Judah to come to the temple and prays before God, acknowledging God’s power, God’s promises to redeem His people, and confesses their own weakness before concluding with these famous words: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you,” (2 Chron 20:12).
I read an article this week by a popular evangelical pastor on this prayer who thought that while the spirit of humility this prayer exhibited was commendable and necessary for good leadership, he thought it unwise for leaders to publicly confess that they don’t know what to do in situations and should instead project confidence. So, if you’re in a board meeting or elder’s meeting, you shouldn’t tell people that you feel overwhelmed and unsure—that’s not what people expect from a leader. Obviously, King Jehoshaphat disagreed. He stood before the gathered nation, before the people he was responsible to lead and defend at a moment of great crisis, at a time where all were tempted to despair and said: I have no idea what to do—God help!
Now, be honest, who would you rather have as your king? One who is a strategic problem solver who gets things done, or one who admits that he doesn’t know what he is doing and is waiting for God to give help.
If you’re anything like me, you get frustrated with indecisive leadership mostly because you hate waiting. We want fast solutions to problems, we don’t want to hear about limitations and nuance. We want things to be fixed because we are the products of a generation that is allergic to waiting. You hate getting stuck in traffic, you hate waiting for vacation to come around, you hate waiting for that person to respond to you when you need their answer.
But what happens when you encounter a problem where there is no instant solution? What if, as you survey the options, none of them provide a quick fix? In Psalm 130 we find a reflection from one who is stuck in a difficult situation and is left waiting for God to show up and provide relief.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
2 O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
4 But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.
5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
8 And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.
Why Do Christians Experience Despair?
The psalm opens with the confession: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!” (Ps 130:1). We don’t know who wrote this psalm, but whoever they were it was someone in a dark place. They were in “the depths.” In the ancient world they had a different understanding of how the world was structured. The world lay flat on a series of foundations that God had set, and God dwelled on high, in the heavens. The grave (Sheol), which represented death, was spatially furthest away from God which is why the grave is often spoken of as a place where individuals will have the hardest time communing with God (Ps 6:5; 115:17). While God is even present in the depths of Sheol (Ps 139:8), the “depths” are where God is hardest to see. This becomes a poetic metaphor used by the psalmists to describe times in their life where they feel most abandoned by God, most in despair. For instance, listen to Psalm 88:
O LORD, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
2 Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
One reason Christians may feel despair is because of discouraging circumstance. Think of the prophet Elijah, after fire fell from heaven in 1 Kings 18 the wicked queen Jezebel still refuses to repent, Elijah flees into the desert and collapses under a broom tree, begging God to just let him die (1 Kings 19). Perhaps there have been circumstances in your life that have left you doubting that God really cares for you, really is in control. One of my missionary heroes is Adoniram Judson, the first American missionary, who traveled to Burma. He experienced a season of intense despair because of the great persecution and loss he suffered while striving to reach the Burmese people who had no Christian witness. He was beaten, imprisoned, starved, and suffered the death of his wife, the loss of his next wife, and four children, before he himself died of an infection from the jungle. At one point he sunk into such a dark state of mind that he dug a grave in front of his house and sat next to it for days, contemplating his own death.
Few of us will experience the kind of hardships that Judson experienced, but I bring up the story of Judson not because his suffering is so similar to ours but because his life demonstrates the falsehood that if you just live a godly life you won’t experience suffering, you won’t experience despair. Judson chose the narrow path; he was offered a comfortable position as a pastor of a wealthy, influential church back in America but turned it down to go live in a hut in the muggy jungle of Burma. If anyone was living a life of godliness, it was Adoniram Judson—and yet, his life was filled with extreme suffering.
This means that the difficulty in your life does not automatically mean that God is abandoning you or is punishing you. It just means that you live in a fallen, broken world, a world filled with heartache, disappointments, and sin. In fact, the Bible seems to tell us that if we desire to live a godly life we will experience even more suffering (2 Tim 3:12; Acts 14:22).
Another reason for despair among Christians is the presence of sin. Perhaps it isn’t necessarily circumstances happening to you that cause despair, but indwelling sin in you. There is no agony like the agony of tortured conscience. David writes of the pain he experienced from trying to conceal his sin, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer,” (Ps 32:3-4). If you want to experience despair, hide sin in your life, refuse to repent of it, and you will be certain to be haunted by the specter of depression.
But maybe you are despairing not because of unrepentant sin, but just a general awareness of your sinfulness. There isn’t a specific sin you can pinpoint that needs repenting of, but an awareness of your limitations, your weakness; you have an idea in your mind of the kind of person you want to be and know how deeply you have fallen short of that. Samuel Davies, one of the most fruitful and effective preachers during the Great Awakening, writes; “I have but little, very little, true religion…Perhaps once in three or four months I preach in some measure as I could wish…It is really an afflictive thought that I serve so good a Master with so much inconstancy…I am at best smoking flax; a dying snuff in the candlestick of his church…The flame of divine love, sunk deep into the socket of a corrupt heart, quivers and breaks, and catches, and seems just expiring at times.”
Or, perhaps worst of all, you are experiencing despair and you have no idea why. The dark night of the soul has flung itself upon you and left little to no clue as to why it is present. You are in “the depths” and you don’t know what has brought you here.
What do Christians do about it?
This is where the psalm really begins to give us help. The psalm gives us two things that Christians can do: Pray and Wait.
“O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” (Ps 130:2).
As soon as the psalmist is in the depths of despair he cries out in prayer and pleads for God to hear him. But what great comfort! The depths the psalmist has fallen into are not so deep that God is unable to hear his prayers. Corrie Ten Boom, a prisoner in World War II for hiding Jews from the Nazis, reminds us that “there is no pit so deep, that Christ is not deeper still.” There is no cloud over us so dark that God cannot still commune with us in prayer. No matter how numb your soul, how bleak your circumstances, how black your guilt, you can cry out to God and He will hear you.
What does the psalmist ask for? Mercy. The psalmist knows that he does not deserve the help he is asking for, but is asking God to not give him what he deserves. This could be a plea for God to withhold the judgment his sins deserve, or it could be a request for God to give him aid even though his sins make him unworthy. It could be both. The psalmist knows he needs mercy from a holy God.
God doesn’t not give us help because we have earned it, no, His help is a help that flows from His gracious heart to the undeserving. We intuitively assume that God answers the prayers of the deserving, of the super spiritual who know all the right things to say, of the gurus who pray and fast for hours in scratchy robes in mountain caves—they have earned the right for God to answer their prayers. At least, so we think.
But here? Here we see that the psalmist understands that God does not owe him anything, even the right for his prayers to be answered—and yet he prayers! Why? Because he is confident that God is a merciful God:
“If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared,” (Ps 130:3-4).
If God were to treat us according to what our sins deserved, who could stand? We would all be obliterated instantly! But praise God, that doesn’t happen! “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” Ps 103:10.
An employee makes a foolish, stupid mistake and winds up costing the company a fortune. He was advised not to do it, but he did it anyways and now it has blown up in his face. He knows that he will likely be fired any minute, but decides to head to the company’s Christmas party, nonetheless. He walks in, head hanging low, not looking as he grabs the wrong nametag. Before he realizes what is happening, he is being pushed on stage, handed one of those comically large checks with an eye-popping bonus on it and is congratulated for being the employee of the year. What happened? He mistakenly grabbed the nametag of someone who deserved something far different than what he deserved—he is not being treated according to his sins. But friends, where this was an accident, in the gospel it is no accident. God has not been hoodwinked. He has, from before time began, planned to send His Son to take your sins and bear them away at the cross and to give you His righteousness, so that if you believe in Him you will not be treated according to your sins, but according to your Savior. Unremitting love flows to the undeserving and unworthy.
This is staggering when taken seriously. It makes sense why the psalmist says, “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared,” (Ps 130:4). There is a kind of cheap forgiveness that downplays the reality of sin (it wasn’t that bad) that leads to a lighthearted frivolity towards God and a continued indulging of sin. And there is another kind of cheap forgiveness that is earned through our own self-righteousness where we pay God back for our sins by being really good. Then there is another forgiveness altogether. A forgiveness that is as hard as nails on the horror of our sins but as wide as the ocean in its total and free forgiveness offered. That kind of forgiveness pierces you with a fearful and awesome joy, and brings you trembling to your knees wondering: What kind of Savior is this?
So now, if you are in Christ, wherever you are, whether you are on the mountaintop of a spiritual high or in the depths of a spiritual pit, God will hear your pleas for mercy because He has forgiven your sins and clothed you in the righteousness of Christ, so come to Him with your pleas, come to Him with your prayers. You have the same standing before the Father in your prayers as Jesus does, so be bold. Seek heaven’s aid for your help, plead with the Father, call down all the resources from on high to thunder against your despair, your gloom, and your sin.
This is why we will be taking time to pray together as a church in the Fall in our discipleship classes. Life is too hard, we are too weak, and the resources available to us through prayer are too great for us not to pray together as a church.
“I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,” (Ps 130:5a).
Just because we have access to the throne room of God in our prayers does not mean that we immediately receive what we ask for. We often have to wait. Sometimes when we read the Bible we can get the impression that during the Bible times there was a miracle happening around every corner, God was answering prayers instantaneously, and things were happening so evidently. And then, when we look at our life, at how mundane it is, how ordinary it seems, we can feel discouraged. The apostles in the book of Acts can pray, and bam! blind people can see. And we can think: Now that’s what I’m talking about! Why can’t I get some of that in my life? And, of course, God can and will at times answer our prayers instantly. But friend, I wonder if you realize that the normal, ordinary pattern in the Bible is a pattern of waiting.
Think of the Israelites in Egypt who were in the bondage of slavery for four hundred years, praying to God for deliverance (Ex 2:23-25; 12:40). Or think of how long Israel had to wait for the Messiah to arrive. To make it more personal, think of the prophetess Anna, 84 year old Anna, in the gospel of Luke. Here is how she is described after seeing the child Jesus for the first time: “She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem,” Luke 2:37b-38. She is 84 years old and has spent the majority of her life in the temple doing what? Fasting and praying. Waiting.
Remember the parable Jesus tells of the unjust judge? There is an unjust judge who doesn’t care about justice, but keeps being pestered by this persistent widow who keeps asking for the judge to give her justice. Eventually, out of sheer annoyance, the judge answers her requests. And if an unjust judge who doesn’t care about justice will eventually give in, how much more so will just judge who loves His children? But here is how Jesus opens that parable: “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart,” (Luke 18:1). In other words, you are going to be tempted to stop praying and to lose heart.
Are you tempted to stop praying because it feels like you are just left waiting? Don’t lose heart, wait. The words of the prophet Habakkuk are helpful, “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay,” – Hab 2:3.
How do we wait?
With hope in God’s Word.
“I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” – Ps 130:5
As we wait, we hold onto what God has promised us in His word.
Are you faced with a perplexing decision and are unsure what to do? Pray for wisdom because God has promised in His word, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him,” (James 1:5).
Are you weary and worn down? Pray for rest because Jesus has promised: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Matt 11:28.
Do you feel emotionally untethered and fearful from the circumstances of your life? Pray for peace from the God who has promised: “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand,” Isa 41:10.
As you find yourself stuck in the gap between what you are praying for and the answer to that prayer, fill your mind and heart with promises from God Word and hold onto them, wield them like a sword to slay your sinful temptations. Hope in God’s Word.
Wait with Expectation
“…my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning,” Ps 130:6
As we wait, we wait with eager expectation for how God will answer our prayers. The psalmist tells us that he is waiting for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning. Night watchmen would be posted up on the walls of city or set to guard the perimeter of the camp. At the first break of dawn it meant that they and the city were safe from night assaults and they could now go and rest. As the guard is eagerly searching the horizon for the first rays of light, so too should God’s people be eagerly looking for how God will answer our prayers, trusting that He will.
We often hedge our bets when praying to God. Because we are so frustrated by waiting and think it is something strange, when we pray for a long time and keep failing to see results it makes us less confident in our prayers. But we should trust God’s timing and God’s ways.
Hope in the Lord
Earlier we were encouraged to hope in God’s Word, but the psalmist concludes by pointing us to God Himself: “O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities,” Ps 130:7-8. God’s character is worthy of your hope–hope in Him!
Let’s return to the story of our two kings at the beginning. Why does Saul offer that sacrifice? He has a large enemy he is fighting, the prophet is late, and his soldiers are beginning to desert the battlefield. In so many ways, it is so understandable why Saul did what he did. But it, of course, reveals what Saul was ultimately hoping in. His strength, his ability, his wisdom, his leadership. Saul couldn’t see how he could keep on waiting, so he acted. And he sinned. And it cost him the kingdom.
What did Jehoshaphat hope in? “We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” Jehoshaphat hoped the Lord and his character to deliver them. He knew that he had nothing in him to make this work, but knew that God was able. And God honors Jehoshaphat’s prayer and saves Israel.
Friend, God is worthy of your trust, of your hope. He is full of steadfast love and with him is plentiful redemption. He has forgiven your sins, made you His child, and promised to care for you. Hope in him. As you wait through despair, as you are in the depths, hope in God. You may not be able to see how you can fix the problem in front of you, you may feel totally overwhelmed–but that’s the whole point: hope in the Lord, not yourself! Wait for Him to answer your pleas for mercy. Wait with hope and expectation that God will provide. Wait with confidence that God will not let the righteous be moved.