Two things stand out in this passage. First, the psalmist is utterly dejected. I do not know how metaphoric the descriptions of wasting away, being skin and bones, being sick and in pain are. It is altogether possible this psalm came out of the experience of loss Israel went through during war, captivity, and exile in which the land was so wasted and plundered that many died of hunger, thirst, and wasting illness. If this psalm is from that perspective, it calls us to identify with the many in this world for whom our first world problems would be a paradise. What? You could not go to the restaurant you wanted, but had to go to another? Yet you are not starving. What? Your pay was less than you deserve with your education, and your boss disrespected you? Yet, you do bring home a pay-check to a home, instead of struggling in fear of where the next meal will come. A part of the call of faith is for each of us to learn to get out of our bubble of security and begin to see how others live and, in so doing, to put our own situations in perspective. As we do so, how can we not begin to change the shape of our lives, which blindly followed end up propping up a social system that requires some to be as the Psalmist literally is, crushed and struggling to survive as skin and bones.
It is also possible the Psalmist means these descriptions metaphorically. And how apt they are if the Psalmist is writing as one facing depression, despair, loss, and hopelessness. When the bottom drops out from under our life, particularly in experiences of trauma and depression, our world seems to shrink so that we feel we and our surrounding world are growing dark and wasting away.
The beauty of this Psalm is that, as with much good literature, it could be read either way and speak powerful truth. I would suggest that God is not surprised by this fact, nor would the poet who composed this psalm under God’s inspiration. So it behooves us to pray this pray from both perspectives. Yet whichever perspective you use to pray through this psalm, the pain and dejection of the psalmist is not something she or her butters up. She or he speaks boldly, clearly, and without pulling any punches about his or her experience. This shows us that we do not need to hide from our feelings of pain and loss. God does not want fake praises from us, where we pretend to be happy and go-lucky when we are dying inside. Rather God longs for honesty and there is an experience of God’s breaking into our life with life-sustaining presence that can only happen when we honestly face where we truly are inside, beginning to share this from the heart with God and with other people.
Do not sit alone in your pain. Though it might be hard, reach out to God and others.
Also, I am struck by what gives this Psalmist hope. I would expect her or him to have joy when God tells her or him that they will be delivered. This is not what the Psalmist hears. Like so many a person I have cared for in deep illness, they do not get word their condition will get better. They hear as some of you have heard that whatever this crisis they will be facing will continue. It will outlive them … Those words are hard to hear – to hear that your illness may end your life; that this injustice you fought your whole life will continue for another to raise up the banner against without you seeing it ended; to hear that what you face you will not be delivered from
Yet the Psalmist does find a word of hope for God, in being told that ultimately this crisis will end and future generations, perhaps the Psalmist’s own children or grandchildren, will never have to face it again. That promise buoys the Psalmist so that they know God is with them, and they know they can endure what lies ahead.
This is so different from how we often expect God to answer, and it teaches us something about how to see and understand God. In our individualistic, me-first, society we think that the purpose of prayer is to get what we wish for. That it is like a wishing well and God some genie in a Bible rather than a bottle. This is not the God of Scripture, though. God sees far and long, with plans beyond our brief moment in the river of time.
The Psalmist sees herself or himself as not just an individual but one bound in community, caught up in the legacy of people of faith that were in covenant with God before them, and those they will leave behind after they have gone to God in death. And so they are not just interested in what happens to them as an individual. They know that the betterment of others and those who will come after them enriches their own life.
We see this same attitude present in men and women of God like Dr Martin Luther King and Sojourner Truth, both of whom spoke out for freedom for all people in ways that put their own lives at ongoing risk. They did it not because they believed they would see it come to full fruition in their own lives. In fact both admitted they might not get there with others. But that was fine because they knew they were enriched if those who came after them lived a fuller life.
I wonder how it would transform our vision and lives if we took on such an attitude. Would we be as quick to use up resources tearing apart our earth if we so the fullness of who we are wrapped up not just in individual benefit but in the fate of those who come after us? Would we be willing to so heartlessly slash civil rights legislation or education funding in the way we are as a society if we saw our hope in others? Individually, I wonder how it would change how we buy, how we give, how we volunteer, how we work, how we vacation. I also wonder if we would look at our success or failures less in terms of what we take home and more in what we do either to strengthen our communities or to build a foundation for our children and grandchildren?
How do you respond to the challenge of this text? Where do you begin?