In preparation for Sunday’s sermon on the need for lament in biblical worship, here are ten observations from Psalm 13, an individual lament of David.
1. Psalm 13 is an individual psalm that was recorded for public use.
Psalm 13 begins with the superscription (ss), “To the Choirmaster. A Psalm of David.” From this inspired introduction, we learn the source of this Psalm (David) and how it was to be used (in the corporate assembly, as led by the choirmaster). This use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my) in corporate worship is interesting, because it causes the corporate gathering to speak of personal pain. This teaches us something about our own singing today and the use of pronouns, but it also shows us how these Psalms were used. Clearly, they are meant to be used by all the saints, even as they come from the personal life of David.
2. Psalm 13 is prototypical psalm of lament.
In the Bible we find individual laments (Pss. 6, 13, 22, 35, 28, 42–43, 88, 102, 109, 142; Jer. 20:7–11) and corporate laments (Pss. 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 89; cf. Lam. 5; Jer. 14; Isa. 63:7–64:12; Hab. 1). These psalms typically express a sense of divine loss and longing for God’s return. While each lament is different, they follow a typical pattern:
- Invocation / Address to God
- Expression of Trust
- Vow of Praise
Psalm 13 follows this pattern as David cries out to God, unburdens his soul, makes his petitions, and finishes with a vow of praise.
3. Psalm 13 should be read with Psalms 3–14.
These twelve psalms of David express the grief he experienced prior to his coronation. Many of the themes expressed in one psalm are picked up and developed in others. For instance, Psalm 12:3–4 record David’s petition to cut off those who boast “we will prevail” and Psalm 13:3–4 carries a similar petition for God “to enlighten his eyes, lest his enemy say, ‘I have prevailed.'” Likewise, Psalm 13’s fourfold cry “How long?” responds to God’s promise to act in Psalm 12:5 (“I will arise”), a word that responds to earlier petitions (“Arise, O LORD” in Ps 3:7; 7:6; 9:19; 10:12).
By observing these shared words in proximate psalms, we learn how the Psalms tell a unified story. Altogether, we should read Psalm 13 as a lamentation that trusts in God’s promise but grieves that his promise has not yet been fulfilled.
4. David’s confidence in God’s salvation is found in Psalm 3 and answered in Psalm 18.
Reading Psalm 13 canonically (i.e., with respect to the arrangement of the other Psalms), we discover that David’s confidence for salvation stems from his belief that salvation comes from the Lord. As Psalm 3:8 reads, “Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people.” This confidence leads him to pray for salvation in Psalms 9:14 and 14:7, because he trusts his God will save him.
In God’s perfect timing, this salvation is presented as Yahweh’s deliverance of David from Saul (see Psalm 18:ss). Psalm 18:1–3 express David’s joy in Yahweh’s long-anticipated salvation:
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
2 The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
3 I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies.
5. In Psalm 13, death is the enemy.
As David waits for the salvation of God, his life is put in jeopardy. Verses 3–4 put it this way,
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
David pleads for God to answer him and to keep him from death (v. 3). His petition for his eyes to be enlightened reflects the perilous situation of his life. Moreover, we should observe the contrast between David’s enemy (singular) and his foes (plural). In context, it seems that death, as a singular enemy, is pursuing David. His foes, in turn, will rejoice if his first enemy succeeds.
Consequently, David prays for God to save his life. Strikingly, as we move to the next section of Psalms (15–24), there are stated (Ps 16) and implied (Ps 22) references to resurrection. By reading Psalm 13 with the rest of the Psalms, we can see how these Psalms work together to answer David’s prayers.
6. The anguish of David is physical and spiritual.
Peter Craigie makes this observation.
The psalmist prays that the Lord would “enlighten” his eyes; the eye that was dim was clouded with both ill health and its consequent grief (cf. Job 17:7), so that the prayer is a request for restoration to health and deliverance from grief. When the eye was enlightened, it would signify a state of health (cf. Deut 34:7). But there is more than a prayer for physical health in the psalmist’s plea; at a deeper level, he desires to return to close fellowship with the Lord. Thus, when God’s face was hidden, the light of his countenance could not shine upon the psalmist (see vv 2-3), but when God turned to him again, not only would the psalmist see the light of the divine countenance, but his own eyes would be enlightened. (Psalms 1–50, 142)
While the language of Psalm 13 reflects physical affliction and the threat of death, there is also a spiritual and emotional impact. Yahweh is absent to David and without God, he feels the lifelessness that results.
Such a combination of physical and spiritual despair reminds us that we are psycho-somatic unities, which is a technical way of saying our souls impact our bodies and our bodies impact our souls. Accordingly, this teaches us the freedom we have to pray for physical health, even as 3 John 2 instructs that God’s gift of health will always serve the purpose of our inward sanctification (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7–10).
7. Psalm 13 has three coordinates for David’s lament—the absence of David’s God, the affliction of David’s soul, and the attack from David’s enemies.
In the opening verses, the fourfold “How long, O Lord?” questions the absence of God (v. 1), the sorrow in David’s soul (v. 2a), and the ascendency of David’s enemies (v. 2b). In these three directions, we see what is happening in David’s soul.
Importantly, these three coordinating griefs repeat in vv. 3–4. He cries out for God to consider and answer him (v. 3a), to enlighten his eyes and spare his life (v. 3b), and to protect him from his enemies (v. 4). From the repetition of these three complaints, we can infer how they impact one another and the way that one grief follows another.
Critically, when David expresses his vows in verses 5–6, he turns all of his attention to God. The enemies fall from view and he turns his eyes away from himself. Instead, he casts himself on the Lord and he trusts that when God considers him, all will be well.
Indeed, we can learn much this approach to grief. While multiple factors typically vex our soul, it is the Lord to whom we can trust. When we entrust ourselves to him, we can trust him for our life and for the enemies who stand against us. David models this and we have reason to consider the outcome of his life and imitate his faith.
8. David’s confidence is found in Yahweh’s loyalty.
Whereas many songs today express God’s love in romantic terms, the nature of God’s covenant love carries the idea of loyalty. As Gerald Wilson observes,
The psalmist finds the grounds for hope in Yahweh’s hesed—translated here as “unfailing love.” The term has more of “loyalty” or “enduring allegiance” about it than the emotions we normally associate with “love.” The context is one of commitment to a covenantal agreement between parties—perhaps a king and a vassal. The covenant partner who demonstrates enduring loyalty to the covenant relationship and faithfully fulfills his covenant obligations, not because he is forced to but because of a sense of commitment to the relationship—such a person is said to do hesed (“unfailing [covenant] love’). (Wilson, Psalms Vol. 1, 279)
As a general rule, we would do well to imitate the way in which the Psalms speak of God. And in this case, we learn that David’s confidence to praise God in the midst of seeming abandonment comes from God’s unfailing covenant promises.
Songs that express God’s love in sentimental and romantic terms do not stand up well when God feels absent. However, when God’s love is grounded in his works in redemptive history and his covenant promises sealed with Christ’s blood, God’s people will be able to find reason to sing (as David did), even when God feels far away.
9. David’s vow of praise leads us to Jesus.
Whereas David’s confidence in God’s hesed leads us back to the promises God made to Abraham and Israel, his confidence in his future salvation leads us to Jesus. Not immediately, but ultimately, David’s words, “my heart shall rejoice in your salvation,” tell us salvation will come in the person and work of Yeshua.
It must have been striking when Jesus’s parents received the news, “and you shall call his name yeshua” (Matt. 1:21). For any faithful Jew, the word Yeshua would not only harken back to Joshua son of Nun, the one who led the people of God into the promised land. It would also conjure up a word that fills the Psalms. For instance,
Psalm 3:8: Yeshua belongs to the Lord.
Psalm 14:7: Oh, that Yeshua for Israel would come out of Zion!
Psalm 18:50: Great Yeshua he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever.
Certainly, those who sang the Psalms in the temple of Solomon could not have known the full meaning of Yeshua, like we do. But in the same breath, God did. And as Acts 2:25 says of David writing Psalm 16, “For David says concerning him”—the him is the Christ, the son of David who would come be the salvation for David, Israel, and the world.
Incredibly, as we read the Psalms we see how God saved David. But we also see how David trusted God for his salvation. In Psalm 13:5, he did not yet possess that salvation, but with eyes of faith he looked to the future when God’s Yeshua would come.
In history, salvation was first given to David when God delivered David from Saul (see Psalm 18). However, such an ancient salvation also served as a type for the true salvation in Christ, and in this way we can see how Acts 2:25 speaks of David speaking of Christ. Truly, as we read the Psalms, we too should see what David was trusting in and join him in that belief.
10. Psalm 13 teaches us how to combat God’s ostensible absence.
While God is ever-present and all-knowing, it does not always feel that way. Psalm 13 grapples with this reality and teaches us how to respond. While sinful responses towards God’s apparent absence abound (e.g., denying his existence, celebrating his non-interference, acting with indifference), Psalm 13 teaches us how to cry out to God, express our sorrow, and trust in his salvation.
On this point, the late Psalm scholar, Gerald Wilson, observes four ways Psalm 13 (and other Psalms dealing with God’s absence) can be applied today (The Psalms Vol. 1, 284):
- The experience of divine abandonment is real and painful and is rightfully brought to God in laments and questions. God is not offended by our honest questions or even our heated complaints. Both confirm our desire for relationship and our faith that all is not as it should be.
- Divine absence need not be seen as the result of some failing within ourselves. Even the righteous suffer, and indeed suffering without divine intervention can be understood as one of the hallmarks of faithful living.
- Suffering the absence of God can be redemptive as others are brought to realize through our experience that the painful realities of life do not deny the existence, power, and compassionate concern of our God.
- God is worth holding on to faithfully even when we do not experience him as present.
In his remarkably pastoral section on Psalm 13, Wilson goes on to suggest poetic writing, self-denying service, and corporate assembly as other means of meeting God when he feels absent (ibid., 284–85). Indeed, when we do not feel like God is near, activities that bring us in contact with his Word and his people are the next best thing.
The feeling of God’s presence is a mystery. For reasons known only to him (and only sometimes revealed to us), he keeps his presence hidden. In such moments, enduring Christians must find means of grace to hold fast to God. Thankfully, the Psalms are one of those means, as are the places and people who sing those songs together. For that reason, let us continue to meditate on these ancient words and bring them into our private and corporate worship.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds