Everyone experiences disappointment or sadness to some degree. In Psalm 13, David demonstrated what it means to trust God in tough times. Feeling forgotten, forsaken, sorrowful, and subdued, David cried out for God’s consideration and illumination. As he prayed, his perspective changed, and he was able to rejoice—even though his circumstances remained the same. Alistair Begg teaches that when we face difficult times, we must resist self-pity, trusting that God knows what’s best for us and can use even our hard experiences for good.
I invite you to turn with me to the Thirteenth Psalm—to Psalm 13—which, in our Bibles, I think, has the heading, “How Long, O Lord?” And I’m going to read it, and then we’re going to look at it together.
To the choirmaster. A psalm of David.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Father, help us now, as we look to the Bible, that our thinking and my speaking may set forward your plans and purposes for us as we look from ourselves to you. And we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Now, some of you have joined since we began, and that is understandable, given the nature of the day. I said as we came together that I had determined that I would set aside the study of this past week, which I have enjoyed and benefited from—that is, our study in 1 Samuel—because these early days in 1 Samuel—and we’ve only just begun—are foundational to all that is going to follow. And since, as you can see, we’re only a shadow of our normal morning congregations—and that was certainly true at eight fifteen—then if I choose to go ahead now with 1 Samuel, I leave at least fifty or sixty percent of the congregation with a large gap that is an important piece of the puzzle.
And so, as I came into the building this morning thinking along these lines, and then seeing who was present at about ten past eight—about eleven people—I decided that I should do something, then, that Hannah would be pleased with, if you like, because now I’ve been living with Hannah all week. Don’t misunderstand me; I’ve been living with Sue all week, but also with Hannah, because she is the focal point and focus of these early two chapters of 1 Samuel. And one of the great benefits of studying in this way and beginning a series in this way is that we pick up new friends and companions.
And so, as I thought about it, I said to myself, “I think that Hannah, if she had occasion to suggest something to me, she might have said, ‘Well, you know, it would probably be quite good if you went to the Thirteenth Psalm. Because,’ she would have said, ‘you know, Elkanah, when he came to me—you know, he came with those questions, you know, “Why do you look so sad? Why is your face like this? Why have you lost your appetite?” and so on—and he recognized the fact that I was absolutely going through it. So why don’t you take a few verses from a psalm where someone is actually going through it?’” And so, this is where we are. Because Psalm 13 helps us in this particular way.
Now, the nature of David’s circumstances are not described for us—i.e., in terms of historical context. Therefore, we’re unable to say he was speaking in this way, or writing in this way, because this or that was happening. We don’t know what was happening. Which actually makes it, in some ways, all the more beneficial for us. If we were to say that it was because he was being chased by someone or frightened by someone, then we could say, “Well, I wasn’t frightened, and I wasn’t chased.” But since he doesn’t identify what the underlying issue is, we’re just introduced to the fact that he was, if you like, dealing with depression, or he was living with the blues, or he was trying to come to terms with what it means to trust God in tough times. And the terminology that is used to describe such an experience has morphed over time, and modern methodology for dealing with such an experience changes with time, but the unrelenting truth of God’s Word will be helpful to us as we look at it now.
And I would like simply to outline the study. There are three sections: verses 1 and 2, which we will consider under his condition; verses 3 and 4, his cry; and verses 5 and 6, his consolation. And I will probably, as normal, spend longer on the first than on the second and on the third.
Now, you will notice that there is a recurring question here: “How long? How long? How long?” And again, if you’ve been reading in preparation in 1 Samuel, you know that this was the great concern of Hannah as well. Verse 3 begins, “Year after year…” In other words, this circumstance that she was facing was not a matter of passing significance; rather, it confronted her all day, as it were, and every day. And the psalmist here is in similar straits, if you like. They say that time flies when you’re having fun; probably that’s fair as a cliché. But when things move into a minor key, I think it’s also true to say that life seems to move into slow motion. And we will find ourselves, when we’re going through it, saying, “I don’t know if we’re ever going to come out of this circumstance.”
Now, what is it that he’s facing? Well, we could summarize it in a couple of phrases. Number one, he faces the fact that he feels forgotten and forsaken: “How long will you forget me? How long will you forsake me?” or “How long will you hide your face from me?” Now, he feels himself to be left out, to be misplaced, to be forgotten.
Now, if we’re honest, this is a feeling with which each of us will be able to identify. It may not be uppermost in our thinking as we’ve come this morning; we may have to look back a week or two, or a year or two. And certainly, if we have not had reason to feel in this way, if we just live a little longer we will have the opportunity, no doubt.
It’s the kind of feeling that you have when you are moving to a new school as a boy or a girl, and you are uprooted from your framework of friendship, and you have to go that first day into a new environment. And you don’t know a single person, and you have to stand by the radiator in the hope that somebody may come and say hello to you. And if they don’t, you go home, and you tell your parents, “I’m never going back to that school again.” And, of course, they set that very quickly to rights, and the next day you go back, and you are desperately hoping that you won’t feel the way you felt yesterday.
It’s the feeling that you have when they give out the jerseys—having picked the soccer team, in my case—on a Friday lunchtime so that you can play on Saturday morning, and when you go to the physics lab and the games teacher assigns the positions for the day and throws, as he did, the jersey to you with your number on it, you find that the eleven jerseys have gone, and you’re still sitting there.
It’s the feeling that you have when the invitation goes out to the party, and everyone else that you know seems to have been invited, and you have been left off the list—or, in contemporary terms, that the number of your “likes” that are coming in on whatever social device you’re using is diminishing, while in the case of others it seems to be going in the other way.
You see, to be isolated from human relationships is, without question, crushing. But what he’s talking about here is actually something far more significant: he’s talking about the sense that he has of being isolated from God himself. And what becomes apparent to us is that in this experience of the blues, or incipient depression, what we discover is that his perceptions, as in our perceptions, will not necessarily be accurate. Because what he feels to be the case is not the case. But it doesn’t alter the fact that he feels it to be the case.
Now, he should know what we know, that God makes it clear through his prophet about this matter: “Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.’” What does that mean? It means that the people of God, in the journey of following God—of being his followers and his servants—have, on occasion, on that pilgrimage, said, “I believe the Lord has actually forgotten us. If he had not forgotten us, if he was still with us, how would we be in this predicament here in this wilderness? If he truly was watching over us, surely we would not have been carried away into exile in Babylon and have to endure all of this. If God was really with us and blessing us and securing us, then why would we have taken our harps and hung them up on the trees and said to one another, ‘There is no way that we can sing the song of praise to God in a foreign land’? Apparently, he has forgotten us.”
But “Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.’” And here’s the word of God to his people: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” No, surely not! “Though she may forget [you]”—it’s possible—“I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”
What an amazing picture! It’s a metaphor. People always ask me, they say, “Why do you have these bits of string around your wrist?” Well, I used to have six; now I have eight. Every time somebody comes along, I get a bit of string. Well, you say, “You can’t remember your grandchildren without string?” Yes, I can. But it’s just there. And I think of them all. God looks down. And he looks, as it were, at his hands, and he says, “Oh, there they are.” True! But what’s David’s experience? “How long will you forget me?”
God’s care for his children is like the sun: it’s constant. Even though the clouds obscure it, it doesn’t mean the sun isn’t there. It’s always there. Just go above the clouds.
He feels it. The reality of it is that he feels forgotten and forsaken and, in a second phrase, he is sorrowful and he is subdued—sorrowful and he’s subdued. “How long must I take counsel in my soul”—the very core of my being—“and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” The juxtaposition between his mind and his emotions. He’s, if you like, trying to fit together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle psychologically: “Why do I feel this way? What is going on here? How do I make sense of all of this?” And what he discovers is that he doesn’t have all the pieces of the jigsaw present so that he might see the final picture in all of its clarity.
And what has happened to him is, he’s just chewing on it: “Why is this going on? How long will this go on?” And the longer he thinks about it, the longer he gives his mind to it, the greater is the possibility for him increasing in self-pity: “Oh, look at me. Look at what’s happened to me. Nobody remembers me. I don’t believe you remember me.”
“Ruminating,” said Spurgeon on one occasion—it’s a great verb—“Ruminating upon trouble is bitter work.” There are certain things that it’s better to swallow than to chew. And what he’s doing is, he’s chewing when he should be swallowing. And he says, “And when you add to that the sound of my enemies seeking to triumph over me, it’s like pouring vinegar on an open wound.” The laughter of his enemies sounds louder in his ears than his awareness of the providence and kindness of God. “How long is this going to continue?” he says.
Now, let me just pause and say—okay, let’s imagine for a moment that we find ourselves in this condition. If you ever find yourself in this condition, I wonder what accompanying evidences there are for you? I can tell you from myself that a number of things often accompany this sense of being dispirited in this way. One may be that one begins just to waste time—to waste time. Nothing seems to be very good, nothing seems to be going very well, and instead of getting about the business—getting up, making the bed, making sure that we’re going about our duties—we start, now, just to begin to waste time. Or, on the flip side of it, we start to work, now, like a maniac. And we think that we will fill up this vacuum by feverish activity—not the same as, necessarily, resting and serving God. Or, as we seek to make sure we’re covering it all, we’re actually allowing it to pile up. Frustration arrives, bitterness is present, fearfulness begins to creep into our hearts, and we discover that we’re actually afraid, now, of doing normal things. And we can’t fully explain it. What has happened, that we are now as destabilized as this? And what are we going to do?
Well, we’re going to discover what we’re going to do, but let me tell you what I’m not going to do when those days come. And let’s face it—we sing the hymn, don’t we?—“Days of darkness still come o’er me, sorrow’s path[s] I [oft may] tread.” Now, that is either true, or you shouldn’t be singing it. Days of darkness do come over me. Sorrow’s paths I oft may tread.
Now, in that experience, which is David’s experience here, there are a number of things it’s not wise to do. I made a mental note to myself some time ago. Number one, I will not make a major decision in that experience. I’m not about to decide about moving house, changing my job, or anything that is remotely major. Secondly, I’m not going to write important letters. Because I can’t trust myself, when I take my pen in my hand, not to allow my sense of foreboding, frustration, disappointment, fearfulness, the blues, not simply to bleed out onto the page. Thirdly, I am not going to judge my spiritual life. And fourthly, I’m going to try to make sure that I’m not judging anybody else’s spiritual life. Because when we find ourselves in that situation, it is very easy to get things wrong.
And for me to say these things this morning, you may find yourself saying, “Yes, I feel like you’re making me look in a mirror.” Well, you’re not alone in the mirror. Many of the choicest servants of God have known these times. Jonah. Samuel Chadwick; he used to read Isaiah 40 every Monday morning, after he had preached on the previous day, just to get himself recalibrated because he was saddened. William Cowper, the great theologian, the hymn writer who gave us our opening hymn from this morning—out of the depths of his own life he cried, feeling forsaken and disappointed and disheartened, and he’s the one who then writes, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace,” because “behind a frowning providence”—the darkness of it—“He hides a smiling face.”
Now, some people fight this more than others. Some, it is a constant battle; for others, we’re hardly troubled. And personality comes into this; personality type comes into this. Not everybody is Winnie-the-Pooh, you know. There’s a significant number of Eeyores that you find as you go through, and some of them in the mirror. Some of us, we are extroverted, and that brings with it the danger of superficiality. Others of us are introverted, which brings with it, I’ve observed, the danger of morbid introspection. And the trouble is that if you are of the melancholic disposition, to be with somebody who is not of that disposition and doesn’t even really understand it, then you may find that you are a Hannah up against an Elkanah: “Why do you weep? Why don’t you eat? Why is your heart sad?” This is him trying his best! We’ll come to that sermon later. But this is the husband at work, you know? “What’s up with you? What’s up with you? I mean, goodness gracious!” It’s hard, isn’t it?
If the pastor is that way, and melancholic, it’s a tough dose. You know the old story of the pastor who’s playing golf with one of his friends? And they’re playing match play, and he’s just going down again, again, again, and every time he comes off the green he says to his friend who he’s playing, he says, “Your hole.” And then again, and then he loses the next hole, he says, “Your hole.” And about the twelfth or thirteenth hole, his friend, trying to cheer him up, says, “Hey, come on. Hey, pastor,” he says, “you’re younger than me, and, you know, one day… one day you’ll… you know… you’ll do my funeral!” And the pastor says, “Yeah, but it’ll still be your hole.”
So, when you’ve got that kind of disposition—that Eeyore thing—it’s a hard deal to shake. And a number of things contribute to it, as well. And one is just our physical condition: when we are tired—when we are overly tired—and when we are in need of insight from those around us. It also is contributed to by spiritual warfare, that we’re not dealing with “flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places.” And it also comes, often, on the heels of a great success or a significant encouragement.
If we had nowhere else in the Bible to which we might turn to make that point, we could make sure that we understood what was happening to Elijah in 1 Kings. Because remember, when Elijah goes against the prophets of Baal, there’s hundreds of them, and there’s only one of him. All the excitement was on their side, all of the potential triumph for victory was in their side, and he was up against it. It was himself and God against the hordes. You know the story: God shows himself strong. The sacrifice is burned up. And Elijah immediately goes off on a preaching tour all around the community and introducing people to new songs. No! Go to the next chapter, where is he? He’s hiding underneath a broom tree. “What’re you doing under the broom tree?” “Well, I’m the only person that really knows. I’m the only person that really cares. I’m the only guy. There’s nobody left except me.” You’re wrong, Elijah. You express your feelings accurately. You need to cry, but not like this.
That brings us to the second point: that David then cries to God. It’s important, first of all, that he does cry. I remember… I forget the song now, but it went like, “Shout, shout, let it all out”—you know, that whole primal screaming thing that, I think, John Lennon and Yoko Ono got into? It didn’t really seem to do very much for them at all. But there is a sense in which every so often you just have to go out in the backyard and just have a right good scream to yourself—you know, just like, “YAHH!” Hopefully nobody’s around, and you get it out. But it is important to give voice to things.
David knows this. In another psalm, you remember, he says, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” So the cry is important. But what is more important is the one to whom he cries. He directs his cry. And he directs his cry to God: “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God.” And what is he crying? Well, he is crying for consideration: “Look at me. Consider me. Answer me.” This tidal wave that has knocked him down and rolled over him causes him to pray.
It’s hard for me to stay away from 1 Samuel, so I don’t have to. When you read that in preparation for our next study, ponder this: that if Peninnah, Hannah’s rival, had been a sort of decent soul and had said to her, essentially, “Look, I’ve got a number of kids. You’ve got no children. Why don’t I just share them with you?”—in other words, if her response to that circumstance had been to moderate the deal—then Hannah would never have had occasion to pray as she did. It was, if you like, the darkness, and the badness, and the provocation, and the aggravation—it was the storm rolling over her head—that caused her to cry as she did.
You see, it’s really not good for us to live in any realm of denial when the storm breaks over our heads. If we try and suck it up, we do harm to ourselves and to everyone around us. Therefore, the psalmist helps us here, doing here what Hannah does in 1 Samuel 1, and that is turning to God: “Consider me, O God.”
For consideration, and also for illumination: “Lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.” You see, it’s a short step from heaviness or despondency to the finality of death. We don’t hear much about it, but it is possible to die of a broken heart. And more people do than probably we understand. Because the overwhelming pressure and burden of these things, real or perceived, may be such as to take them down literally into the grave. And so he’s saying, “Make sure that you lighten up my eyes. Look at me! Look at me!” Hannah, again: it’s fascinating that it says that her “countenance” changed—her “countenance” changed. In other words, people would have looked at her and said, “You know, there’s something in Hannah’s eyes. Something has happened to change her.”
Now, our reaction to despondency, to discouragement, to disappointment, is just this: to ask God to turn the lights back on. But he doesn’t often turn the lights back on. That was a problem for Hannah. That was a problem for David. “How long? How long? How long?” In 1 Samuel, “year after year,” “year after year.”
You see, this is the real test. The world looks on—people who do not believe the Bible, who do not understand that Jesus is a risen King—they look on, and we’re tempted to say, “If we can only show them, you know, this amazing triumph that is ours to enjoy, then they will be impressed with that.” They may or may not be, but I’ll tell you what will impress them: it’s when, in the experience of our own deep-seated despondency—that doesn’t seem to be mitigated by time, that doesn’t seem to be altering as we progress—that we’re able still in that situation to discover that God is teaching us, now, to trust him, not with the lights on, but with the lights off!
Now, think about it with your children and your grandchildren. You put them up to bed, what do they say to you? “Will you leave the light on?” We will probably start there. And perhaps a few days later or whatever: “Will you leave the light on?”
“Well, will you leave the light on in the bathroom?”
Then, “Will you leave the light on?”
“No, I’m gonna close the door.”
“Well, will you close it all the way, or will you please leave it open just a little bit?”
Now, if the child is twenty-seven years old and this is still going on, we’ve got a major problem here. Right? Some of us are much further along the line, and we’re still having these crazy conversations with God. And in the middle of it all, he’s been saying to us, “I’ve been coming to teach you to live with the lights off, not with the lights on!” Anybody can sleep with the lights on. It’s when it’s darkness: “When darkness veils [your] lovely face, I rest on [your] unchanging grace.” Not on the lights, but on the one who is the “Father of lights,” as James says, “[in] whom there is no variableness, neither shadow [due to] turning.”
Now, to our final point. What is the bridge that gets us from verse 4 to verse 5? The answer is, it is prayer. It is prayer. Because that’s what he’s doing in verses 3 and 4: “Consider me. Answer me.” And the consolation that he discovers is fantastic!
And what makes this psalm so compelling—and, I think, a psalm with which, as I say, Hannah would be quite happy for us to pursue—is the fact that verse 5 and verse 6 give no indication of anything having changed in the psalmist’s circumstances. Nothing’s changed—except his perspective. How did his perspective change? Because he went to God in prayer.
In 1 Samuel, when Hannah finally comes out and gets her appetite back and has a spring in her step and joy in her countenance, you will find that it’s in verse 18; it’s not in verse 20. Why is that significant? Because in verse 18, she doesn’t have a baby. It’s only in verse 20 she’s had the baby. But she gets her appetite back and her face changes on the strength of what? In the strength of the fact that she recognizes that God is still God with the lights on or the lights off. Because she recognizes the fact that God is a sovereign God—sovereign when he gives things to her, and sovereign when he chooses not to give things to her. Once she’s got that resolved, then there is a change. Until that’s resolved, there couldn’t be.
And that’s the same here in the psalm. Notice the verbs. Where do we find him? “But I have trusted in your steadfast love.” “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.” “Well,” you say, “okay, but what does that mean? Look at where I am. But I feel forgotten, and I feel disappointed, and my enemies seem to be doing better than me, and Peninnah, she’s a pain in the neck, and she aggravates me all the time and makes me sad and makes me want to cry. But I have trusted in your steadfast love!” This is volitional. This is not emotional.
This is a lesson, isn’t it? We need to bring our emotions underneath the jurisdiction of God’s character and God’s purposes. The feelings of his heart are real, but now he’s applying his mind to the matter. He is, if you like, being “transformed by the renewing of [his] mind.”
So, trusting, and then, you will notice, rejoicing: “My heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” “I have trusted,” past tense; “I will rejoice in your salvation.” In other words, “When I look at the shattered remnants of my experience here, and it looks as if the collapse is almost absolutely definite, then I remind myself that you give me ‘beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, [and a] garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.’”
And finally, singing: “I will sing.” It’s hard to sing, isn’t it, if you’re upset? I find it so. It’s hard to pray when you’re upset. You can’t get much out. It sounds very routine. Some of us, as well, we like to play in the minor key all the time, you know—erect a monument to all of our disappointments: “Oh, this didn’t happen, and that was a mistake, and this is a failure, and look at this, and look at that.” And the Evil One is happy with that. He’ll take us back down that corridor all day, every day—just take us back down: “Oh, do you remember. I can’t believe you. Look at this, look at that, look at the next thing.”
What do you do with that? Well, you say, “I’m gonna trust in your steadfast love. I’m gonna rejoice in you, the God of my salvation, that you have saved me from sin’s penalty, that you are saving me from sin’s power, that one day you will save me from sin’s very presence. And therefore, I can sing, and therefore, I will sing.”
One final comment, and an illustration. Here’s the comment: let’s acknowledge the fact that there is a perverse sense of satisfaction in feeling sorry for ourselves. And there is more than a hint of that in the experience of this psalm. And we like to go away by ourselves and play it over again and again. We need to resist that.
We need also to recognize that only ultimately in the new heaven and in the new earth will these storms of life be finally stilled. And that, then, is a matter of trusting God, trusting that our Father is wise. When he doesn’t give us something, it’s because he knows it’s better for us not to have it. When he entrusts us with something that is hard to accept, it remains because he is able to look upon us and give to us the privilege of bearing testimony in that circumstance to the reality of his grace. And it is an opportunity for us to remind ourselves that as with David, so with us: that it’s God’s word that is the anchor for our souls.
The illustration is that as a boy in Scotland, we would go camping with a youth organization. And on one occasion we were camping up in the northeast of Scotland, and we went on a day trip, leaving our tented village behind; we went on a day trip to Inverness. And while in Inverness, the weather deteriorated significantly, as it can, and significant winds blew through, so that by the time we arrived back at the campsite, a number of the tents had been blown away, some of them actually over the edge of the cliff. My particular tent that I was in with five other boys and a tent officer, as he was called, was hanging, limping, as it were, in the breeze. But it was finally secured.
And as I lay there that night, I remember thinking a number of things. The first one was, “I’m glad this is not my permanent home. I’m only here for a time. I get to go home.” And the second thing was, “I’m glad that whoever hammered in the tent pegs for our tent hammered them into such solid ground, and did so so securely.” And then—I don’t think I would ever have thought to myself at twelve, “You know, that would be a good illustration for a talk.” But it is. ’Cause the tents that blew away had not been fastened into solid ground.
Therefore, the call is to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, help me now to have the tent pegs of my life fastened entirely into my confidence in you, so that in life and in death, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, that I might be able to bear testimony to these things. Help me when I’m in need of this consolation. Help me not to just be a nuisance to everyone around me, but to cry out to you. And come and meet with me, so that I may be found trusting and rejoicing and singing.”
 1 Samuel 1:3 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 49:14 (ESV).
 Psalm 137:2, 4 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 49:15–16 (NIV 1984).
 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 1, Psalm I to XXVI (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1870), 170.
 Francis H. Rowley, “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story” (1886).
 William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).
 Ephesians 6:12 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Kings 18:16–19:18.
 Roland Orzabal and Ian Stanley, “Shout” (1984).
 Psalm 32:3 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 1:18 (KJV).
 1 Samuel 1:3 (NIV 1984).
 1 Samuel 1:7 (NIV 1984).
 Edward Mote, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” (1834).
 James 1:17 (KJV).
 See 1 Samuel 1:18, 20.
 Lamentations 3:22 (ESV).
 Romans 12:2 (KJV).
 Isaiah 61:3 (KJV).
 Hebrews 6:19 (paraphrased).