Canticles: Psalm 5—Patient

This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.

Psalm 5 exhibits a unique quality of patience. Certainly the psalmist cries out to God. She comes early in the morning to plead for deliverance. Then, at the end of verse 3, she stays to “watch.”

Rolf Jacobson attributes this patience to a sense of “eschatological hope.” “The psalmist recognizes that the Lord alone is the true God of time and history, but also recognizes that the Lord’s reign is not acknowledged by all. Thus…the psalmist waits for the consummation of God’s peaceable kingdom.”1

Please don’t ignore God. The authors of Psalms 5 and 88 have not ignored God. Lament and complaint both involve coming before God “in the morning.” God is the first thing on the psalmists’ minds.

The word patience traces its roots back to a Latin word for “suffering.” It’s curious in the English language that we have two words that look and sound the same, and are related, but are used in entirely different contexts. Someone who is patient (adjective) is able to endure waiting for a long time. Someone who is a patient (noun) is someone who is suffering and who is under care of a physician. Patients can sometimes be patient. But a patient’s ability to wait can only come from trusting her physician. Patients must also advocate for care. They must seek out their physician. They are not passive.

The psalmist seems to be a patient patient. She is suffering. But she trusts the one who will protect her and offer refuge.

As Jacobson puts it, “This waiting is neither a passive, quietist inaction nor a resigned, pessimistic despair. The psalmist knows whose will shall be done and awaits the coming of that kingdom.”2

I think there is a difference between complaint on the one hand and lament on the other. Lament is prayerful pleading. Lament is active, patient trust. It is a sufferer letting his physician know that something is wrong. Complaint stems from pessimistic despair. Complaint comes from experiencing disappointment. It bursts out of us when we feel we can no longer trust the person or company to whom we are complaining.

At this point, you would anticipate that I am going to advocate for lament over complaint. Nope. I think that God will take whatever we can give in prayer. And I know some people who are undergoing such trials in their lives that they have a difficult time trusting God. For those people, remember that the Psalter also contains Psalm 88. The author of Psalm 88 does not exhibit “eschatological hope” or patience. Like the author of Psalm 5, he comes to God in the morning, pleading for help. But he has been suffering for so long that his patience has run out. He does not talk about God’s coming kingdom, when the wicked will be shut out and the righteous will be protected. He only asks if God knows that people who are dead can’t praise God anymore. (Psalm 88:11) He says, in a closing statement, that his only friend is darkness.

Beth Tanner writes about Psalm 88: “[It] makes people uncomfortable. It confronts the ways we pray and the ways we think prayer must be done. It confronts all of the memories we have of dark and lonely nights in our own lives. It confronts the relationship we have with God. It confronts each of us with its truth stripped bare of any nice platitudes.3 She continues later, “The psalm also teaches a lesson about the real world, for sometimes there is no happy ending, no gap to jump in a prayer for help that gets us to praise. The hard truth is that people suffer and even die, sometimes in horrible circumstances and crying out to a God that seems silent….It also speaks of God, a God who is Creator and King of the Universe and who also does not condemn honest, painful conversations with the humans God created—and in that it may represent better than other texts the love that God has for us, these earthly creatures.”4

Notice, Psalm 88 is still prayer. It still assumes that God can be active. It still assumes that God should be active. It assumes that God’s character should be one of a loving protector. Psalm 88 assumes that God is alive and remains a force in the world. The author of Psalm 88 has not yet given up on God.

Every year for the past six years, I have written a letter to the seniors from our youth group. At the end of each letter, I write a variation on the same hope. Here’s one version:

“I pray that, in every situation, both good and bad, you would seek God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. I pray that you never give up on God, even when it seems impossible to believe. I pray that you never stop learning and growing. I pray that you continue to ask difficult questions and that you don’t believe the easy answers. Don’t hesitate to yell at God. Don’t hesitate to question God. No matter what, please don’t ignore God.

Please don’t ignore God. The authors of Psalms 5 and 88 have not ignored God. Lament and complaint both involve coming before God “in the morning.” God is the first thing on the psalmists’ minds.

May it be so for all of us, as we live through the ups and downs of a relationship with God in the midst of a still broken world.

Song Recommendations:

Chuck Girard, Psalm 5 – This oldie but goodie offers a generous paraphrase of Psalm 5. I would sing it a little bit faster than this recording. But the melody is very singable. The tune and feeling evoke Psalm 5’s plaintiveness.

Brad Kilman, Meet You in the Morning – This song sounds like waking up. It fits the morning setting of the Psalm. The song reaches a crescendo in the bridge, when Kilman sings a modern echo of Psalm 5: “O my God, you hold my heart inside your hands/I will trust you even when I don’t understand.” We used to sing this fairly regularly both in a prayerful worship service for seminarians and in the youth group where I was worship band coordinator. Kilman provides a chord chart here.

Marcus Hong, Psalm 5 – Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to put new words to old, singable tunes. I paraphrased Psalm 5 here to the tune “Beach Spring.” It could also be sung to “Nettleton,” the tune for “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Here are the lyrics.

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Footnotes:

1. Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p.100.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 672.
4. Ibid., 673.

 


Hong

Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

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