Delivered 22 September 2019.
How can an omnipresent God seem so far away?
Few Christians make it through life without experiencing a period where God seems distant. I’ve noticed that those traditions who rely heavily on emotional experiences for their salvation tend to ignore or outright deny the existence of these times. People in those traditions then endure crises of belief when their emotions don’t match the teachings of their denominations.
You can’t read the Scriptures without uncovering the reality of a distant God. Israel knew God in a relationship unlike all other nations, and they, too, faced periods where God seemed far away. Today’s sermon text comes from one of those periods.
God established His covenant with Israel through Moses in c. 1446 B.C. The covenant clearly explained both God’s expectations of Israel and the consequences of breaking the covenant. God then spent the next 8 centuries watching Israel shatter the covenant countless times. For 8 centuries, Israel would commit idolatry, oppress the poor, and act as badly as the nations around them; yet, when the Hebrews cried on God and repented, He forgave them.
Time ran out for Israel in 605 B.C. with the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar conquered the modern Middle East, including the small nation of Judah, Israel’s last sovereign nation. Since the Hebrews lived in the nation of Judah, the Babylonians and other Mesopotamians referred to them as “Jews.”
Nebuchadnezzar took thousands of Jews (including Daniel and his 3 friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) into captivity and stripped the Temple of most of its gold vessels. Judah rebelled in 597 B.C., leading to another visit by the Babylonians and more captives. Finally, in 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar had had enough of Judah’s disobedience. The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, killed thousands, and deported thousands more into captivity in modern Iraq.
Psalm 79 dates from the time following the destruction of Jerusalem. This psalm describes the agony of believers who feel as if God has abandoned them, but it also paints us a beautiful picture of God’s work in our lives in times of trial and distress.
Psalm 79 serves as an excellent example of what scholars call the “Lament Psalms.” Psalms of lament tell us that God’s people have experienced times of darkness and trial before. I find this immensely comforting, because it means my own times of darkness occur in the lives of others. God has brought others through these times, and He will bring me through them, too.
The Lament Psalms usually follow a set pattern, a pattern we can see in Psalm 79. First, the psalmist explains his complaint to God. Then, the psalmist laments his condition. The psalmist will petition God for help in his time of trouble. Lastly — and extremely importantly — the psalmist will praise God for His work to remedy the cause of the lament. We must never forget that God will always work to help His people, even if He does so in His time, not in ours.
Psalm 79 opens with a cry against the pagan nations that had destroyed Jerusalem. The psalmist cries to God that the “nations” had desecrated His “inheritance.” God had promised the land of Israel to Abraham and then to his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. God had redeemed the Jews from slavery in Egypt and returned them to the land. Now, the land God had promised to the Jews lay in waste because of pagan armies.
Even worse, the Babylonians had “laid Jerusalem in ruins.” God had told the Jews, “I have chosen Jerusalem that my name may be there” (2 Chronicles 6:6); of all the mighty cities of the ancient world, God chose Jerusalem for the location of His holy temple. You can visit the Church of the Resurrection today and see a statue depicting the “navel” of the world, a reference to Jerusalem’s importance to the major religions of the world. In spite of its prominence before God, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, burning everything flammable and pulling down its walls.
As bad as the Babylonians treated the city’s structures, they mistreated its citizens even worse. The Babylonians left the bodies of the Jews unburied for the animals to eat; they literally took so many people into captivity that no one remained to bury the bodies.
The destruction of Jerusalem and the murder of thousands left the Jews humiliated: “We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us.” The Jews had broken their covenant with God, but they still expected God to protect His city and His Temple. Jerusalem had become like a talisman to the Jews; they never thought God would allow any nation to destroy the city, regardless of the depravity of their sins. The Jews had bragged of Jerusalem’s invincibility; now, all the other nations had witnessed Jerusalem’s humiliation as the Babylonians completely wrecked the city.
After his complaint, the psalmist moved to his lament. “How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealousy burn like fire?” God had promised His people they would experience destruction and exile if they failed to keep the covenant, and for 800 years He had patiently endured their disobedience. However, disobedience brings consequences. God kept His word. The destruction of Jerusalem shocked the Jews so badly they felt as if God would remain “angry forever;” they feared God would never again bless His people.
The psalmist wanted God to punish the Babylonians for their excesses in their conquest of Judah. “Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name!” If God would deal with His people so severely, certainly He would punish the pagans as well! “For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.”
Now we come to the petition of the psalmist. “Do not remember against us our former iniquities; let your compassion come speedily to meet us.” The psalmist knew Israel had sinned; no one could see the wreckage of Jerusalem and ignore the reasons for God’s judgment. God had punished Israel for her sins. However, the psalmist hoped God would not continually remember the “iniquities” of His people. The Hebrew word for “remember” implies an action on the memory; the psalmist knew God had acted on His memories of the Jews’ sins. The word “iniquity” in Hebrew implies a perversion or twisting of the law; the Jews had twisted God’s words to justify their own desires and actions. Only God’s “compassion” would save His people from His righteous anger at their disobedience.
God may have destroyed His city and sent His people into captivity, but the Jews knew they could still call on Him for help. When God brought His people out of Egypt, the people repaid Him by worshiping a golden calf at Mount Sinai. When God threatened to destroy the nation, Moses reminded Him of the consequences: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people” (Exodus 32:12). The psalmist knew God would still help His people in this time of trial as well. “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake!” The people’s sins had brought this calamity on them, but God could still help His people. Any God who could restore Israel from the destruction they had endured would bring “glory” to His name. Any God who would save His people from this catastrophe would “deliver” His people physically from their captors and also “atone” for their sins, delivering them from spiritual destruction as well.
Following the Babylonian conquest, the pagans had taunted the Jews: “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” In the ancient world, people viewed any war between nations as a war between the nations’ gods. Since Judah had suffered complete destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, it appeared as if Babylon’s gods (especially Marduk , its patron deity) had defeated Israel’s God. The psalmist wanted God to avenge the defeat of His people by “preserving” the Jews “doomed to die” and by repaying “sevenfold into the lap of our neighbors the taunts with which they have taunted you, O Lord!” People today don’t like to think of God as an avenging God, but the ancient Jews had no problem calling on God to avenge the wrongs performed against them. The Jews knew they had sinned and deserved punishment, but the Babylonians had committed atrocities that exceeded the punishment of God. The ancient Jews expected God to render justice.
Lastly, we come to the praise in the psalm, a section I believe ranks as one of the most important sections in any lament. Too often, we forget to praise God in the midst of sorrow; we forget that He cares about us and will work to help us. “But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.” Even as their nation disappeared into captivity, the psalmist and the Jews expected God to preserve them; they would continue to praise Him “from generation to generation.” The ancient believers knew that suffering would not endure forever; God would always work to bring relief to His people.
I have an important lesson for you: People haven’t changed. We still sin against God, and we still suffer the consequences for our sin. We still find ourselves at times facing perceived alienation from God. We still find ourselves in the darkness, wondering whether God cares and whether He will deliver us.
Today, we live in tension between the “after” time and the “before” time. We live after God’s ultimate expression of salvation and deliverance, the crucifixion of Jesus and His glorious resurrection. We also live in the “before” time of the moment when Jesus will return to bring justice to the earth, the moment our faith shall become sight.
Today, we live in the time when God’s offer of salvation extends to everyone who believes in Jesus, confessing Him as Lord and believing in His resurrection. When we believe in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes into our lives, leading us, encouraging us, and guiding us in our lives.
Still, we sometimes feel alone.
In these times, I have more important lessons.
First, God hasn’t forgotten you. The ancients believed their gods existed only in their particular geographical areas. The Jews quickly learned in exile that God lived in Babylon just as He had lived in Jerusalem. Regardless of where you live, wherever you find yourself, God remains with you.
Next — and I believe this lesson applies even more to us in America, where we focus so obsessively on our individual relationship with God — lament in the Scriptures occurs most often in the corporate context. Reread this psalm, and point out to me the first person pronouns. You won’t find any. Even the individual laments in Scripture have as their unspoken background the existence of the petitioner as a member of the people of God. As Claus Westermann reminds us,
“In every lament there are ‘the others’ and — expressed or implied — they always have something to do with the lament. For the one who utters the lament is never an isolated individual standing alone; the lamenter is always a member of a group. This fundamental structure is the common feature of all the laments in the Old Testament; it unites all their varied expressions” (Praise and Lament in the Psalms, pp. 169-170)
This brings us to the lesson:
You do not lament alone.
You do not lament alone.
You do not lament alone.
As my favorite science fiction author writes, “What I tell you 3 times is true.” We so often forget we can ask others for help; we can ask others to pray with us and for us. We can encourage one another when we know others lament. Ask for help! Ask for intercession! Never lament alone!
Yes, I know this goes against our instinctive reaction to bear stoically our burdens; it revolts against our pride to admit we need help. Christian, pride destroys; pride isolates, and sin always finds its easiest victims in isolation. Never let your pride keep you from admitting you need help in your lament.
Lastly, and most importantly, I stand here today and admit I have often forgotten to praise God in the midst of my laments, both for His work in my life before the time of lament and for my trust that He will work to bring me through the time of lament and into a time of joy. You don’t have to wait for God to deliver you to start praising Him. God has already delivered you from sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus, His Son. God has already promised you eternal life with the corporate body of believers. Regardless of your emotions — regardless of whether you find yourself now in lament or in joy — praise God. Praise Him for what He has done; praise Him for what He is doing; and praise Him for what He will do. Praise Him because He loves you. Praise Him because of His love for you through Jesus, His Son. Praise Him for the presence of the Holy Spirit. Praise Him now for the eternity you will share.
“Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
“Praise Him, all creatures here below;
“Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
“Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Thomas Ken, “Doxology,” 1674
C.S. Lewis, Reflections of the Psalms. Edison, NJ: Inspirational Press, 2004.
Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1981.