“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.”
The first is this; why do sermons intended to deliver Christians from depression actually make some believers more depressed? I suppose the fault may lie with the preacher’s insensitivity. So you will be mighty relieved to know that this sermon today is a very, very, very sensitive sermon, that nothing I say can possibly be conceived as being ‘insensitive’ to the tiniest degree . . . what a relief for everyone. I am not going to scold any of you.
Following that ironic assurance let me proceed in saying this, that some people who have depression are terrified of being told that it is wrong to feel the way they do. They cannot help it, they plead, and you are only making them feel more guilty if you challenge them, and that makes a bad case worse. Then I must explain that I don’t believe that all depression is sinful, for example, post natal depression, as I understand it, is a clinical state with a scientific, biological and chemical explanation and treatment. Again we all should believe that prolonged grief at the loss of a loved one is not sinful depression. Again, a contemplation of the world today would make any righteous person feel low. There are occasions and circumstances in all our lives when we groan and feel the burden of living under the curse in a fallen world. Our Saviour wept over a friend’s death and the sorrows of his sisters. He also wept at the condition of the city of Jerusalem. None of that is sinful sorrow.
However, other states of depression can be sinful. They are most definitely sinful. I will hide behind the God I serve who has given me his word, and there I find him challenging men about their emotions. I discover he said to Cain, “Why is your face downcast?” (Gen. 4:6). He said to Jonah, “Have you any right to be angry?” (Jon. 4:4). He said to Elijah on two occasions, “What are you doing here Elijah?” (I Kings 19:13), and he made the psalmist interrogate himself on three occasions, “Why are you downcast? . . . Why so disturbed within you?” (Psa. 42:5). Very often the best therapy is having to answer those questions honestly, telling God why we feel as we do. Is our emotional state at all justifiable? It may be, but it may not be justifiable. Kneeling before God and rationalizing our feelings can be the first step on the road to recovery. So as David described his condition to the Lord in this psalm we see that it’s not unique in the book of psalms or in the entire Bible. In other words, at times when we feel very low we’re not the only Christians to have experienced this. They are common to us all and God will with this trial make a way of escape that we can bear it. Let us consider David’s state. You notice that he is full of questions. There are five questions in the first two verses, and that is good. God questions us, we question God and we question ourselves. It is when we are dull and lifeless and stop asking questions then we are in serious trouble. Let us look at David’s state.
- DAVID’S STATE – A LONG TIME IN A LOW CONDITION.
“How long, O Lord?” It is a well known statement in the psalms. I counted the question 22 times. Don Carson actually has a book on suffering with that title (IVP). Sinclair Ferguson also has a book on that theme entitled Deserted by God (Banner of Truth) and its second chapter is called ‘How Long, Lord?’ which is an exposition of this psalm. You see that this question is on David’s lips on four occasions. “I’m in a bad way, but my concern is how long this is going to last? What’s all this about?” Let’s see what David tells us about his feelings.
i] God has forgotten about me (v.1). There were some deep longings in David’s heart and he had prayed about them, and prayed about them many times, and there was no answer from heaven. Perhaps he was concerned about the behaviour of his children, and he asked God to intervene and do something. Nothing happened. The children went on in their indifference to God and their love of pleasure. David prayed for them by name and with periods of great fervour and there was nothing. There were concerns like that and then he slowly started to think that God had forgotten about him.
How vast is the world; how many people praying at the same time; how limitless the cosmos, immeasurably vast, 2.4 trillion stars for every person in the world. David got forgetful as he got older and sometimes called a son by the name of his brother, and forgot where some of his courtiers came from and what they did. Old age! With all that God had to do, David imagined that his own petty concerns for his children would be easily forgotten by God. The Lord had busy times with earthquake victims, and sunamis, and wars, and revivals. Then David thought, “What if God forgot about me for ever, forgot about me when I was dying and when I was dead? What if I slipped through his fingers? Would God&
rsquo;s seeming indifference to David go on and on? “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (v.1).
Now is that possible? For God to forget anyone or anything? It’s possible for me and for you. They say that elephants never forget – I don’t know if that is true; I doubt it. God never forgets. It is impossible for God to forget. If he could forget then he would not be God. He remembers everything; everything possible, everything actual; all events, all creatures of the past, the present and the future. He remembers every details in the life of every being in heaven, in earth and in hell. Nothing slips by forgotten by him. Nothing escapes his notice, nothing can be hidden from him. We agree with the Psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain to it” (Ps. 139:6). All information is at his fingertips; it is never wiped out; no virus can destroy any of it. He never errs, never changes, never overlooks anything. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebs 4:13). This is the God with whom we have to do.
The psalmist says, “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD” (Psalm 139:1-4). How solemn it is to think that God has forgotten nothing about us at all. He may be invisible to us but we are not invisible to him. The trees of the garden could not hide our first parents. Though no human eye saw Cain murder his brother the scene was witnessed by God. The Lord’s comprehensive knowledge is the comfort of the Christian. Job said, “He knows the way that I take” (Job 23:10). Where we have come from and where we are going is all known to him. In our weariness, when we feel all alone we should say, “But God has not forgotten me! Lord thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.” No. God has not forgotten about us at any time. The David had another complaint:
ii] God was being illusive. “How long will you hide your face from me?” (v.1). David felt that God was hiding himself from David and wasn’t looking at him; he wasn’t casting a glance in his direction. God was going about all that the Deity does as though David didn’t exist, for so it seemed to the king, but that again cannot be. God has promised never to leave us. At better times David knew this. He had written, “He leadeth me beside the still waters . . . yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me” (Psalm 23). The shepherd always keeps an eye on his sheep. In all his dealings with us God is faithful. You can rely on him. No one ever trusted him in vain. There are seasons in our lives when it is not easy to believe that God’s great smiling face is watching us. It seems such a frowning providence has come into our lives; perhaps our child has died. We have lost the most precious thing in the world. Yet behind a frowning providence God hides a smiling face.
God is faithful in all his dealings with us; every joy or trial comes from a loving Father. He is faithful in what he withholds no less than in what he gives. He is faithful in sending sorrow as well as in giving joy. He is faithful when he delays in answering our prayers no less than when he gives to us before we have even asked. There are days when I stand on the promenade and see Bardsey Island very clearly. There are many days when it is hidden in the mist. It is still there. I don’t doubt for a moment that it is there on the horizon though I see it not. So it is with God; though there are days when I don’t feel his presence yet I know that he is there. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense but trust him for his grace. All that comes from God, his decrees, his creation, his providence, his salvation, his sanctifying work in us preparing us for heaven, it all comes out of his goodness. Our children may become prodigal and take their inheritance and flee to a distant city and never be in touch with us for months and years. They hide their faces from us quite deliberately, but God never! Then David has another complaint:
iii] God has left me all to myself. “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (v.2). You see the sequence of the questions? First David thinks that God has forgotten about him, then that he has hidden his face from him. So David has no God to turn to. He’s just got himself all alone in the world. A prominent French psychiatrist says that depressed people are usually atheists. Everything is turned inward in depression. Your beautiful garden momentarily takes your attention, but within a second your mind turns back onto your own misery. You see loved ones celebrating birthdays and anniversaries and engagements and that momentarily lifts you up but soon you have retreated to your own emptiness. Like a boomerang that always returns, no matter how you try you are going in and in and in and in. Pop atheism sings, “Search for the hero inside yourself,” but you have searched and searched and there is only a depressed little person hiding in a corner.
Such a phenomenon as described in this psalm is familiar to us isn’t it? It was written a long time ago and thousands of miles away from the edge of the Irish Sea, long before Sigmund Freud and his whole religion of psychiatry developed. Yet here is a psalmist who is describing me. There was a Scottish Presbyterian minister whose name was John Colquhoun who lived 200 years ago and wrote a book to help Christians who were troubled as David was. Extracts have been reprinted by the Banner of Truth; it was called, A Treatise on Spiritual Comfort. In these words the Rev. Colquhoun analyzed some of the Scottish Christians whom he knew; “A man so depressed is utterly unable to exercise joy or to take comfort in anything . . . he is always displeased and discontented with himself . . . His thoughts, for the most part, are turned in upon himself . . . He commonly gives himself up to idleness; either lying in bed, or sitting unprofitably by himself . . . daily harassed with fears of want, poverty and misery, to himself and to his family . . . He is weary of company, and is much addicted to solitude . . . His thoughts are commonly all perplexed, like those of a man who is in a pathless wilderness . . . he has lost the power of governing his thoughts by reason” So Christians troubled with introspection, solitude and sorrow existed 3,000 years ago at the time of King David. They were there in Scotland two centuries ago and they are here in Wales today. These people say, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart” (v.2). I am saying that no trouble has taken you but such as is common to man. You are not at all unique in your depression, wrestling with your thoughts of the follies of the past, your mistakes and falls, your self-pity and despair, the sorrow in your heart. Other true believers, actually the man who wrote Psalm 23, felt just like this, but he questioned it and our concern is that you are not interrogating your feelings. “Why should I feel like this and be a burden to myself and my family and friends?”
“How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?” Let me tell you about this translation. Literally it is, “How long will I take counsel with my soul?&rdq
uo; In the language of the Old Testament ‘counsel’ is the activity of the mind, but ‘soul’ is the seat of the emotions. “Counsel’ and ‘soul’ do not belong naturally together. We do not think with our feelings but with our minds any more than we sing with our ears, or smell with our eyes. We think with our minds. So the translators of the NIV have modified David’s words to make the statement coherent, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?” But perhaps the incoherence of the words in the original is significant. David is thinking with his feelings; he is letting his feelings do his thinking for him. He feels neglected by God and this has gone on for a time and before he knows what he is doing his feelings are telling him what to think. That was the whole rotten beginning of his disastrous relationship with Bathsheba, thinking with his hormones. David was in this dark place, and he could not think his way out of it. The David had yet another complaint:
iv] God has allowed my enemies to triumph over me. David says, “How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (v.2). David is a defeated believer – in his own estimation. It was not a matter of holding out as far as he was concerned; it was a question of how long this defeat would last. Who was this ‘enemy’ of David’s? People have various theories but David is not specific. Was it a group? He talks about his ‘foes’ in verse four. Was it death itself? He mentions death in the third verse – the last enemy. Perhaps David was in a virtually terminal illness. Back in the fourth century Augustine studied this psalm and he thought that the enemy was spiritual and it referred to the devil or to ‘sensual habits of life.’ We can all identify with one or more such enemies – especially the sin that so easily besets us in particular. David was obviously concerned about this; he expresses his fears about this more than all the others, saying, “My enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall” (v.4). It was a deep concern to the king. I heard this week of a minister in a little village – he is the only minister in the village and in the pulpit of the one church that calls itself an ‘evangelical’ church. I was told that he had had a terrible moral fall. Aren’t the enemies of the gospel both on earth and in hell delighted? “He’s been overcome,” says Screwtape. “They are just like us,” says the world, “ . . . hypocrites who preach the old virtues while practicing the old vices.” How long must we live in an age where the enemies of the gospel can have occasional triumphs over the follies of God’s servants?
But what are these enemies that are separating you in particular, and me, from the love of God? What enemy can triumph over you and achieve that? Don’t we read, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble [can that triumph over us? No.], or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Roms. 8:35-39). Our enemies simply cannot separate us from the love of God. They may win a skirmish, they may break our hearts as they tempt a leading man into sin, but they cannot win the war for our souls. So once again David in his spiritual depression is mistaken. In fact we can see that his spiritual depression is coming to an end. He is at the beginning of a breakthrough. How can we come to that conclusion? Doesn’t it seem utterly hopeless? Not at all. If David were in a one man pity party then it would be bad, but David is thinking and he is explaining his condition to the Lord, actually talking to him, face to face, to this illusive God whom he accuses of forgetting and ignoring him and giving him over to the enemy. David has been consumed by his troubles, and thinking with his feelings. But now this is a tremendous step forward to bend his knees and say these things to God. There is a biblical mind still ticking over in David.
I am saying that when we start to read a book about spiritual depression, and talking to a friend or pastor about it, or praying to the Lord about feeling deserted then we are no longer as low as we can be. We are going up! Here is a person who knows that they are ill and goes to the doctor and explains his symptoms and listens to the doctor’s response. That man is nearer a cure if a cure is possible. You are here today. You are listening to God’s word and are surrounded by a crowd of ordinary folk just like yourself. You are all listening to what this passage of the Bible says, its relevance for people who feel deserted by God. You are going up! You might not think so, and others might think you are very troubled, but I have confidence in the effect of the means of grace, the ministry of the Holy Spirit week after week and the Lord Jesus the great physician present in our midst. I want to tell you most earnestly that you are on the road to recovery. You are getting better. You are being delivered from this dark patch. You are going up!
Listen to Sinclair Ferguson’s experience: “I recall talking with a surgeon who had operated on my mother. She had suffered a stroke in the United States and shortly afterward was flown back to her native Scotland. But within a few days she was rushed into hospital and required life-saving surgery for a hitherto un-diagnosed condition. Such was my mother’s physical condition following the stroke that the surgeons were uncertain whether she would survive the operation; without surgery, however, she would certainly die. Some time later one of the surgeons spoke with me. He commented vaguely on my mother’s condition but then said: “Of course, in her general condition we do not know whether she can live for seven or eight . . .” I had just seen her; I thought the last word in his sentence might be ‘days.’ To me she looked irrecoverably ill. My heart sank. The surgeon finished his sentence: “ . . .seven or eight years.” I was overcome with both joy and amazement; she would live! To my untrained and inexperienced eye, her condition seemed fatal, but in actual fact she was ‘on the mend’ The same was true for David. To the untrained eye his condition seemed fatal; he thought so himself, but in fact he was already ‘on the mend.’ To tell God that he has deserted you, to know that you have been thinking with your emotions – these are the marks of life not of death, of hope and not of despair. Why, you are even speaking to God himself about them as though you know he cares!” (Sinclair Ferguson, Deserted by God? Banner of Truth, 1996, p.23).
- DAVID’S RESPONSE – TO CRY ‘LOOK, ANSWER AND ILLUMINATE!’
i] “Look on me” (v.3). We have all known people who’ve shown their contempt for us in ignoring us. A girl will say to you in anguish, “We were once so close and now he won’t even look at me.” What estrangement! “Look on me!” When there is reconciliation and affection then he looks at her again, and he doesn’t take
his eyes way from her. What David is longing for in these words is that he might experience once again in his life the Aaronic blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Nums 6:24-26).
We know there are times when our hearts burn within us as we read or hear the word of God? It happened to Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus when Jesus opened the word to them. Truth may come to us not in word only but in power and the Holy Spirit and much assurance. I was listening this week to Paul Mallard of Worcester telling of a great trial he passed through in the early 1990s when his wife was taken seriously ill so that subsequently she has spent her life in a wheelchair. Initially he would have been like David crying to God, “How long O Lord? How long . . . how long?” One night, it was in the early hours of the morning, he was awake in his agony of heart, and as he lay in bed this word from Psalm 18 and verse 30 came to him as powerfully as though God had spoken it to him; “As for God, his way is perfect.” The glory of it was so bright and strong that he never looked back or doubted or challenged the God who had permitted this in all the past years. David cries, “Look on me.” He was asking God to give him assurance that God’s great smiling face was looking on him.” Then he asks again this petition:
ii] “Answer me, O Lord my God” (v.3). You might think that I have already dealt with that. Didn’t Paul Mallard know a great word come to him? Yes. Do such things happen? Yes. Can we make them happen? No. Can we rub the lamp of the Word and the genie will appear and give us such a word? No, for we have no need of such a genie, but we need every sentence and verse and promise in all of Scripture. They will always be there to guide us so that we have no need of personalized divine whispers week by week. We need to sit under the best Bible-based ministry we can find week by week. That is the normal divine way. God gives gifts of biblical preaching to help the afflicted. When Christians begin to insist that such experiences must happen and that they are the way of deliverance then the stage is set for disappointment. Any neglect of Scripture will prepare us for a disappointing future.
Dr. John White has written a book on such feelings as king David expresses in our psalm and this is what he recounts of his own experience; “Years ago, when I was seriously depressed, the thing that saved my own sanity was a dry-as-dust grappling with the prophecy of Hosea. I spent weeks, morning by morning, making meticulous notes, checking historical allusions in the text. Slowly I began to sense the ground under my feet growing steadily firmer. I knew without any doubt that healing was constantly springing from my struggle to grasp the meaning of Hosea” (John White, The Masks of Melancholy, IVP, 1982, p.202). Why should God speak to you a word in the middle of the night if in the day you are neglecting to read the word he has so carefully prepared for you? I cannot stress too much this principle of God speaking to comfort and reassure us and deliver us from the blues through the Bible, hearing it preached week by week, and reading it for ourselves day by day. That is how God answers our prayers for deliverance. In Scripture God ‘corrects’ us. It was the word used outside the New Testament for mending a broken limb. The Word of God can mend our broken hearts! There is a third request David makes:
iii] “Give light to me” David says, “Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death” (v.3). David is in darkness, unable to see God as his loving Father, to see him as his refuge and strength and a very present help in his trouble. God has seemed far away, uninterested in his life, uncaring. That cannot be the God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to save us. Help me to see the Lord again. Help me to become a really pious man, unafraid of being dubbed a mystic and a pietist, and give me divine illumination that I may see with new eyes how great and glorious a God you are. “How is it that you have become a Christian?” I asked a young man in our church who had come to me to ask me to baptize him. “Because I’ve seen that it’s true.” He has perceived it for himself. Eureka! Jesus is the Son of God and it is true! He died on the cross for my redemption, and it is true. He rose from the dead on the third day and it is true. I have seen it for myself. As I was just leaving a cousin’s home her husband said to me, “What does a man mean when he says to me, ‘David, I have seen the light’ and obviously his whole life has changed; his language is different and he has stopped getting drunk? What does he mean, ‘I’ve seen the light?’” I said to him, “He has seen that Jesus Christ is the light of the world and from now on he is going to walk in that light all his days.” David is praying here for the light of assurance, that he might not have a little flickering candle to lighten his life but a great powerful beam of light to shine on everything and everyone he meets. He wants to illuminate the valley of the shadow of death with this light. He wants to drive his enemies away with this light. “Give light to my eyes.” That is what we need when we are in darkness and depression.
- DAVID’S RECOVERY SEEN IN REMEMBERING GOD’S LOVE, HIS SALVATION AND HIS GOODNESS
What are the symptoms of a healthy Christian delivered from depression?
i] He trusts in the Lord’s unfailing love (v.5). I trust in God. The patriarch Job went through fierce testings but he said of his loving Lord, “Though he slay me yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15). Job said it after so much of what he treasured had been stripped from him. I have commended to you Paul Wolfe’s recent book on suffering, My God is True! as the best book to have appeared in many years on handling cancer and other serious illnesses. He was a post-graduate student married for nine months when he had some strange symptoms which proved to be cancer. But he dedicated the book to the memory of his mother-in-law. He writes this, “On April 20, 2007 Linda died after a valiant campaign against cancer that lasted over two years. Anyone who knew her knew that Linda was strong in her faith in Jesus Christ. So here is the question: Did God fail Linda? Did it turn out that he did not have a future for her after all? God did not heal Linda. So then, did he abandon her?
“No, No . . . a thousand times No! God was perfectly faithful to Linda. He kept every last promise he had ever made with her in mind. We sang, ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’, surrounding her bed as she lay dying in her home, and then we sang it again at her memorial service after she was gone. And it was the perfect hymn to sing.
“After all, what had God promised her? To heal her of her cancer? No. But something far better. He had promised to stand by her as a loving heavenly Father in the face of her greatest fears, and then to use death to bring her to her eternal home. That is what he had promised, and that is precisely what he did. Her God was true! All came to pass! As I write and as you read, she is in glory right now, basking in the blessedness of heaven, praising God for his faithfulness far more earnest
ly than she ever did when she was here on earth. Sometimes I struggle to confess that ‘Whate’er my God ordains is right’. But Linda does not struggle with that truth any more” (p.46). The victory over depression is seen in trusting in God’s unfailing love. It is also seen in a second mark of health:
ii] He rejoices in God’s salvation. The king’s sins had all been forgiven. David had fallen into as ugly a sin as can be imagined, and yet when he fell before God and cried to him for mercy God forgave him that too. What a salvation! From sin and shame and guilt and despair; from estrangement and alienation and the wrath of a sin-hating God and hell. To the imputed righteousness of Christ, the pardon of our sins, a new Lord to reign over us, to union with Christ, to adoption into the family of God, to an inheritance that fades not away reserved for us, to the sight of Jesus and likeness to him when we see him, to a new heavens and earth, to a reunion with all in Christ who have gone before us, to fulness of joy at God’s right hand for evermore. Do you understand why David says, “My heart rejoices in your salvation” as we flood this verse with all the glory of the work of Christ. David has something to rejoice about, and you? Do you know the saving work of God accomplished by Jesus Christ and applied to your life by the Holy Spirit? Give God no rest until you know that this salvation is yours. Then the final symptom of deliverance:
iii] He sings to the goodness of the Lord. He is singing! He is singing to the Lord! This man who began this psalm crying, “Will you forget me for ever?” He has cried to God and God has heard his cry and now he knows again how good God is. He cannot stop singing. In the summer of 1851 the body of the English missionary Allen Gardiner was found by a search party hidden in a boat on the beach where he had taken refuge for the last days of his life when he and his friends got shipwrecked on Tierra del Fuego. We know his thoughts because as he was dying of starvation and thirst he kept a journal radiant with life and hope. He wrote out passages from the Bible, and one of those was Psalm 34 and verse ten; “The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.” Then he wrote under it in the feeblest handwriting, “I am overwhelmed with the sense of the goodness of God.” What a deliverance from self-pity and despair was his. That is the blessed privilege of every believer.