Meditations on Psalm 43

Vindicate me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation;
O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man!
For You are the God of my strength; why have You rejected me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me;
Let them bring me to Your holy hill And to Your dwelling places.
Then I will go to the altar of God,
To God my exceeding joy;
And upon the lyre I shall praise You, O God, my God.
Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why are you disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.

Calvin opens up his Institutes by saying, “Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Insofar as Calvin is correct, this 43rd Psalm is the song of a soul void of true and solid wisdom, because here we find an inability to understand either one’s own self or God. “Soul! Why are you in despair? God! Why have You rejected me?”

Setting aside, for the moment, the perplexity of being rejected by God, having meditated on it somewhat in Ps. 44, the purpose of this meditation is to consider the perplexity of not being able to understand one’s own state of despair or depression. Three questions the Psalmist asks of himself: “Why do I go mourning? Why is my soul in despair? Why is my soul disturbed?”

I have learned in recent weeks, through this particular trauma of soul, that emotions can be as inexplicable as they can be unpredictable. The psalmist talks of despair, but also about music and “exceeding joy.” I know the range of which he speaks, and the rapidity with which the opposing emotions may change places at the helm of my mind.

But self-diagnosis is a difficult thing – and the question asked in this psalm is “Why?” The “what” is despair, mourning, an unsettled “disturbed”-ness. But why? It’s interesting to me that the human brain, that organ so unique among the created order for its powers of reason and deduction, is utterly incapable of telling about itself. If we hadn’t seen someone else’s brain, I suppose we wouldn’t even understand we had one. And this is not to suggest the psalmist’s despair is a physiological phenomenon, but rather to illustrate the difficulty of turning our mental powers upon ourselves to understand the complexity of our own thought process and our own emotions.

In reality, it seems the answer to the psalmist’s “why” should be obvious enough, no? His nation is “ungodly,” his enemies are “deceitful” and “unjust,” his God has “rejected” him. He is “oppressed” and the light and truth that have been his guide are unseen and silent. I sometimes wonder if the correct question isn’t, “Why, my minstrel friend, are you even wondering why?” But without proposing another question that hasn’t been asked, I shall try to answer the one that has.

I see two answers, and I will be the first to admit that my own experience clouds and influences and even drives these answers. The first is the realization that all is not as he thought it was. The disappointment that must follow in the steps of a mistaken view of reality is a powerfully disturbing and disheartening force.  The opening lines are, “Vindicate me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation; O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man.” Now I don’t know all the details in the psalmist’s case. But let me surmise for a moment…

“Vindicate” intimates false accusations are being made. False accusations are like an airborne virus – they spread invisibly and with incredible speed once released, and there is no medicine to cure them. They have to run their course. Lies spread a thousand times as far and fast as truth, borne along on the wings of the Father of Lies and his cohorts. There is only one remedy, and that is truth. Truth, however, it seems, travels not by air, but rather by painful injection – therefore few want it, and fewer will be the dispensers of it.

But let us also consider not only the false accusation, but the source of it: “an ungodly nation.” Again I’m going to make a presumption here – the nation in view is the Israelite nation, God’s chosen people. God’s people are not supposed to be carriers of false accusations! And this is where the psalmist I think begins to find his perception of reality didn’t match actual reality. These people were his people, their God was his God, and therefore, they ought to have been acting and thinking in accordance with their exalted position as God’s elected nation, and their actions toward our psalmist ought to have been reflective of their unity in God’s sovereign grace. But this was, it seems, far from the case.

Instead of unity and solidarity in God with his fellow countrymen, which ought to have been the case (and was justifiably the expectation), the reality experienced by our psalmist was false accusation and oppression. Instead of experiencing the benefits of a reality in which one lived within a nation whose “God is the Lord,” the reality was a nation which was “ungodly,” and whose people were “deceitful and unjust.”

A shattered perception of reality is a difficult thing to process. We function daily under basic assumptions of the world around us, assumptions that are informed by experience to a greater or lesser degree, and those assumptions drive the way we interact with life. We assume, for instance, that driving on the right side of the road is safer than the left side; we assume the bottle of water at the store isn’t contaminated with poison; we assume the policeman will leave us alone if we’re not breaking the law; we assume while we’re at work our spouse is remaining faithful in our absence; and we assume God’s people will act in a godly way. But when our perception of reality is shattered, the very underpinnings of our life have been taken away, and everything becomes uncertain and unstable, and we don’t know how to interact with the world around us anymore. The psalmist couldn’t trust those he thought he should have. Those who ought to have dealt fairly with him deceived him. Those who ought to have helped, instead oppressed. And this leads to sorrow and mourning.

The second answer I see to the question “why am I cast down?” is that everything that was “normal” has been set upside down. “Normal” was God’s willingness, nay, eagerness to provide strength for the troubles of the day, but he was left crying, “why have you rejected me?” “Normal” was having a path illumined by the light of God’s truth (v.3) but his way was now dark. “Normal” was, to the psalmist, going to worship. “I shall again praise Him,” says v.5, because, I am not able now.

If I may digress here for one moment and comment on the psalmist’s inability to worship… It seems to me in the American rendition of Christianity, Christians in general would feel no more unable to worship than they would be unable to buy brake fluid. That is to say, in our day, whether or not you actually want to has nothing to do with ability, it’s more a matter of discipline and effort. And for the psalmist to say in effect, “O God, if You don’t bring me into worship, I can’t worship!” seems foreign to our ears. For goodness sake, minstrel, play your lyre! And having played your lyre, you’ve worshiped! Go to the altar! Just do it! This business of “I can’t worship until you send out your light and truth to lead me” is unthinkable to a people that can manufacture anything from chicken nuggets to nuclear warheads to iPhones to worship – Just add music. Good grief! End of digression…

When normalcy is turned upside down; when the normal patterns of life and interaction with God and with others are interrupted, the soul is disturbed. We are creatures of habit. We value predictability and normalcy. Anomalies and unexplained phenomena can be just a nuisance, but they can also be a threat to our soul’s peace. When normal is good – worship of God, experiencing happiness and joy at God’s hands, enjoying the fellowship of God’s people – the interruption of normal is depressing. What if normal doesn’t come back? What if this slander by others and rejection by God is the new “normal”? Oh, perish the thought!

I want to close my meditation by offering up two proposed solutions to the soul that doesn’t understand its despair. One is directly from the text, one indirectly. The direct solution is clear in v.5: “Hope in God.” God is, says the final line, “the help of my countenance.” That’s really good – the cure to a downcast countenance is not a silly optimism; it’s not making lemonade, and it’s not grit and toughness. The cure of a downcast heart and darkened face is God, and it is through hoping in God that His cure is applied. What’s the use in relying on something less than the infinite power and grace and love and mercy of God for our biggest problems? Ought we not look for a Solution that is actually able? Or, to put it another way, why look for a sword when nuclear warheads are available? God is the solution to a downcast soul. He can brighten any countenance.

The second one is indirectly in the text, and it struck me as I considered the other leg of this assignment, “what is one thing I can do to glorify God and encourage my wife?” What struck me was this in v.1-2 – “an ungodly nation… the deceitful and unjust man… the enemy.” The psalmist’s ability and willingness to call a nation ungodly, to call men deceitful and unjust, and to refer to them as enemies was very emboldening and refreshing to my heart. Troubles and despair are often the result nuanced, complex relational problems, and the exact cause of the turmoil of the soul is a difficult thing to nail down. In my own case, I have avoided using terms like “enemies” and “ungodly” to refer to those who opposed me. The reasons were many – I can’t see into a person’s heart; my own mistakes doubtless brought a certain amount of my troubles on my own head; God is ultimately the judge not me; perhaps many of my troubles find their roots in miscommunication and misunderstanding, rather than a battle with evil. Furthermore, I’ve been tagged with these kinds of labels by those who opposed me, and their doing so was neither true nor helpful; quite the contrary. So I have been careful to give the “benefit of the doubt” to those opposing me far longer than my friends and wise cou sellers told me to – after all, they didn’t know the situation as I did, did they?

But this week, as the words of Psalm 43 coincided with a fuller understanding of my situation, I was able with the psalmist to say I have struggled against those who were ungodly, unjust, deceitful, and oppressive. And this has been most helpful for me, and encouraging to my wife and glorifying to God for these reasons:

First, not calling evil “evil” is akin to the futility of rebuilding one’s shattered perception of reality, without having corrected it. It’s helpful just to recognize evil as evil and then be able to interpret actions and events in that light, instead of trying to fit the pieces into a false paradigm. Things begin to make more sense, and it gives one a sense of confidence moving forward. I doubt it was easy or convenient for the psalmist to call his own nation “ungodly,” and his own people “deceitful” and “unjust,” but that’s what they were – and it was, no doubt, helpful to at least be able to put them in categories that reflected reality.

Second, until I could call evil “evil,” the name of God was besmirched under the guise of “Christians who can’t get along.” Putting the proper labels on persons and events clears God’s name from the mud of certain “intramural” conflicts (though not all conflicts can be boiled down to “good” and “evil,” see Paul and Barnabas). Psalm 43 is not about religious people who can’t get along. It is about the persecution of the righteous by the wicked. It is about a man of God undergoing oppression by the enemies of God, by whatever name they call themselves, and however they may masquerade as servants of light. And although in our day and age it is tantamount to ultimate arrogance to claim righteousness, and it is high treason to claim one’s enemy is wicked, if this is the truth of a situation, it ought to be expressed in that way, for the sake of those engaged in the struggle and for the sake of those observing. We do ourselves no favors and we do God’s honor no favors by calling evil good for the purpose of smoothing over feelings or to avoid the inevitable charge of being judgmental.

Third, it has been encouraging to my wife because my ability to finally call evil “evil” has given her the confidence to begin to process her own wounds. She has called this situation“evil” for some time now, whilst I refrained. And it’s not that she was being vindictive, she was being honest, and far more insightful than I. And I hope it’s not that I was unwilling to believe her; in my own defense I was trying to be careful not to be wrong. Calling something or someone “evil” is a charge that is not easily revoked, so when it is leveled it better be correct. Firing that gun and trying to chase down an errant bullet is a difficult affair.But insofar as I think now that I’m correct in leveling it, it has been a tremendous help, I trust, in encouraging her that her own thoughts and feelings have been proper and justified.

Finally, I’m thankful it has taken this long to come to this conclusion, at least to some degree. I’m thankful that others reached it before me – it helps me know I am not being vindictive and judgmental in the negative sense. If I don’t understand my despair very well, it’s also true that I don’t understand my other emotions. Patience is a virtue. But patience, by definition, has an end, and I’m thankful for whatever patience has been granted, and I’m thankful that it has come to an end. And though there are still moments when I must ask, “Why are you in despair, O my soul?” those moments are, by God’s grace, fewer and further between, for “the help of my countenance and my God” is continuing the work He began and He promised to finish.

This article is a bit personal, but I publish it here because a) though personally traumatic, the situation from which it stems is really common and thus may be of some help to another in a similar place, and b) looking back a year later at the emotions expressed, I’m really thankful for Psalms like this to help me process them, and especially to Pastor Ivan Fiske for directing me to the texts, asking the probing questions, and encouraging me to put the thoughts on paper.
photo credit to my lovely wife and her amazing ability to find beauty in the ordinary-jr