These days, scarcely a day goes by without my wife or I receiving an email or phone call about the sickness or suffering of someone in our social circle. We’re coming into that time of life where our bodies tire more easily and take longer to heal. Medical issues pop up unexpectedly.
And then there’s this little thing called a pandemic.
Many have thus far been spared the disease. Many who tested positive had only minor symptoms. But chances are you know someone who barely escaped with their lives, or is still struggling with complications. And you may know someone who actually died of COVID, as my mother did. She had always been a woman with a strong will and constitution. But her 89-year-old body, weakened as it was by the isolation imposed by the pandemic, was no match for the virus.
I would imagine that there have been millions more prayers for healing uttered this past year than usual. Some have been routine, some desperate. Some seem to have been answered, others not.
Does God hear?
. . .
Lament over suffering is a common theme in the Psalms. As we’ve seen, lament grows out of a sense of disorientation. The psalmist believes that those who follow God’s way will prosper and be blessed, while the way of the wicked ends in destruction. But often, when the psalmist looks around at the world, this article of faith seems false: the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. How can this be?
It’s important that we understand the disorientation and what it implies. We might read Psalm 1, for example, and think the psalmist naive: That’s not how the world works, buddy. The good guys don’t always win. Better get used to it. But this is why we need to hold all the threads of the psalms together in one colorful, complex tapestry of the life of faith.
The Psalter as a whole is full of gritty, realistic songs and poems that give voice to the absurdity and injustice of life, while continuing to reach out in faith toward a wise, loving, and righteous God. The psalmist believes that God desires shalom for his creation — a state of wholeness, peace, and prosperity. Psalms of lament are partly a personal cry for help, but they are also a cry for the restoration of shalom, for God to make things the way they should be, the way that God designed them to be.
Ultimately, illness and death are not God’s will for creation. We pray for healing because we want our own personal suffering to end. Of course. But hopefully, we also pray for Suffering with a capital S to end. For even if our own woes continue, even if we must moan with the psalmist, “How long?”, we remain confident that the end of Suffering as a whole is still God’s will and plan.
. . .
Psalm 6 is a prayer for healing. It is not possible to “diagnose” the psalmist’s condition from what we’re given; that is not the purpose of the psalm. What we get instead is the fullness of the psalmist’s complaint, spoken with passion to a God who hears.
Like many of the ancients, the psalmist believes that sickness is often a form of divine punishment. Thus, the psalm begins, “O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath” (vs. 1, NRSV). Unlike Psalm 51, where the psalmist is deeply aware of his own sin and feels physically crushed by God because of it, here in Psalm 6 there is no confession of sin, no admission of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the psalmist begins his complaint by asking a sovereign and righteous God to be gracious to him (vs. 2a).
Then we get right to the complaint. The psalmist is “languishing,” a word that suggests that he has become weak and feeble, like a wilted plant (vs. 2a). He trembles with “terror” right down to his bones, indeed, to his very soul (vss. 2b-3a); apparently, he believes himself to be at death’s door (vss. 4-5). His suffering is so great that he weeps and moans (and indulges in a bit of poetic exaggeration for emphasis):
I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
they grow weak because of all my foes. (vss. 6-7)
The reference to the psalmist’s enemies seems to come out of nowhere, but the theme is common in the Psalms. The psalmist has enemies who are eager to see him suffer and fail, sometimes for daring to declare that there is one and only one true God, the God of Israel. But God has heard the psalmist’s prayer, and vindication is at hand:
Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
The LORD has heard my supplication;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame. (vss. 8-10)
Now it’s the enemies’ turn to know terror. Curiously, the psalmist doesn’t actually say that he’s been healed, only that the LORD has heard his weeping, heard and accepted his prayer. How he knows this, he doesn’t say. But to be heard is enough; on that basis alone, he believes that God will act.
. . .
When we pray for healing, we want results. The psalmists are no different. Sometimes they complain about their situation; sometimes they complain that God is taking too long to do something about their previous complaint; and sometimes they complain that their enemies are making fun of them because God is taking so long (gee, life is complicated, isn’t it?).
We might say that we believe God heard our prayer, but feel impatient for an answer (or don’t like the answer we think we’re getting). What I wonder is this: what would it take for us to find confidence and encouragement in the mere fact that God hears?
We’ll come back to that question again in the next post.