From fairy tales like the Disney Princesses to superhero adventures and classic westerns, we love stories with happy endings. Not that everyone necessarily must live “happily ever after”; but the hero or heroine of the story should win. That victory, of course, comes at the price of some suffering or sacrifice through which the hero must grow and learn. By the end of the story, however, we need to know that the suffering was somehow worth it.
Teaching a course on narrative, I once assigned one of my favorite novels to the students. That novel is a brilliant exploration of our need for redemptive endings. In a surprising and creative twist, the writer takes away the happy ending readers thought they were getting — which is why I assigned the book in the first place.
As one student told me during the ensuing classroom discussion, when she finished the book, she threw it across the room.
A lot of her classmates nodded in sympathy.
. . .
Some of the psalms of lament, as we’ve seen, are unremittingly bleak (Psalms 88 and 137 come to mind), but these are relatively rare. More commonly, psalms that begin with a complaint to God and a cry for help end either with triumphant praise (“God did it!”) or the anticipation of praise (“God will do it!”).
Psalm 40, however, is different. It begins with the confidence of someone who has already been rescued by God, with the image of being pulled from quicksand and set on solid ground. The psalmist knows that instead of a thanksgiving sacrifice, what God really wants is a sacrifice of praise, which the psalmist is only too happy to give, telling the great congregation of the love and faithfulness of God.
Happy ending? Not quite. After describing how he has effusively praised God to the congregation, the psalmist writes:
Do not, O LORD, withhold
your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
keep me safe forever. (vs. 11, NRSV)
It’s possible to translate this in such a way as to make it a continued statement of confidence in God rather than a plea, as the New American Standard does: “You, O LORD, will not withhold Your compassion from me; Your lovingkindness and Your truth will continually preserve me.”
But even then, we have to deal with the next verse:
For evils have encompassed me
my iniquities have overtaken me,
until I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails me. (vs. 12, NRSV)
The psalmist is surrounded by troubles. The word translated as “encompassed” is only used five times in the Old Testament overall, and three times in the Psalms, here and in Psalm 18:4 and 116:3. In the latter two cases, death looms.
And it’s not just what’s happening to the psalmist on the outside. Other people aren’t the only problem. The word translated as “iniquities” doesn’t necessarily mean that the psalmist knows what he’s done wrong; the word can have the sense of “punishment for iniquities.” In other words, he may be assuming that he’s being disciplined by God, even if he’s not entirely sure why.
Thus, he pleads again for God’s help and for divine vengeance on his enemies (vss. 13-15), anticipating that the congregation will once again have reason to praise the greatness and goodness of God (vs. 16). But the psalm ends on an open-ended note:
As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God. (vs. 17)
There is still some hope and confidence here. The language of being “poor and needy” echoes the theme throughout the Psalms that God is, in fact, the God of the poor and needy. He is their help. He is their deliverer. And despite the overwhelming nature of his circumstances, he hasn’t been forgotten. God “takes thought” for him; one might say that the psalmist is always on God’s mind.
. . .
Psalm 40 reminds me of our tendency to look for the happy endings in stories, of our impatience to get there. The sooner God saves us, the better. Or at the very least, we could tolerate our suffering better if we knew it had a redemptive purpose (“What is God trying to teach me through this?”), and again, the sooner we figure out that purpose, the better.
The psalms, however, are more open-ended than that. They do, of course, look forward to what God will do to save the psalmist. But even the dreariest and most desperate of psalms show us a relationship of faith that rests on a confidence in who God is — a God of faithful love — and not merely what he will do. Each act of rescue only strengthens that faith, and the psalmist’s capacity to endure.
And part of that faith, of the understanding of God into which the psalmist leans, is a trust in God’s grace and mercy. More on that in the next post.