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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Psalms 13

Verse 1

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?" Psa 13:1

He who would see how swiftly the moods of the soul can change should study this thirteenth Psalm. In some half-dozen verses the soul goes through all the gamut of spiritual experience. The first tone is one of despair, the last tone is one of high song "I will sing unto the Lord, because he hath dealt bountifully with me." This may be a parenthesis in the history of David; about that time when his life was in daily peril, when he dare scarcely close his eyes in momentary sleep, because his sleep might be his death. Nothing makes us more conscious of time than pain. The darkness is longer than the day. Deprivation always develops consciousness, and makes the soul feel the oppressiveness of a heavy burden. To a man in perfect health, engaged in the usual and happy avocations of life, there seems to be no time; he is wholly unconscious of any painfulness in the passing of the successive hours. But let a man be in pain, and every tick of the clock is an eternity. There is a quality of punishment, there is also a quality of time; the man who suffers is conscious of eternal torment; to tell him that his torment will be over in a few minutes is hardly to relieve his case at all, for every moment that comes is as long as a lingering day. It is instructive to remember, whilst we are consoling ourselves with the comforts of God, that in spiritual experience there are times of positive blankness and darkness. We are then inclined to blame God, because we think the action is wholly on his side. There are times when the soul is quite sure of its own rectitude, and then it begins to dwell painfully and almost resentfully upon the mysteries of divine providence. Instead of saying, How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? we should say, What have I done to bring upon me this sense of divine neglect? Is the divine Being capricious; has he gone away simply for the purpose of afflicting me, and making me feel my weakness and littleness? Have I grieved the Spirit of God? Has he not retired because there has been in my heart unexpressed rebellion against his dominion? Happy is he who is conscious that the divine face has turned away from him. When we suppose that God is still gracious to us, notwithstanding our self-contradictions and moral wanderings, we have lost that sensitiveness which is the truest test of real spiritual-mindedness. To miss God, to cry out for God, to desire his return, all these emotions have indeed their painful aspect; at the same time they should be accepted as proofs that the soul is still conscious of its need of God, and is restless until he returns.

Verses 1-6

The Joy of Trust

Psalms 13:0

"How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me." ( Psa 13:1 ).

This psalm begins with winter and ends with summer. It is most noteworthy, as we have already seen, how the Psalmist often sings himself out of his trouble. The hymn begins in a low muffled tone expressive of sorrow, almost hopeless, and gradually the tone heightens until the closing verse becomes a burst of rapture and thankfulness. Surely it is well even for loneliest sorrow to try at least to sing. It is surely not unnatural for sorrow to create a kind of music all its own. It is pathetic also to observe how all musical notes will lend themselves to the expression of grief as well as to the expression of joy and victory. Our souls translate themselves into the music which they employ. The Psalmist is afraid that he will be forgotten for ever. It is right to express our momentary experiences as if they were the permanent facts of our life. Nowhere are we forbidden to utter our sorrows, or even our despair. The spirit of the Bible would rather seem to say to us, Speak out all that is in your hearts; keep back nothing; if you are weary and heavy-laden, say so in the most expressive terms, and if all the colour has been taken out of your sky, tell God exactly how dark the firmament is, and spare nothing in your description of the darkness and storm which make your soul afraid. God will thus encourage frankness both on the one side and on the other; that is to say, a frankness of sorrow, and a frankness of joy. It is often thought to be right only to express our happier feelings; but the Bible would seem to say that all other feelings are also to be expressed, that in the very expression of them a sense of healing and restoration may, as it were, steal into the soul. The Psalmist here appears to complain of neglect or forgetfulness. This discloses an aspect of the divine government which is not often sufficiently studied. We are prone enough to speak of God contending against us, opposing us, trying us by privations or by sufferings of actual pain; but in this case the Psalmist complains of neglect. Who can bear to be neglected where love is desired? Neglect is cold; neglect hurts by its very passive-ness. It is even possible that the soul might prefer obstinate controversy to cold neglect. There is hope of opposition that it may be turned into sympathy, but who can expect to make anything of neglect or forgetfulness? It is like fighting with death it is like endeavouring to charm the grave into sympathy. Terrible is the feeling of the soul as it begins to realise that it is no longer counted amongst the number of God's elect; it is simply left out in the cold and darkness of the star-forsaken night, without home, without friend, without hope. What child could bear to think that all the household had retired to rest, and had actually forgotten his existence and left him beyond the household walls? The very fact that such neglect was possible would be an element in the distress which would embitter and discourage the soul.

"How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? how long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?" ( Psa 13:2 ).

The literal rendering of this verse brings before us the folly of mere plan-making. David is taking counsel in his own soul; inventing plans of self-deliverance; making up schemes of daily life and programmes of service and progress. He no sooner makes one plan than it is displaced by another. His schemes follow in quick succession, but the second always amends the first, and both give way to the third, and he finds that in much scheming is much disappointment; it brings sorrow into his heart daily. By day he is mocked by harassing thoughts: by night he reverses all his day-plans in dreams, and in the morning he awakes to forget both day and night in some new vision of possible self-deliverance. Thus the mind left to itself is self-tormented; being limited in range, it is continually checking its own conclusions and hesitating as to its own purposes. How true it is "without me ye can do nothing." This is what Jesus Christ said to his disciples, and we feel it to be true in our own souls when we endeavour to invent plans for ourselves, and to make our will into a kind of divinity. It is curious to observe, too, how the Psalmist continually mixes up the right view and the wrong one, and how he is certain to fall into the wrong view the moment he turns away his complete attention from the living God. In this verse, for example, he occupies the wrong standpoint when he is wondering how long his enemy is to be exalted over him. When a man is truly living in God, he has no time to think about his enemy, nor any disposition to consider what that enemy will do. God occupies the whole soul with equal vividness at every point, and dominates in gracious sovereignty over every beating pulse and living thought. When a man looks at his enemy he may well be discouraged, because the enemy may be strong, rich, vigilant, stubborn, and altogether beyond his strength and resources: but when he looks at God, his enemy fades away into insignificance and invisibleness, and is therefore no longer an energetic factor in his calculations and outlook. It is no doubt painful that such a man as Doeg or Cush should be exalted over such a man as David; but the very fact that David is the man that he is should enable him to despise every enemy, knowing that God is not on their side because of their unrighteousness and self-idolatry. It is very much in our own hands whether we shall be troubled by our enemies or not. We may make them great by thinking much about them; or we may throw their power into distressing disproportion by omitting to bring into view the pledged co-operation and deliverance of God.

"Consider and hear me, O Lord my God; lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death" ( Psa 13:3 ).

It has been considered by some of the most sober commentators that in this verse there is an indistinct reference to the possibility of suicide. David is afraid lest he should sleep the sleep of death. The temptation was very strong that he should put an end to all his troubles and sorrows by his own hand. Throughout the whole Testament there is a continual and all but inexplicable fear of death: "for in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks? " Sheol , or the grave, represented an infinite area, occupied by dead and forgotten men: it was the sphere of darkness and blind night: it was the region of silence: there was nothing about it of the nature of light, or hope, or expectation. The Hebrew mind turned away from it with shuddering and horror not to be expressed. Yet in this very verse there seems to be what may be termed at least a negative hope of immortality. It is as if the Psalmist made a distinction between one kind of sleep and another, namely, the sleep that might awake again, and the sleep of death. Man seems always to have been groping after immortality. His fear of death must be distinguished from a fear of mere pain, and in so far as it is a fear of death it is at least a negative argument in support of the doctrine of immortality. Why shrink from death? If it is the accepted end of all things, why not rather covet it, as the weary man might desire the rest of sleep? What is there to be afraid of in death, if it be the extinction of every faculty and every sensibility? To all these great questionings about death and the future we must bring the answer of Christ: "Jesus Christ hath brought light and immortality to light through the gospel." By the power of Christ men are now enabled to say, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" Account for these as we may, it is at least a pleasing completion of a wonderful process of intellectual development. This is a capital worthy of the historical pillar on which it is placed. The consummation is worthy of the process which has led up to it. We must contrast the expressions of Paul with those of David in order to see the superiority of Christianity over every preceding form of religion. Paul is not afraid of death: he has a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; when he has finished his course, he looks forward to the crown of righteousness; when he is assured that this tabernacle will be dissolved, he rather rejoices in the dissolution, because he has a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. It is impossible to conceive the biblical process of evolution to be inverted. We should have shrunk from a book which began with a revelation of man's immortality and ended with the gloomy doctrine of annihilation; even where we could not put our argument into words, we should feel that such a process was an anti-climax, an irony of events neither to be credited nor tolerated. Account for it as we may, the biblical line is one of continual ascension and illumination; we go forward from Adam to Christ feeling that we are travelling on a broad, sunny, and upward road; to have gone from Christ to Adam would have created in the mind a wholly contrary and insupportable feeling. To know what Christ has done for the human race we must compare the experiences of the most mature of the Old Testament saints with the experience of the immediate apostles and followers of the Cross. The very tone of triumph in the voice of the latter shows what wonders have been wrought by the indwelling Spirit of God. This holy hope must never be surrendered. It is the light of morning; it is the crown of noonday; it is the star of night.

"Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him; and those that trouble me rejoice when I am moved. But I have trusted in thy mercy; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing unto the Lord, because he hath dealt bountifully with me" ( Psa 13:4-6 ).

The Psalmist once more turns to his enemy, and therefore once more shows his littleness. But in this case the turning is only for a moment: for a new and happy inspiration seizes the spirit of David. Now dawns the summer. David thinks of mercy and salvation and the bountiful dealing of Providence. A remarkable succession of terms is employed, suggestive of argumentative completion and force: David "trusted," "rejoiced," and then "sang" "I have trusted," "my heart shall rejoice," "I will sing." This is a process of education. It is wonderful how all these great processes square themselves with what may be called the natural logic of feeling. David does not begin with a song, but with holy trust. The moment the trust is established, joy begins to glow in the heart; as when a man has built himself a house, strong in the foundations and strong in the superstructure, he begins to feel the spirit of home making his heart glad and his life secure. Joy coming after trust, what can come after joy but song the loud and happy expression of new and sacred gladness? The voice must take part in the holy satisfaction. The judgment trusts, the heart rejoices, the voice sings; thus the whole man is engaged in a noble religious service. The hymn that is not the expression of joy will die away in mere sound, and the joy that is not fortified by trust will flicker and expire. Here, then, we find a standard of judgment and criticism which each one may apply to his own religious experience. What is our trust? Is it in God's mercy? What is our joy? Is it in God's salvation? Why do we sing: is it because of the bountifulness of God's providence? Here again we must not overlook the fact that every feeling indicated by the Psalmist is supported by a distinct reason. The mercy accounts for the trust, the salvation accounts for the joy, the bountifulness accounts for the song. All these three reasons are in full force today; and because the reasons continue in their operation the trust, the joy, and the song should neither be diminished nor restrained. It is in this sense that we need a professing church, a church of testimony, a great band of living witnesses, men who are not afraid to say that they have seen God's mercy, accepted God's salvation, and realised God's bounty. Profession should thus be the expression of gratitude. Christian profession should be built upon these three strong foundations, and then may express itself in noble dome, in lofty spire, and in every form which can attract the attention and satisfy the just expectations of mankind. O heart of man, take courage again! This thirteenth psalm may be a repetition of thy deepest experiences. At the opening the experiences may be full of sadness and grief and trouble, a sense of neglect not to be tolerated by the sensitive soul, and yet the process may develop, bringing with it light upon light, and pleasure upon pleasure, until at last there shall be a sabbath of peace, a jubilee of music, and expectation so high and glad as to bring the soul almost within the very precincts of heaven. My soul, wait thou upon God, and let thine expectation be continually from him; a light shall arise upon thee in darkness, and thy mourning shall be turned into joy. We must not be afraid of enthusiasm. If we were to hold our tongues under some circumstances of peculiar revelation and deliverance, the very stones would cry out; seeing that God must be praised and will be praised, those whom he has made in his own image and likeness should lead the song and be loudest in its utterance.


Almighty God, do thou preserve us, continue thy goodness unto us, and give us the sweet sense of the nearness of thine hand and the sureness of its defence; then our soul shall grow in quietness, and the end of the experience shall be abundant fruitfulness: thou shalt be pleased when thou dost come to look upon thy vines. We bless thee for all thy care in the past; the recollection of it renders doubt in the future impossible. Thou hast written thy record in our lives a record of tender love, pitiful compassion, ever-patient forbearance; and what thou hast been thou surely wilt be, if so be our desires go out after thee in loving wonder, seeking thee because none other can fill the void which they express. Thou art round about us; thou dost beset us behind and before, and lay thine hand upon us; yea, thou knowest our thoughts, our words, our whole nature: this is our delight, yet this is our terror: thou understandest wherein our integrity is good, sound, without breach or flaw, and thou also dost penetrate into the quality of our motive, its origin, its unexpressed intent; yea, thy word is sharper than a two-edged sword it pierces, it divides, it spares not. The Lord help us in the day of trial, and be with us in the hour of judgment, and be gracious to us because of our weakness and because of the fewness of our days. We are of yesterday, and know nothing; we have had no time to know: the days have not only been few, but short, and our head has been troubled, and our heart has been distressed, and our eyes have not been able to look clearly. But all these things thou knowest, and thy judgment will be inspired by graciousness, and thy forbearance will be our trust in the day of criticism. We have done the things we ought not to have done, and we have left undone the things that we ought to have done; knowing this, we are without excuse; we will not plead with thee upon this side of our life, but cast ourselves lovingly, humbly, entirely upon thy care and pity and love: we look to thy tears, and not to thy righteousness, when we await the answer of heaven. We await that answer at the Cross. We cannot receive it otherwhere; it would be an answer of lightning and thunder and terrible judgment, yea, the outpouring of many vials of wrath; but whilst we linger at the Cross and look upon the Crucified, and our hearts go out in ineffable desire towards the Priest of humanity, thine answer will be gracious, thy love will come down upon us, thy still small voice will announce thy pardon to our hearts. Amen.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 13". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. 1885-95.