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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 13

Verses 1-6

Psalms 13:1-6

THIS little psalm begins in agitation, and ends in calm. The waves run high at first, but swiftly sink to rest, and at last lie peacefully glinting in sunshine. It falls into three strophes, of which the first (Psalms 13:1-2) is the complaint of endurance strained almost to giving way; the second (Psalms 13:3-4) is prayer which feeds fainting faith; and the third (Psalms 13:5-6, which are one in the Hebrew) is the voice of confidence, which in the midst, of trouble, makes future deliverance and praise a present experience.

However true it is that sorrow is "but for a moment," it seems to last for an eternity. Sad hours are leaden-footed, and joyful ones winged. If sorrows passed to our consciousness as quickly as joys, or joys lingered as long as sorrows, life would be less weary. That reiterated "How long?" betrays how weary it was to the psalmist. Very significant is the progress of thought in the fourfold questioning plaint, which turns first to God, then to himself, then to the enemy. The root of his sorrow is that God seems to have forgotten him; therefore his soul is full of plans for relief, and the enemy seems to be lifted above him. The "sorrow of the world" begins with the visible evil, and stops with the inward pain; the sorrow which betakes itself first to God, and thinks last of the foe, has trust embedded in its depths, and may unblamed use words which sound like impatience. If the psalmist had not held fast by his confidence, he would not have appealed to God. So the "illogical" combination in his first cry of "How long?" and "forever" is not to be smoothed away, but represents vividly, because unconsciously, the conflict in his soul from the mingling of the assurance that God’s seeming forgetfulness must have an end and the dread that it might have none. Luther, who had trodden the dark places, understood the meaning of the cry, and puts it beautifully when he says that here "hope itself despairs, and despair yet hopes, and only that unspeakable groaning is audible with which the Holy Spirit, who moves over the waters covered with darkness, intercedes for us." The psalmist is tempted to forget the confidence expressed in Psalms 9:18 and to sink to the denial animating the wicked in Psalms 10:11. The heart wrung by troubles finds little consolation in the mere intellectual belief in a Divine omniscience. An idle remembrance which does not lead to actual help is a poor stay for such a time. No doubt the psalmist knew that forgetfulness was impossible to God; but a God who, though He remembered, did nothing for, His servant, was not enough for him, nor is He for any of us. Heart and flesh cry out for active remembrance; and however clear the creed, the tendency of long-continued misery will be to tempt to the feeling that the sufferer is forgotten. It takes much grate to cling fast to the belief that He thinks of the poor suppliant whose cry for deliverance is unanswered. The natural inference is one or other of the psalmist’s two here: God has forgotten or has hidden His face in indifference or displeasure. The Evangelist’s profound "therefore" is the corrective of the psalmist’s temptation: "Jesus loved" the three sad ones at Bethany; "when therefore He heard that he was sick, He abode still two days in the place where He was."

Left alone, without God’s help, what can a man do but think and think, plan and scheme to weariness all night and carry a heavy heart as he sees by daylight how futile his plans are? Probably "by night" should be supplied in Psalms 13:2 a; -and the picture of the gnawing cares and busy thoughts which banish sleep and of the fresh burst of sorrow on each new morning appeals only too well to all sad souls. A brother laments across the centuries, and his long-silent wail is as the voice of our own griefs. The immediate visible occasion of trouble appears only in the last of the fourfold cries. God’s apparent forgetfulness and the psalmist’s own subjective agitations are more prominent than the "enemy" who "lifts himself above him." His arrogant airs and oppression would soon vanish if God would arise. The insight which places him last in order is taught by faith. The soul stands between God and the external world, with all its possible calamities; and if the relation with God is right, and help is flowing unbrokenly from Him, the relation to the world will quickly come right, and the soul be lifted high above the foe, however lofty he be or think himself.

The agitation of the first strophe is somewhat stilled in the second, in which the stream of prayer runs clear without such foam, as the impatient questions of the first part. It falls into four clauses, which have an approximate correspondence to those of strophe 1. "Look hither, answer me, Jehovah, my God." The first petition corresponds to the hiding of God’s face, and perhaps the second, by the law of inverted parallelism, may correspond to the forgetting, but in any case the noticeable thing is the swift decisiveness of spring with which the psalmist’s faith reaches firm ground here. Mark the implied belief that God’s look is not an otiose gaze, but brings immediate act answering the prayer; mark the absence of copula between the verbs giving force to the prayer and swiftness to the sequence of Divine acts; mark the outgoing of the psalmist’s faith in the addition to the name "Jehovah" (as in Psalms 13:1). "of the personal my God," with all the sweet and reverent appeal hived in the address. The third petition, "Lighten mine eyes," is not for illumination of vision, but for renewed strength. Dying eyes are glazed: a sick man’s are heavy and dull. Returning health brightens them. So here the figure of sickness threatening to become death stands for trouble or possibly the "enemy" is a real foe seeking the life. as will be the most natural interpretation if the Davidic origin is maintained. To "sleep death" is a forcible compressed expression, which is only attenuated by being completed. The prayer rests upon the profound conviction that Jehovah is the fountain of life, and that only by His continual pouring of fresh vitality into a man can any eyes be kept from death. The brightest must be replenished from His hand, or they fail and become dim; the dimmest can be brightened by His gift of vigorous health. As in the first strophe the psalmist passed from God to self, and thence to enemies, so he does in the second. His prayer addresses God: its pleas, regard, first, himself, and, second, his foe. How is the preventing of the enemy’s triumph in his being, stronger than the psalmist and of his malicious joy over the latter’s misfortune an argument with God to help? It is the plea, so familiar in the Psalter and to devout hearts, that God’s honour is identified with His servant’s deliverance, a true thought, and one that may reverently be entertained by the humblest lover of God, but which needs to be carefully guarded. We must make very sure that God’s cause is ours before we can be sure that ours is His: we must be very completely living for His honour before we dare assume that His honour is involved in our continuing to live. As Calvin says, "Cum eo nobis communis erit haec precatio, si sub Dei imperio et auspiciis militamus."

The storm has all rolled away in the third strophe, in which faith has triumphed over doubt: and anticipates the fulfilment of its prayer. It begins with an emphatic opposition of the psalmist’s personality to the foe: "But as for me"-however they may rage-"I have trusted in Thy mercy." Because he has thus trusted, therefore he is sure that that mercy will work for him salvation or deliverance from his present peril. Anything is possible rather than that the appeal of faith to God’s heart of love should not be answered. Whoever can say, I have trusted, has the right to say, I shall rejoice. It was but a moment ago that this man had asked, How long shall I have sorrow in my heart? and now the sad heart is flooded with sudden gladness. Such is the magic of faith, which can see an unrisen light in the thickest darkness, and hear the birds singing amongst the branches even while the trees are bare and the air silent. How significant the contrast of the two rejoicings set side by side: the adversaries’ when the good man is "moved": the good man’s when God’s salvation establishes him in his place! The closing strain reaches forward to deliverance not yet accomplished, and, by the prerogative of trust, calls things that are not as though they were. "He has dealt bountifully with me"; so says the psalmist who had begun with "How long?" No external change has taken place; but his complaint and prayer have helped him to tighten his grasp of God, and have transported him into the certain future of deliverance and praise. He who can thus say, "I will sing," when the hoped for mercy has wrought salvation, is not far off singing even while it tarries. The sure anticipation of triumph is triumph. The sad minor of "How long?" if coming from faithful lips, passes into a jubilant key, which heralds the full gladness of the yet future songs of deliverance.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 13". "Expositor's Bible Commentary".