Sunday, April 25, 2004

As pants the hart

Numberless readers past and present have drawn strength and solace from this Psalm (42-43) of lament, with its general themes and universal images of spiritual longing. (Many Hebrew MSS group Pss 42-43 as a literary unit, and this grouping receives confirmation from internal parallels [42:5,9,11; 43:2,5], their common genre [lament], and a superscription that seems to cover both.)

But its perennial appeal is grounded in the concrete circumstances of a historic individual undergoing a personal crisis at a particular time and place. However heavenly-minded, Bible doctrine keeps its feet firmly planted on the terra firma of real space and time, lived and living experience. Providence salts the diamond mine from which inspiration then extracts its gemstones.

The Psalm was composed by a descendent of Korah. Korah is, of course, infamous for his rebellion against Moses (Num 16; Jude 11), made the more notorious for his unforgettable fate when he was swallowed alive by the gaping jaws of Tophet—in a grim inversion of Elijah’s glorious translation. But God tempered judgment with mercy, and Korah’s distant posterity survived to proclaim the praises of the Lord as musicians and choristers in the house of God (43:4; cf. Num 26:11; 1 Chron 6).

Its authorship is significant in accounting for the doleful tone of the Psalm before us. Be-cause the vocation and avocation of the Psalmist was the worship of God in the Temple of God, his exile from the Holy City and public worship of the Lord triggers acute withdrawal symptoms, inasmuch as all the external struts and traditional props of his religious life have been kicked out from under him, throwing him back on his own inner resources.

Although we cannot pin down the precise time and situation, the fact that the Temple was still standing and functioning, as well as the placement of the Psalm in the second division of the Psalter, demands a preexilic date. So the Psalm was probably composed during one of those dark days in the checkered history of the Monarchy when the godly were driven from power, driven from their homes, driven from their homeland, deserted by old friends and mocked by old enemies.

Assuming that the geographical markers (42:6) are literal and not poetic, the Psalmist is exiled in the upper Jordan river valley, north of the land of Israel, in the vicinity of Dan or Caesarea Philippi. (Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Baker, 1982), 230.) There is no reason not to take this identification at face value, for such a setting would supply the oc-casion, life-situation and imagery of the Psalm. On the one hand, the physical separation would account for and accentuate the note of spiritual and emotional alienation. On the other hand, the Hermonian range, whose western slope flanks the Mediterranean, and whose eastern slope rises to the headwaters of the Jordan, which—in turn—irrigates the fertile valley below, would naturally inspire the imagery of streams, breakers and waterfalls—as well as wildlife, such as the deer panting for its watering hole.

Pss 42-43 present a case-study in spiritual depression. The Psalmist lays out the sources of his despondent mood, and goes on to offer a number of strategies to combat it. Let us see what we can learn from his inspired example for our own walk of faith (For a modern example of how the Gospel can blossom and flourish in the most inhospitable soil imagi-nable, cf. E. Gordon, To End All Wars [Zondervan, 2002].)

A. Taproot

Spiritual depression has various causes, and these can combine in various ways depending on the special circumstances and psychological makeup of the subject.

i) Physical isolation (43:2-3)

The Psalmist is homesick. To a certain extent our personal identity is relational. If we’ve grown up in a certain place, that supplies a frame of reference for organizing and reinforcing our values. Familiar scenes are resonant with memories. Seeing them over and over again confirms a sense of continuity between our past and present. Such scenes flag and trigger formative experiences. So a sense of place is like a library of the soul, cataloged by free association, in which our memories are indexed and shelved according to geographical markers.

When we are cut off from this external stimulus, the effect of outward displacement can trigger a parallel and interior disorientation. The subject may feel rootless and aimless because he has, at a palpable level, lost his bearings. The impact varies, perhaps, from person to person. In a highly mobile society like our own, there is no sense of a sudden or abrupt break with the past, for many people did not grow up in the same place.

My family once visited a small town in Eastern Washington—a farming community of under 300 inhabitants where my sister was teaching at the time. In making small-talk with the local grocer, my father—who’d traveled the globe—was floored to learn that this middle-aged man had never been outside a 50-mile radius of teensy-weensy Washtuchna. To my father, and to many of us, so circumscribed an existence would induce claustro-phobia. Yet there’s something admirable about a man who is happy with such little, familiar and familial things.

Yet it is possible, if not probable, that even a transient culture may have the same corrosive impact, except that the effect is not as clearly perceived precisely because disruption is the norm. In that case, the effect is more evenly distributed and felt at a more subliminal level, casting a subtle downward pressure. One wonders if easy divorce, broken homes, the separation of kids from friends, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, has not fostered a pervasive malaise and set in motion a vicious cycle of further social and emotional dislocation.

Not only is the Psalmist separated from his ancestral land, but from the Holy Land and Temple. For most of us, even if our native soil has a sentimental value, it carries no sacred connotations. But for an Israelite, things were, of course, different. Adding to this was the fact that the Psalmist, as a Temple musician, had centered his religious life on the religious life of Jerusalem. Time was measured by Sabbath days and feast days and daily calls to prayer. For him, the public praise of God was both a living and a way of life.

It may seem that under the New Covenant, the Christian reader can no longer identify with the plight of the Psalmist. We worship God, not in this or that shrine, but in spirit and truth (Jn 4:21-24). And there is, indeed, a real and serious sense in which the typical topography of Scripture supplies the Christian with a portable homeland. When we read about the rivers of Jordan and Eden, the tent-dwelling patriarchs at Peniel and Bethel and Mamre, the mountains of Moriah and Sinai and Zion, Israel in Egypt, the wilderness and Promised Land—when we read about these and other sites, we apprehend a spiritual simile spread before our eyes, in which the outward pilgrimage is a palpable and providential emblem of the inward and individual pilgrimage, in which the Temple and tabernacle signify the inner sanctum of the soul (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19).

All this is true, and a vital truth. Yet there is also the danger of fostering a hyperspirituality. Although the geography of redemption is, indeed, a tableau of things heavenly and heavenward, it is a backward casting shadow which lights our way, but falls short of our journey’s end. We enjoy a foretaste of the marriage feast, but we have yet to sit down at the banquet table.

There is still a place, then, for sacred space and sacred time, Sabbath and sanctuary. For these are inns along the way and roadsigns pointing the way. They don’t bring God any closer to us, but they bring us nearer to God—when rightly used in a dynamic and dramatic rather than static and superstitious fashion. A believer without the visible church is like a soul without a body. You can survive apart from both, but at a cost.

I remember visiting Istanbul some twenty years ago. After leaving my luggage at the hotel I took an afternoon stroll around the Golden Horn. Suddenly the call to prayer blared from the Blue Mosque. For the first time in my life it made me consider just what it would be like living as a Christian under the sword and crescent. That is the experience of many missionaries and believers abroad, and the experience of the Psalmist. America may not be another Jerusalem, but neither is she another Mecca. Let us strive to preserve and protect the vision of our Pilgrim Fathers.

ii) Social/spiritual isolation (42:4)

Physical isolation is a precondition of social isolation. For physical distance necessarily separates us from direct contact with family and friends. And although there are various ways of maintaining indirect contact, they don’t supply the same emotional sustenance.

And there is, in turn, a link between social and spiritual isolation, although its force is relative. Some people are more gregarious than others. And social reinforcement figures more centrally in their spiritual assurance. As Dr. Johnson has expressed it,
"to be of no church is dangerous. Religion, of which the rewards are distant, and which is animated only by faith and hope, will glide by degrees out of the mind, unless it be invigorated and reimpressed by external ordinances, by stated calls to worship, and the salutary influence of example," Samuel Johnson, Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose (Rinehart, 1971), 333.

This sentiment is not representative of every believer. Johnson was himself prone to mood swings. But he seems to be cut from the same cloth as the Psalmist, and although he doesn’t speak for everyone, he speaks for many.

Approaching this from another angle, it is a psychological truism that some people are natural extroverts, others introverts (Cf. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression [Eerdmans, 1992], 18.) And introverts are more easily discouraged than extroverts. Thin-skinned, high-strung types like Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist and Paul (although he’s emotionally resilient) fit this psychological profile; and—from church history—Luther, Bunyan, Kierkegaard and Samuel Rutherford illustrate the same character trait. Ruther-ford’s complaints are very much in the spirit of our Psalmist:
"I was at hard terms with my Lord, and pleaded with him, but I had the worst side. It is a wonder that he should have suffered the like of call him a changed Lord who hath forsaken me...The dross of my cross gathered a scum of fears in the fire—doubtings, impatience, unbelief, challenging of providence as sleeping, and not as regarding my sorrow...I am like an old crazed ship that hath endured many storms, and that would fain be in the lee of the shore, and feareth new storms," Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Banner of Truth, 1984), 273.

"I find it hard work to believe when the course of providence goes crosswise to our faith, and when misted souls in a dark night cannot know east by west, and our sea-compass seemeth to fail us. Every man is a believer in daylight," Ibid., 434.

But the introvert/extrovert distinction can overlook a silver lining. Extroverts are more upbeat as long as they enjoy good company. But their same strength is their weak link. Social isolation is more devastating to an extrovert than an introvert. Although an introvert may always struggle against a measure of melancholy, and even though active opposition will worsen his state of mind, yet his emotional well-being is less attuned to public approval and social affirmation than is the case with the extrovert— who has a much lower threshold and few inner resources to brake an emotional nose dive. Whereas the introvert is at greater general risk of spiritual depression, the extrovert is at greater special risk.

iii) Opposition (42:3,9-10; 43:1-2)

Physical and social or spiritual isolation are negative sources of spiritual depression in-asmuch as they are limited to the absence of certain favorable conditions. But active op-position is a positive factor in spiritual depression inasmuch as it presents a counter-agent to the natural flow of faith and assurance.

It is a striking and ironic fact that amity is less tenacious than enmity. In a crunch, friends are often fickle and faithless (2 Tim 4:11), but enemies are a model of constancy in their undying and undimmed animosity. And this leaves the exposed saint doubly vulnerable; on the one hand, his friends desert him—while on the other hand, his adversaries patiently lie in wait to move in for the kill. So not only does he lose the moral, emotional and material support of his friends, but the vacuum is filled by hostile forces.

Christians in America sometimes feel like exiles in their own land. Although the religious right outnumbers the far left by a hundred-to-one, yet we so often seem, and so often are, on the losing side of the issues we most care about. Not only so, but the far left is trying its best to criminalize Christian expression in thought, word and deed. The situation is even worse in Europe and the United Kingdom.

This can leave Christians demoralized. There's a scene in War and Peace where a con-tingent of the Russian army stays behind to delay the advance of Napoleon. It is a suicide mission, but the purpose is to buy the bulk of the Russian army time to escape in order to fight another day. Sometimes you must lose in order to win. What matters is keeping the cause alive from one generation to the next.

B. Treatment

It is noteworthy that all three causes of the Psalmist’s depression turn on external factors, although they made feed on a certain emotional predisposition. And it is important to keep this in mind as we consider how best to treat spiritual depression. For in our therapeutic culture, we are conditioned to think that every problem has a cure. Just pop a happy pill.

But if the sources of spiritual depression are essentially environmental, or environmental in conjunction with the subject’s native disposition, then the condition—although treat-able—may not admit a full-blown remedy. That is to say, there are things a believer can to do improve his state of mind, but if his subjective condition is caused in part by objective circumstances beyond his control, then he needs to learn how to be content with his discontent.

Such advice might sound downright depressing, but it’s not. Rather, what is really de-pressing is to entertain false expectations which, when disappointed, compound the initial discouragement. If I think that I should be able to shake off the spiritual doldrums, and yet my efforts are not rewarded with complete success, then I get depressed about being depressed. I blame myself for not doing better.

The point is not that a believer should mope around. Rather, the point is that we’re not faced with a stark choice between sheer euphoria and utter despair, vain hope and vain regret. Many believers stumble because they nurse false expectations—counting on things not promised in Scripture or even admonished in Scripture.

i) Self-examination (42:5a,11a; 43:5a)

The Psalmist confronts his feelings. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones expresses the matter:
"Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, &c.

The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself," ibid., 20-21.

By allowing spontaneous cares and concerns to passively pile up and accumulate, we can gradually sink into a spiritual torpor. It creeps up quietly from behind and slowly over-shadows us until our whole outlook is enshrouded in shadows and gray light.

The first step in pulling out of this mental state is to become aware of it, to become more self-conscious of the mental debris and inner voices, and to talk them down.

We have no direct control over our feelings. And it is one thing to know something, another thing to feel it. But we can consciously and continuously remind ourselves of what we know by faith. And by constantly thinking about what we believe and believing what we think, that has a leavening and lightening influence on our feelings.

It should be unnecessary to point out that self-examination is a fine thing in moderation, but introspection can be taken to morbid extremes. And to take a specific example, it is often felt that Calvinism, with its doctrine of election, creates a peculiar anxiety regarding the assurance of salvation. Not only is this charge typically leveled by critics of Calvinism, but there’s a strain within the Reformed tradition that draws the same inference.

Now, I must confess that I'm not quite clear on how Calvinism came to be tarred with the brush of a problematic assurance. For it should be obvious that the assurance of salvation is at least is much of a problem if you suppose that a true believer can lose his salvation. So even if the assurance of salvation were a problem for Calvinism, it is hardly a problem distinctive to Calvinism, or aggravated by it. Surely the only firm foundation for a doctrine of assurance would be the irrevocable grace of God in election and perseverance, inception and outcome.

Oftentimes the objection takes the form of a false representation. How many times have you read writers say that according to Calvinism, you can never know if you’re one of the chosen? But that is not what Calvinism says at all or justly entails. Rather, what Calvinism says is that I can know that I’m elect, but I can’t know that you’re elect.

However, the critic will persist. The deeper problem, he will say, is that even if a true believer cannot lose his salvation, yet the apostate viewed himself as a true believer before falling away, so how do I know that I’m not similarly self-deluded?

In answering this question we need to draw a number of distinctions. The apostate didn’t fall because he doubted himself, but because he doubted or denied the faith. A certain degree of self-doubt is even a prerequisite for saving faith. Unless I doubt my own merit, I cannot trust in the merit of Christ.

However, some believers work themselves into a high pitch of uncertainty by posing du-bious hypotheticals. But the freedom to doubt is not a reason to doubt. Take the case of someone who suspects he’s being followed. He doesn’t see any faces following him, but maybe that’s because they duck for cover everytime he turns around. Paranoia is unfalsi-fiable because it can always construct an ingenious and foolproof explanation for the ab-sence of evidence. That’s the beauty of conspiracy theories. The very dearth of evidence only goes to show the success of the cover-up, right? But this has the burden of proof precisely backwards. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, why be paranoid? And in the absence of evidence to the contrary, why second-guess your motives?

It’s like the old chestnut about the unforgivable sin. Those who do it don’t worry about it while those who worry about it don’t do it. The reprobate sin with a clear conscience— because their conscience is seared by sin (1 Tim 4:2). The saintliest men are the most contrite.

There is also a bud of doubt that flowers from a seed of faith. And that is if a believer supposes the Bible to teach something it doesn’t, and when his expectation is dashed, he is thrown into a state of perplexity. The experience of Asaph is a classic case (Ps 73).

To take an example from my own family history—my Grandfather was a Holiness preacher. He believed in divine healing. When his three-year old daughter came down with Diphtheria, he prayed for her recovery. But she died. This precipitated a crisis of faith. Such doubting comes, not from questioning the Bible, but from a mistaken faith that is then disappointed. And that can only be remedied by fixing your faulty doctrine.

ii) Scripture (42:7-8)

The phrase about "waves and billows" is reproduced verbatim in Jonah 2:3. This raises the question of literary dependence. Did Jonah read the Psalmist, or vice versa? Jonah ministered during the 8C BC (cf. 2 Kgs 14:25), and so it is quite possible that he lived before the Psalmist. The second division of the Psalter was probably edited, at the very earliest, under Hezekiah (cf. Prov 25:1; 2 Chron 29:30)—if not Josiah, although their composition antedates their compilation. It is also not unlikely that the antiphonal call of the deep has its background in the primal deep of Gen 1:2. If either or both of these allusions holds good, then the Psalmist was conversant with the preexisting canon of Scripture.

And, indeed, we’d expect a chorister and composer to know his way around the literary history of Israel, for the record of God’s wondrous and providential dealings with Israel supplied that raw materials of worship—as we find throughout the Psalter. Not only was the Bible given by God to make us wise in the way of salvation (2 Tim 3:15), but it is by the encouragement of the Scriptures that we have our hope. By making the word of God his unceasing song and prayer, day and night (8), the Psalmist was able to cultivate a hopeful attitude.

iii) Nostalgia (42:6)

When the present is unpleasant, it is natural to linger on the past. But because there is a danger of living in the past, we tend to overcompensate. Yet, within limits, nostalgia is healthy. Memory should not romanticize the past or substitute an ideal past for a real present.

But time is a gift of God. Has he not made all things beautiful in their time (Eccl 3:11)? We tend to think of time as a means to an end—a road, a ladder, a bridge. We view ourselves as passing through time, or time passing us by. Hence, we look ahead rather than behind.

And that forward-looking, future-oriented vantagepoint has its value. But tomorrow is not promised us (Lk 12:20; Jas 4:13-14), and we don’t know what it will bring (Mt 6:34), whereas the past—although it has passed—is still a present possession in our recollection, and one of the nice things about remembered time over real time is that, with remembered time, we can relive the parts we like by selectively retrieving and dilating on happy memories, whereas with real time, we have to plod through all the bad or long and boring stretches in order to get to the good parts in-between, which only last a short duration.

The Bible is a book of remembrance—of mighty deeds done by God on behalf of his people. The Sabbath commemorates creation; the rainbow—the flood; Passover—the Exodus; and communion —the Cross, circumcision commemorates the Old Covenant, and baptism—the New. Jacob built a memorial after his dream at Bethel, while Joshua built another after fording the Jordan. The gemstones on the ephod commemorate the twelve tribes of Israel, while the foundations of the New Jerusalem memorialize the twelve apostles. The value of memory lies not in dwelling on the past, but facing forward from the standpoint of the past as a pledge of God’s providential care and promise of his steadfast loving-kindness for today and tomorrow.

So we need to maintain a balanced view of time. To be trapped in the past is a dead end—like Mrs. Haversham, with her cobwebbed wedding cake, or Bassani’s Jews, doomed before their time because they can’t shake off their old world lethargy long enough to escape the approaching storm. But to live for the future invites emotional insecurity and instability, while living entirely in the present moment is no better than a bestial existence—like the Athenians who idled and ambled about for the latest tidbit of news or gossip (Acts 17:21). As with a painter, photographer or novelist, the Christian should learn to reap, store and savor the best of the past—like canned goods from the harvest season which tide us over the winter stretches for the everlasting Springtide to come.

iv) Hope (42:5b,11b; 43:5b)

If the Psalmist finds solace in the past, he is also confident of the future. Thus, his outlook is both backward and forward-looking. This is remarkable when you consider that his immediate circumstances offered absolutely no tangible grounds for hope.

There’s a heavenly hope and an earthly hope, a godly waiting and a worldly waiting. There are people—you know the type—who, instead of taking sensible steps to improve their lot in life, are always waiting for their ship to come in. They are easy prey to the latest get-rich-quick scheme. They line up for lottery tickets, plug the one-armed bandit, go on gameshows, and so on.

Religious people can be this way too. In Jesus’ time, the Jews were waiting for Messiah. They had been waiting for centuries. Waiting had become a way of life. They were so used to waiting that when he finally arrived they missed their day of visitation. And so many Jews today are still waiting for Messiah to come—waiting and waiting. And Messiah will come, but he’ll come again, and come in judgment.

Even the disciples were not immune to this mindset. The first thing they ask their Risen Lord, on the eve of his Ascension, is when the Father will restore the kingdom (Acts 1:6). You see, they’re still waiting for the kingdom. Now, in a sense they’re half-right. For the curtain has yet to fall on the final act of church history. But how could they so quickly neglect and little esteem living and eating and sleeping with the kingdom of God Incarnate for the past three years?

Conversely, you have believers and unbelievers wracked by vague forebodings about the future—like the disciples huddled in the Upper Room (Jn 20:19f.). They feared this was the very worst day of their life when it turned out to be the very best!

So there is a heavenly hope and an earthly hope, a godly waiting and a worldly waiting. The worldling waits and waits at the busstop for a bus that never comes because it came and went already. But the believer arrives early at the busstop—like the wise virgins (Mt 25:1-13). The believer waits on the promises of God—to ripen and drop sweep plums in due season.

Faith is the foretaste of things unseen (Heb 11:1). It is more than mere anticipation, but less than full possession. Faith is like the spies sent to scout out the Promised Land (Num 13). They got to see beforehand what they would occupy afterwards.

Earlier and rather unfairly I had cited Rutherford to his considerable disadvantage, but by the grace of faith and power of perseverance, a flagging saint can rally quite magnificently:
"If Christ has been in this matter been as willful and short as I was, my faith had gone over the brae, and broken its neck. But we were well met—a hasty fool, and a wise, patient, and meek Savior. He was never a whit angry at the fever-ravings of a poor tempted sinner," ibid., 285.

"My goldsmith Christ, was pleased to take off the scum, and burn it in the fire. And, blessed be my Refiner, he hath made the metal better, and furnished a new supply of grace...Now his love in my heart casteth a mighty heat...Sufferings blunt not the fiery edge of love. Cast love into the floods of hell, it will swim above," ibid., 273.

If this Psalmist, and other dawning saints who lived and died in the eastern shadow of the cross, could muster such hope, then how much more ought we, on whom the end of the ages have come (1 Cor 10:11)? There is so much we do not know about the world to come, but this much we do know—that eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor mind imagined what all God has prepared for saints in glory (1 Cor 2:9).

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