Not too long ago, my wife and I sat down to a surprisingly relaxing evening after a tough week and we decided to try and watch one of those wonderful and ever popular Netflix original holiday movies. As is usual with those films, I found myself cringing at the script and acting ability. I found myself say at about the hour mark, “how long, O Lord?” Of course, we both laughed and then continued the slog for another 37 minutes. It’s fun to be an in-home critic sometimes.
A couple of days later, I sat down to write this devotion. My mind took me to the exhaustions I had encountered since that movie night: The phone calls, ZOOM meetings, and many emails which all seemed to reveal just a little more of the struggle and tension going on these days. The pace of waking up in the middle of the night to care for our 3 month old. The inescapability of leaving work “at work.” I was transported back to my words from the movie night. “How long, O Lord?”
That phrase comes from the beginning of Psalm 13, a short psalm of individual lament. One notices very quickly that, out of the 6 verses of this psalm, 4 are very lamentful and the final two are rather happy. The shift between these two groups of verses seems stark, too. Some wonder if this psalm was used in a ritualistic setting. The speaker/petitioner might have used the first 4 verses to ritually lay out his or her predicament. The priest might have then pronounced God’s forgiveness, relief, or promise of hopefulness. Then the petitioner may have used the final 2 verses, which sound far more upbeat, as the closing words of this ritual.
This is not proven to be the primary scenario in which this psalm could have been used. It does make some sense, however. Psalm 13 is short enough to be memorized by the illiterate populous. It seems to contain multiple feelings and attitudes with at least one abrupt changing point. And it speaks viscerally to the experiences of loss and abandonment-experiences with which many can likely identify on personal and communal levels.
Still, there are times when brokenness and healing have somehow happened in the same close moments. Maybe tears of sorrow have mixed with tears of joy. Maybe cries have oscillated between laughter and pain. Perhaps our emotions and experiences are just too close to neatly separate from one another. It is possible Psalm 13 just speaks to this reality as well.
It’s helpful to me that the question “How long, O Lord?” is only the very beginning of Psalm 13. The psalmist does not stop at the question. The psalmist engages further, asking more questions, theologizing, trying to make sense and trusting even when things just don’t make sense. Truly, we are such a mixed up people in a mixed up world. We might ask “How long, O Lord?” out of exhaustion, exasperation, anticipation, or hope. We might ask “How long, O Lord?” because the way things are dissatisfying, to say the least, and we trust that they can and will somehow not be the only “things” out there. We might ask “How long, O Lord?” because there is something to look forward to beyond where we are today.
1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain[a] in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.