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(Sunday between June 26 and July 2)
Psalm 13

Psalm 13 is a short lament psalm. Some dire situation, which is not specified, faces the psalmist and they speak to God about it. The psalm begins with a series of questions addressed to God. Each one asks the haunting question: ‘how long?’ As we might expect there are questions of how long the psalmist must continue to suffer and have their ‘enemy’, which could be a metaphor for some ailment or hindrance in life (v. 2). But we notice that more important for the psalmist is the question of ‘how long’ will God disregard or fail to address the psalmist’s situation. The psalmist’s complaint is primarily against God (v. 1). God’s apparent disregard for the psalmist’s plight undergirds the pain, sorrow, and humiliation, which the psalmist bears.

In this prayer there is an assumption that God is powerful enough to effect some change in the psalmist’s plight. It is the way of God to transform life. Not even the psalmist’s sinfulness can stop the transformative activity of God (cf. Ps 69:5). On the other hand, the psalmist has freedom to question God when it seems God has not used that power. The sense of urgency generated in Ps 13:1-2 is maintained in v. 3 by the use of the abrupt imperatives ‘consider and answer’. The psalmist demands an answer from God, although the psalmist understands clearly that God will only act at a time acceptable to God (Ps 69:13).

To many such boldness as the psalmist displays here would be unheard of when speaking to God. There is often a sense of self-effacement in many prayers (‘Lord, I just want …’). The psalms present another picture of prayer, one in which it is not wrong to express precisely what one is thinking/feeling. The God of the psalms is both ‘big’ enough, and compassionate enough, to hear the deepest thoughts of our hearts. There is no sense either of offence being given by this questioning of God, or of offence being taken. The psalmist presumes a right to question God. The prayer could be characterized as honest or even brazen. There is room in it for expressions of anger, and a sense of betrayal.

In the concluding section of the psalm the psalmist states their trust in God in the past and anticipates a response of salvation to that trust. The psalmist then promises to praise God. The movement from complaint, to plea, and finally to praise is clear although just how this happens in the psalmist’s life is not so clear. One writer on Psalm 13, James Mays, has said: ‘The psalm leads those who read and pray it from protest and petition to praise; it holds all three together as if to teach that they cohere in the unity of prayer.’ (Psalms. John Knox, Louisville, 1994, p. 79)

This insight is helpful. It suggests that an expression of protest is not to be equated with a lack of hope, or for that matter, a lack of faith itself. In fact, since it is a protest to God it embodies both trust and expectation. What is more, the movement toward hope does not simply dispense with all sense of protest. Nor is hope simply a denial of the real pain behind the complaint. The reality of the hope expressed is only fully understood when the reality of the silence of God and the desperation of the circumstances are confronted. On the other hand, it also suggests that we do not have to be at the point of despair before we can pray this psalm or those like it. A desire to praise God may still have room to recognize the need for protest and petition. Moreover, the psalm asserts that the movement from despair to praise is possible. This is the prayer of a mature faith.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

In the prayers of confession we often focus on our own sins and shortcomings. An element of lament could be introduced into the prayers where we lament the things that go wrong for us or others over which weor they  have little or no control. A refrain interspersed between short petitions could read:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget (…) forever?
How long must (….) bear pain and have sorrow in their heart all day long?
Consider and answer, O LORD our God!
The conclusion of the petitions, including confession of our own sins, might be:
We have trusted in your steadfast love;
let our hearts rejoice in your salvation.
and sing to the LORD.
Genesis 22:1-14

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