Hear my prayer, O Lord;
give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness;
answer me in your righteousness.
Do not enter into judgment with your servant,
for no one living is righteous before you. (Psalm 143:1-2)
In yesterday’s reading, a drought threatened all of Israel. Today, David’s soul thirsts for God “like a parched land” (v 6). He prays repeatedly for explanation and guidance — “answer me in your righteousness… Answer me quickly, O Lord… Teach me the way I should go… Teach me to do your will” — but it’s not clear if he hears any response. “Do not hide your face from me,” David implores God (v 7).
But sometimes God does hide from us. Lutheran theologian Steve Paulson even concludes that
God hides so as not to be found where people seek him, and reveals himself where he is not sought. In the safe goal, so to speak, God can declare a new sort of victory over hapless seekers for meaning, certitude, affirmation, fame, success, and whatever else humans have determined to be of worth to themselves while breaking the first commandment.
It’s easy enough to see the dangers of seeking fame and success (harder to elude them), but can certitude, even meaning itself also be idols?
That’s a hard word for a historian like me. As I often tell students, my job is to make meaning of the past. Even on my first pass through Psalm 143, I read David “remember the days of old” (v 5) and found myself starting to think that this reflection would explain how history can help us make meaning of a pandemic.
And I do think it’s important to study history right now. But can we be too eager to seek answers?
Yesterday it seemed that everyone on my Facebook timeline was recommending an essay in Time magazine by the British scholar N.T. Wright, who took up the problem of seeking certain meaning when the enemy from which we want to be saved (v 9) is an unpredictable microbe that spreads like wildfire. While he expected that “the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us,” Wright concluded that “It is no part of the Christian vocation… to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.”
It’s here, he suggested, that “the Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, come back into their own, just when some churches seem to have given them up.” Wright doesn’t mention the psalm assigned today by the lectionary, but its pleas echo earlier questions: “‘Why do you stand far off, O Lord?’ asks the 10th Psalm plaintively. ‘Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?’ And so it goes on: ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?’ (Psalm 13). And, all the more terrifying because Jesus himself quoted it in his agony on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Psalm 22).”
Rather than seeking answers — “meaning, certitude, affirmation” — from a God who is hiding, these psalms both give vent to “our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why” and confront us with a God who himself laments. “Some Christians,” Wright continues, “like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.” (That’s not the picture we got Sunday, for example, as God the Son wept over the death of a friend.)
A God who laments — a God who hides — is a mystery for Wright, a problem that might defy solution. But it doesn’t extinguish hope. “Let your good spirit lead me on a level path,” David prays today (v 10). And God does answer that prayer, Wright concludes:
As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there’s a thought.