Psalm 40 (Ups & Downs)

LWC November 7, 2021

There’s a very old joke about an elevator operator who is usually ignored by those who take the lift from floor to floor. Finally, one day someone takes an interest in him. “This is a unique career choice”, says a woman, “how do you like your job?”, and the elevator operator replies, “Oh, it has its ups and downs.” It’s of course a predictable joke, but does ring true, making light of our shared human experience – everyone’s life is filled with ups and downs. I remember the week our first daughter was born feeling dramatically up and down. After five days of excitement (running on adrenaline and urgency, more than food and sleep) day six came and I crashed. I went from a very high high, to a very low low. My inexperience as a new parent in managing my energies had a lot to do with that intense swing. I remember Sarah saying, “Well maybe you should try eating something or taking a nap?” And of course ups and downs in a pandemic have at times been disorienting for many of us. The highs don’t feel so high, the lows feel even lower, and energy drains as we try to sustain our health and communities under prolonged stress. Ups and downs are complex – emotional, circumstantial, seasonal. Sometimes we have control over ups and downs, sometimes we’re powerless. What I mean is, life’s ups and downs are absolutely universal. The elevator operator isn’t alone.

If we think to ourselves “life shouldn’t be like this” or “am I doing something wrong?” or even “am I doing faith wrong?”, Psalm 40 is reassuring. It’s another Psalm written by the shepherd-boy-turned-king, David, whose life was full of ups and downs. Psalm 40 is a jumble. Not a not a vomit of experience, not unintentional, but an accurate picture of what we can expect in a life of faith. It’s made up to two or three distinct tones. They’re so distinct, in fact, that scholars used to think that 40 was some kind of Frankenstein Psalm, two or three poems stitched together. Later on someone had the bright idea that maybe a Psalm like this is possible because a life of faith isn’t one of flawless consistency and easy answers. Even a life of faith is full of ups and downs, of various tones and colours. As we’ve said before, the Psalms keep us honest and they keep us present. So Psalm 40 it’s a great expectation setter for a life of faith. More importantly, it tells us what we can expect from God uniquely when turbulence sets in.

Psalm 40 starts out pretty bright. “he lifted me out of the pit of despair…he set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along…” (40.2); “I have told everyone in the great assembly of your unfailing love and faithfulness” (40.10); “If I tried to recite all your wonderful deeds, I would never come to the end of them” (40.5)(which sounds a little like what we hear at the end of John’s gospel about everything Jesus did “If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21.25)). The beginning of Psalm 40 is full of gratitude at the difference God’s made, taking someone from a place of death to life. It’s a thank you note, because things were bad but God’s turned them good. At times gratitude is talked about mainly as a discipline to work on, and there may be some truth to that. But gratitude in scripture is firstly unscripted. What I mean by that is that the kind of gratitude we see in Psalm 40, or the kind of unexpected excitement we hear of in the gospels when Jesus turns up someplace, is a gratitude that comes with the reality of God’s goodness getting a hold of us. It’s surprising. So if we find ourselves completely devoid of gratitude in a life of faith, we might try being more thankfulbut we’d do better to begin with asking what kind of God we’re concentrating on in the first place. We might need to shrug off stuffy and poor patterns of thought about God’s nature, inviting the surprising reality of his goodness to get a hold of us. I wonder if we need more prayers like that: Jesus, I need you to surprise me today. Surprise me with grace, with provision, with goodness I can’t fabricate. Give me reason to sing a new song! Prayer is holding God capable of being God, always putting the ball back in God’s court.

So, tonally this Psalm starts out flying, and often, so do we. But then things take a turn. If we think a life of faith is always “up”, unflinchingly confident, we hear otherwise in the next lines. Psalm 40 turns pretty dark. “troubles surround me – too many to count! My sins pile up so high I can’t see my way out…I have lost all courage.” (40.12); “Please, LORD, come rescue me! Come quickly, LORD, and help me.” (40.13). We begin with a prayer opening with gratitude about the past, now desperate for relief in the present. The scholars categorize this movement as going from thanksgiving, to lament, to a shameless reliance on God’s intervention. 

Can prayer do that? Can our prayers do that? Psalm 40 does: “Since I am poor and needy, let the Lord keep me in his thoughts. You are my helper and saviour. O my God, do not delay.” (40.17)

What we have in Psalm 40 sounds like someone who’s seen God make the difference in the past, someone singing, pointing others in God’s direction, encouraging trust and hope. On the other hand, Psalm 40 sounds like someone facing severe difficulties, anxious for help again. The problems for the writer, David, might be consequential. Is he talking about the fall out poor choices in his past (“my sins pile up, I can’t see a way out”)? The problems might be circumstantial, meaning there’s evil beyond his control plaguing him. Problems, as we know, are not usually so easily categorized. Rarely do we get full credit or full blame for our ups or downs, and rarely can we give others full credit or full blame. There are exceptions of course, but often it’s all tied up together, because we’re all tied up together. And in the end, who gets the credit and who gets the blame isn’t really the point anyway. The point in Psalm 40 is that David knows the difference God can make, he can’t deny it. And he needs God to make a difference again because he’s on the ropes, reaching out in frazzled trust. 

In our convenience obsessed world, we might expect that a life of faith will deliver us easy answers and clean lines. The problem is that we are not machines, God is not a system, and life is more than a relentless quest for convenience and tidy sums. So, what does Psalm 40 tell us to expect from a life of faith, to expect from God?

Well, first it tells us to expect ups and downs. There might be various reasons for ups and downs, reasons down to us, reasons beyond our control. The ups and downs are no indication God’s left the room or we’re doing faith wrong. We do a good deal of harm to others and to ourselves when we insist on placing blame, on finding a reason things aren’t picture perfect. We also kid ourselves if we think we can have all the credit for when things go well, and that’s the foolishness which evolves into deadly pride. But as Christians we don’t put stock in karma, but in Christ, and Christ faced as many ups and downs as we do – what does that tell us about God’s whereabouts in turbulence? So if you’re facing a bit of turbulence today, don’t panic. You’re in good company. You’re in our company; you’re in God’s company. And if you’re in a sunny season, don’t stifle the joy, celebrate the reality of goodness bubbling up around you. Sing a new song, as the Psalm says, for the rest of us to hear!

Second, Psalm 40 also tells us to expect our dependency on God to grow, not shrink. To expect that growing up in faith means realizing you need God more than you thought yesterday, or last year, or last decade. It tells us that we’ll never truly arrive until Jesus returns, but to not be discouraged by that in the least, because arriving at some kind of religious self-sufficiency isn’t a life of faith at all. Faith means trust. Again, again, again. Especially when we’re on the ropes. 

If you’ve ever been on the ropes, you know that confidence is a fickle thing. The muscle memory of trust is easily forgotten. The Old Testament is full of examples of shaky faith, and the New Testament too for that matter. Our examples of faith and trust in scripture are usually complicated figures – they all flinched when trouble flexed. Have you ever been in a funeral and someone is made to sound perfectly saintly and you’ve had that nasty little thought “well that’s not the whole picture really”, and felt a bit guilty? We shouldn’t! There’s no need to sanitize our histories. If the ancient heroes of faith (along with the modern) were sitting next to us today, it would be clear pretty quick that they were round and complex characters. Full of faith, but full of other stuff too! And if they were a real hero, they’d probably just point to the strength beyond them and say something like, “Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am – so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals.” (Mark 1.6-8) If they were a real hero then we’d hope to see a trajectory, not towards puffy-chested self-sufficiency, but a consuming addiction to Jesus through prayer. I’ve met some genuine heroes of faith, and as they mature their attention to prayer, their humility, doesn’t shrink, it expands. As we say often: before prayer is a discipline to be worked on, before prayer is devotion to be given, prayer is first a dependence to be learned. 

So Psalm 40 tells us to expect ups and downs, and to expect to grow into dependent beings rather than self-sufficient beings as we mature. And finally (most importantly) Psalm 40 tells us to expect God to transcend our ups and downs, but not to be ambivalent about them. The writer of Psalm 40 really does celebrate God’s authority to rescue, the magnitude of God’s capacity. They celebrate God’s reliability as they look back, but they also trust his agility in the present. At times we box God in. Does God live only in the big picture, faithful, sovereign, as we look back over time; or is God responsive, moveable in this very moment? Why do we have to choose? I think if we asked Jesus to fill out a job application for the role of “God” and to tick either the “detail oriented” box or the “big picture” box, Jesus would tick both. Jesus gave us the Milky Way, and he gave us ladybugs. The Psalms tell us that God is entirely free to both transcend us and personally tend to us. Psalm 40’s example directs us to remember the truth of the past, the stuff we can’t deny God’s done, and it directs us to expect more of that stuff today. In other words, it reminds us that prayer is where our limitations on God dissolve.

The more I read Psalm 40 the more I realize I need a more accurate picture of God and myself. I need a roomier picture, not a sanitized or stifled picture. There is much I don’t know about the universe, much I don’t know about God. How do we possibly begin to comprehend a being who transcends all of history and matter, and yet also promises me intimate attention, agility in responding to my needs?

That’s probably where the picture of Jesus and his cross come in. Jesus, arms stretched from one end of history to another, making the difference, laying down his life, able to pick it up again, transcending our limitations with endless grace. “If I tried to recite all your wonderful deeds, I would never come to the end of them” (40:5). Jesus with arms stretched, but also with ears open, tending to the man crucified next to him making a request, and granting it. “I am poor and needy…You are my helper and my saviour…do not delay.” (40.17) To which, we might remember Jesus’ responded “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23.42). Jesus, transcending us and tending to us. Back then, right now and for eternity to come.