Monday, November 27, 2023

Psalm 27 and the Loneliness of Three in the Morning

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Hear my voice when I call, Lord;
be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, I will seek.
Do not hide your face from me,
do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
God my Savior.
Though my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will receive me.

Psalm 27:7-10 NIV


Waning, slightly gibbous moon in bright blue sky: it hangs like a bowl tipped at an angle, pouring out blue on the autumn morning.


Since Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it has haunted humanity. That sin separated us from God, each other, and even in a sense from ourselves. Loneliness so stalks our lives that it can find us in a crowd or at home alone. It can find us in the arms of our best beloved and cradling our firstborn children. It finds the single and the married. It finds us at work and at leisure. It finds us in youth and old age. It is a universal form of suffering. 

Bereavement is lonely; really any sort of emotional or physical pain is.

Chronic illness is lonely: no other person truly knows the experience of it, and it frequently removes us from our family and friends. Especially now, when opportunities for online discipleship, fellowship, worship, work, and study are being scaled back or discontinued, many medically vulnerable people are feeling left behind and lonely. Alienated. Exiles. Chronic and prolonged illness even alienates us from ourselves in the way it severs us from the “before” self so different from the one in the mirror and lying in the bed. There is a particular loneliness for the me I used to be, the me I still am sometimes in my dreams; it is a wistful ache, but the only way out of it is to forget the “before” self altogether. That would be poor comfort indeed.

In addition, loneliness often marks vocational ministry and missions. The leadership position can pose challenges to vulnerable, close relationships with the very people and church being cared for. Sometimes fellowship is found with other leaders or lay Christians outside the church congregation; sometimes the leader is physically present and immersed in the ministry community but emotionally distant for self-protection.

Those are only a few examples; really, loneliness is an equal-opportunity affliction. It can strike any sort of person at any time of life and any hour of the day. Loneliness can find us at high noon or at five on Friday afternoon, but I suggest that three in the morning is the loneliest hour of the day.


The Setting

This is the fourth essay in our series reflecting on Psalm 27. In this Psalm, God through David has given us a prayer-song for when we are afraid of the dark: whatever kind of dark, literal darkness or emotional and spiritual darkness. David seeks shelter in God’s personal presence with confidence borne out of His past rescues, and so can we.

In the first post, we consider the themes and structure of the prayer as a whole. In the second post, we reflect on the first section of three verses. In it David describes his experience of God’s saving defense. In the third post we consider the second section (vv. 4-6), in which David expresses his expectant desire for God’s sheltering presence, his “one thing”: to dwell with and behold his God.

Since communion with God was David’s “one thing,” the loss of fellowship with Him is David’s greatest fear, even more than family tragedy or military defeat. In the third section we’re examining today (7-10), David takes his fear (or experience) of rejection to the Lord and pleads for God’s continued presence. The very deepest sort of loneliness, I believe, is our existential loneliness for the God who made and sustains us. A deep cavern of loneliness in our inmost being is so shaped that only the Triune God can fill it. 


The Search

Here the psalm takes a turn from talking about God (third person, for the English majors out there) to talking to God directly (second person); he changes from “he” language to “you” language. We might also notice that pleading, vulnerable prayer requests pour out in a rush of words and intense emotion:

  •       Hear me
  •       Be merciful to me
  •       Answer me
  •       Don’t hide Your face from me
  •       Don’t push me away
  •       Don’t reject me
  •       Don’t forsake me

 Psychologist and author Dr. Curt Thompson has said in his books and podcasts that “we are all born looking for someone looking for us” and that there is a universal human need to be “seen, soothed, safe, and secure.” Those are the desires and needs I see David taking to God in these verses. “I’m seeking Your face, Lord; will You meet my gaze? Are you looking back at me? Please don’t turn away.” David looks back at God’s past help and begs Him not to reject him now. The tone struck by the urgent pleas brings to my mind a child clinging to a beloved parent’s leg in separation anxiety, or a wife begging her husband to stay (or vice versa). David is searching for God, and his greatest fear seems to be that God will not let Himself be found in the moment of deepest need.

 In Scripture, the face of God often symbolizes the favor of God. In the battles and attacks David is suffering while writing this Psalm (see the earlier verses and posts), what he mosts desires is God’s favor, represented in God’s face turned toward him and not hidden from him.


The Solace

After pouring all this out before the Lord, David remembers. He remembers God’s faithful help and says, to God and himself, that—even if the people most bound by love and duty to care for him should reject and abandon him—the Lord will always receive him.

We all fail the people we love most. Whether through intentional sin, personality and value differences, or simply the limitations of being human, we all fall short of satisfying our closest dear ones’ innermost needs. Finite humanity cannot fill a God-shaped void. David, the author of this Psalm, experienced murderous rage from his king and mentor, betrayal by servants and sons, and the involuntary “abandonment” of  bereavement. In 1 Samuel 30, we read how even his own warriors turned against him and talked of stoning him. Despite all that, David declares his confidence in God’s glad welcome, even if every other person should turn away and turn against him.

As Charles Spurgeon reminded us“‘But I am so lonely in the world,’ says another, ‘no man cares for me.’ There is one man at any rate who does so care; a true man like yourself. He is your brother still, and does not forget the lonely spirit" (Charles H. Spurgeon, Joy to the World). The Triune God is always with us and dwells in believers, not through any merit of our own, but because of the life and work of Christ. He has not left us as orphans (John 14:18). He never, never, never leaves or forsakes His people (Hebrews 13:5).


So What? Application

How are we to respond to these things?

Pray. Make these words your own. Pray them aloud or in your heart. Use them to turn the gaze of your heart back toward the Lord.

Seek God’s face. He is looking for you. Will you meet His eyes? “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always” (Psalms 105:NIV). The people we love and earthly things we look to for our identity will always disappoint us eventually. Only the Lord can fully satisfy the lonely places of our hearts. Only our identity as the Lord’s children will never be stripped from us.

Trust His readiness to be found. "Jesus willingly looked at the back of God’s head so that we would never look at anything but his face. So, today, when you envision God with the eyes of your heart, envision his face, because if you are his child it is the only thing you are ever going to see" (Paul David Tripp, A Shelter in the Time of Storm).

Lean on His faithfulness. When people abandon you and betray you or simply let you down because of human limitations and not moral fault, take the loneliness, rejection, and disappointment to the Lord.  Offer them to Him, and yourself with them. Jesus was forsaken by the Father on the cross so that His children never would be. When God seems hidden from us, we can take Him at His word as David does here. We can confess with our mouths even if we don’t feel it emotionally: “the Lord will receive me.” This is how we encourage ourselves in the Lord: we keep telling ourselves the truth, building new default mental patterns according to truth, until the day eventually comes when we feel the reality of it again.

Loneliness can be such a dark emotion. It can certainly contribute to our souls’ white nights. Thanks be to God that Christian believers are not without solace in our loneliness. Even if Jesus doesn’t take away the loneliness altogether, He will come into it with us. Even if He doesn’t immediately turn on the lights to dispel our emotional or spiritual darkness, He will hold our hands through the dark night of the soul (and always).

Christ’s heart for us means that he will be our never-failing friend no matter what friends we do or do not enjoy on earth. He offers us a friendship that gets underneath the pain of our loneliness. While that pain does not go away, its sting is made fully bearable by the far deeper friendship of Jesus. He walks with us through every moment. He knows the pain of being betrayed by a friend, but he will never betray us. He will not even so much as coolly welcome us. That is not who he is. That is not his heart (Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly).

Please pray with me, using the words of missionary Amy Carmichael:

Lover Divine, whose love has sought and found me,
Thou dost not leave me when the night is round me;
Cause me to be, held fast by Love eternal,
More than a conqueror. 
Open mine eyes to see the stars above me,
Quicken my heart that I may feel Thee love me,
Make me, and keep me through Thy love eternal,
More than a conqueror. 
What storm can shatter, gloom of darkness frighten
One whom the Lord doth shelter, cherish, lighten?
O let me be, through powers of love eternal,
More than a conqueror (Rose from Brier, 138).

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ I ask this. Amen.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Psalm 27 and the "One Thing" We Need at Three in the Morning

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One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.
Then my head will be exalted
above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.

Psalm 27:4-6, NIV

Our dawn sky today

What is your “one thing?” If the Lord told you, as He did Solomon, that he would give you any one thing you asked, what one thing would you seek? Health, family, financial security? Success, influence, popularity? Wisdom, advanced degrees, expertise? Marriage, children, reconciliation, forgiveness?

In Psalm 27:4 and elsewhere, David—the man after God’s own heart—says that his “one thing” is to dwell with God, to behold Him face to face.

This is the third essay in our series reflecting on Psalm 27. In this psalm, God through David has given us a prayer-song for when we are afraid of the dark: whatever kind of dark, literal darkness or emotional and spiritual darkness. David seeks shelter in God’s personal presence with confidence borne out of His past rescues, and so can we. In the first post, we considered the themes and structure of the prayer as a whole. In the second post, we reflected on the first section of three verses. In that first section (27:1-3), David describes his experience of God’s saving defense. In this post we are looking at the second section (vv. 4-6), in which David expresses his expectant desire for God’s sheltering presence.

In David’s time, the tabernacle had already passed into cultural memory. Only the ark of the covenant, which was the gold-covered chest holding the tablets of the law God gave to Moses, remained. It had been captured by the Philistines before David’s time but was returned in David's lifetime to Jerusalem, God’s chosen city for the Hebrews to worship Him. It was housed in a tent, but not the beautiful, God-designed tent of meeting from Moses’ time. The temple, however, had not yet been built. David lived between the tabernacle of the past and the temple yet to come.

David desperately wanted to build a glorious house for the ark representing God’s presence; it would be the one designated place for ritual sacrifices to occur. When he told his desire, however, the Lord told him that David was not to build Him a house, but instead, God would build David a house. A dynastic house. And David’s son Solomon would in fact be the one to build a house for the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel. We call this promise the Davidic covenant; in it, God promised that David’s descendants would be the rightful rulers of Israel. (This conversation can be read in 2 Samuel 7.)

Since David could not do what he wanted, he did what he could. He dedicated the spoils of his battles to the splendor of the temple to come.  Moreover, David told Solomon in 1 Chronicles 28:19 that the plans he was giving his son had been revealed to David by God Himself. To some extent, in some spiritual sense, David glimpsed what the temple would be, though it was not build during his lifetime. He even wrote a prayer-song for its dedication, as the epigraph of Psalm 30 notes.

In the above verses from Psalm 27, David freely uses a variety of terms for God’s dwelling: house of the Lord, temple, dwelling, shelter, and sacred tent (or tabernacle). The common connection among them all is the God who dwells there. More than anything in the world—and  David had wealth, power, influence, celebrity, and success—David wanted to dwell with God. In God’s presence, he finds beauty, shelter, victory, worship, and joy.

With Him, every wilderness was a castle, a paradise; without Him, every castle was a wilderness.

The New Testament reveals that Jesus is the true tabernacle and temple (John 1:14; 4:21-24; Hebrews 8:1-2, 5; 9:8, 11, 21, 23-28; 10:19-25). Jesus is for all time the presence of God in human flesh. He is the dwelling place of God.

Revelation indicates that all the tabernacles and temples of the past pointed forward to the new creation on the way to us, when the dwelling of God will be with men in the fullest possible way: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell [tabernacle] among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes,; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passe away’” (Revelation 21:3-4, NASB1995). In that age there will be no more temple, “for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple” (Rev. 21:22, NASB 1995).

Do you remember from the first essay in this series that I said, when I am afraid of the dark, when I am in a three-o’clock season of the soul, the two things I want most are a light and a person. Last time we focused on the light God gives. This time David points our attention back to a person, the person of the Triune God.

David’s “one thing” to dwell in God’s presence and gaze on His loveliness is the birthright of all who have been born again into God’s family by grace through faith. John’s gospel, in particular, emphasizes that the believer dwells or abides in God, and God abides in Him. We who believe in Jesus are never separated from God’s presence. He is nearer than our next breath. He is intimately acquainted with all our ways. He never leaves us alone in the darkness, and the darkness is not even dark to Him (Psalm 139).

He is not repelled by our sorrow, brokenness, and sin. No matter what we are going through right now, we are never “too much” for the Lord Jesus. In fact, the Puritan preacher Samuel Rutherford wrote from his imprisonment for the gospel, “There is no sweeter fellowship with Christ than to bring our wounds and our sores to him” (The Loveliness of Christ, Kindle location 130). The young Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne advised, “Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams” (Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 293).

His love enlightens our darkness. His presence comforts our loneliness. Should we lose all lesser “one things” as Job did, should we even lose our earthly lives, we have enough and more in Christ Jesus. Any other thing we place on the throne of our lives will eventually disappoint, but Jesus never will. His love is better than health, wealth, power, or fame. His presence is better than family, earthly friendship, marriage, or children. “His love hath neither brim nor bottom. Go where ye will, your soul shall not sleep sound but in Christ’s bosom. I find that our wants qualify us for Christ” (Samuel Rutherford, The Loveliness of Christ, Kindle location 177).

Even when we feel our lives have hit rock-bottom, we have not found the bottom of His mercies, grace, love, and kindness. His love is deeper than our deepest needs and wounds. His love is stronger than whatever holds us in bondage. His love is greater than all we lack or lose.

Is this finding you in a season of darkness, beloved? Take your wants and your wounds to Jesus. Let His smile shine into your darkness. Lean into His presence by faith, if you cannot by feeling. If you can’t say with David that the Lord is your one thing, let’s ask together that it may be so.

Please pray with me.

“Grant, most sweet and loving Jesus, that I may seek my repose in You above every creature; above all health and beauty; above every honor and glory; every power and dignity; above all knowledge and cleverness, all riches and arts, all joy and gladness; above all things visible and invisible; and may I seek my repose in You above everything that is not You, my God. You alone are most beautiful and loving, You alone are most noble and glorious above all things. In You is every perfection that has been or ever will be. Therefore, whatever You give me besides Yourself, whatever You reveal to me concerning Yourself, and whatever You promise, is too small and insufficient if I do not see and fully enjoy You alone. For my heart cannot rest or be fully content until, rising above all gifts and every created thing, it rests in You” (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ).

I ask these things in the name of Christ Jesus our light and our love. Amen.