Monday, November 27, 2023

Psalm 27 and the Loneliness of Three in the Morning

Listen to me read the audio file

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.

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