The Westminster Confession of Faith (which is the statement of our beliefs as a church and as a denomination), includes an entire chapter on the subject of Providence. What is Providence? (Good question.) Providence is the biblical teaching that God preserves and governs all His creatures, and all their actions.1
In other words, the most holy, wise, and powerful God is sovereignly in control of all things. All things. That means that He is in control over the big things in life & history (like hurricanes and national elections!), as well as little things, like when a single sparrow falls to the ground or the number of hairs on your head (Matthew 10:29-30). All means all.
And that can and should be a very comforting thought to believers, right? When life gets hard and times get tough, we can rest assured that God knows what He is doing . . . even if we don’t.
But it doesn’t always feel so reassuring, does it? Sometimes we come face to face with a hard Providence. Sometimes our circumstances or our struggles with sin make it feel like God is against us. Or maybe like He has abandoned us. Have you ever felt like that?
You might be surprised to know that our Confession’s chapter on Providence actually deals with things like that! (Who says that the Westminster Standards are less personal or pastoral than the Heidelberg Catechism!) In Westminster Confession chapter 5 it says,
“The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.”
If you have ever felt that way, you are not alone. In fact, you are in very good company. No less than King David (the man after God’s own heart – 1 Samuel 13:14) felt like that on more than one occasion. And not only did he feel that way, but he actually wrote songs – including Psalm 6 – so that we might sing our way back to the light at the end of the tunnel. This Psalm is a spiritual compass of sorts, helping weary pilgrims find our way back to God.
What caused David to feel this way? The Psalm does not really tell us. Some have categorized this Psalm as a Psalm of penitence or repentance, while others consider it a lament. David does not confess any specific sins here, but he does speak of God rebuking or disciplining him (v.1), so David has a clear sense of his sin.
He also speaks of what seems to be physical danger in v.4 (“deliver my life [or soul]”) and v.5 (“in death there is no remembrance of You”). He also speaks of his “foes” (v.7) and “enemies” (v.10). So whatever it was, there was a lot going on in David’s life. He was feeling overwhelmed and abandoned. It is probably better for us that we do not know exactly why he felt this way, so that we can better identify with him in his state of mind.
What are some of the ways that his troubles affected David? He said that he was “languishing” (v.2). His trouble affected him:
- Deeply and even Physically (“my bones are troubled” – v.2)
- Spiritually (“My soul is greatly troubled” – v.3)
- “Soul-trouble is the very soul of trouble. It matters not that the bones shake if the soul be firm, but when the soul itself is also sore vexed this is agony indeed.” (Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, p.57)
- Emotionally (“every night I flood my bed with tears” – v.6)
- He lost sleep (tears flooded his “bed” and drenched his “couch” – v.6).
- His troubles completely wiped him out (“I am weary with my moaning” – v.6).
- He could not see any light at the end of the tunnel.
- “My eye wastes away because of grief” (v.7).
- “every night I flood my bed with tears” (v.6).
- This must have gone on for a long time! (“But You, O LORD – how long?” – v.3)
How did David respond to his feeling as if he had been abandoned by God? He did something counter-intuitive. He prayed. When we feel like God is distant, probably the last thing we feel like doing is praying. But David prayed, and so should we.
And praying is really the only thing left for us to do, isn’t it? Why? Because no matter what the situation or circumstances are that we are dealing with, the ultimate problem isn’t in our circumstances. Our problem is that feeling or sense that God is not with us. Notice that David uses the word “LORD” 8 times here in this relatively short Psalm (10 verses). God Himself was clearly David’s chief concern.
So what was David’s request? He asks a number of things from the LORD, but it all boils down to one thing that he asks of Him in v.4 – “Turn, O LORD.” The Hebrew word is shuv, and it means to turn around or return. He is asking God to return to him. We can endure all kinds of things as long as we know that our heavenly Father is watching over us and smiling upon us. As Charles Spurgeon writes,
As God’s absence was the main cause of his misery, so his return would be enough to deliver him from his trouble.2
Notice that David does not ask not to be chastened or disciplined. He asks that God not rebuke him in His anger or discipline him in his wrath (v.1). Rebuke and discipline are not signs of a lack of fatherly love. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. Hebrews 12:5-6 says,
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
So discipline is not a sign that something is wrong – just the opposite! It means that we really are God’s children.
And look at how David makes makes his appeal to God – not on the basis of his own rightness or righteousness; not on the basis of his privileged position as King, but only on the basis of mercy. In v.4 he says, “Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love.” Just like in Psalm 5:7 he pleads God’s own chesed or covenant faithfulness back to Him. God’s grace and love.
There is what appears to us as a pretty sudden change starting in v.8. For the first 7 verses David is languishing (v.2) and crying a river (v.6). He was at the end of his rope. But then in v.8 he is suddenly a man of God who is full of confidence again! Why? He now knows that the LORD has heard his weeping (v.8), his prayer, and his plea (v.9).
Not only that, but he tells his enemies to depart from him because the LORD has heard his prayer (v.8). So the LORD had returned to David, and because He had returned to David, David says that his enemies “shall be ashamed and greatly troubled” (same phrase he used of himself back in v.3!). Not only that, but because the LORD had returned (shuv) to David, David’s enemies would be ‘turned back’ (shuv) and “put to shame in a moment” (v.10). Quite the turnaround!
The turnaround is so sudden that it has led some critics to question the unity or integrity of the Psalm. But they just don’t understand what is happening here. Tremper Longman explains:
It sometimes appears that the psalmist changed his negative feelings to positive ones in a brief moment, but this isn’t how it happened. The Psalms compress time in such a way that what was a long process appears as a sudden insight. Honest emotional struggle stands behind the Psalms.3
So David’s trial was not brief, and his turnaround was not sudden. But this Psalm encapsulates his struggle for us, so that we might have encouragement in our trials.
Was David ever really abandoned by God? And if we are in Christ by faith, are we ever really abandoned by God? No. At times it may feel that way. At times our heavenly Father may withdraw the light of His countenance4, but He does not truly turn His back on us. Hebrews 13:5-6 tells us,
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
God Himself has told us that He will never truly turn His back on us. He does not abandon His children or leave us as orphans.
Why is it that we can know that He will never leave us or forsake sinners us? Because on the Cross He turned His back on His only-begotten Son, the Son of David, Jesus Christ. We never truly go through the ultimate “dark night of the soul” because Jesus did so in our place. Matthew 27:45-46 says,
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus was “a man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3), because He bore our sins and sorrows on the Cross. Jesus took upon himself the wrath and abandonment that we deserve because of our sins, so that we might know forgiveness, steadfast love, and adoption as sons in Him.
Jesus was forsaken by His Father on the Cross, so that we could know that no matter what we are faced with in this life, God never truly leaves or forsakes us. So when we suffer, we cry and we pray. And we pray for our heavenly Father to turn the light of His face back upon us because of His steadfast love toward us in Jesus Christ. Amen.
1The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.11
2The Treasury of David, p.57
3How To Read The Psalms, p.81
4The Westminster Confession of Faith, 18.4