The wonderful thing about the book of Psalms is that it meets us where we live. It tells about good times and mountaintop experiences, but it also speaks to trials and disappointments, times that don’t make sense, times where God seems silent or absent. In a word, the Psalms talk about life – real life in a fallen world.
Psalm 40 is a good example. It gives a picture of the joy that comes from experiencing God’s powerful deliverance and the blessings of trusting Him. It also, however, speaks to the continuing need for God’s deliverance as the bad times come back. It shows life as it really is. In its twofold picture of both joy and desperate need, it’s a great representative Psalm for the whole book. It has it all.
The way it communicates its message is through a unique structure. The first half of the Psalm is praise and thanksgiving for all God’s done for the Psalmist (David). The second half is a desperate plea for help in the midst of extreme difficulty. The second half is born out of the first half, and in structuring the Psalm as he does, David teaches us how to use our memory of God’s past work and knowledge of who He is to give us faith and trust in Him as we weather extreme trials. What Psalm 40 really teaches us is to how to walk by faith and not by sight.
God’s Past Deliverance (1-3)
The first half of the Psalm (vss 1-10) is written as a series of evolving steps. The first three verses describe what God has done. The following seven verses describe how the Psalmist responds as a result. Thus, verses 1-3 lead to verses 4-5, which lead to verses 6-8, which lead to verses 9-10.
The first two verses form the basis for the whole Psalm. David first describes his own activity. He prayed in the midst of trial. Notice how he prayed – I waited patiently for the Lord (I prayed over a long period of time – I persevered in prayer) and He inclined to me and heard my cry (I desperately called out to Him). Why did he pray this way? Because he was in the pit of destruction and the miry bog. His situation was hopeless, and he had no way of saving himself.
What did God do as a result of David’s prayer? He delivered David from his hopeless state. He drew him up from the pit of destruction and the miry bog and set his feet securely on the rock. And after delivering David, God put a song of praise in David’s mouth. God did it all; He saved David and enabled him to minister to others through praising God for his saving work.
Verse 3 points out an important truth about God’s deliverance. It’s never just about deliverance. It’s never just about making someone’s life better. Praise is always part of the equation. God’s mighty acts should bring about praise which encourages and changes those who hear it. God always acts for His own glory and the one delivered is never delivered only for his own benefit. Others must see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
First Response – Praise (4-5)
The song of praise is what makes up verses 4-5. God’s deliverance leads to praise. David first proclaims that the man who turns to God in times of trouble and not to other sources of help is blessed. He then praises God directly for His wondrous deeds (which David just witnessed), His condescension to those who trust, and His transcendence. David will tell others about God and His acts and His thoughts, but there are so many that they can never be fully told. He can praise God but never do it adequately because God is so great. [And don’t miss it – God THINKS about us, and He apparently thinks about us a LOT.]
Verse 4 is the key verse of the whole Psalm. It’s the summary concept that we’ll take with us from this study. More on this later.
Second Response – Obedience (6-8)
God’s deliverance leads to praise which leads to obedience. Obedience proves that what David just said about God weren’t empty words. Obedience shows his worship is sincere. That’s why he explains what God doesn’t want – God doesn’t want empty ritual. Worship for the sake of worship is never okay. The heart ALWAYS counts, and obedience is a sign of what’s in the heart. Worship & sacrifice without obedience is – at best – vanity, and – at worst – blasphemy (ask the minor prophets). Against that, David says he obeys what’s in the law. As a matter of fact, he DELIGHTS to do what’s written in the law. He delights to do the will of God (similar to the blessed man of Psalm 1).
David’s obedience comes right out of his praise. He’s so overwhelmed with who God is and what God’s done in his life, he delights to obey. He essentially says, “The God who set my feet on the rock and whose wonders and thoughts are incomparable is worthy of my obedience. I DELIGHT to obey such a God!”
Notice, however, the last line of verse 8. David says the law is within his heart. David KNOWS the law and he delights in what he knows. Ultimately, we can’t delight in what we don’t know. If we’re going to follow David’s response of obedience, we must know the word. And having the word in our hearts presupposes a diligence in learning, not just a cursory knowledge born of small amounts of invested time. Storing the word in our heart is as much a response to who God is and what God’s done as the obedience that flows out of that heart. If we love God for his deliverance and who He is, we will apply all diligence to acquiring the knowledge that will allow us to obey. We will delight to study and delight to obey.
Third Response – Testimony (9-10)
God’s deliverance leads to praise which leads to obedience which leads to testimony. The last thing David says he does as a result of God’s deliverance is to tell others about it. And the way he describes his proclamation makes it clear that he can’t stop himself from testifying. He won’t restrain his lips; he can’t conceal what God’s done. He bubbles over with the amazing message of God’s faithfulness, God’s salvation, and God’s steadfast love. David appreciates how great his deliverance was and that drives his praise.
Do you see the lesson here? David’s excited about what God’s done and who God is. He’s experienced God’s awesome deliverance and he can’t wait to tell others about it. Why? Because he’s human and it’s very human to talk about what excites us. We very naturally talk about what we’re excited about. And that applies to telling others about the awesome God who delivers.
Ever thought about what makes a good witness? It’s not someone who thinks, “I need to be a witness…I need to be a witness…I need to be a witness….” The person who’s a good witness is someone so overwhelmed and excited about what God’s done in their life that the message bubbles over and out of them. It naturally comes out because it’s who they are. They’re excited and they can’t wait to share that excitement.
[Think about something – if you’re a parent of young children, do you have to gear up to talk about your kids when you’re with others? Or if you just bought a new car, or just got a great deal on something at the store, or just read a book that really impacted you or started a new workout regimen – do you struggle to work that into conversation? We talk about what we’re excited about, and – just like David – when we’re excited about what God’s done in our lives, we’ll love to tell others about it.]
Transitional Prayer (11)
Now we reach the midpoint of the Psalm. Notice that the first 10 verses described what God did in the past and how David responded. David rehearsed those things to prepare for what he now says is going on his life currently. The remaining verses in the Psalm are all in the present tense.
Verse 11 is the transition verse from the first half (praise and worship) to the second half (a cry for help). It’s a prayer that comes out of the first 10 verses. God delivered David and is worthy of praise and obedience and testimony, so David prays that God will continue to do what He’s already done. It’s a prayer that’s also a statement of faith born out of his experience. “As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me!” It’s both a declaration and a plea. “I know this is true of my God, but please let it be true right now because I need help.”
Current Distress (12-17)
Why does he need help? Because he’s in the middle of darkness:
- Evils beyond number surround him.
- His own iniquities overwhelm him to the point that he’s lost perspective (I cannot see) and hope (my heart fails me). [It’s interesting, isn’t it, that he says this even after claiming that he delights to obey God’s law. It’s a sign of David’s humanity that both are true. And don’t miss what this means – part of the trouble he’s in is self-inflicted. Some pits in life are dug for us and some pits we dig ourselves. David shows that we can ask for God’s deliverance from both. What a merciful and loving God!]
- People seek to destroy him and delight in his hurt.
- Others accuse him (Aha! Aha!).
This section is really a sea change in the tone of the Psalm, isn’t it? What was a happy recounting of triumph in God is now a description of the worst of times. David’s life is suddenly just about as bad as life can be. There is no hope and no obvious means of deliverance. He’s back in the miry clay that God delivered him out of before.
In the midst of these trials, however, he continues to pray. He asks for deliverance, he asks for God’s judgment on those who afflict him, he asks for God’s blessing on those who seek God and who love God’s salvation. He asks that those same people praise God (presumably with the same song that God put in David’s heart in verse 3). He claims the thoughts of God for himself in the midst of his need and asks for God to be his help and deliverer.
David also prays twice for something else – that God will act quickly (vss 13 & 17). Remember how he began the Psalm? He said he waited patiently for God and God delivered him. So he knows how to wait. He has the faith to wait. But he’d really rather not. “I can wait God, but O Lord, make haste to help me! Do not delay, O my God!” It’s another sign of David’s humanity and how we think too, isn’t it? And David lets us know it’s okay to pray this way. We ultimately have to wait on God and trust His timing, but there’s nothing wrong with asking God to make that time short. “I waited patiently for the Lord, but please don’t make me do it again!”
All in all, this last section of the Psalm is worlds apart from the first 10 verses. And there’s not much here that seems to back up the confidence in God that David expressed at the start. It’s the truth of those first 10 verses, however, that David rehearses to himself in order to survive his present distress.
Summary – Walk by Faith
So how do we put this all together? What do we take away from such a disparate Psalm? How do we combine the halves such that they form a message as a whole that speaks to our lives? One way that seems to make sense is to look at the Psalm in light of how Paul tells us to walk (II Cor 5:7). We’re to walk by faith and not by sight, right? With that in mind, we can look at verses 1-10 and say that’s walking by faith. If we sum up what those verses say about God, it’s faith, and David’s response is a description of walking by that faith. It’s living based on what we know to be true. The last six verses – verses 12-17 – are sight. They describe what we see around us. They describe the sometimes unjustifiable and unexplainable difficulties of life that threaten to overwhelm us. When we put the two sides of the Psalm together, what it teaches us is we have to walk by the truths of verses 1-10 even when we’re in the midst of verses 12-17. We must walk by faith and not by sight.
Said another way, we must walk by what we know, not what we see. We need to THINK. The life we see screams out that God doesn’t care, isn’t around, isn’t in control, doesn’t exist, can’t possibly love us, and can’t possibly justify all the carnage (and if we walk by that sight, we lose perspective and hope just as David says he does when he focuses on his iniquities – vs 12). What we know, however, is that God is awesome and transcendent; that His wonders and thoughts toward us are too numerous to count; that He will not restrain His mercy from us and that his steadfast love and faithfulness will ever preserve us. And we know this is true because He REDEEMED us. You see, the deliverance that David celebrates, and which informs everything else he says about God in the Psalm (and which undergirds the faith he expresses), isn’t to be compared with our deliverance. David was delivered from a specific trial; we’re delivered from eternal separation from God.
Our redemption should cause us to praise, to obey, to testify, just like David. And it should inform how we see the world and its trials and temptations. Our God redeemed us. He justified us such that we can enter God’s throne room boldly, knowing that we DESERVE to be there because our penalty has been fully paid. But even more, we now get to call the Judge of the world ‘Father’ because not only have we been justified but we’ve been adopted into the Judge’s family. That’s what we know and that’s what informs our perspective on a life that oftentimes is mysteriously hard. When we walk based on what we know, we’re able to say with David, “Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust” (vs 4) regardless of the circumstances around us.
That’s why verse 4 is the key verse of the text. It summarizes what it means to walk by faith. We have to think; we have to remember; and we have to hold on to what we know such that we’re not overwhelmed by what we see. Walking by faith and not by sight means we claim the truth of verse 4 even when the truth of verse 4 is nowhere evident or provable in our life.