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November 28/29, 2015

'How Long, O Lord?'

Jason Meyer | Psalms 13:1-6

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
     How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
     and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
     light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
     lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
     my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
     because he has dealt bountifully with me.—Psalm 13


It’s the most wonderful time of the year … it’s the hap-happiest season of all. That is what we hear sung this holiday season. For many of you I have personally talked to—it is not the happiest season—it is the hardest season of all. Christmas is a reminder of all that you have lost. For some of you it will be the first Christmas without someone special in your life. The loss of a child; loss of a spouse to death or divorce For others it is a yearly reminder—a reminder of all that you once had—or a reminder of all that is broken in your family.

For others—those songs are hard to sing because all the glitter of Christmas can get lost in the dark despair of the world—the Paris bombings and the threat of ISIS, the refugee crisis. I had an even harder time with what just happened right here in Minneapolis. Peaceful protestors—declaring the message that “Black Lives Matter” had some despicable white supremacists send them the opposite message shot back at them in hateful lead. Five protestors shot and wounded.

Maybe we need stronger songs calling for Christmas justice—like “I Heard the Bells.”

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this hymn in 1864—during the American Civil War. This sense of despair makes more sense given that context. Stanzas four and five are usually omitted from hymnals.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Psalm 13 is also a fitting psalm for this Christmas season of pain, suffering, and dark despair that makes us cry out “How Long?”

Outline and Main Point
Psalm 13 has three stanzas—and thus this sermon has three points. Imagine entering into a dark room with a dimmer switch. The three points are like settings on the switch—moving from dimmest to brightest. It is a 3-D dimmer switch:

  1. Desertion (vv. 1–2)
  2. Desperation (v. 3–4)
  3. Declaration (v. 5–6)

Let me alert you at the outset to a pattern you will see as part of the three settings on this dimmer switch. The repetitive patterns are striking in this psalm. The lowest setting of the switch (point 1) has four “how long” questions; the middle setting of the switch (point 2) has three desperate pleas and three reasons for them, the highest setting of the switch (point 3) has three confident declarations.

Main Point: When these three points come together in the whole of Psalm 13, one main point shines forth: The future is so sure we can sing about it now because of God’s steadfast love.

1. Desertion (vv. 1–2)

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

The note of darkness dominates these two verses. Look at how David feels: (1) forgotten [forget me forever], (2) deserted [hide your face from me], (3) confused [take counsel in my soul—NIV wrestle with my inward thoughts], (4) sorrow in my heart, (5) enemies have the upper hand [my enemy exalted over me]—David feels abandoned, forsaken, and forgotten. In the thick of the battle, it looks like the bad guys are winning. The earthly king has lost sight of the heavenly King. He feels totally on his own and he wonders how long that will last.

Suffering makes God appear to be absent—it presents you with a feeling you can’t shake that God has forgotten you—even hidden his face from you! “How long” is the language of agony and searing pain.

Try to feel the weight of these words. People can withstand heavy amounts of suffering in a short amount of time. It is far more draining and difficult and disorienting when suffering is not a sprint, but a marathon. It wears you down. You keep expecting it to end and it just keeps going.

Which of the following scenarios would be harder? First, someone comes to you at the gym and asks you to hold two really heavy dumbbells for five minutes. Second, someone comes to you and asks you to hold their glass of water for five years? The longer you endure something the harder it gets to hold on.

Darkness dominates these two verses so much that you might fail to notice that it is not completely dark—the dimmer switch is turned on a little bit. It seems small at first glance (almost unnoticeable), but everyone who has ever had a nightlight knows that a little light can make a big difference in a dark room.

The little beam of light is found in the question “how long?” That question does not cast doubt on the truth of something—the question mark is not on the truth but on the timing of it. “How long will you hide your face from me” implies that it will come to an end and then David will see God’s face again. The question is not a matter of “if,” but “when.” 

It is like kids in a car going on vacation. You told the kids that you are going to Great Wolf Lodge in the Wisconsin Dells. The Waterpark, Wolfie waffles, the whole nine yards. There is not a doubt in their mind that you will get there, but the question is, “How long until we are there?” “How much longer?”

David’s question of “how long” he would have to wait expects an answer because David himself has just told all of us that God “does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Psalm 9:12).

If the room has a dimmer switch, the second point begins to brighten the room just a little as David moves from the cry of desertion to the clarion call of petition.

2. Desperation (vv. 3–4)

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

David makes three desperate pleas in prayer: (1) consider, (2) answer, and (3) light up my eyes. The three requests are connected to three reasons: (1) David’s life is at stake, (2) the enemies will win, (3) God will not be praised.

In the previous point (verses 1–2), the psalmist took stock of what he could see. David tries to look around in the dark and he can’t see anything. He says you have forgotten me and you are hidden from me. He looks inside and sees darkness there too: “counsel or wrestling in my soul,” and “sorrow in my heart.”

This second point is the watershed moment—it is like the continental divide—up to this point all the water runs one way—from this point on—all the water runs the other way.

Don’t look at this moment as a heroic act of faith. How do you imagine this moment in your mind’s eye? Do you see David as dignified and calm, cool, and collected (Let us pray, “God, thou art a great God and eminently worthy of all the trust of every creature great and small.”)

David is frantically waving his arms and sending up his flare and saying, “Hey—look over here. Look at what is going over here in this dark spot. I am suffocating here. If you don’t intervene soon—I am going to take a dirt nap—I am a dead man. Everything in my life has been stripped down to one hope: you! It is a moment of such sheer honesty: “When pain and suffering come upon us, we finally see not only that we are not in control of our lives, but that we never were” (Tim Keller).

Do you see? Prayer is not a self-righteous achievement or accomplishment—it is sheer survival. It is certainly not survival of the fittest—it is the survival of the weakest. It is just falling forward. It is saying, “I can’t carry this anymore—it is crushing me.”

David knows what is at stake if he fumbles the ball. If you don’t take this ball, they will win, I will lose (along with your people) and they will have something to sing about and we won’t (worship won’t happen—false worship will). He can pray this way because he knows that the king’s enemies are in fact God’s enemies.

Notice there is not a doubt in David’s mind that God can do what he is asking him to do. David’s prayer sounds the note of the tuning fork of middle C once again: God is King. Nothing is too difficult for him. No one can oppose him once he intervenes. He has opponents, but no rivals.

But he says more. David has confidence in prayer based on what God has pledged to do for David—not what David has pledged to do for God. “O LORD my God” says two wonderful things—God is the covenant God (personal name) and David confesses God as “my God.”

Do you see the significance of this prayer? David is asking God to give the blessings that God had already promised. He already hints at this when he addresses God by his covenant name (O LORD) and personally confesses him (my God). This covenant name is what God revealed to Moses. This God is the faithful God.

Because of who you are and what you have promised—consider me and my situation. Answer my prayer. Light up my eyes. The eyes fill up with light when the light of his face shines on us (Numbers 6:24–26).

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Dear friends, the promises of God give us something to fall upon. You don’t have to keep it all together—you can fall on God—take refuge in him—and fall apart in the security of his strength. These promises are so precious—we all need to be like squirrels storing up nuts for the winter. The cold winter winds of crisis will come—what will you draw upon in suffering and sorrow?

One of the things I used to love about going for walks in the woods was finding the deer trails. The deer will beat a path through the woods and the more they ran it the smoother and clearer it became. Even in the darkness, the well worn path is familiar. They know it by heart even in the dark. Beat a path through the Scriptures until it is well worn, familiar, and in the panic of darkness—you know it by heart even in the dark.

Now we reach the point where the dimmer switch is cranked all the way up as we come to three confident declarations.

3. Declaration (vv. 5–6)

But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

One declaration is what David has done—it was true in the past and it is still true. Don’t doubt in the dark what you have seen in the light. David declares that he has trusted in God’s faithful, steadfast, never failing, love. Do you see how this point fits with the watershed moment of the second point? David draws upon not just a promise like Numbers 6:24–26 of what God will do, but the foundational promise of who God is (Exodus 34:6).

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness

In the Old Testament, this was the foundational, fundamental, unshakable declaration. It used to be common to see someone at a football game with Rainbow hair holding up a banner that said “John 3:16.” You could look it up and read: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believed in him would not perish but have everlasting life.” Someone at a football game in Old Testament times would have held up a banner that read “Exodus 34:6.” That is what David is doing.

I love how words like “wrestle” and “sorrow” give way to “trust, rejoice, and sing.” Isn’t that amazing? David moved from crying out to singing out. This singing seems surprising—but it just testifies to how fully David has let the promises of God define his future—rather than his circumstances. The future is so sure we can sing about it now because of God’s steadfast love.

That is the very point that cannot be missed here. David’s circumstances haven’t changed at all. The child that is scared of the dark doesn’t really need the light on—they are not scared of the dark as much as they are scared of being alone in the dark. When the parent snuggles up with them in bed—they are now calm again. God’s presence is what we need—not our circumstances to change.

Transition: How has God answered this need—how has he come to us?

Promise: Old Testament

The Israelites of old were walking in darkness. God had not spoken for hundreds of years. Isaiah 9 had promised that a people walking in darkness would have a great light shine on them (v. 2).

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.

What is this light? What was God going to do?

He was going to send a Messiah. The Messiah would be born. They were looking for a child. One of the great Christmas texts says that The Messiah would be Immanuel—God with us (Isaiah 7:14). When God sent him—it would be the fulfillment of the royal Son that He promised to king David (Isaiah 9:6–7).

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon[d] his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called[e]
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Fulfillment: First Advent

The God who abounded in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6) came as a glorious light in the darkness. We have seen his glory—the word of God came and tabernacle among us—full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Matthew says that he is the fulfillment—the people walking in darkness have seen a great light (Matthew 2). He came so that we would have God’s presence with us. Jesus came to fulfill that promise so perfectly that it became his very name, Immanuel, "God with us" (Matthew 1:23). He came as the king promised to David—great David’s greater Son—a sovereign king in control of all things. There will be no end to his reign.

Jesus did not learn about suffering the way that God knows everything about everything. He learned it by experience. He did not come to earth and sit on a throne. He came and was born in the utter weakness of a baby, and in the degradation of a manger. People look at manger scenes or nativity scenes and it looks tranquil. Have you ever seen a live manger scene or smelled one? Have you read the rest of the story about the way he was hunted down by Herod?

Have you read the rest of his life? No room in the inn at birth, no place to lay his head in life. He was rejected and despised. He did not dwell with us in a way that kept a safe distance from all our sorrow and pain and shame. He took it all on himself. He was a man of sorrows. He was like one that people hid their faces from. He even knew the pain of being forsaken by his Father on the cross as he was abandoned by all of his friends and died alone on the cross, swallowing up the wrath of God, crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

The worst form of suffering is to lose all love and affection—to be completely abandoned and forsaken. But imagine something far worse—what about losing an eternal, perfect love? Imagine losing something you always had. My grandma talked about the terrible pain in her heart of being without someone that had been by her side for 70 years—suddenly and abruptly that stopped. Imagine not 70 years, but ages of ages in eternity past—unbroken for endless ages—and then suddenly broken in an instant and replaced by untold agony. This is ultimate suffering.

We talk about how you don’t know that God is all you need until God is all you have—he is the only comfort in suffering when all other comforts are taken away—but Jesus did not even have that—all comforts were stripped away until there was nothing left but wrath. Without God, without comfort, without love, without grace, without mercy—complete agony, wrath, condemnation, judgment—the unmixed, undiluted cup of wrath emptied to the dregs.

It is true that we are called to trust the sovereignty of God in suffering. He does rule and reign. He is in control. But the sovereignty of God must always be connected to the suffering of God. Dear friends, the main reason we insist that God can be trusted in the midst of suffering is that God has firsthand experience with suffering (Tim Keller, Suffering). It takes away the most glaring criticism that could be leveled at God—you don’t understand what it is like to suffer—your sovereignty over suffering is carried out in a cruel, uninformed, emotionally detached way. In Jesus, we have a God who can sympathize with us in our weakness.

But because God is sovereign, his love stands out all the more because he was not forced to take on suffering. It did not catch him unawares—he was not powerless to prevent it. He chose it freely and voluntarily. Why? The more you love someone, the more you are drawn to take on that person’s grief and pain. It becomes your own. Jesus carried our sorrows and our pain—so undeserved—and made it his own. Why? Love! God so loved the world that he send his one and only Son to save the world. As all the Christmas lights start to go up, remember this: Jesus, the very light of the world turns out to be God’s very love for the world.


How Long? Will Not Be Answered Until the Second Advent

Jesus’ coming did not fully answer the question, “how long?” It still continues today. In fact, it may surprise you that the question still sounds out as a haunting melody until the very end of the Bible. Listen to the last book of the Bible in Revelation 6:9–10.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

The decisive answer to this question comes at something called the final judgment—when all people who have ever lived ‘great and small’ will stand before the throne with the books opened and ever person judged with complete justice. And this will be perfect justice as the perfect answer to that question. All other justice that is brought forth exists to punish evil, but it cannot undo evil. This judgment is not just the punishment of evil, but the eradication of evil. Perfect justice comes only with the second advent of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the dawning of the new heavens and new earth—behold I make all things new.” Listen to the last words of the Bible in Revelation 22:12–13, 20.

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”… He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The message of Psalm 13 is the message of the whole Bible: The future is so sure we can sing about it now because Jesus is coming soon.

Sermon Discission Questions


Psalm 13 has three stanzas; our sermon has three points:

  1. Desertion (vv. 1–2)
  2. Desperation (vv. 3–4)
  3. Declaration (vv. 5–6)

Main Point: The future is so sure we can sing about it now because of God’s steadfast love. 

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the main point of Psalm 13? What is the outline? How does the main point bring the points of the outline together?
  2. How does Psalm 13 put on display the importance of knowing and trusting the promises of God?
  3. How did God answer the “How Long” question with Jesus’ first coming? How will the question be answered at the second coming?

Application Questions

  1. What is hard for you this holiday season? Where does a cry for justice rise up in your heart? Which part of the “How Long” question is hardest and heaviest for you?
  2. How has God answered the “How Long” question through Jesus in your life? How do the promises of God play a part in your daily fight of faith?

Prayer Focus
Pray for a grace to know and trust the promises of God in deeper, fuller measure even as we cry out “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”