Psalm 39 speaks to those times when we’d like God to just leave us alone.
I like to recite a psalm in my morning prayers. Recently that brought me to Psalm 39. In the past I have tended to read it and move on. It seemed to be just another lament psalm like so many others in the psalter, and not a very memorable one at that.
This particular morning I was reciting it from a translation I acquired a few years ago.* The translator gave the psalm a different cast from other translations I have used.
Lament psalms form a large proportion of the psalter. Most of them bemoan the seeming absence of God from the psalmist’s life or God’s delay in coming to the psalmist’s assistance in his need. The question is: Where is God when I need him?
Psalm 39 is a lament psalm too. But instead of lamenting God’s absence or God’s procrastination, the psalmist seems to be lamenting God’s too overwhelming presence in his life. It’s as if the psalmist is experiencing too much of God. He wants some relief.
Stop tormenting me;
You strike and I grow weak.
You rebuke us for our sin,
eat up our riches like a moth:
we are but a breath. (Psalm 39:11-12)
Now sometimes we can feel this way because we are feeling especially guilty. The searching eye of God seems to be exploring every dark part of our personality and behavior. We squirm.
But additional words in the psalm make me feel as if there is more to the psalmist’s torment:
Stop looking so hard at me,
allow me a little joy
before I am no more. (Psalm 39:14)
Psalm 139 seems to be expressing a similar feeling when it says:
Where can I hide from you?
How can I escape your presence? (Psalm 139:7)
Both psalms speak to me about those times when we feel God is too much in our face. They talk about those times when we experience God as our divine helicopter parent. God hovers over and around and within us. We’re not sure we like it.
I think this language talks about more than just that uncomfortable feeling when our sense of sin makes us feel so unworthy in God’s presence. God loves us, deeply and profoundly. In his love he wants the very best for us and the very best out of us (as every caring parent wants for his or her child). He wants to see his creative intention for each one of us fulfilled to the fullest. Only that will give us the greatest happiness.
But we are only too happy to settle for second best. We accept mediocrity as the best we can produce because aiming for the very best is going to be just too much hard work or will require us to tackle some truly scary challenges. Life may become very tumultuous and upsetting in the process. We are glad to settle for something a little less demanding.
I’ve come to believe, however, that God likes to challenge our compromises. At least that has been my experience at times. The more he does, the more we may come to feel that we would like God to back off. As the psalmist says, “Allow me a little joy before I am no more.”
But God seems determined not to let us become comfortable with anything less than the very best he has created for us. So he continues to challenge us throughout our spiritual journey.
This is not the only way God relates to us, nor does it express the totality of our Christian experience. But I think it is important to acknowledge that this is one aspect of our spiritual journey. For that reason, there will be times when we, like the psalmist, want to say to God, “Please, just leave me alone.”
John Calvin once described the psalms as providing an anatomy of all parts of the soul.** As we immerse ourselves into the psalms, we find indeed the whole range of our experiences with God reflected in its lyrics. That’s why, I think, believers so love them.
* The translation of the Psalms I was reading is The Psalter: A faithful and inclusive rendering from the Hebrew into contemporary English, compiled by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. Published by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Liturgy Training Publications, 1994. It has not received an imprimatur for use in Roman Catholic services, but I still find it a thought-provoking translation.
** A short summary of Calvin’s view on the psalms can be found in an unfinished article titled “John Calvin and the Wonder of the Psalms,” by the Rev. Angus Stewart of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.