Observe: Psalm 41 focuses on two evils: sickness and treacherous friends. Verses 1 – 3 tell us that blessings belong to those who consider the poor (weak, helpless). A lament is expressed in verses 4 – 9 where a sinner pleads for mercy against evil-speaking enemies (vs. 4 – 6) and also experiences whispers and betrayal in verses 7 – 9. A plea for mercy and praise to the Lord is given in verses 10 – 13.
Interpret and Application: David, though obviously sick, still trusted God to strengthen and sustain him. When his enemies came to “visit” him, they whispered together, made up lies and slandered him throughout the land when they left. They couldn’t wait for him to die! But as bad as that was, to have one of his closest friends also turn against him and wish him ill…well, that must have hurt deeply! I’m sure he felt very forlorn at that moment. It is interesting to note that in John 13:18 Jesus quoted this psalm by saying: “He who eats bread with me has lifted up his heel against me.” He was, of course, referring to Judas. However, Jesus did not include the words “in whom I trusted” (which David did) because Christ did not trust Judas as He knew He would be betrayed by him, even though Jesus made Judas the treasurer among the disciples. How often have we felt betrayed by a friend, let alone an enemy? It is rather devastating, but we know that those who do this to us will never triumph over us because God upholds us and sets us up in His presence (verse 12) and that is a comforting thought! His great mercy is unfathomable. The end of this psalm also marks the end of the first book in the psalms. A final praise to God and a hearty “amen” assure us that He is on His throne from everlasting to everlasting. Hallelujah!
Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you that you are always there to strengthen and sustain us, even in our weakness. We are so grateful for your unending mercy. Help us to praise and glorify you, no matter the circumstances…even if those closest to us turn on us. You alone are our strength and song. Amen.
Song: Psalm 41
True Worship - by Richard Neufeld
This Psalm is designated for the leader of the choir from David likely around his coronation as king of Israel. The initial three verses are a sort of anecdotal praise; David lays out his place before God, one of waiting, and then God honors his patience and answers his prayers. He lifts David up, inspiring him to great praise and trust while calling others to emulate him. Verses four and five are high praise which point to the overall goodness of God and the blessings that cover those who run to Him. The following three verses show David’s understanding of true worship, and then a series of supplications: my troubles are too many to count, my sins overwhelm me, and I am utterly sinking!
Though David is most likely king at the time of the composition of this Psalm, he concludes that he is poor and needy whose only help is the Lord.
It is in verses six to eight in which David cuts to the heart of true worship before God:
6Sacrifice and offering you did not desire--
but my ears you have opened--
burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
7 Then I said, “Here I am, I have come--
it is written about me in the scroll.
8 I desire to do your will, my God;
your law is within my heart.”
Obviously at this point in history, God did require sacrifices from His people, but it wasn’t anything magical in the properties of slain bulls or pigeons that pleased Him. Rather, it was obedience and the good pleasure of right living with God through faith that He desired. He wanted His people to respond to His love with open hearts, minds, and ears. Sacrifice was a means to an end, that God might dwell amongst His people and His people might dwell in the presence of their God, enjoying Him in the land they have been given.
It other words, it wasn’t the doing that pleased God; quite the opposite. He regularly rebuked and scolded those who just went through the motions on any given day yet profaned His name with their actions in other places. He detested those who deliberately forgot who He was and instead treated Him as a pagan god who would distribute blessings in exchange for x number of animals slaughtered; those who lived double lives, doing whatever they please so long as they perform enough sacrifices and rituals.
David, in all his inspiration, reveals the heart of true worship: give the Lord your heart and the rest will follow. Put Him first and tear down whatever idols are in the way. Honour Him in the little things, and that will change your being; it is from there that your doing will be transformed into good and holy actions overflowing from a heart in love with its creator! Romans 12:1 sums it up nicely, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”
Are there ways in which you go through the motions of your faith? Is your prayer life dull and your Bible boring you to death? You may very well have left the fire unattended in your heart. There are warm coals underneath all that ash, but it’ll take some work to restore it to any useful size. Faith that is not active will atrophy. Think about it like going to the gym: it takes 6 weeks to build muscle but only around 3 to lose that which you’ve gained. Whatever’s worth having is worth working for, and your life before God is no exception!
Take a moment to examine exactly how you live your life – is there any joy in doing what Christ has commanded, or is it a strict and unappealing list of rules? What percentage of your day-to-day is spent trying to look at people like Christ would, or being open to that which He might be asking you to do in any given moment? Is the Bible in your room a source of nourishment, even if it’s a challenge, or are its pages utterly foreign? Is your relationship with Christ a part of your personality and weekly schedule or is it you?
It’s helpful to remember that actions alone don’t make the Christian. In fact, that way of living follows an incredibly dangerous pattern we’ve already seen played out over and over again in scripture. It’s also helpful to know that your doing can only please God so long as it comes from a transformed being. This is not laid out between strict lines and takes prayer and time to recognize; just remember that it’s not doing anyone any favours to simply go through the motions – or, as Christ puts it in Matt. 5:8 “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
I don’t write this as a comprehensive guide to re-centering one’s life on Christ, only as a check for myself and others. It is all too easy to fall into a rhythm of action that can utterly exclude our hearts. King David tells us what true worship is and that truth echoes all over scripture – The Lord doesn’t require empty sacrifice; but He has given us open ears. Let’s use what He has given us not only for our own edification, but for the blessing of those around us.
Song: Good and Gracious King - by City Alight
Observe: David is suffering. He guards his words around the wicked, but finally chooses silence -- not golden, but a burning fire of intense inner turmoil. (1-3) What can he do?
He prays and ponders the terrible brevity of life: O LORD, make me know my end, and the measure of my days, let me know how fleeting I am…all mankind is a mere breath (4,5). He wants to know not how long his life is, but how to live in this brief time: You have made my days a few handbreadths (5), the shortest measure of length in ancient Israel.
There are echoes of Ecclesiastes: … man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather (6). God is chastening him (10,11), and he accepts His correction humbly. As in many laments, he recognizes My hope is in You (7). A sojourner (temporary resident), he knows only God can deliver him from the desolation that often accompanies a sensitive soul’s wrongdoing.
Finally, in tears, the sojourner humbly implores God to turn away His angry gaze so that he can find joy again.
Interpret: David possibly wrote this psalm in his later years, given his observations on life and its brevity.
Truly Lenten, Psalm 39 laments the shortness of life, a realistic view that demands meditation. It is also oddly relevant to the pandemic. Two years have sped into eternity, amazingly. What happened to them? And in this terrible war, lives are invaded by death, loss, trauma, injury. The wicked are all around, and where is help?
In more personally painful situations, we recognize 1) life is short, 2) we are fragile, and 3) God is our only hope, an ever-present help in time of trouble.(Ps. 46:1). We can’t take care of ourselves without Him, and mercifully He knows and deeply loves His shredded images of Himself.
Apply: Meditating on the shortness of life can bring panic or acceptance.
Once one is over 40, each year seemingly races by, calendar pages flipping relentlessly. Why this panic? A “mere breath”, we’re not as significant as we think we are. Perhaps we have thrown away God’s good gifts, wasting our lives. Perhaps we have many regrets, little time to make good with those we have wronged, or to reconcile with those estranged from us, old issues we haven’t dealt with because we lack the humility to admit to being wrong.
Acceptance? David’s laments help us to recognize ourselves, our confusions, sins, joys, hopes; God gives opportunities to accept His grace. We pray daily for His presence, wisdom, and Spirit-life, because He delights to give good things to those who ask. As we read beyond ourselves and into the mind of God via His Spirit’s groans, we accept this realistic view of life. It may at times be nasty, brutish, and short, but in quietly following the Lord, it can become merciful, kind, forgiving … alas, still short!
Welcomed into God’s heart, we find He has fulfilled His plans for us, all along – plans for your good and not for your harm, to give you a future and a hope. (Jer. 29:11)
And then, we can’t keep silent – so we share this Good News!
Ask: When God seems absent, what should I do? Who do I talk to? Do I keep my troubles to myself -- or just complain?
Pray: O Lord, I have sought You, called upon You and prayed to You. And I found You because You didn’t hide Yourself from me in my need. My hope is always in You, maker of hope, giver of hope, Hope itself. Praise be to Thee, O God!
Sing Psalm 39: Psalms Project Show Me My Life’s End
In 2023, each week's blog is a follow-up reflection written by the preceding Sunday’s preacher to dig deeper into the sermon topic and explore engaging discussion questions.