I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: 2 Peter, Psalm 40, Ecclesiastes 9.
In addition to the devotional reading I have been recording here, I have been working through large stretches of the Old Testament in my second Old Testament survey class, which covers everything after Job in your English Bible—the Psalms, the Wisdom literature, and all the Prophets. To cover all that ground in a single semester requires moving quickly—so quickly that I both skip over details I might otherwise be attentive to, and pick up on overarching themes I might otherwise miss. This is particularly evident in the Psalms, and having just gone through them at a high pace makes the flow and the context of each individual Psalm more apparent as I come to them for the details again in my ordinary devotional reading. Reading large chunks and then coming back through the same section more slowly is such a helpful practice that I expect I shall try to keep it up.
Coming to Psalm 40, I am right in the middle of the Psalms of David—a whole stretch focusing on1 David’s life and circumstances. Reading this particular Psalm on its own is illuminating in its own ways, of course. It is easy to come away with a sense of the joy of salvation from the exultant verses here. The poem leaps from one triumphant note to another, rejoicing in how Yahweh delivers his people and his anointed one. Hallelujah to that!
The Psalm’s meaning is much, much richer when situated in the broader context of the book, though. When we turn back a single song and look at Psalm 39, we see that not every moment is so rosy and joyful. As I noted in my last post, the prayer in Psalm 39 is bold and leans hard on God— because David needed God profoundly. He needed salvation from his sins; he recognized the brevity of his own life and especially its fragility before the almighty maker of heaven and earth;2 he knew that only Yahweh could accomplish what he needed. The (Spirit-inspired!) editor of the Psalms took these two poems on David’s life and set them next to each other to teach us something about the contours of a life devoted to Yahweh. Not every moment is either sorrowful or rejoicing. More often, each one leads into the other as the seasons of our life ebb and flow.
This ebb and flow is good. We see the beauty of our salvation the more clearly because it is set against the backdrop of our great need for salvation. All too often, we recognize that need only because we have been forced to by our circumstances—by the travails of human life that range from parenting a teething toddler to staring death full in its cancerous face (and we ought not make little or too much of either, different scales though they be). We sometimes find the joy of our salvation sweeter and more savory when we have wrestled through the pain of loss and the wrestling with God that ensues. We sometimes treasure God’s answer more when has required us to wait for it—to wait for him.
This is not to say that every trial is aimed at this end. It is to say that the contrast between Psalms 39 and 40 helps us see that sometimes our trials work out to deepen our joy in salvation. That in turn helps us hold on to God all the more in the face of those trials, because it stands as one more picture of his goodness and wisdom, and thus of his trustworthiness.