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Thoughts on Psalms

Still no CT scan result and I’ve tried calling the doctors three times today. So, lots of thoughts on the psalms instead. Here goes…!

Just a few hours after I was told I probably had cancer I was due to lead some songs at a small Christmas event for parents from my children’s school. I wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind for that, so I called the local vicar to make my apologies. I was really grateful that he changed the plans and asked everyone that was attending to come and pray for me and my wife instead.

Strangely, two parents said that they felt God had told them that I needed to read Psalm 91.

Now, I always feel slightly sceptical when people say they’ve heard from God, because I’ve seen that sort of talk badly abused, so I took it with a pinch of salt. But, I listened and went home to read the psalm and it gave me something that I desperately needed… hope. So I read it again and again and I reflected/meditated upon the words until, like a modern-day monk, I’d managed to memorise them.

The following weeks were a bit weird because chunks of this psalm kept coming to me from many different places: through a card from an old boss; from a text message; through a painting I’d bought not realising the artist had weaved the words of the psalm into part of the drawing; through a random talk that I was listening to from a motivational speaker; through a song written by an old friend; and in a book my wife was reading (not the Bible!). I’d never really noticed this psalm before, so it was a bit spooky. Is this how God speaks?!

Sidenote: Psalms is a collection of 150 Hebrew poems that pre-date Christianity (written more than 2,500 years ago). They form one of 66 books in the ‘library’ known as the Holy Bible and, for generations, it has been the go to place for people asking questions like “God, where are you?” (e.g. Psalm 10) and “God, why have you abandoned me?” (e.g. Psalm 22 – which Jesus famously cries from the cross). Click here for a good short film if you want to know more about them. 

I confess that whenever I’ve faced one of life’s big challenges I’ve found myself asking where God is and I’ve often wondered why a loving God would let us suffer and – dare I say it? – I sometimes question whether God is real or whether I’ve just imagined the whole thing. I find it slightly frustrating that the world is set up in such a way that we cannot prove or disprove God’s existence. But, I guess that’s the whole point of faith – “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”.

Over the past months life has been especially tough at times and I’ve needed God to be real and for the Bible to be true. I just cannot believe that we’re programmed to die and that’s it. Surely there must be more to life and there’s something beyond? I can understand existence, but I just can’t get my head around the idea of not existing. Where do we go when it’s all over? I guess that’s a subject for another blog! Back to the psalms….

I’ve done a fair amount of ‘wrestling’ with God recently and I take comfort in the fact that the Bible contains many stories of men and women who’ve done the same. Israel, for example, is named after a man who was called Israel because he ‘wrestled with God’. The concept of wrestling is about struggling, grappling and trying to hold someone or something down. It can be physical, but  psychological too. Here’s an example of from Psalm 13 (imagine saying it in exasperation):

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

We all face enemies and battles in this life. Sadly this seems to be guaranteed. Enemies aren’t necessarily people (mine has been cancer) and battles aren’t necessarily physical (mine has also been emotional). But, returning to Psalm 91, I went on to learn that it is known as the Soldiers’ Psalm, because many soldiers in World War I went onto the battlefield with a copy of this psalm in their pockets.

As you read the Psalm you might wonder, as I did, what good it did for the soldiers in World War I. My mind went straight to the question of ‘what about all of those young guys who trusted in these words and died?’ This thought really messed with my mind and made me wonder if I could really trust it and whether I could trust all the coincidences that led me to it. Suddenly, all of the comfort I felt before was gone.

But then I learned something else about Psalm 91 which I think makes it a particularly important part of the Bible….

The Devil (or Lucifer, Satan, the Prince of Darkness, the enemy – whatever he’s called) isn’t given much ‘air time’ in the 66 books and 1,189 chapters of the Bible. In fact, he speaks on just three occasions: first in the story about the ‘fall of man’ (when Eve is tempted to eat the forbidden fruit); second in the story of the suffering man called Job; and third when Jesus is in the wilderness and without food for 40 days. From these three occasions we learn that the Devil is not an angry little man dressed in a red suit with a pointed tail and a three-pronged fork. Rather, we learn that the Devil is the thing that plays tricks with our minds by distracting us from what is good and true and he (or it) can appear in different forms, physically and in our minds (check out C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters for a great book about that).

The significance here is that, in his dialogue with Jesus, the Devil makes a direct reference to Psalm 91.

Then the devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.
“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written [Psalm 91]:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

But, the Devil subtly misquotes the psalm by missing a line. What Psalm 91 actually says is:

“He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

Does that missing line make a difference? Without it I think the passage loses its full sense of comfort.  I find it interesting that this story of Jesus’ 40-day physical and psychological battle in the desert ends with angels moving in to attend him – guarding him in all his ways.

Whether you believe in God and the Devil or not, most will agree that there are things in this world that play tricks on our mind. Things that can take us to dark and terrible places and convince us that lies are truth. Reflecting on all of this I realised that, by thinking about what Psalm 91 meant to soldiers in World War I, I had allowed myself to be taken from a place of comfort in the psalm to a place of fear instead.

Around this time my wife grounded me with a pertinent question: “Has God ever failed you?” My answer was “No”. Since the age of 19 I have asked God for help on many occasions and, while his help has rarely come in the ways I had asked or expected, it has come. I have been given no real reason to doubt this and it is only when I try to put myself in the shoes of others or in hypothetical situations that I find that belief is rocked.

One example of this involves a dear friend (and hero) of mine who is suffering from the cruellest of illnesses – Motor Neurone Disease. I’ve prayed with him many times and I’ve come away from visits with him feeling so frustrated at God for not healing him. To make things worse, he has a young family too. I’ve found myself doubting God because of his terrible situation.

On a recent visit I asked my friend “How can you believe in a loving God and go through such suffering?” his answer (via a computer operated by his eyes) was that he trusts that God has allowed this to happen to him for a reason. Certainly he has inspired and helped so many people because of his illness. I’m frequently astonished that his faith in God has held up through his battle and those of us that know and love him are in awe of his positivity – a miracle in itself. Should I doubt God because of the suffering of my friend? Well, he doesn’t seem to think that God has failed him, so maybe I shouldn’t either. Perspective is important.

In a similar way, thinking again about Psalm 91 and the horrors of World War I, there are many inspiring and positive stories to be found, like the young man that was shot and saved by his Bible.

It’s so important to look for the positive things among the struggles and horrors of life. As hard as that is sometimes, they are there to be discovered.

One final quick story…

At one of my early hospital appointments my blood pressure was considered dangerously high. I asked the nurse if she would take it again in a few minutes and she gave me a moment while I meditated on that great Psalm 91 promise “I will be with him in trouble”. I was learning to trust in these words in the face of distraction. My blood pressure dropped right down and the nurse asked me what I’d done to achieve that! I rekon most of our battles in life are won and lost in our heads.

We’re told in the Bible that God’s love is free and open to everyone. So, when you’re in trouble, try asking God for help. Try ‘wrestling’ with Him (i.e. tell God exactly how you feel). But be sure to make time to listen and be on the look out for an answer. You probably won’t hear a booming voice.

I cried to God for help in a seemingly hopeless situation and a bunch of ‘coincidences’ led me to Psalm 91 – a song written 2,500 years ago (that sounds weird, I know!). Sure, that won’t be the answer for everyone, but it was exactly what I needed.

I hope you find comfort in the psalms. I’ll finish by sharing an extract from my wife’s favourite, Psalm 121:

I look up to the mountains; does my strength come from mountains? 
No, my strength comes from God, who made heaven, and earth, and mountains. 
He won’t let you stumble, your Guardian God won’t fall asleep.

6 Comments

  1. John Richards

    Wil – Barry (a.k.a. BFun!) passed on the link to your Blog. You don’t know me but I have been praying for you since I saw you use the word “dread” (actually “dreadful” in a email. It’s a horrid word and expresses the horror behind it, the cause of the dread. I pray for peace for you. Grace and peace.

  2. Matt

    I read this before reading the good news (25/09) and then came back here again. Interpreting God in the midst of the suffering as well as the celebration is something that you seem to have handled with incredible wisdom – I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything like this. Thank-you so much for sharing.

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