Finding Joy in the Dark

The Bold Prayer of Psalm 70

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Pastor, Pepperell, Massachusetts

I recently spent three days with a group of pastors, almost all our time devoted to deep sharing of our life stories. We laughed at the silly things we’ve done. We marveled at the lineaments of God’s grace. We wept over sins, wounds, and struggles, both past and present.

I drove home pondering the fact that when ten tenderhearted, Jesus-loving, spiritually alive pastors get into a room and are honest with each other, we share stories of theft, pornography, broken families, paralyzing anxiety, suicidal thoughts, marital struggles, and unfulfilled longings. If there’s such brokenness in the histories and hearts of godly shepherds, what must be the inner reality of the sheep in our churches? Surrounded by such brokenness within and without, how can the people of God possibly hope to sustain their joy in God?

The odds seem long and the situation bleak. But Psalm 70 gives me strong hope.

May All Be Glad

I’ve been drawn to Psalm 70:4 for many years, because it brings together two awesome truths that thrill the heart of every Christian Hedonist:

May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!”

Only a capacious heart could breathe such an expansive prayer. Notice that David isn’t content for just a few (or even most) seekers of God to rejoice. No, he longs for all to experience God-centered gladness. And David’s requesting more than just a flickering, intermittent passion for the glory of God among the people of God; rather, he prays for their lips and lives to communicate God’s worth continually, at all times, without interruption.

This is a plus-sized prayer. It’s so big that many millions of people can (and have) fit inside it. David was surely praying it for himself. He was also praying it for those of his generation and all future generations. In fact, if we’re seeking God and loving God’s salvation, David’s prayer is for us. David is asking God to sweeten our joy and strengthen our passion for his glory. He doesn’t specify how these two prayers might fit together, but John Piper has helped many of us treasure the biblical teaching that they are in fact one. As we find our deepest joy in God (“in you”), we display his worth to the world.

Bold Prayer in Dark Days

Though I’ve loved Psalm 70:4 for years, it wasn’t until recently that I noticed the context. And it’s the context that has filled me with hope.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: Psalm 70 is not a sunny psalm. It’s not a walk in the park or a day at the beach. Life is not good in this psalm. Instead, it’s hard — very hard. In fact, the psalm is an almost-unremittingly desperate plea for God’s help. Verse 1 (the first verse) and verse 5 (the last verse) are bookends:

Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me!

Hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!

There’s a focused urgency here. David sounds like a soldier pinned down by enemy fire, radioing desperately to central command. His enemies want David dead, and they gloat over David’s misfortunes (“Aha, Aha!” verse 3).

We’ve already seen David’s response to this dark situation. He feels two overwhelming desires, one expected and the other exceptional. First, David wants out of the situation. In four out of five verses, he pleads with God for speedy deliverance. This reaction is perfectly natural and completely understandable. Who wouldn’t want this? Of course, we’d all be asking for the same rescue.

Second, however, the intense pressure of David’s circumstances also squeezes from his heart another cry, this one much more unusual. Stunningly, the request in verse 4 is not just for himself, but for others. It’s nothing short of miraculous that David, in his foxhole, under heavy fire, prays not simply for personal escape, but for gladness among all God’s people, and for the continual glorifying of God. What is going on here?

Praying in a Sea of Suffering

Some of us hear the Bible’s repeated calls to pursue our joy and believe that it’s simply beyond us in our present state. For the moment, our attention is occupied by other matters: sin, sickness, loneliness, financial difficulty, opposition, relational pain. We feel we’re in the 101 class of “Surviving Our Problems” and not quite ready for the 201 class of “Pursuing Our Joy.” Verse 4, we think, is for people who have it all together (or at least more together).

“Christian Hedonism is as much for bleak days as it is for bright ones.”

And this is why the context of verse 4 is so challenging and so encouraging, because verse 4 exists in a sea of suffering. David doesn’t say, “Once I get free from my enemies, then I’ll start to care about the gladness of God’s people and the glory of God.” His foxhole prayer, in worrying and uncomfortable circumstances, is for gladness and glory. This is a real-world prayer. Christian Hedonism is as much for bleak days as it is for bright ones.

If God can work this extraordinary impulse in David’s heart, why can’t he do the same in us? Why can’t he implant a renewed passion for our joy and his glory even in the midst of intense suffering? Could it be that God might even use the desperation of our brokenness to drive us to him?

In his poem “The Storm,” George Herbert ponders how, like the violent force of a terrible rainstorm,

A throbbing conscience spurred by remorse
Hath a strange force: It quits the earth, and mounting more and more,
Dares to assault thee, and besiege thy doore. (lines 10–12)

Our inner and outer conflicts may produce something good. “They purge the aire without, within the breast” (line 18). This was certainly the case for David in Psalm 70. His desperation yielded a passionate cry to God that continues to encourage followers of God to this day.

Seek and Rest

You can pray a David-like prayer in your own bleak situation by taking two cues from David himself.

“Joy and gladness are the unassailable possession of those who fix their eyes on Jesus in the storms of life.”

First, seek God. “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you!” Joy and gladness are the unassailable possession of those who fix their eyes on Jesus in the storms of life. Look more deeply and more often at Jesus than you look at your enemies or your troubles.

Second, love God’s salvation. “May those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’” Consider frequently how God has saved you (and how he’s saving many others). Delight in this salvation. Rest in it. Love it. The more you love your salvation, the more readily your lips will spill over with natural praise of the God who saved you.

Please don’t wait to pursue your joy in God until God has healed your brokenness and resolved your problems. Verse 4 isn’t a postscript to Psalm 70; it doesn’t come after David’s crisis. It emerges from the midst of it. This is an example and invitation for us. Don’t wait to pursue your joy. Start right now.