Christians are the sort of people who sing at midnight.
When Paul and Silas lay in prison, beaten and bloodied and chained, their fellow prisoners heard them singing in their cell (Acts 16:25). When the Lord Jesus awaited his betrayal, he led his disciples in a hymn (Matthew 26:30). And, of course, when David and the psalmists walked through the twilight of God’s seeming silence, they sent songs into the darkness.
Christians sing not only at sunrise, when rescue has finally rushed over the horizon. They also sing at midnight, when the blackness makes the sun seem burnt out.
And often, God uses our midnight songs to keep us till the morning.
Psalms 42–43, sixteen verses that form one song, are two of the psalter’s darkest nights. The psalmist, one of Israel’s temple singers, finds himself in exile — away from the temple, away from friends, and seemingly away from God’s presence.
The ghost of God’s apparent absence walks through the movements of the song, especially in the repeated taunt “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:3, 10). Unlike the author of Psalm 115, who could boldly answer back, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3), the author of Psalms 42–43 finds himself repeating the questions back to God: “Why have you forgotten me? . . . Why have you rejected me?” (Psalm 42:9; Psalm 43:2).
“God uses our midnight songs to keep us till the morning.”
The psalmist’s doubts cleave him in two: Part of him believes that God will shine his face on him again (Psalm 42:5), and part of him feels that God has clean forgotten him (Psalm 42:9). Part of him still remembers the language of hope (Psalm 42:5), and part of him can speak only the language of despair (Psalm 43:2). Part of him stands up and lays hold of God’s promises (Psalm 42:8), and part of him sinks down and lays hold on the dust (Psalm 42:11).
And in the midst of all that misery, as the psalmist sits under the thunder of his doubts, he does something few of us would think to do. He sings.
“At night his song is with me” (Psalm 42:8). Like Jesus, Paul, and Silas after him, the psalmist breaks the silence of the night with a song — a song that likely contained many of the ideas we find in Psalms 42–43.
But why? When faced with darkness without and doubt within, why did the psalmist sing? And why should we? Psalms 42–43 give us at least four reasons.
1. Songs turn misery into prayer.
Our darkest nights can make prayer feel like a foreign language. We can kneel at our bedsides for an hour, unable to say a word. We can start, stop, sigh, and give up. Or if we do pray, we can ramble from one unformed thought to another, our petitions dying as they rise.
In his own trouble, the psalmist put his prayers on the wings of a melody:
Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? . . . Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause. . . . Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! (Psalm 42:9; Psalm 43:1, 3)
The psalmist, steeped in the rhythms of Israel’s songbook, knew that a song could take his groans and send them Godward. He knew that a song could gather up the chaos within and give it an intelligible voice. And so, he placed his pain in the structure of a lament.
When you are so troubled that you cannot speak to God, you may still be able to sing. You may still be able to take up one of the songs of the saints — whether an actual psalm, or a hymn, or a more modern song — that will turn your misery into prayer.
2. Songs confront the logic of despair.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preaching on Psalm 42, famously said, “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” (Spiritual Depression, 20).
“When you are so troubled that you cannot speak to God, you may still be able to sing.”
Technically, however, the psalmist doesn’t simply talk to himself. He sings to himself. When he tells himself, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him” (Psalm 42:5), he croons it. He turns to his sunken self, takes him by the shoulders, and serenades him with hope.
Often, sung words fit where said words cannot: melodies slip under the doorways of our doubts while said words stand outside knocking. Once sung, the words often stay with us, echoing through the chambers of our minds and hearts, bringing form to our mayhem, beauty to our bleakness, and truth to the logic of our despair.
God gave us a book of songs for a reason. Often, we need to do more than speak the truth to ourselves. We need to sing it.
3. Songs glorify the God who hears.
When we lift up a song at midnight, we declare with the psalmist that God is “the God of my life, . . . my rock” (Psalm 42:8–9).
When we sing into the darkness, we confess that God alone can raise our cast-down souls (Psalm 42:5), that God alone can lead us back home (Psalm 43:3), and that God alone can retune our songs of misery into songs of praise (Psalm 43:4).
When we raise our song in the night, we declare, against all our feelings, that God reigns over this darkness, that God is at work in this darkness, and that God is still worthy of worship in this darkness.
And when we do, we glorify the God who hears.
4. Songs prepare the way for joy.
Songs are not magic spells. They do not remedy our distress right as we sing them. But songs are one way we prepare for joy’s return. Psalms 42–43 end with the psalmist still in darkness. For the third time, he addresses himself with these words:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God. (Psalm 43:5)
“God gave us a book of songs for a reason. Often, we need to do more than speak the truth to ourselves. We need to sing it.”
But joy’s delay does not close the psalmist’s mouth. He sits there at the bottom of his pit, his knees crumpled under him, his eyes gazing up at a sky that seems empty, and he keeps on singing. He keeps on praying to God and preaching to himself through song. And he keeps on trusting that, as he does so, God will slowly lift him from the pit, and joy will return:
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
O God, my God. (Psalm 43:4)
When the time is right, God will answer. And our songs will be one way that he lifts up the valleys, makes low the hills, and prepares the way for joy’s return.