A Lamentable Life

douglasgreenThe Distress of the Covenant-keeper

Dear friends, don’t be surprised or shocked that you are going through testing that is like walking through fire. (CEV) 1 Peter 4:12

The Covenant documents are the foundation for history. God sets things in motion, like any good farmer, and returns later to pour out the promised blessings or curses, to separate the wheat from the weeds. To be under Covenant is to be under these Words, to be transformed through testing into the shape given in blueprint on the mountain. This necessary process of being sifted like wheat is both personally and communally distressing.

From Douglas Green:

The most frequently recurring Psalm form is the lament. Out of 150 psalms, 50 concern individual lament and another 70 concern communal lament. That’s almost half the Psalter.

If the Psalter is a poetic portrayal of life in Covenant fellowship with God, then it is a lamentable life. It is a life with a surprising amount of hardship and suffering, conflict and pain, or to use Philip Johnson’s summary word, distress.

Johnson writes:

Distress is one of the most common themes of the Psalter. Particularly in the first half of the book, psalm after psalm portrays distress and anguish in eloquent description and graphic metaphor. The writers feel besieged, constricted, burdened, bogged down, submerged and drowning. They are frequently helpless, and occasionally hopeless. Surrounded by enemies, suffering physically, punished by God, they cry out for relief and deliverance. This is certainly a dominant motif in this precious book.

So, what are we to make of this? Are we to conclude that Israel’s poets are clinically depressed? Or are they just unlucky people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

No. Once we accept that the Psalms portray the life of an Israelite in good Covenant standing, a Covenant-keeper, someone who trusts Yahweh and walks in His ways, we are left with the troubling conclusion that suffering and distress—oddly, disturbingly, yet inescapably—walk hand in hand with the righteousness of Covenant fidelity.

Anguish and suffering are not strangers whom the psalmist accidentally bumps into as he walks the path of life. No. The Psalter leaves us with the distinct and disturbing impression that the righteous walk through life with a menacing companion shadowing their every step. The distress that the Psalms so frequently and passionately describe is not accidental. It is not random mishap, but rather an inevitable and integral element in the life of those who trust in the Lord.

Paraphrased excerpt from Psalms of Lament or Songs of the Suffering Servant? by Dr Douglas Green (lecture).

To clarify this for personal application, besides the sufferings common to all mankind, I’d say that the suffering of Covenant faithfulness, though it includes chastisement from a loving Father, is mainly the result of faithful witness. This kind of suffering is the most important, and, particularly under the New Covenant as we witness to the resurrection of Christ, it is a deliberate choice.

See also When Darkness is the Last Word, Crush Depth and What Comes Out.

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