Psalms - Teachers Comments

2024 Quarter 1 Lesson 05 - Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land

Teachers Comments
Jan 27 - Mar 02

Key Text: Psalm 137:4

The presence of suffering and evil in our midst raises perplexing questions in the minds of many about God’s character. Why did God allow sin to exist? Why does He allow the innocent to suffer? Why does He permit sin and suffering to continue? Why do the wicked prosper? Have God’s promises in the Bible failed? Is Scripture merely a beautiful literary masterpiece—inspiring but not divinely inspired—for spiritually inclined people? Or worse, are the Bible and its promises the delusions of pious minds? Are they without any basis in reality because, ultimately, God, as secular minds allege, doesn’t exist?

Sad to say, this line of inquiry is all too common among many minds today. The questioning of God’s actions plants the seeds of incredulity and skepticism in the hearts of others, especially among the youth. All too often, when such questions of unbelief arise in the minds of believers, the result is that “ ‘the love of many will grow cold’ ” (Matt. 24:12, NKJV).

The Psalms are more than pretty songs in praise of God. They are meant to exert a profound impact on our understanding of such complex issues as the existence of sin and suffering. As we analyze the Psalter in light of this challenging subject, we again marvel at the raw honesty of the psalmists in their prayers. Their candor reminds us that we, too, can ask questions of the Lord; we also can express our doubts to Him. God will listen to our concerns happily if we inquire of Him in faith and humility. He will reply to our humble questions and concerns, giving us light in the midst of our struggle with doubt and fear.

Part II: Commentary

Why Did God Allow Sin and Suffering to Exist?

Even if the Psalter does not explicitly address this specific question, Psalms 74 and 79, which are about the destruction of Jerusalem, are based on these concerns. Between these two psalms, we see some notable similarities concerning the topic of sin and suffering:

  1. Each psalm deals with the destruction of the beloved city (Ps. 74:3–9, Ps. 79:1–4), which elicits plaintive laments from the psalmist.

  2. In both psalms, Asaph wants to see the Lord overturn the destruction (Ps. 74:10, 11; Ps. 79:5–7). Thus, he inquires of the Lord, “How long?”

  3. The cause of Jerusalem’s misfortunes is the sin of the people (Ps. 79:8–10). Only Psalm 79 mentions this reason: God’s people have failed.

  4. In both songs, Asaph doesn’t lose faith in his heavenly King (Ps. 74:12–17) or confidence in “the greatness of Your power” (Ps. 79:11, NKJV).

As Asaph, we may ask why we face sin, suffering, and death. These are the universal questions that inquiring minds have asked from the dawn of human history. The answer is always the same: sin. Sin is the strange intruder in God’s creation. From Satan’s fall in heaven to our fallen condition today, iniquity has spawned all the suffering and death in history. We could argue, justifiably, that God has given free will to His creatures and, from there, philosophize about the ramifications of sin and suffering. But the biblical writers refrain from this tack. Let us then, as Asaph did, trust in our Creator’s power and wisdom to resolve this question in His own way and time.

Why Did God Allow the Innocent to Suffer?

The lesson reminds us that sin can bring sickness (Ps. 41:3, 4). With this idea in mind, let’s consider the question, “Why did God allow the innocent to suffer?” in light of four Psalms: Psalm 6, Psalm 41, Psalm 88, and Psalm 102.

First, we note that these four songs describe the suffering that the psalmists experience because of illness (Ps. 6:2, 6, 7; Ps. 41:3; Ps. 88:3–9; Ps. 102:3–7, 9–11). Second, the psalmists plead with the Lord for healing (Ps. 6:2, 4; Ps. 41:1, 4; Ps. 88:1, 2, 13, 14; Ps. 102:1, 2). They consider their healing to be a vindication from God in the presence of their enemies (Ps. 6:8–10, Ps. 41:5–12, Ps. 102:15–19). Finally, they argue persuasively that, had they died, they would have been bereft of the opportunity to praise God’s name (Ps. 6:5, Ps. 88:10–12).

At this point in our analysis, we should note that the Hebrew mind was not interested in asking philosophical questions about human pain and suffering. Rather, its focus was on God and His glory. The psalmists acknowledge that the Lord permits their sorrows (Ps. 6:1). They also acknowledge that He alone can give health. Cured of their afflictions, they want to testify to God’s healing mercies.

Have we exemplified this same attitude when afflicted with illness? We usually complain, “Why me, O Lord?” Would it not be better, surely, in that difficult moment, to trust in God and to await His vindication in order that we might testify to His glory?

Why Doesn’t God End Our Present Suffering?

In the midst of our suffering, we often ask, “Where is God?” This question often wells up within us from a place of the deepest angst and desperation. In such moments, our tendency as humans is not to moralize or to engage philosophically with our pain and suffering. We just want answers and relief. In our desperation, we often, as did the psalmists, turn to God for help.

Notice that even if it seems the Creator is not present, the psalmist’s plea is: “ ‘Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not be silent at my tears’ ” (Ps. 39:12, NKJV). The psalmist knows that God is there, even if he has no outward token of the divine presence. Now that’s faith! The psalmist doesn’t say, “I quit! I abandon my faith because God won’t answer me. So, He must not exist.” Instead, the psalmist trusts God and waits for Him to act in His behalf at the right moment. “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (Ps. 37:7, NKJV). If God keeps silent, it’s time for us to keep silent, too, and wait. The question is not Where is God? God is there, and He cares for us. The question is Will we be there, too, waiting in faith on Him to act in our behalf?

Have His Promises in the Scriptures Failed?

Psalm 77 expresses well the feelings of doubt and discouragement that often oppress us in times of distress:

Will the Lord cast off forever?

And will He be favorable no more?

Has His mercy ceased forever?

Has His promise failed forevermore?

Has God forgotten to be gracious?

Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies? (Ps. 77:7–9, NKJV).

The answer that the writer himself provides is simple but crucial: remember in the present the miracles that God has wrought for you in the past (Ps. 77:11–20). “I will remember the works of the Lord” (Ps. 77:11, NKJV). Thereafter, the psalmist describes the most paradigmatic moment of God’s intervention in Israel’s history: the Exodus from Egypt. The psalmist recalls the wonders that YHWH performed when He delivered His people from Egyptian bondage (Ps. 77:14, 15). Special attention is given to the miraculous parting of the Red Sea (Ps. 77:16–19): “Your way was in the sea” (Ps. 77:19, NKJV). The psalmist also recalls how God guided the ministry of Moses and Aaron (Ps. 77:20).

As the Spirit of Prophecy so aptly admonishes: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”—Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 10.

When sick or beset by tribulation, we would do well to engage in the following faith-strengthening exercise: highlight in a journal the most precious blessings the Lord has given us in our lives, from the simplest to the most impactful. After all, was this act of remembrance not what the psalmist did?

Why Do the Wicked Ones Prosper?

David introduces the topic under consideration by couching it in the following counsel: “Do not fret because of evildoers” (Ps. 37:1, NKJV). He summarizes the rationale for his advice—evildoers will perish (Ps. 37:2)—before moving on to his main concern, which is the believer. David encourages him or her with several principles for godly living (Ps. 37:3–9). These moral imperatives are the basis for maintaining one’s mental health and fitness in an unfair world. David embeds promises in the midst of his imperatives, as follows:

  1. “Trust in the Lord, . . .

  2. “Do good;

Promise: “Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness” (Ps. 37:3, NKJV).

  1. “Delight yourself also in the Lord,

Promise: “And He shall give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4, NKJV).

  1. “Commit your way to the Lord,

  2. “Trust also in Him,

Promises: “And He shall bring it to pass” (Ps. 37:5, NKJV). “He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday” (Ps. 37:6, NKJV).

  1. “Rest in the Lord,

  2. “And wait patiently for Him;

  3. “Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who brings wicked schemes to pass” (Ps. 37:7, NKJV).

  4. “Cease from anger,

  5. “And forsake wrath;

  6. “Do not fret—it only causes harm” (Ps. 37:8, NKJV).

Promise: “For evildoers shall be cut off; but those who wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the earth” (Ps. 37:9, NKJV).

This psalm is a masterpiece of literary form and substance. Were we to ardently endeavor to practice the guidelines contained within, we would avoid much disappointment and bitterness. As an extra bonus, the text of the psalm provides us with encouraging promises that motivate us to put its precepts into action.

The psalmist reviews the same concepts in the rest of his song: (a) the prosperity of the wicked ones (Ps. 37:12, 14); (b) the command to trust YHWH (Ps. 37:27, 34, 37); (c) the behavior of the righteous (Ps. 37:21, 26, 30, 31); (d) the destruction of the evildoers (Ps. 37:10, 13, 15, 22, 35, 36, 38); and (e) promises for the faithful (Ps. 37:11, 16–20, 22–25, 28, 29, 32, 33, 39, 40). The concepts expressed within this psalm make it worthy of our most profound study.

Part III: Life Application

The psalmist invites us to trust in God in the midst of suffering and trials. More often than not, we may not get clear answers to our most perplexing questions this side of eternity. At times, we may not feel the presence of our heavenly Protector beside us. Or we may feel as if God’s promises are failing. But we must remember the moral imperatives of the psalmists: trust in God, regardless of the circumstances; remember His wonders in your life; study more deeply the Word of God; grab hold of God’s promises; and hold tightly to the Lord! “But the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; He is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord shall help them and deliver them; He shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them, because they trust in Him” (Ps. 37:39, 40, NKJV).