A Time For Lament and Confession

We have sinned with our fathers / we have committed iniquity / we have done wickedly (Psalm 106:6).

Israel understood the importance of a time for lament.

The fourth book of the Psalms began with Moses’ meditation on God’s timetable for the fulfillment of His promises (Psalm 90:1-17); it could be said that the Psalter placed it there as an “answer” to the open questions of Heman and Ethan in Psalms 88 and 89. Most of the fourth book of Psalms praises God; it is quite “theological” for the Psalms (Psalms 91-104). The Psalter closes the fourth book with two parallel psalms primarily about the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings: Psalm 105:1-45 extols YHWH for the mighty signs and wonders He wrought in delivering His people. Psalm 106 seems to begin in a similar vein, praising YHWH for His hesed (steadfast love / covenant loyalty) and mighty deeds for His people (Psalm 106:1-2). The psalmist declares the righteous blessed, and asked YHWH to remember him when YHWH shows favor to His people and gives them prosperity, so he can rejoice and glory with his fellow Israelites (Psalm 106:3-5).

But Psalm 106 is no mere repetition of Psalm 105. The psalmist confesses his sinfulness and the sinfulness of their fathers (Psalm 106:6). A retelling of the events of the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings followed, yet this time emphasizing the people’s disobedience and lack of faith toward YHWH: forgetting His works, desiring meat, making a golden calf, despising the land of the inheritance, yoking themselves to Baal of Peor, and tempting Moses at Meribah (Psalm 106:7-33; cf. Exodus 14:1-Numbers 25:18). The psalmist then confessed Israel’s continued sinfulness when they entered the land: they mixed with the nations, they served other gods, they sacrificed innocent children, and they polluted the land with blood (Psalm 106:34-39; cf. Judges 1:1-2 Kings 25:1). On account of these things YHWH’s anger was kindled, and He gave them into the hands of their enemies who oppressed them; He would deliver them, and yet they would return to rebellion (Psalm 106:40-43).

Yet the psalmist drew encouragement from YHWH’s hesed, remembering His people in their distress, and caused them to be pitied by others (Psalm 106:44-46). The psalmist has confessed the iniquity of his forefathers, identified himself as complicit with them, and ended by calling out to YHWH to be saved, gathered in from all the nations (back to Israel) so they can give thanks to His name and glory in His praise (Psalm 106:47).

In Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 we see a sharp contrast between YHWH’s great love, covenant loyalty, and mighty deeds and Israel’s persistent rebelliousness and sinfulness. The fourth book of the Psalms glorifies and praises YHWH; we can understand why Psalm 105 would be included, but may find Psalm 106 to provide an odd conclusion. Yet, for Israel in exile, the conclusion is appropriate: Israel has learned from its experiences. They have come to understand that the God who did all these mighty deeds for Israel had every right to hand them over to their adversaries; God has not proven untrue to Himself. The psalmist gave voice to Israel to confess the sins of their forefathers, and by extension their own sins, so as to acknowledge their immorality and rebellion in the past, to demonstrate the fruit of repentance, and to beg YHWH for favor so as to obtain full restoration.

It is very easy for us today to find Psalm 106, especially Psalm 106:6, to be a bit unsettling. The author of Psalm 106 is not given but its perspective is consistent with the Exile; therefore, he was not among the generation who perished in the Wilderness, or lived in the days of the judges or early kings. For all we know he may have been born and lived in the days of the Exile, and did not personally participate in any of these sins! Did not Ezekiel establish that people are held accountable only for their own sins, and not the sins of their fathers or children (Ezekiel 18:1-32)?

Ezekiel speaks truth: when we all stand before God on the day of judgment, we will be judged for what we have done in the flesh (Romans 2:5-11, 14:4-12). And yet, from the beginning, Israel understood themselves as fully participating in their own history. Such is why Moses speaks to Israel in the first person plural throughout Deuteronomy 1:1-3:29, even though the people to whom he spoke were not the same individuals who actually experienced the Exodus. YHWH spoke of generational consequences for both righteousness and transgression in Exodus 20:5-6; a person is strongly influenced by their ancestors and cultural environment, a truth being rediscovered in our own day through epigenetic and psychological research. The psalmist of Psalm 106 saw his relationship to Israel and his forefathers very much in the same way: whatever he experiences is directly connected to what his forefathers had done, and therefore he is sharing in its guilt, if nothing else, in terms of its consequences. This psalmist is not alone: Daniel confessed similar sins, identifying himself with his forefathers, in Daniel 9:4-8, and Ezra began his prayer regarding the people’s intermarriages in the same vein in Ezra 9:5-9. Israel lived in a delicate balancing act: yes, each individual would stand or fall before God based on what they had done in the flesh and whether they died in sin or in repentance, even if Israel found that unjust (Ezekiel 18:1-32), but no Israelite lived in a vacuum, shaped by his environment and the inheritance, for good or ill, he received from his ancestors, and in which he or she took part by virtue of living as an Israelite.

As Christians we are invited to look at Israel according to the flesh as our spiritual ancestors; we are to learn from their examples so as to not fall by the same patterns of disobedience (1 Corinthians 10:1-12). But we can also draw strength from more positive examples. Confession and lament are not pleasant or comfortable activities. We may want to claim the positive elements of what we have inherited from our ancestors, but we want to quickly and fully jettison all the uncomfortable and ugly things which were handed down to us. We should indeed want to escape from the iniquity of the past; such is the essence of repentance. But Israel was wise to understand the necessity of sitting in lament, for it is all too easy to suppress the negative parts of our history to the point where it is forgotten, and we presume that we and our forefathers are more righteous than is justifiable. As long as Israel lived in denial about its past and present, Israel persisted in rebellion; Israel only made strides in serving God faithfully when they were willing to confront their sins and the sins of their ancestors, confess them, lament over them, and then appeal to YHWH for His covenant loyalty and favor. So it is for the individual Christian (James 1:22-25); so it is for the people of God individually and collectively (Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-7).

For better and worse we are the descendants of our forefathers according to the flesh and according to the Spirit. We do well to uphold their stands of righteousness and persist in it while lamenting their failures in iniquity and turn away from them. We do well to consider ourselves to see what things we may be thinking, feeling, or doing which may bring shame and reproach among future generations of Christians so as to repent of them and give Gentiles past and present no reason to blaspheme (cf. Romans 2:24, 1 Corinthians 10:12). May we confess our sins, lament our iniquity, repent, and find favor in the sight of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Panting and Thirsting for God

As the hart panteth after the water brooks / so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God / When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

“As the deer pants for the water / so my soul longs after You…”

Many Christians will recognize the above as the beginning of the hymn “As the Deer,” one of the more well known and beloved hymns. It proves to be a hymn of yearning for God, a desire to establish God as primary in life and to serve Him. For its purposes “As the Deer” is a great hymn, well composed, its message matching its tune, and is justly popular.

The Biblical antecedent for “As the Deer” is much more bleak and challenging even if it ends up in a similar place.

The first line of “As the Deer” is taken from Psalm 42:1, attributed to the sons of Korah, and set by the Psalter as the beginning of Book Two of the Psalms. The sons of Korah yearn for God as deer pant for water; they deeply desire the presence of God as one desires food and drink (Psalm 42:1-2; cf. Matthew 5:6).

The sons of Korah have this experience in distress: their food and drink have been their tears, and people all around deride them by asking where their God has gone (Psalm 42:3). They pour out their souls when they reflect on how they used to go up to the house of God during the appointed festivals (Psalm 42:4). The sons of Korah pick up the refrain of Psalm 42: they rhetorically ask their souls why they are cast down and in distress, for they do well to hope in God whom they will yet praise (Psalm 42:5).

Yet, for the moment, the sons of Korah speak as if in distress, remembering God as if from on the heights of Hermon and in the depths of the Jordan valley (Psalm 42:6). They feel as if overwhelmed by God, as if His waves have gone over them (Psalm 42:7). They express confidence in YHWH’s hesed, covenant loyalty, and His song is in them, and yet they wonder whether God their Rock has forgotten them while their enemies oppress and reproach them, asking where their God has gone (Psalm 42:8-10). The sons of Korah end with their refrain: why are their souls cast down and disquieted? They ought to hope in God, for they will yet praise Him, the help of their countenance, their God (Psalm 42:11).

For most Christians “As the Deer” is a hymn of encouragement, giving them a voice to express to God their desire to be devoted to Him and serve Him, firmly confident in God’s nearness and love. The sons of Korah give voice to the people of God in a far more dire, and all too realistic, situation: crying out to God in the day of trouble when God feels far away and we are cast down in distress and hopelessness, and even the remembrance of better days increases present sorrow.

And yet even in that day of distress the sons of Korah wish for the people of God to reflect. Why are their souls in distress and cast down? They do well to trust in God’s covenant loyalty; He remains their God; they will yet praise Him in and despite all their difficulties and the taunts of their opponents.

Israel would need such a psalm many times in its history. Those who endured the exile would remember the past glory of Zion bitterly in light of their later experiences in a foreign land under the authority of a pagan nation. Many times during the next few hundred years Israel would endure great pain and distress on account of the nations around them; none of this speaks to the various difficulties and challenges endured by individual Israelites on account of smaller-scale oppression and persecution, illness, other tragedies, and death. And yet, through it all, Israel would be encouraged to trust in God and His covenant loyalty, to be assured that one day they would yet praise God.

Christians to this day will find times during which the sons of Korah will give them voice before God in Psalm 42:1-11. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit times when our souls are in distress within us, disquieted on account of trial or trouble. In days of distress, be it on account of personal trial, oppression or persecution, illness, our sins or those of others, etc., even remembrance of better times among the people of God may cause greater distress and disturbance; we may feel even greater distance from those good times and God and all that is good and right.

In those times when God feels the furthest away we do well to yearn for Him as the deer pants for the water; our soul can only truly thirst for the living God if and when we feel as if it has been some time since we were able to drink deeply from His presence. The sons of Korah give voice to freely ask where God has gone, to wonder if we have been forgotten: these are real feelings, real experiences, and attempting to paper over them with theological niceties will not allow us to endure the day of distress. The sons of Korah give voice to those moments in the dark valley of shadows in which we feel very far away from God; that is a real experience, and presuming that no faithful Christian will endure it is a fool’s errand. Yet the sons of Korah do not allow themselves, or those to whom they give voice, to stay there: whatever reasons the soul may be in distress or disquiet do not negate the love and covenant faithfulness of God. We will yet praise Him; we have reason to hope that our desires in Him shall be satisfied. Yet those desires can only exist when they have yet to receive satisfaction; we must learn to seek God precisely because our current condition is fraught with danger, distress, oppression, and opposition. Yes, we will praise God; He is the light of our countenance; yet while we walk in the shadow of the valley of death, may we pant and thirst for the living God, seeking the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry