No One Cares for my Soul (Psalm 142)
We now return to the cave where King David has sought refuge from Saul’s homicidal rage. It’s hard to envision a more bizarre and ironic scene than this, but having dwelt on it in the previous meditation, we now move to the substance of David’s prayer.
“With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him. When my spirit faints within me, you know my way! In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul. I cry to you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’ Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me! Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me” (Ps. 142:1-7).
Although David’s cry is passionate, dare I say guttural, it has form and structure. He begins with a plea in vv. 1-2, followed by a description of his plight in vv. 3-4. Notwithstanding the precarious nature of his situation, God is still his portion, as vv. 5-6 make clear. Finally, his praise is forthcoming in v. 7.
On second thought, I’m not sure the word “plea” is sufficient to communicate the depths of desperation in David’s heart. It’s a bit too tame. What we hear in this petition is more a shriek of helplessness. Still, we mustn’t think of it as a random or meaningless cry, but one with purpose and focus. Even as David gives vent to his deepest concerns, he arranges or organizes his passion into intelligible supplications. He has a formal “complaint” to set before the Lord.
One thing is certain: David is far from self-conscious in his prayers! He shows no concern for how he might sound or appear. Image and style play no part in his cry to the Lord. He suppresses nothing, but pours out his “complaint” and articulates his “trouble”. There’s wisdom in this, for as Spurgeon reminds us, “an unuttered grief will lie and smolder in the soul, till its black smoke puts out the very eyes of the spirit” (144). If we can learn anything from David’s experience it is that we must tell God everything: how we have sinned, fallen, failed, and broken down. We need to tell him how fickle our faith is, how weak and worn we are.
Don’t think for a moment this will come as a shock to God or that it will offend him and turn him off to your needs. In fact, in v. 3 David affirms that God already knows his situation (his “way” or “path”), yet that does not inhibit his honest and open declaration. After all, “we do not show our trouble before the Lord that he may see it, but that we may see him. It is for our relief, and not for his information” that we pray (Spurgeon, 324).
David here sets himself apart from what I call prayer-sayers and prayer-players. The former are people for whom prayer is a mere ritual, an artificially organized sequence of words that lack heart and spirit. They approach prayer mechanically, as if with the right words and tone and posture God is compelled to respond positively to our requests. The latter treat prayer as if it were a religious sport. They trifle with God, even toy with him. They don’t honestly believe God is who he says or will do what he has promised, so prayer becomes a game, perhaps a way to parade their piety before others.
David, on the other hand, is a prayer(noun)-pray-er(verb), one who takes God at his word and pleads with the confident assurance that the Almighty hears and cares and will act in due course to achieve whatever will best serve his glory and our spiritual good. These are people for whom prayer is a whole-souled, gut-wrenching, heart-wracking outpouring of all that is within to him who sits on the throne.
David’s plight (vv. 3-4) isn’t a pretty sight. Honestly, he sounds depressed. It’s as if a heavy, impenetrable fog of confusion and consternation has engulfed him. He feels drowned, smothered, crushed and conquered by his circumstances. Now remember: this is David! Yes, David, depressed to the point of despair.
He describes the nefarious tactics of his enemies in v. 3 – “In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.” Perhaps they search for David’s tender spots and exploit them. They set a trap in those areas where he is particularly vulnerable and then taunt him for having put his faith in a God who seems not to care. It may be that the “trap” is a reference to temptation. They bait him into betraying his commitment to God and then denounce him as a hypocrite.
“Look to the right and see,” shouts David; “there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me” (v. 4a). This reference to the “right” may be his way of saying he lacks counsel for the defense. There is no one who will argue his case or defend him against unwarranted accusations. But there’s another possibility. In the ancient world a man’s shield was held in his left hand and his neighbor stood to protect him on the right. But David stands alone. His gaze to the right is met by a silent void. No friend, no reassuring smile, no comforting word of encouragement.
Was there no one at all to help David? Well, yes, there were a few, but not the sort of folk you want when you’re facing a crisis of this nature. We read in 1 Samuel 22:2 that when word leaked out of David’s condition “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him.” I can imagine David’s reaction: “Oh, great, just what I needed. The only people who come to help are a pack of distressed, indebted, embittered malcontents. Thanks God.”
Then he utters what has to be the most pathetic and disheartening cry of all: “no one cares for my soul” (v. 4b). People can usually endure any crisis so long as they know they’re not alone. Our friends may not have money to bail us out or wisdom to dispel our confusion, but at least they are friends. At least they are there. I can’t imagine anything worse than facing a dream-shattering, disillusioning, perhaps even life-threatening trial and no one is there who gives any indication that they truly care. Oh, sure, people show up and smile and offer pious platitudes that are supposed to pass for compassion and concern, but you know better.
What is left for David? Only God. But that’s enough! “I cry to you, O Lord; I say, [They may not care for my soul but] ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living’” (v. 5). Whatever David had lost, he still had all he needed. “God is my refuge, my strength, my portion!” There’s still trouble at hand, says David, for “I am brought very low” (v. 6a) and my persecutors “are too strong for me” (v. 6b). But God is enough.
We see here in David’s experience a principle, or perhaps better still a pattern of how God deals with us in crisis. So often when he wishes to make a man great he first breaks him. Before God lifts you up, he brings you low. “He makes nothing of you before he makes something of you. This was the way with David. He is to be king in Jerusalem; but he must go to the throne by the way of the cave” (Spurgeon, 149). The reason is obvious, or at least it should be: God does it this way to ensure that he gets the glory. “We are afflicted in every way,” wrote Paul, “but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8), all “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
I think David understood this principle, which explains his declaration of intent to once again praise God for his bountiful provision that he is assured will yet come. He longs for deliverance because it will afford him the opportunity to once again thank God in the midst of the people (v. 7a). “The righteous will surround me,” says David, “for you will deal bountifully with me” (v. 7b).
Thus we see that the prayer which began with a shriek ends with a song. There’s no indication that David finally figured out the ways of this often times strange God. But he refused to suspend his faith or obedience on his ability to decipher the mysteries of divine providence. You may still be in a “cave” of sorts, crying into the darkness, convinced that no one cares for your soul. But God does! Truly he does. Truly he is your portion, your hope, your strength and ultimately your joy.