I could talk some more about Lazarus today, along with his sisters. They show up in this chapter. But I only have so much time and space to talk about the chapter, and it seems there are bigger things going on here. In any of the gospels, when you come to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, you know you’re entering the endgame.
One of my sophomore year college courses featured extensive reading and discussion from the Bible. I remember in one class, we were struggling to get our heads around some New Testament passage dealing with sin and death. Attempting to shed some light on the issue, one of the professors recalled the first few chapters of Genesis, commenting on when God lays down the penalty for disobedience on Adam and Eve: “It’s as if God’s saying, ‘Hey, you’re gonna have to suffer.'” Something about that clicked for me. We live in a fallen world. Of course we’re going to suffer.
I can’t read this psalm without thinking of Sara Groves’ song “Cave of Adullam.” As soon as I read the epigraph “A Maskil of David, when he was in the cave,” the melody starts playing, and then I read the line “No one cares for my soul” (4) and Sara Groves is singing it in my head. David wrote the psalm about a particular point during the time he spent fleeing from Saul, when he took refuge in a cave. I feel like I should note that the cave in question wasn’t necessarily the cave of Adullam (1 Samuel 22:1-2); David hid out in a lot of caves while he was on the run. Sara Groves’ “Cave of Adullam” is an imaginative interpretation of David’s experience. Nonetheless, I will mention music I love at the drop of a hat because it makes for decent intros, and “Cave of Adullam” is good music.
As the narrative opens, Sennacherib launches a military campaign against Judah, quickly seizing its fortified cities. Then, Isaiah reports, “[T]he king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem to King Hezekiah with a large army” (36:2). When Eliakim and his crew go out to meet him, Rabshakeh threatens and taunts the entire kingdom, proposing a deal to secure Judah’s compliance. Rabshakeh mocks the uselessness of the alliance with Egypt, and even questions the utility of relying on the God of Israel, YHWH. “Have I now come up without the Lord’s approval against this land to destroy it?” he asks. “The Lord said to me, ‘Go up against this land and destroy it’” (36:10). He asserts that he himself, not Judah, has God’s will on his side, and that he has divine authorization for his attack on Judah.
This stupid psalm is resisting introduction. I’m about to ask “Have you ever thought you were going to die?” and recount the time I got stuck upside-down in a pool floatie as a toddler or the time the family Saturn got hit by a semi truck when I was eleven, but then I realize: this psalm is about an extended period of being on the edge of the grave. It’s not about watching your life flash before your eyes in a moment. So then I’m about to ask “Have you ever wished you could die?” and talk about lying in the upstairs hallway overwhelmed by pain on the third day of having chicken pox when I was eight, but then I realize: the author of the psalm wants God to rescue him from his perpetually near-death state. He has no desire to die. So here’s the question: have you ever gone through a time in your life where, day after day, you felt like the living dead?
Remember yesterday? How Asaph was troubled by the prosperity of evildoers, and then he came into the sanctuary of God and realized just how short-lived their stay of execution would be? How, in God’s presence, he saw the justice of God’s character, and his eyes were opened to the ultimate fate of the wicked? Well, today that sanctuary has been burned and sacked, and the perpetrators have scorned God and his people. Yesterday, Asaph’s troubles seemed so far away, but now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
Going by Brueggemann’s classification scheme, we’ve got a psalm of disorientation on our hands today. The author isn’t identified, but it certainly sounds like David: he’s afflicted and insulted by enemies, threatened by ruthless men, crying out to God for deliverance. It’s a funny thing about disorientation, though. It comes in degrees.