Psalm 40: The Pit

I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
    and put their trust in him.

Blessed is the one
    who trusts in the Lord,
who does not look to the proud,
    to those who turn aside to false gods.
Many, Lord my God,
    are the wonders you have done,
    the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you;
    were I to speak and tell of your deeds,
    they would be too many to declare.

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire –
    but my ears you have opened; –
    burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come –
    it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, my God;
    your law is within my heart.’

I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
    I do not seal my lips, Lord,
    as you know.
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
    I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
    from the great assembly.

Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord;
    may your love and faithfulness always protect me.
For troubles without number surround me;
    my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
    and my heart fails within me.
Be pleased to save me, Lord;
    come quickly, Lord, to help me.

May all who want to take my life
    be put to shame and confusion;
may all who desire my ruin
    be turned back in disgrace.
May those who say to me, ‘Aha! Aha!’
    be appalled at their own shame.
But may all who seek you
    rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who long for your saving help always say,
    ‘The Lord is great!’

But as for me, I am poor and needy;
    may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
    you are my God, do not delay.

– Psalm 40

In the ancient world there were few purpose-built prisons. If you were awaiting trial you would often be put in a pit. That is the imagery here – think Joseph (Genesis 37) or Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38). The pit was a place of confinement: deep, dark and dank, it was a place of present discomfort, filled with future foreboding. ‘That,’ says David, ‘was where I was – but that’s not where I stayed!’ God rescued him. It took a little longer than he had hoped (v. 1) but God saved him.

David’s response was one of thanksgiving and praise, not just in private but in public.  David wanted others to know what God had done for him so that they would put their trust in the living God rather than relying on false gods that would let them down.

The Psalm could end at v. 10 but it doesn’t. It looks as if David, if not already back in the pit, is well on his way back down. Verse 11 hints that David is back in a dark place, v. 12 spells that out without any unambiguity and by v. 13 David is desperate.

Many of the other Psalms move from desperation to celebration but here we travel in the opposite direction. Walter Brueggemann comments that, ‘Life moves in and out. In our daily life, the joy of deliverance is immediately beset and assaulted by the despair and fear of the pit…(there’s) a realism to this Psalm, but it is a realism set in profound trust.’

When we’re in trouble, we can, like David, turn to God and look back to past experiences when God has heard our cry and delivered us. But that is not our ultimate confidence. Our ultimate confidence is not that sometime in the past we have got out of the pit but that sometime in the past God has gone into it.

John’s gospel tells us that the Word became flesh (John 1:14) and ‘dwelt’ amongst us. The phrase literally means ‘pitched his tent’ amongst us – I like that image. A tent is a flimsy dwelling and that’s what God did when he came amongst us: he didn’t make himself immune from our struggles, but he shared them.

Jesus was God coming in the flesh to show us his love, to share his joy and bring to us his peace. That journey took Jesus to some very dark places. He knew the pits of betrayal, of rejection, of agonising physical pain, of mental distress and of death.

In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom wrote of her experiences in the Ravensbruck death camp during WWII. Just before her sister Betsie died, Corrie cried, ‘This place is the pit of hell!’ to which Betsie replied, ‘There is no pit so deep that He [God] is not deeper still.’

The bad news is that you and I will be in the pit again. The good news is we will not be alone.