(2Sa 12:15-23 ESV) 15 Then Nathan went to his house. And the LORD afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick. 16 David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.
18 On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us. How then can we say to him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.” 19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David understood that the child was dead. And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” 20 Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate.
21 Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23 But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
David behavior was abnormal by human standards. He mourned before his baby died and stopped mourning afterwards. Even his servants were confused by David’s attitude. David explained, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
By God’s standards, David behaved sensibly, imploring God’s mercy until it was too late, and then accepting God’s decision even though unhappy with it. The same attitude is reflected in David’s psalms. In Psalm 119, David repeatedly thanks God for afflicting him, and David assures God that his affliction has caused him to turn to God’s law. David responds to affliction in obedience.
(Psa 119:67 ESV) 67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.
(Psa 119:71 ESV) 71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.
(Psa 119:75-76 ESV) 75 I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. 76 Let your steadfast love comfort me according to your promise to your servant.
(Psa 119:92-93 ESV) 92 If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. 93 I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life.
(Psa 119:107-108 ESV) 107 I am severely afflicted; give me life, O LORD, according to your word! 108 Accept my freewill offerings of praise, O LORD, and teach me your rules.
Most of us tend to feel that when things go wrong, God has broken his bargain with us. We go to church, put 20 bucks in the plate, and figure we should be spared affliction. But God is not so easily controlled — and David understands.
Affliction can become an experience of divine grace. It calls us to introspection, to humility, to dependance upon God. And God is present in the midst of that affliction to receive us, love us and renew us.
I’ve been there. I’m there now. Affliction is sometimes a divine act of transformation.
Here’s a more familiar Psalm —
(Psa 51:8 ESV) 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Notice that David doesn’t even for healing of his bones — surely a metaphor for being hurt in the deepest parts of his soul. I’d pray for my “bones” to be mended. David prays to learn how to rejoice with broken bones!
You see, people with the heart of God don’t think or act like regular folks. Indeed, the world cannot understand how someone can be this way, this other-worldly.
When we suffer a great loss — the death of a child, a divorce — we don’t get over it. Rather, we learn to live with it, and eventually, even to rejoice despite it. It doesn’t turn out for the best — not so far as we can tell. The loss is permanent. But we learn to cope and to find joy in the Lord despite the loss.
Christians often want God to fix the problem, to make us no longer miss our child or our spouse, and God does help us with that. But the goal isn’t to forget. The goal is to rejoice despite the affliction, because the delights of God far exceed the temporary sufferings of this world. It’s not that the sufferings aren’t real and aren’t painful. It’s that the better we know God and the more faith we have in his promises, the truer our perspective is.
This is not to make light of the pain of the loss. The point is that we can celebrate God even while in pain.
And it’s an important lesson because so many Christians believe they bought an insurance policy against suffering for the low, low price of baptism and church attendance. When things go horribly wrong, they feel cheated, get angry, and leave God. But it’s not like that —
Consider Psalm 102 —
(Psa 102:1 ESV) A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the LORD.
Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to you!
2 Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress! Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!
3 For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.
4 My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread.
5 Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my flesh.
6 I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places;
7 I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
8 All the day my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse.
9 For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink,
10 because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down.
11 My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.
The first 11 verses lament David’s difficult situation. He’s in tears, surrounded by enemies, and withering away. How does David respond? Not by asking for God’s help. Rather —
12 But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.
13 You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come.
14 For your servants hold her stones dear and have pity on her dust.
15 Nations will fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.
16 For the LORD builds up Zion; he appears in his glory;
17 he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer.
18 Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD:
19 that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven the LORD looked at the earth,
20 to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die,
21 that they may declare in Zion the name of the LORD, and in Jerusalem his praise,
22 when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.
David exults in the God’s love for Israel, his promises to the chidren of Israel. He recalls the Exodus and looks forward to the in-gathering of the nations in worship of God.
23 He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days.
24 “O my God,” I say, “take me not away in the midst of my days– you whose years endure throughout all generations!”
Again, David’s thoughts return to his own suffering — his fears of dying young. But this doesn’t last for long.
25 Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
27 but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28 The children of your servants shall dwell secure; their offspring shall be established before you.
David concludes by recalling the mighty works of God, the mortality of God’s enemies, and the security God’s people have.
Not once does David ask for relief for himself and even speak of God’s promises to him. Rather, he exults in the greatness of God and his promises to his people.
David takes the big-picture view, a view that is after God’s own heart. David manages to look beyond his own affliction to the cosmic plans of God for his people and to rejoice in God’s vision and plans, despite his personal affliction.
Consider also —
(Psa 42:1-11 ESV) To the choirmaster. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah.
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.
David is in agony. He wants God to appear, to show the doubters that David’s faith is not in vain. David wishes to display his love for God, and yet he has no answer.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation 6 and my God.
My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
“My soul is cast down … therefore I remember you … .” This is the faith of David. Rather than demanding a sign or relief from his enemies, David takes consolation in praising God despite his thirst for God and despite his turmoil.
7 Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
David finds God in the waterfalls, the waves of the sea, and in the passing of day and night. Nature brings him to song and prayer.
9 I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”
Again, David returns to his mourning and the taunts of his enemies. His mind isn’t calmed as easily as he’d hoped.
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
Ultimately, though, David assures himself with his hope in God, and so he turns to praise.
But not all the Psalms end this way —
(Psa 88:13-1 ESV) 13 But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together.
18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.
The sons of Korah pray to God for comfort, and yet none comes. The Psalm is unresolved. There is no happy ending. You see, the Psalms are real.
The Jews did not hesitate to express their true feelings to God (why hide what cannot be hidden?). The psalmists vent their frustration, their anger, their impatience for God’s deliverance. Sometimes they conclude philosophically — in terms of God’s greater plan. Sometimes with a happy conclusion. Sometimes with praise despite no answer. And sometimes just no answer.
But never do the psalmists lose faith. Never do they leave God or reject him. They know and love God, even when they don’t like how things are going. They praise even when life is miserable.
And yet, in their humanity, they become angry and they vent and sometimes they can’t quite bring themselves to end in praise — today. That has to wait for the next Psalm, and there is always a next psalm.
David deals with the loss of his son by looking at the bigger picture. Having a deep, abiding faith, the loss of his son doesn’t threaten his faith; it affirms it. He knows that one day he’ll see his son again, and he takes comfort in that. Rather than being angry with God, his loss drives him back into the arms of God (which is why he wrote Psalm 51).
He mourns before his son’s death because he knows his death is God’s will, and yet he hopes God will relent. But once it’s over, David rests in his faith.
This is, of course, far easier to write than to do. John Mark Hicks has lived it, and written beautifully about it (Brokenness (1, 2, 3)). But it’s a lesson that isn’t learned intellectually. Not really. It’s learned in the crucible of experience, of suffering.
[Thanks to Adam for suggesting many of these thoughts.]