When The Breakers Roll
So who else here likes to go on vacation to the beach? Our family has gone several times to the Outer Banks--along with most of the rest of Pennsylvania, it seems! There’s something about being at the ocean that is uniquely relaxing to me; the last time we went to the beach a few years ago I think I actually sat there for about 8 hours straight, just staring at the ocean and listening to the waves crashing on the shoreline.
But as relaxing as it might be to sit and watch and listen to the surf, it’s quite another experience to wade out into it, isn’t it? Then your experience changes from a quiet, relaxing contemplation of the beauty of the ocean into a vigilant exercise in keeping it from killing you. (One comedian says that it’s a strange experience swimming in a body of water that keeps trying to throw you out of it!) You literally have to keep on your toes--you have to time yourself to swim up over the breakers in order to keep your head above water (or “duck-dive” under the swells as they pass). I can usually keep it up for about fifteen minutes before I have to return to my blanket and umbrella to recuperate--but I’ve known the guys to stay in the surf for an hour or more!
It’s especially bad when you mis-time one of those breakers--has that ever happened to you? For whatever reason you either don’t see it coming or don’t get out of the way in time? One second you’re standing in the sun and the air, and the next you feel three-quarters of a ton of gravel-laced seawater slamming you to the ground (that’s no exaggeration--one cubic yard of water weighs about 1,700 pounds! The original Volkswagen VW weighed in at 1,650 pounds!) It doesn’t take very many of those experiences to significantly dampen one’s enthusiasm for a beach vacation--so it’s probably a good thing that we’re going to Deep Creek Lake this summer!
The psalmist who wrote Psalm 42 uses that image of being wiped out by an ocean breaker to describe his spiritual condition-- “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me” (v. 7). Whether or not you’ve ever been run over by the saltwater equivalent of a VW Bug, you can certainly understand what the psalmist means here: There are times in our walk with God when we feel absolutely flattened by our experiences. You’re lying face down in the gravel, maybe getting shoved along the ground as the breakers churn around you. You’re helpless against the force of it--you’re exhausted and bewildered, and you feel like God is a million miles away.
Maybe that’s where you’re at today--you’ve just been blindsided by a breaker you never saw coming, and you’re struggling. It’s not a matter of some sin in your life--you’re not suffering the consequences of foolish rebellion against God--but nevertheless here you are, in the middle of a profound season of dryness in your walk with Him. And your circumstances aren’t helping--maybe it’s a strain in your marriage, maybe an unexpected problem with your finances, maybe a real rough patch at work with your co-workers or boss, maybe your health has taken a real bad turn, maybe you’re being faced with a difficult decision and you just can’t seem to get your footing.
Either you are in the midst of that struggle now, or have been in the past, or will be in the future. To live in this fallen world is to encounter those times when you are simply bewildered by the weakness of your walk with God, when you say, “Why am I so cast down? Why am I in such turmoil!? If it were sin in my life, I could understand, but this--this seems to have just come out of nowhere!” So what are we to do when we have been rolled over by the breakers? When we are gasping for spiritual breath, looking for comfort from God in the middle of our predicament while feeling like we are a million miles away from Him?
Psalm 42 was written to answer precisely those questions. We see in the heading that this psalm is called a “maskill”. The root meaning of the word has to do with “instruction”, or “successful speaking or teaching”--so it’s fair to say that this psalm was written to instruct us on what to do when the breakers of the LORD roll over us, when we are panting after fellowship with God in our dryness and isolation. The author has instructed this psalm to be sung by “the Sons of Korah”, a term used to describe the Levite family who were charged with leading the worship of God in the tabernacle (and later, the Temple in Jerusalem--2 Chronicles 20:19). So this psalm is meant to be a public song of instruction for saints who find themselves rolled over by the breakers of God, who feel lost and separated from Him by their circumstances.
And I believe we find in this psalm at least two things that the psalmist did, two strategies he employed during his season of spiritual depression that will instruct us when that same struggle inevitably comes our way. And what this psalm teaches us is that it is not a sin to be spiritually depressed, but it is possible to sin while spiritually depressed.
Let me show you what I mean by this. As we look through our passage, we see the psalmist speaking very plainly about his condition--he is thirsty for God (vv. 1-2), “cast down” and “in turmoil” (vv. 5-6, 11), feeling like God has forgotten him (v. 9). His enemies taunt him saying “where is your God?” (v. 10), and as if that isn’t bad enough his own tears taunt him, saying “where is your God?” (v. 3). He is emotionally, spiritually (and even physically--v. 3: “tears day and night have been my food”) “cast down” and “in turmoil”.
Now, it would be easy, wouldn’t it, to simply succumb to that darkness, to just accept what your heart is telling you about yourself? To say, “There’s no hope for me--God has forgotten me. All of His promises are for other people, but not for me. What’s the use of even pretending to be a Christian?” But that is not what the psalmist did, is it? What was his response to being laid low by the breakers? The first strategy he employed in fighting his spiritual depression was that he didn’t just listen to himself; he preached to himself! Instead of just giving up and accepting the feeling that he was abandoned by God, he got hold of himself and said, “Hey, Soul, listen to me--Hope in God, soul! He is your salvation! I know right now you feel like God is a million miles away--but He is still your God!
There is a world of difference between listening to yourself and preaching to yourself! It doesn’t mean that you deny what you are going through, or try to shrug it off as if it doesn’t matter. The psalmist, after all, admitted freely that he had been weeping day and night, and his tears accused him of being abandoned by God. He heard his enemies taunting him with God’s absence, and plainly acknowledged that it seemed that God had “forgotten him” (v. 9). But even as he confess(ed) the depths of his (your) despair, but even more his (your) hope in God’s promises!
Look carefully at the structure of this psalm and you will see what I mean. In the course of the eleven verses of Psalm 42, the psalmist refers to God fifteen times--fourteen times he uses the name “God” (Heb., El, elohim), but only once --in verse 8-- does he refer to Him as LORD (Heb., YHWH). “By day YHWH commands his “steadfast love” (Heb., hesed), and at night His song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” In other words, even in the midst of his doubt and despair and darkness of his longing for God, he acknowledges that God is a faithful, covenant-keeping God who has commanded His faithful love for him! He preached to himself that Yahweh cannot break His promises.
The psalmist was genuinely struggling with spiritual darkness in his life, but that didn’t stop him from preaching to his own soul about the covenant faithfulness of his God! “Soul, I know you’re cast down and in turmoil right now--I know you are panting after the presence of God and mourning over how far away you feel from Him right now. And I admit--it looks bleak. But Yahweh cannot fail to show His steadfast, faithful covenant love to you! You will rejoice again! He has been, He is, and He will always be your Rock! Do not forget, soul! He is your Rock!” So Christian, when the breakers roll over you and you are thrown to the gravel, preach to yourself! “God is faithful--He is my God, and I shall again praise Him!
When the breakers roll over you, Christian, don’t listen to yourself, preach to yourself. And the second strategy we see here in this psalm for battling spiritual depression is that the psalmist didn’t isolate himself; he got himself into fellowship! For the psalmist, the key to overcoming the downcast turmoil of his soul was to seek the sanctuary of God!
Look at verse 2. He is expressing his longing for God: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God…” and then he asks, “When shall I come and appear before God?” That same phrase “appear before God” is used elsewhere in the Old Testament specifically regarding the gathered worship of the people of God. In Exodus 23:17, for instance, God is establishing the three major feasts of the Jewish calendar--(Unleavened Bread/Passover, Feast of Harvest, Feast of Ingathering), He describes them as the times when “all your males shall appear before the LORD your God”). So when the psalmist asks, “When shall I come and appear before God?”, he is asking, “when shall I join with the rest of Israel to worship before God??”
He goes on in verse 4 to recall that his happiest times of fellowship with God were when he was with the whole congregation: “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!” The psalmist’s solution to his spiritual malaise wasn’t to say, “I’m not in a good enough place to go to worship--I just need to stay home!”, did he?
We are so tempted, when we are feeling spiritually run-down and weak, to stay away from the gathered worship of God’s people. To isolate ourselves, stay away from other believers. But that’s a trap, isn’t it? Just ask the lion who is waiting for the sick or lame wildebeest to wander off from the herd! Healing for spiritual depression is not found in isolation from other believers, but fellowship with each other. You can almost consider it axiomatic that when you most need fellowship with others is when you least feel like it!
Now, it is clear from the context of this psalm that the psalmist was unavoidably prevented from coming to the sanctuary--in verse 6, for instance, he says “I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon…”. Mount Hermon was at the extreme northern end of Israel, about 118 miles from Jerusalem and the Temple. So it was physically impossible for him to come to the sanctuary to worship with the people of God. Add to that the oppression of his enemies (v. 9), which was also making it difficult for him to come to worship. And that unavoidable separation from God’s presence in worship was part of what was bringing him so low.
There are times when we are similarly cut off from appearing before God in the gathered worship of His people. Whether through illness or emergency or unavoidable responsibilities of work. And like the psalmist, these unavoidable absences can weigh on us--being cut off from worship for extended periods of time can bring us low spiritually, and cause us to feel separated from God. This is why it is so important that we reach out to church members who are cut off and unable to gather here with us. What a balm it would have been for the psalmist if he had been sitting in that remote northern wilderness and looked up to see people who had traveled all the way from the sanctuary to come and worship with him! We give great comfort to saints who are cut off from worship when we visit them in their isolation.
But this means, then that the opposite is also true. If saints who are cut off from the gathered worship of God are greatly encouraged when we go to them, then it is also true that we hamper our own spiritual health when we habitually cut ourselves off from worship. We need to consider the vast gulf that exists between the psalmist’s high regard for worship and our own. Here in these verses we hear the cry of a soul that is desperate to join with God’s people in the sanctuary, because his spiritual health wastes away without it. Yet somehow our attitude is very different, isn’t it? According to the Gallup Organization, which conducts polls across the United States, a “regular church attender” is someone who attends services twice a month. Twice a month! Twenty-four times a year! There were only three festivals that this psalmist got to go to, and he was depressed because he couldn’t get to them--how much more would his heart have leapt to be able to gather with God’s people to worship in His presence every week!
And right about now, your head is filling up with the “yeah-but”s, isn’t it? “Yeah, but what about this situation? What about that?” I’m not coming after anyone for attendance--you’re here, after all!--but meditate on this psalmist’s desire for worship and take the time to search your own heart. Consider how your attitude toward worship lines up with the life-and-death attitude on display here in Psalm 42.
Here’s a little thought experiment to help you diagnose your heart right now. Say you get a phone call from an estate attorney who informs you that you have a long-lost millionaire uncle who has named you the sole heir of his fifty-million-dollar fortune. But he was a crotchety old atheist, and his one condition for you receiving that fifty million dollars is that you can never set foot inside a church again for the rest of your life. Fifty million dollars, free and clear, if you never go to church or worship together with other Christians ever again. Would you take that deal? Can your desire for the gathered worship of God by His people be overshadowed by a 50 million dollar payday? If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s been overshadowed by far less, hasn’t it?
But what the psalmist understood (and what we need to recover) is the understanding that habitually separating yourself from the gathered worship of God with His people denies you one of the most powerful means of grace that He has given you--the present ministry of Christ through His people (1 Peter 2:10, “The People of God”). The Body of Christ (Eph. 1:23). Are you cast down and in turmoil this morning? Was it hard to come to church today? Have the breakers been rolling over you, one after the other, throwing you into the gravel, choking you with the salt water of your own tears? Then this is the place for you to be! Here where God uses His people to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak” (1 Thess. 5:14), to suffer with you, to rejoice with you (1 Cor. 12:26 “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together”), to comfort you (1 Cor. 13:11) and to protect you, to have people who are always pursuing what is good for you ( 1 Thess. 5:15).
Several years ago we were at the beach and Selah (who was about three at the time) wanted to go wade in the surf. So I walked in with her, holding her hand, and let her splash around where the water would come up to around her ankles. And then suddenly, sure enough, here came a breaker that we didn’t see coming--and it hit us full-on, wiping her feet out from under her and submerging her under water. But I had her by the hand. I hoisted her up out of the surf, spitting and snorting and crying, and held her close and comforted her. She was safe, because Daddy had her.
Beloved, that is what this church is for you. When you are slammed to the ground by the breakers, when you are cast down in the turmoil of your heart and the only thing you can taste is the salt of your tears, when you are pummeled and battered by the storm, this congregation is the way your Heavenly Father holds you by the hand and pulls you out of the breakers when they come and holds you close.
And none of us here are able to pull you out of those breakers because we stand on our own strength!. We can pull each other out of the breakers only because we stand on the rock of God’s promises to us in Christ! Of all of God’s breakers that have ever laid you low, nothing can compare to the crushing blow that your Savior bore from His Father when He absorbed His wrath against your sin on the Cross! “What can we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31-32). Jesus Christ is the One Who died and was raised and sits at the right hand of God interceding for you today, Christian! There is no breaker that can wash over you, there is no enemy that can accuse you, there are no tears that can wash away your hope that nothing shall separate you from the love of Christ!
So do not succumb to that weakness and dryness--do not listen to yourself; PREACH to yourself! “Soul? Why are you downcast? You will hope in God again! There is nothing that can separate you from the love of your Savior (so why would you want to separate yourself??) Not tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword can separate you from Him! Neither life nor death nor angels nor rulers, neither the past, nor the present or the future--no height or depth or anything else in all creation--will be able to move your feet from the Rock of your salvation, Jesus Christ!