The prophet Jeremiah felt the scorn of those who sought comfort, not God’s truth, because he spoke of God’s irrevocable judgment on Jerusalem. The officials of the king decided instead to make Jeremiah’s death inevitable, and they threw him into the cistern intending for him to die there: “There was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.” Ultimately, Jeremiah was rescued from the cistern, but the episode points to the reality of life. Speaking the truth of God and following the truth of God do not always lead to sweetness and light.
The truth is not always nice, for us or for others; and Psalm 40, a psalm of David, seems to speak directly to the muck that Jeremiah found himself in and God’s saving him in his distress. The first three verses read:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
The promise of God is not that we will not suffer for him, but that God will not forget us in the muck and the mud of everyday life and will reach down to us and be with us in our need. It is a psalm that inspired Bono and the other members of U2 to write the song “40,” a meditation on Psalm 40, for their 1983 album, “War.” In U2’s version, Bono sings:
I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the mire and clay...
The biblical scholar Eugene Peterson, in a conversation with Bono, says of the song “40”: “It’s one of the songs that reaches into the hurt and disappointment and difficulty of being a human being. It acknowledges that in language that is immediately recognizable. There’s something that reaches into the heart of a person and the stuff we all feel but many of us don’t talk about.” There is a tendency when we read the Bible to think of it as speaking of people who are not subject to the same fears, tears, pain and hopelessness that we are, but Psalm 40, like U2’s “40,” reflects raw human suffering and concern.
Peterson, in his translation of the Bible known as The Message, offers this version of Psalm 40: “I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked. Finally he listened. He lifted me out of the ditch. He pulled me from deep mud, stood me up on a solid rock to make sure that I wouldn’t slip. He taught me how to sing the latest God-song.” Peterson says, “Praying wasn’t getting nice before God…. The Psalms are not pretty, they’re not nice… I think I’m doing it as close to the Hebrew as I can get it. But it’s not smooth, it’s not nice, it’s not pretty, but it’s honest. And I think we’re trying for honesty, which is very, very hard in our culture.”
Bono had said earlier in the conversation with Peterson: “Why do we need art? Why do we need the lyric poetry of the Psalms? Why do we need them? Because the only way we can approach God is if we’re honest through metaphor, through symbol. Art becomes essential, not decorative.” The psalms speak with honesty of our relationship with God, in praise, in lament, in anger, in despair, in joy, in wonder. The gamut of human emotion is on display, offered to God in honesty from the miry clay of whatever well into we have fallen into. But the psalmist always turns to God with this raw honesty and at the end of Psalm 40 seems stunned that God turned to him: “As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me./ You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.”
It is not weakness to cry out to God with your pain, your loss, your suffering, to ask it to come to an end. This is the truth God wants, a fiery soul that burns with passion for God, that does not let him go but puts him first in all things—not just joy and praise, but despair and pain.