What is a psalm but a human emotion, poured into words? Perhaps it is a heartbreak, as in Psalm 137; or a rage, as in 109. Perhaps it is a teaching, as in 119, or a shout of praise, as in 145. But perhaps it is a desperate wail from the pit, as in Psalm 40. In the beginning, David speaks:
“I waited patiently for the LORD, and He inclined to me, and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a terrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps. He has put a new song in my mouth—praise to our God; many will see it and fear, and trust in the LORD.”
The terrible pit is a sort of cistern —a low place, in the dark, with a thick, viscous layer of sludge at the bottom. It is the “miry clay.” The clearest Biblical description of this kind of mud tells us that it took 30 men to hoist Jeremiah out of the muck of the king’s cistern. It was a trapping, cloying, sucking mud that left its victim suffocating and immobile in the darkness.
David sees his struggle like this. He feels helpless, lost, forgotten, stuck, walled in, surrounded, in the dark, sinking, trapped and smothered, with no way out. No one knows what David is struggling with, and he feels forgotten. Basically, he’s a missionary.
God doesn’t forget David, however; instead He bends down, hears David’s cry, and descends to the pit. God hears David in the place of forgetting and reverses his situation. Instead of a cry for help, a new song bursts from his mouth—praise to his God.
The psalm soars higher and higher as David reflects on God’s goodness, the incredible number not only of His works on his behalf, but also His thoughts toward him (4-5). He steps out and shares who God is and what He has done, and he makes an incredible claim:
“I do not restrain my lips . . . I have not hidden Your righteousness in my heart; I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth from the great assembly” (9-10).
What a crescendo! What a testimony! But then the psalm takes a sudden turn. In verse 11, David pleads for God’s mercies. In verse 12 he says, “My iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head; therefore my heart fails me.” Wait, what? What happened? How is David drowning again?
What has happened? Now David is so ashamed that he can’t even pick his head up. He wallows in the guilt of uncountable sins and feels that he has to beg for mercy. He describes himself as “poor and needy” (17). He’s back in the pit, waiting again, right where he started. He cries out for deliverance and ends not on a resolution but on a prayer for God to hurry up and rescue him. Again.
This universal Christian experience can be especially intense for foreign workers and ministry leaders. The horrible isolation rings true; it’s easy to feel forgotten in a foreign land, alone with the terrible responsibility of presenting a good testimony—perhaps the only testimony people will ever see. On the other hand, sharing the gospel is a high. Proclaiming who Jesus is, and seeing a glimmer of understanding in someone’s eye, provokes an incredible feeling of joy, awe, and humility at being included in God’s work to touch souls.
But. What happens when the new believer returns to old habits, or you discover that they had just gone underground with their sin, instead of repenting, or when the Bible study you’ve invested in falls apart, when your children hate the new country, or when illness takes your parent, and you can’t go home to say goodbye? What happens when you find yourself totally discouraged, not knowing why you bother leaving the house? What happens when a sin you thought you had kicked rises up to bite you again? What happens when you know better, but you still end up in the pit?
There’s no resolution in this psalm. David feels no joy or gladness. In verse 16 he can only talk about other people magnifying God: “Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad in You; let such as love Your salvation say continually, ‘The LORD be magnified!’”
Isn’t that so often the story? You know that someone, somewhere, is starting churches. But it isn’t you. Somebody’s seeing people respond to the gospel and make genuine life changes. Some other missionary catches the language quickly and goes zipping along, making relationships, and then there’s this other missionary who gets along famously with everybody on the local team, and you’re left out. You see small gains, but it’s definitely two steps forward, one step backward, every day.
Thus, David is poor and needy. He’s a king (exceedingly well-funded from the home country, as it were), but he lacks. The need is in his heart, not in his pockets; but who sees that? The one thought he clings to is, “Yet the LORD thinks upon me” (17a). God sees. God really does see.
More than that, He empathizes. And it’s only in the quiet place, alone like Hagar with the Lord-who-sees-me, where this really hits, because the truth is that David’s God stepped one day into David’s shoes. He worked for three years with incredibly thick-headed national partners who just didn’t get the mission. He endured the brokenness of this world, the betrayal and loss, the misunderstandings, and the being put onto a pedestal one minute and crucified the next. He dealt with scheming, jealous religious leaders and all the irritations of a foreign bureaucracy.
He knows what the pit feels like. He gets it, and He “thinks upon” His struggling children who also deal with it. The temptation in the pit is to give up and go home, to assume that you are useless and will never touch people for God’s kingdom, because you struggle. I can only echo Paul, from 1 Corinthians 4:3-5—today is always too soon to judge.
Like David, we all live in the unknown of the present. David didn’t know his legacy would include Jesus. He didn’t know that people across the world would be reading translations of his poetry. He had no clue what an encouragement he would be in his own transparency. God has a wonderful way of turning the craziest parts of our life into something good. We just can’t evaluate that today. Instead we must hang in there and trust Him, even in the pit.
An inveterate adventurer and acceptable-risk-taker, Jennifer May grew up as an MK in Zimbabwe, Africa, and migrated with her family back to the United States at 11. “I’m sorry, I grew up in Africa,” is her favorite excuse for not getting pop culture references from the 90s. A lifelong passion for missions brought Jennifer to Canada for three years, and now has her serving in Mexico, where she occasionally rides bulls. She has co-written a book that uses Chronological Bible Storying to help young people understand their identity according to the Bible, available here. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.