40: More than just a U2 psalm

I was a sophomore in high school when I started listening to U2, with the release of their War album. As has been their pattern, the band ends the album with a hymn of sorts. On War, it’s the song “40” — a yearning rendition of Psalm 40:1-3. For many years, the song closed U2’s concerts, with fans singing along, “How long to sing this song?”

MI0000045802.jpgBecause of this, Psalm 40 has always been the U2 Psalm in my imagination. And because of my love for the Psalms and for U2, I’ve used it as a worship song in the churches I’ve pastored. And that’s been great, except for one thing: It left out verses 4-17. And boy did that leave out far too much.

The psalm begins with gratitude for what God has done in the recent past. And we see right away that the rescued, reordered life requires very little on our part and a lot on God’s part.

The person in prayer does just one thing: Wait. But this can be a long waiting, soul-straining in its required patience.

I waited patiently for the LORD …

God’s response to this waiting in prayer is multifaceted. The verbs pile up:

    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.

God pays attention, turning toward us and hearing us. He gets busy on our behalf, lifting us out of stinking, sinking situations and giving us something solid to stand on. And then he puts a brand new song in our mouths.

That last action seems off at first. The song comes from God rather than from us. He puts it in our mouths rather than it rising spontaneously from us. On first reading, I don’t like this. It feels dictated, forced. But upon subsequent readings, I realize what David is getting at: God’s salvation has been so life-altering, he can’t help but sing. The words aren’t forced, but they are irresistible. And I’m reminded of another U2 song, Magnificent:

I was born to sing for you
I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise

Again, there’s compulsion without dictation. The saved find ourselves responding irresistibly and yet with our own voices.

Because of this, the result of salvation extends beyond the saved. Others see and begin to take God seriously themselves.

Many will see and fear the LORD
    and put their trust in him.

The psalm concludes its first section with a statement of what David has learned through his experience: The blessed life comes from trusting our God, not from trusting ourselves or the nothing gods others lean on. (As he generally does, David refers to God by his personal, covenantal name Yahweh — rendered as LORD — which always highlights our God’s loyalty and faithfulness.)

Blessed is the one
    who trusts in the LORD,
who does not look to the proud,
    to those who turn aside to false gods.

With verse 5, the psalm abruptly shifts from talking about God to talking to him in prayer: What you’ve done in the past and what you’re planning to do, God, leave me in awe.

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.

In response to these wonders, God wants one thing. And to highlight it, it is sandwiched between two negatives, which is really just the same thing repeated twice. This Hebrew poetic device underlines the negative — which is particularly surprising given David’s desire to build a temple for Yahweh — while making the one thing in the middle pop out by comparison.

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire —
    but my ears you have opened 
    burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.

The ritual of worship has its place, but it’s not what God really wants. He wants listening ears. He wants ears that have been drilled out so nothing can get in the way of our hearing him.

And then comes one of the great gems of the psalm, a verse that every Bible reader ought to memorize.

Then I said, “Here I am, I have come —
    it is written about me in the scroll. (Ps. 40:7)

“Here I am” is our most basic prayer. In it, we offer ourselves to God. Fully present. Fully attentive. No running away. No hiding. All of me present to all of God.

When we are present to God, we find him present to us and we find ourselves in the Scriptures. These ancient words come alive and we discover that “it is written about me” in them.

When this is the case, our hearts align with God’s heart. His will becomes our will.

I desire to do your will, my God;
    your law is within my heart.”

And having heard God speak his Word to us, we begin to speak ourselves. We’re unable to remain silent about what God has done for us. We don’t just mull over in our minds what he has done for us as if they were private things. We don’t hide the faithfulness of God as if were something to be ashamed of. No! We speak it out.

True spirituality is never private. True spirituality always spills out of our mouths, not in pious posturing, but in uncontainable worship and witness.

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.

But now that David has committed himself to speaking on God’s behalf, he asks God to be committed on his behalf as well: “I’m not holding back my words, please don’t hold back your mercy!”

Do not withhold your mercy from me, LORD;
    may your love and faithfulness always protect me.

This isn’t a casual request. It’s a real need.

Where David began the psalm looking back on a time when God acted on his behalf, now he’s asking for it to happen again.

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.

Trouble presses on him from outside and sins press on him from inside. They occupy his attention so thoroughly he says, “I cannot see.”

What an honest statement of situational spiritual blindness. “I’m so full of myself and my circumstances, God, I can’t see you at all. This myopia is causing my heart to fail me, too. Betrayed by the eyes of my heart and flailing about, I don’t need you sometime in the future, I need you now! Come quickly!”

Be pleased to save me …

What a beautiful request. “I want you to want me.” Because there are those who are pleased with my sinking circumstance, be pleased to save me. The shaming and disgracing that they plan for me: Rebound it back on them.

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.

In contrast to the haters, may those who seek you find you, God. It will lead to more songs of rejoicing in you.

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!”

What I need most in my poverty is for God to think of me. If he does, if he pays attention and sees what’s going on, I know he will help and deliver me. That’s what he does, because that’s who he is. That’s at the very heart of the character of Yahweh.

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.

This need for God to step in without delay has me singing with the masses, “How long to sing this song? How long? How long? How long? How long to sing this song?” With U2’s Bono, I may even pop the cork from a bottle of champaign to celebrate his answer.