Friday of Lent IV: Psalm 142

From According to Your Mercy by Fr. Martin Shannon

Friday of Lent IV
Psalm 142

“Thou art my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.” v. 5

The cry of the poet in Psalm 142 is directed to his only hope in a time of loneliness and faintheartedness. The superscription attached to this psalm suggests that it was written by David “when he was in the cave.” The exact circumstances are unclear, but the two incidences we have recorded in Scripture of David in a cave — 1 Samuel 22:1 and 1 Samuel 24:3–4 — are related to the time when he was fleeing for his life from a jealous and vengeful King Saul. Most praying this psalm are not in such dire conditions, though even today in many parts of the world faith in God is lived at the risk of losing everything dear, even one’s own life. We can pray these desperate words at any time in the name of those who suffer such persecution.

On a more personal level, there are at least two significant elements of this psalm that anyone can understand. The first is the utter sense of loneliness, of abandonment even. Not only is the psalmist in trouble but no one cares. He looks for consolation, for someone to offer compassion and reassurance, and is bereft of all good company. “There is none who takes notice of me,” he laments, adding “no man cares for me” (Ps. 142:4). One translation reads, “There was no patron for my soul” — no advocate, no ally. However independent and self-sufficient we may consider ourselves to be, the human heart recoils in grief at such times of loneliness. In such bitter times the heart yearns for a companion.

A second place we can all perhaps relate to is found in verse 3 (emphasis added): “When my spirit is faint.” The word appears eight other times in the psalms, referring variously to the psalmist’s heart, flesh, soul, or spirit. In other words, he says: I am so tired — in body, mind, and spirit — that I don’t think I can go on. If one’s heart can be bone-tired, that is what this word means. For the psalmist, a brisk walk in the way of the Lord has reverted to a tenuous shuffling. His fears make each step slow, and his loneliness makes each step uncertain.

In fact, however, the psalmist does have company in his condition. Despite his fear, he knows that there is one who knows his path, one who hears his cry (6). For the psalmist, this is no theological platitude. Placing hope in the Lord is the utter conviction of his heart. There is nowhere else to turn and, notwithstanding his vacillation between despair and trust, he expects God to bring his soul “out of prison” (7). The psalmist uses an interesting word when he describes the Lord as his “portion in the land of the living” (5). It is the same Hebrew word used to refer to the inheritance of land apportioned to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. In other words, like one who lives off the land, the psalmist “lives off” God. With such bountiful provision at hand, the psalmists expects that the Lord will renew his strength, so that, now surrounded by the heartening company of the righteous (7), he will once again “walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:31).

Now when the enemy of righteousness, the foe of the human race, . . . that is to say, Satan, the opponent of all virtues, and the hater of the upright life of the children of humankind, saw that this brother was overcoming and bringing to naught all his crafty designs by the might of his simple obedience . . . he made a plan to lay snares for him in the path of his spiritual excellence.

Only you know the path that is set before me, Father.
So, when it is desolate, and when it is dangerous,

— and when I am dog-tired —
you need to be the first one I turn to.

Meet the Author: Fr. Martin Shannon, Community of Jesus


According to Your Mercy is available from Paraclete Press and from Priory Books and Gifts.

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