Thursday, October 13, 2011

Toward a Biblical Perspective on Depression: Psalm 119

In this post I would like to shift focus to another psalm. Psalm 119 has several stanzas in which the author describes a struggle with what we would call depression, but we will focus our attention on the Daleth stanza in verses 25-32:
NKJ  Psalm 119:25 “My soul clings [דָּבַק, dāḇaq] to the dust; revive me according to Your word.”
Here the Psalmist describes how low he feels with the graphic metaphor, “my soul clings to the dust.” It is similar to the metaphor I have sometimes heard and used, “I'm so low I feel I've been sucking the mud.” The NIV translates the idiom, “I am laid low in the dust.” However, it is also possible that we should understand the Psalmist as Charles Spurgeon suggests:
He means in part that he was full of sorrow; for mourners in the east cast dust on their heads, and sat in ashes, and the Psalmist felt as if these ensigns of woe were glued to him, and his very soul was made to cleave to them because of his powerlessness to rise above his grief …. Whatever was the cause of his complaint, it was no surface evil, but an affair of his inmost spirit; his soul cleaved to the dust; and it was not a casual and accidental falling into the dust, but a continuous and powerful tendency, or cleaving to the earth. But what a mercy that the good man could feel and deplore whatever there was of evil in the cleaving! The serpent's seed can find their meat in the dust, but never shall the seed of the woman be thus degraded. (Treasury of David, e-Sword)
The word translated revive is the piel of חָיָה (ḥāyāh), which means to “preserve, keep alive … [or] bring (back) to life” (Holladay #2491, BibleWorks). Thus the Psalmist feels as though he is dying and thus needs reviving, although we shall see in verse 28 that he appears actually to be extremely distressed or depressed.

Thankfully, however, he knows that the answer to his woes is to be found in seeking the Lord in prayer and in His Word. And he also knows he needs to abandon control of his own life to the Lord, as the next verses make clear.
NKJ  Psalm 119:26-27 “I have declared my ways [דֶּרֶךְ, derek, path], and You answered me; teach me Your statutes. 27 Make me understand the way [דֶּרֶךְ, derek, path] of Your precepts; so shall I meditate on Your wondrous works.”
When the Psalmist says that he has declared his ways, he seems to mean that he has confessed his own sinful ways to God (see also vs. 29). But as with all true confession and repentance, the Psalmist is not satisfied unless he learns to follow the right way. Thus he asks God to teach him and to give him understanding of His Word as he meditates on it. Perhaps the depression the man is experiencing is due to God's discipline for his sins, but whatever the reason, the answer is found in trusting the Lord to speak to him through His Word and thus to help him turn his life around.
NKJ  Psalm 119:28 “My soul melts [דָּלַף, dālap̱] from heaviness [תּוּגָה, tûg̱āh]; strengthen me according to Your word.”
Here is another vivid metaphor by which the Psalmist describes his depression. He refers to his weeping as though his soul is melting away with each teardrop. The Hebrew word, דָּלַף (dālap̱), literally means to drop or drip and can refer to a leak in the roof of a house (BDB #2150, BibleWorks). Have you ever felt – or could you imagine feeling – as though your very soul was leaking out of your body with every tear that falls? This is what the Psalmist felt like, and it is a description of a very heavy heart indeed! This is no doubt why the NKJV translates the first line as “My soul melts from heaviness” (italics mine). However, the Hebrew word is תּוּגָה (tûg̱āh), which would better be translated as grief. In fact, The Complete Word Study Dictionary by Spiros Zodhiates states of this word that:
It refers to the emotion and process of feeling a great loss and loneliness (Psa 119:28). A son who is a fool creates grief in his parents (Pro 10:1; 17:21. For the wicked, even the end of joy is grief (Pro 14:13). (e-Sword)
At any rate the NIV translation of the opening line as “My soul is weary with sorrow” is a poor one because it misses the metaphor of the soul as “melting away in the trickling down of tears” (Keil & Delitzsch, e-Sword).

But notice again that in the very next line the Psalmist asks God for help, and he specifically asks Him for help according to His Word. As Charles Spurgeon put it:
He had found out an ancient promise that the saints shall be strengthened, and here he pleads it. His hope in his state of depression lies not in himself, but in his God; if he may be strengthened from on high he will yet shake off his heaviness and rise to joy again. Observe how he pleads the promise of the word, and asks for nothing more than to be dealt with after the recorded manner of the Lord of mercy. (Treasury of David, e-Sword)
I hope all of us will also confidently trust in the Lord and His promises when we are so far down in the dumps! If we struggle to trust Him this way, then we need to ask all the more, “strengthen me according to Your word.”
NKJ  Psalm 119:29 “Remove from me the way [דֶּרֶךְ, derek, path] of lying, and grant me Your law graciously.”
Earlier the Psalmist had confessed his ways to the Lord (recall vs. 26). Here he gets more specific and confesses a struggle with lying. But once again he is not content just to ask the Lord to take lying away from him. He knows that in its place must come the Word of God, which is why he immediately adds, “and grant me Your law graciously.”

It is also possible that the Psalmist has in mind hypocrisy in general, which is the way the ESV seems to take the verse when it translates the opening line, “Put false ways far from me.” Either way, it is easy to see why he says what he says in the next verse.
NKJ  Psalm 119:30 “I have chosen the way [דֶּרֶךְ, derek, path] of truth [אֱמוּנָה, ’emûnāh, or faithfulness]; Your judgments I have laid before me.”
The Psalmist has not only chosen to put lying behind him with God's help, he has also chosen to live his life according to God's truth and to keep it before Him. This is what the metaphor of walking in a particular way means. It means that one has chosen to live in a particular way. In this case, it reflects the choice to live in the way of truth as found in God's Word. This recalls his earlier desire to understand and meditate on God's Word and on His works revealed therein (vs. 27).
NKJ  Psalm 119:31 “I cling [דָּבַק, dāḇaq] to Your testimonies; O LORD, do not put me to shame!”
Here the Psalmist uses the repetition of a key word to help reinforce his point about his commitment to God's Word. He began the psalm by saying, “My soul clings [דָּבַק, dāḇaq] to the dust,” and now he uses the same Hebrew word to declare, “I cling [דָּבַק, dāḇaq] to Your testimonies.”

Here some modern versions – in their desire to avoid repetitious language  – translate this word with different English words and actually miss a key emphasis of the author (see, e.g., the NIV and NASB). But in this instance, at least, the NKJV does better by translating the Hebrew word the same way in both places, enabling us to see how the author applies the remedy to the specific problem mentioned earlier. In this way the Psalmist shows us that the remedy for a soul that clings to the dust is to cling just as tightly to God's Word! How sad it is when we neglect God's Word in our times of sorrow and depression! The Psalmist no doubt felt the same temptation, which is why he resolves in this psalm not to neglect God's Word and constantly asks for God's help to understand it, to meditate on it, and to live faithfully according to it.

I think this is also why the Psalmist cries out, “O LORD, do not put me to shame!” He does not want to experience the shame that will come from abandoning God's way and God's Word in the midst of his depression. Apparently, the only thing worse for him than the terrible sorrow he is feeling would be to falter in his walk with God and in his witness for God.
NKJ  Psalm 119:32 “I will run the course [דֶּרֶךְ, derek, way or path] of Your commandments, for You shall enlarge [רָחַב , rāḥaḇ] my heart.”
Here again the Psalmist uses metaphorical language, this time to describe his resolve and his confidence that God will indeed answer his prayer and enable him to live as he should. In the first line he says not just that he will walk in the way or path of the God's commandments, but that he will run in them! But what does a person in ancient Israel need if he is going to run along the mountainous terrain? He needs a large or wide path! And this is what leads to the metaphor in the next line, where the NKJV has quite literally translated it, “for You shall enlarge my heart” (see also the ESV and NASB). The Complete Word Study Dictionary says of the Hebrew word that it is:
A verb indicating to enlarge, to extend; to open wide. It means to gain living space, territory (Gen 26:22); especially as the work of the Lord (Exo 34:24; Deu 12:20; 19:8). The psalmists praise God for enlarging them, giving them strength (2 Sam 22:37). It is used of giving a person space, relief in a time of danger (Psa 4:1). (e-Sword)
Here the Psalmist seems to have in mind the idea that God will enlarge his heart so that it will be big enough to take in all the teaching of His Word and so that it will increase in its ability to live in accordance with it. The point the Psalmist is making here is clear enough, namely that he will be very successful navigating the course of his life in accordance with God's Word because he knows God will help him by giving him the heart to do so. This, he believes, will be the best medicine for his depression, a life lived in increasing faithfulness to God. I hope we will learn the same lesson. I hope we will learn that, especially when we are depressed, our greatest need is to seek God in prayer and ask His mercy and help to depend upon His Word rather than allowing our our feelings or circumstances to distract us from it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment