Psalm 142 is ‘a maskil of David when he was in the cave (NRSVA)’ A maskil seems to be a song of contemplation which is intended to be instructive. So what can we learn from this versification? Some background.
I Samuel tells us that following David’s victory over Goliath there was a time of hair raising adventures, escapes from death, scrapes, and mishaps. Relationships were extremely complicated against a backdrop of constant fear of betrayal, tussels for power and influence, and Saul’s relentless pursuit of David to kill him. It is no wonder David eventually took shelter in the cave of Adullam. This was no small hideyhole in the woods. It was big enough to accommodate over 400 people who joined him later – also fleeing from enemies and former friends. So when David writes about being pursued, oppressed and in despair, we should not take that lightly. There was a clear and present danger to his life. The hymn echoes that sense of total abandonment and talks about being ensnared and faint (not simply to rhyme with complaint).
Psalms have a habit of raising us to the heights and plunging us to the depths, not sparing any of the emotions between the two extremes, which may be why they resonate with us well over two thousand years later. They most often resolve themselves with messages of hope and consolation, and above all of ultimate safety in the hands of God.
This psalm versification ends in the arms of Jesus where there are ‘ten thousand charms’ – a line taken somewhat controversially from the edited chorus of Joseph Hart’s 1759 hymn ‘Come ye sinners poor and wretched’. The ambiguity of ‘Charms’ doesn’t help us. Maybe ‘delights’ would be better? But we get the point.
And as for the, rather jolly, tune maybe that too points to a positive outcome, to an assurance of redemption and security that will inspire all those in danger and need. Let us pray that it may be so.
Listening God hear the cries of all who call to you in danger and despair. For those hidden in the caves of fear, unable to emerge into the light, help us to find the words and live the lives which can give comfort and show your love in Christ Jesus. Amen.
The Rev’d Carole Elphick retired minister worshipping at Muswell Hill, Thames North Synod