It’s a shame. Poetry is not a mode of expression that comes easily to me both in reading and writing. Apart from humorous rhyming couplets composed for wedding speeches (a genre universally known for low standards!), composing poetic verse is difficult. And as for reading it, I confess that I often come away from a first reading with the deeply impressive insight, “What on earth?!”
But therein lies the point. Poetry is not written for a quick, once over, one-and-done reading. The point is to linger, to savor, to repeat, to reflect and, perhaps most importantly, to imagine. This approach is important when reading the Psalms, and no less so for Psalm 40.
David begins Psalm 40 by giving us a hint that this one is going to turn out alright in the end – “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined his ear to me and heard my cry.” But before we rejoice with David, he invites us into his experience. Consider just verse 2, “He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog…” As in so much poetry, David is not speaking literally, but figuratively. The language he uses is of a cistern or well that has largely dried up but still has some water leaking into it so that the bottom is muddy – forming a kind of quicksand (one thinks of Jeremiah here).
As for the miry bog, I don’t know if you’ve had much experience with bogs, but should you ever come across one, don’t traverse it. Bogs, especially miry bogs, give you the impression you’re walking on semi-solid ground until your weight is too much and your foot sinks deep. The trouble is that in order to pull one foot up you have to push down with the other, and that will go about as well as you might imagine.
What David is describing is an experience that made him feel as though he were mired, stuck, helpless and utterly exposed. A German commentator goes so far as to say that David’s imagery is intended to evoke a picture of, “the subterranean chaotic abode of the dead”! Oh my.
The longer you linger on this image, the more powerful, meaningful and encouraging are the lines that follow where God, “set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure” which led to David singing “a new song” that he will declare to, “the great congregation”.
As I think about this, it strikes me that when David was in his “pit” his field of vision didn’t extend much beyond his own arm’s length. But when he was delivered, his horizon was vastly larger and because he could see so much more he couldn’t wait to tell everyone. Suffering is like that, isn’t it? When you’re in it, it can be difficult to see much beyond your immediate situation, but after you’ve been delivered, you see and appreciate so much more that you can’t wait to tell someone.
Like me, you may not be a poet, but don’t forget that your enthusiasm about God’s deliverance, salvation and answered prayer is something you should still share with “the great congregation”.