PSALM 142 SHOULD BE READ IN TANDEM with Psalm 57; both were the product of David’s experience of hiding in a cave while fleeing King Saul. In some ways, however, the two psalms are quite different. Although in both cases David is pushed to the edge, in Psalm 57 he sounds reasonably buoyant, perhaps bold — certainly confident of the outcome. Here in Psalm 142, however, the mood is gloomy, characterized by “desperate need” (Ps. 142:6), with only three rays of hope. It should not be thought strange that the one crisis should precipitate more than one emotional response. Both Scripture and experience testify that extreme danger and uncertainty can push us to conflicting responses. However we think about such matters, Psalm 142 reflects raw despair — and correspondingly, it speaks tellingly to believers whose circumstances draw them through dark waters no less deep.
The opening lines find the psalmist urgently and frankly begging for help: “I cry aloud”; “I lift up my voice”; “I pour out my complaint”; “I tell my trouble” — these are the words of a frightened and desperate man. The word rendered “my complaint” sounds less petulant and whiny than the English: perhaps “what’s wrong” or “my troubled thoughts” might be better.
The first ray of hope comes in verse 3a: “When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who know [sic] my way.” When he has sunk so low that he is ready to give up, the psalmist finds reassurance in the fact that God is never taken by surprise: “It is you who knows my way.”
The worst hurts, of course, are personal betrayals. When all around there is no one who can be trusted, when experience after experience demonstrates that this conclusion is pathetically sound and not a symptom of paranoia, when the sheer loneliness of the fight adds a thick layer of depression (“I have no refuge; no one cares for my life,” Ps. 142:54), where does the psalmist turn? Here is the second ray of light: “I cry to you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living’” (Ps. 142:5). The move from “my refuge” to “my portion” demonstrates that David is not thinking of God as merely the solution to a problem. There is progression from fear to gratitude.
None of this reduces the stark reality of David’s “desperate need” (Ps. 142:6). This need is not merely emotional: his emotional crisis is grounded in the reality that he is being pursued by soldiers and their bitter king. The final ray of hope serves as contrast: God’s goodness and fidelity ensure that David will be rescued. David dares to envision the day when the righteous of the land will not only surround him but applaud his reign.