How Long, O LORD?
COVID, Calvin, and Our Need for the Psalms

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  — Psalm 13:1, 2

“How long, O LORD?” Haven’t you found yourself asking this question of late? Now that we live amid COVID-19 quarantine, watching the death toll rise, experiencing the loss of community and human touch, don’t we hear a different heart song rise from within? It is a tune we are not accustomed to hearing. It is a rhythm that draws forth a slow, sad song. It’s the blues. Many, however, are shocked to find themselves face-to-face with the reality of brokenness, disappointment, and frustration. Countless evangelicals are traumatized at the experience of loss and pain, which does not align with the modern western world of comfort, entertainment, and easy living that was stripped away in a flash.

Seasons of Sorrow and the Global Church

Interestingly, Western Christians find themselves more in tune with their brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world who regularly cry out, “How long, O LORD, Will you forget me forever?” They habitually deal with governments dictating their daily lives. They routinely endure economic deprivation. They consistently face religious persecution that comes in various forms. However, for the vast majority of American evangelicals, our current heart cries seem foreign to us. Not surprisingly, for many, the newfound experience of fear, sorrow, and pain does not resonate with, or is not adequality captured by, what the evangelical world calls contemporary “praise and worship” songs. Much church music today seems to be written with ourselves and our wills at the center, and God—the benevolent Giver of our every desire—somewhere pressed into the background.

But now, God has brought about a temporal judgment for the good of His people and the praise of His glory. He toppled our money gods, our sports gods, our entertainment gods, our science gods, our government gods, and even our health gods. Now that we behold our idols lying flat before the Lord in judgment, with our minds clouded with confusion and our hearts gripped with strange emotions, how can we Christians make sense of our circumstances in light of the God of revelation and redemption? How are we to give praise to the Lord, even as we cry out to Him for mercy and blessing?

Many have lost loved ones to the ravages of this virus, many have lost jobs, and many have lost temporal freedoms. So how do we make sense of these times and seek the Lord’s face in right prayer and praise when we do not have the words to make sense of the times or even our heart cries? Well, we can follow faithful saints from past generations who faced similar struggles and sought the God of all comfort through His Word. One such saint was John Calvin (1509–1564).

Calvin and the Psalms

John Calvin committed his ministry to apply the whole Bible to the whole man, both head and heart. In order to live a life of godliness, one needs a full spiritual diet of God’s Word, not just portions of it. The Psalms (in particular) instruct the mind and heart to give right praise to God in any situation. Calvin, like Martin Luther, was steeped in the Psalms from an early age. The monastic spirituality of the day shaped both of their approaches to the Christian life. The Psalms, or the “the little Bible” to these Reformers, constituted a unique and invaluable gift from God to communicate the history of redemption through inscripturated prayers and praises, while reflecting the totality of human emotion.

Many Reformers, like Calvin, held the Psalms to be the prayers of the Holy Spirit, deposited in the lives of David and the other psalmists—drawn forth from their hearts, providentially through their earthly pilgrimage, as they struggled to pray and give praise to the Lord throughout a life of cross-bearing. Furthermore, in the glory of the incarnation, the greater David, the Lord Jesus, lived out these prayers even as He fulfilled them as the Suffering Servant and the Shepherd King through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension. All those sealed by the Holy Spirit, from generation to generation, can pray, praise, and lament these same prayers throughout the arduous life of cross-bearing. The Psalms were always part of Calvin’s life as a born-again object of God’s grace in Christ. They must be central to the lives of all pilgrims. The Psalms deliver redemptive truth that both informs and leads Christians to make sense of their emotions in light of God’s promises, while giving the redeemed the right words to pray, praise, and lament. Calvin held the gift of the Psalms to be the special accommodation of God’s special revelation to His special creation—human beings.

Providentially, the Lord has worked in such a way that our current circumstances poignantly press upon our lives so that those heart cries of loneliness, sorrow, discouragement, fear, anger, grief, and broken-heartedness have taken up residency in our hearts. These cries press us to seek the Lord.  How do we make sense of this nexus of emotions? How do we rightly seek God’s face in prayer and praise? As image-bearers of God, we were created to reflect aspects of God’s attributes and emotions; however, with Adam’s fall into sin, all aspects of the divine image in humanity were vitiated. Only through the glorious work of Jesus Christ’s redemption and the Holy Spirit’s application of redemption are the minds and hearts of believers re-created in Christ and sanctified daily.

The Benefits of the Psalms

As believers live by faith in a fallen world, the Psalms are essential to guide, equip, and instruct us along the pilgrim path. Calvin famously wrote in the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, that these prayer-praises are an anatomy of all parts of the soul. Whatever emotion that grips your heart is mirrored in the Psalms. Now, as much as ever, believers do well to embrace the Psalms as part of the divine call to live out God’s Word in a life of worship to God and witness to the world, especially in hard times. The faithful must read the Psalms, sing the Psalms, and hear the Psalms faithfully preached because they provide a unique medium for Christian instruction in both right faith and right practice that addresses the mind and the heart for all of life’s experiences.

When the Christian’s own words fail him in rightly describing the state of his heart, when the believer comes to the point of heart, soul, and mind climax brought about by the punctuated moments of experience, the Lord of heaven and earth, who is Himself the Logos, provides the right words. Through the Psalms, the Lord puts the right words into the heart, mind, and mouth of the child of faith so he may more faithfully express his soul and communicate to the Lord and His people. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one—which births the ache and pain of temporal finality—or the heart-swelling moment of new life in the delivery room, or the cold shame of indwelling sin that grieves the Holy Spirit, the Psalms provide an experiential way point into the presence of God with the right words for each occasion.

In these moments, the mystery of God’s gospel, which expresses the unity of the Holy with the sinner-saint through Messiah, shines all the more. When such words find a voice within an individual believer and are joined with the church gathered before the Lord, the experience of the fallen world with its cacophony of rebellious unrest is eclipsed by the harmony of divine praise and peace. With the full expression of the Psalms in the lives of individual pilgrims, as well as particular congregations throughout the world, communities behold a more powerful witness to the God of the gospel. In the days of the ancient church, pagans testified to the Christian witness of hands in action caring for believers and unbelievers dying of plague.

The nations must be presented by a Christian witness—both individually and corporately—of hearts in action that declare God’s praise in season and out, in times of plenty and want, sickness and health, joy and sorrow. Let us draw near to the Lord by His Word and Spirit and rightly sing, even during seasons of suffering and sorrow. And as our minds and hearts are instructed and comforted, so may our mouths be filled with right prayers and praise to God our King.