How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent: In the Doldrums: Praying When Things are Tough

Sermon by Derek Thomas on August 26, 1999

Psalms 120:1-7

Let me ask you to turn to Psalm 120. While you’re doing that, I do want to thank you as a congregation for your kindness and expressions of fellowship to me as I join the staff here. It’s a great privilege and honor to do so. And one of the responsibilities that I’ve been asked to undertake this fall is to preach at these prayer meetings. That was a great joy tonight, to hear so many of you praying. We need more of that, and I want to try and encourage that during the course of this fall.

There are fifteen ascent Psalms – Psalms which all have the title A Song of Ascent or A Song of Degrees, if you’re still in the King James Version. And that’s what I want to do this fall, is to look together at these Psalms (Psalms 120 through 134) and to take us on a journey, because that’s what these Psalms do. They take us on a journey to Jerusalem, but we need to think in terms of new covenant fulfillment; and, when you read Jerusalemin the Psalms, it means much more than just the ancient city of Jerusalem. It is talking about the church of Christ. And here is a journey of a psalmist who finds himself initially in the wilderness, longs for the fellowship of God’s people, longs for the fellowship of God Himself. And in the course of these Psalms we’ll have occasion to think about many issues, but particularly the issue of worship, and prayer.

So turn with me to Psalm 120. I’m reading (not for any significance, it’s just the Bible that I picked up before I came out)…it’s the King James Version. It’s only slightly different from the pew Bible that’s before you.


Psalm 120:

“In my distress I cried unto the Lord,

And He heard me.

Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips,

And from a deceitful tongue.

What shall be given unto thee, and what shall be done unto thee,

Thou false tongue?

Sharp arrows of the mighty,

With coals of juniper.

“Woe is me, that I sojourn in Meshech,

That I dwell in the tents of Kedar!

My soul hath long dwelt

With them who hateth peace.

I am for peace, but when I speak,

They are for war.”

May God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word. Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You for this word of Scripture. We thank You that holy men wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. So illuminate these words now by Your Sprit; teach us, we pray, and grant that our hearts might be drawn towards Yourself, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now, as I say, all of these Psalms, 120-134, all of them have this title “A Song of Degrees” or “A Song of Ascent.” And these fifteen Psalms…there are several theories about what this expression might mean, but more than likely it is the idea of ascending to Jerusalem.

Now, if you’ve ever been to the Holy Land, you will realize that when you land in Tel Aviv and you drive on a bus or something to Jerusalem, you’re going up—all the way to Jerusalem, you’re going up, so that when you reach Jerusalem, which is approximately two and a half thousand feet above sea level, you’ve been climbing, you’ve been ascending.

And more than likely, these Psalms are collected together as a group of Psalms that pilgrims might well have sung as they journeyed from their homes for one of the great festivals, like Passover and Pentecost, and the Day of Atonement. And it’s nice, isn’t it, to think of these pilgrims, these believers, all those hundreds and thousands of years ago, joining together to sing perhaps the very words that you and I are looking at this evening, and there’s that bond and communion between them and us.

Many of these Psalms are familiar Psalms. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the next Psalm, Psalm 121, is one of your favorite Psalms:

 “I to the hills will lift mine eyes; From whence doth come mine aid?

My safety cometh from the Lord, Who heaven and earth hath made.”


And that’s one of my all-time favorite Psalms, and I can’t tell you the number of times I repeat that to myself, especially when I think I’m in some kind of danger. You know, when you’re driving along in the car, it’s one of those Psalms that you repeat to yourself.

This Psalm, Psalm 120, I doubt is a favorite Psalm of anybody’s. It’s a dour Psalm; it’s a melancholy Psalm; it’s downbeat; it sings the blues, you might say. I hardly think that anybody would think that this is their favorite Psalm. And it’s interesting that the first of these fifteen Psalms would begin with this downbeat. It’s one reason why I thought I wouldn’t do this series of fifteen. You’ve just taken me on as a member of staff here, and I begin with this dour, melancholy Psalm! And I’ll have you all weeping before the end of the evening! But this Psalm has, I believe, something deeply significant to teach us, and to teach us in a way that only the Book of Psalms, it seems to me, does.

One of my quarrels with some contemporary worship is that it’s all of the same genre. It’s all of the same beat, if you like. And one of the things about the Book of Psalms is that it takes seriously the fact that there are times when we are joyful, there are times when we want to praise God, and there are times (let’s face it)—there are times when we are down in the dumps. There are times when we are brooding. There are times when we feel anxiety to such a pitch that we begin to question whether God loves us. And reading the Psalms, as John Calvin said so many hundred years ago, when he wrote commentary on the Book of Psalms, it provides for us an anatomy of the entire soul of man, of all the parts of man; so that there’s an honesty, a sincerity, about these Psalms that, I think, speaks to us.

Let’s take a look at this particular Psalm, Psalm 120. And I want to try and draw from it several things.

I. And in the first place, here is a man who is spiritually discouraged.

You notice the word that he uses in the opening verse: “In my distress…” he says. That’s how the Psalm begins. He’s in distress. He finds himself in difficulties. He cries out in verse 5, “Woe is me….” Here is a man who is spiritually discouraged, spiritually depressed.

Bunyan reminds us, doesn’t he, in Pilgrim’s Progress, that the way to the Celestial City takes its route through the Slough of Despond. And many of you tonight, if you’re honest with yourselves and honest before God, will admit that there are days in your life (and maybe weeks in your life, and maybe months in your life) when you know all too well what the Slough of Despond means – when you feel discouraged, when you just want to say as the psalmist does here, “Woe is me.” You see, the psalmist here isn’t saying “I’m H-A-P-P-Y!” Now, there’s a time and a place and occasion to sing that…I think…but the psalmist isn’t doing that here, because he’s not happy. He doesn’t try and project a false happiness, a false joy.

When I first became a Christian, in 1971…it was the age of those little stickers, you know… and somebody came up to me as a student in college and put this little sticker on my lapel – here. And I wore it for several days. And it said, “Smile! Jesus loves you!” Then a friend of mine came along and said, “You know, you need another sticker on the other side that says, “Frown, because God is holy.” It was unbalanced, you see; that was the point. There was truth in it, but it wasn’t the whole truth. And what this Psalm does in its honest way is to bring out this fact: that there are times in our experience, in our spiritual journey, when we’re discouraged, when we are depressed, when we are downcast. The Bible does that, I think, and the Psalms do that in particular. There’s an honesty, there’s a sincerity about these Psalms, so that when you read these Psalms and you take them up, you say to yourself, “Well, this is how I feel. These are my words. These are my sentiments. These are my concerns. Yes, I could say those things.”

You remember what Peter says in the very opening chapter, around about verse 5 or 6 (I think it’s verse 6): “You are in heaviness,” Peter says, “because of manifold temptations.”  That’s the condition you may be in. He’s actually exhorting them to rejoice, but he says, “You may be in heaviness.” Well, is that you tonight? There’s a spirit of heaviness in your life, because of all kinds of issues: because of trouble in the home; because of trouble at work; because of financial concerns; because of health issues; all kinds of things. A myriad of circumstances that can bring about a sense of heaviness. Well, the psalmist is in this condition. “Woe is me, “ he cries.

Now, we’re not honest like that, are we? Let’s face it. We don’t…you know, when somebody says, “How are you?” we say we’re “fine.”  This is the land of “Have a nice day.” But don’t you find here something that speaks to you, and to your soul, and to the condition of your soul?

Think of some of the men in the Bible: Elijah…you remember him on Mount Carmel, and then underneath that juniper tree wishing that his life were taken from him, wishing that he could die. Read Jeremiah, the prophet. Was there ever a bolder prophet to proclaim the whole counsel of God? And Jeremiah says he wished he could find a lodging place in the desert that he might flee from his people. Think of those two forlorn disciples on the Road to Emmaus, thinking that all was lost, having witnessed the crucifixion of Christ. And alongside them comes one who catches up with them, and then begins to speak to them, and opens up the Scriptures to them. What a glorious Bible study that must have been! What a glorious trek through the Old Testament that must have been! And their eyes were opened (do you remember?) when they came to Emmaus, to perceive that it was Christ who had been with them. Depression, spiritual depression, spiritual discouragement….

We say, don’t we, that misery seeks company. I’m not so sure that that’s true. I’ve heard the expression many times, but sometimes misery likes to be alone. Sometimes when we feel like that, we just want to shut off. We don’t want to talk to anybody on the telephone, we don’t want to meet anyone; we want to seclude ourselves. And we’re saying to ourselves, aren’t we, “No one understands me. No one knows what I’m going through.” And then you come to Psalm 120, and here’s a psalmist, and here’s a man of God, and he knows what it is to cry out, “Woe is me. That’s how I feel.” That’s the honesty, that’s the biblical realism of this Psalm.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of last century, in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, went through a period in his life where this Psalm became almost his favorite Psalm; favorite in the sense that it spoke to him. He wrote to his congregation,

“The furnace still glows around me. Since I last preached to you I’ve been brought very low. My flesh has been tortured with pain, my spirit has been prostrate with depression. I am as a potter’s vessel when it is utterly broken—useless and laid aside. Nights of watching and days of weeping have been mine.”

Now, there’s honesty for you.

And what I think this Psalm does and says is ‘Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in this condition.’ And when you find yourself in this condition, someone’s been there before. The psalmist has traveled through these dark days and difficult days.

II. Now, in the second place, what are some of the reasons why he was spiritually discouraged? 

    And there are two of them that I want to mention this evening.

One is quite simply living in this world. Notice some of the things he says [verse 2]: lying lips, deceitful tongue, sharp arrows and burning coals. He’s in a war, isn’t he? He’s in a battle. He’s living his life in this world, and living your life as a Christian in this world is a battle. He’s one of the walking wounded, isn’t he? Coming home from battle…and some of you know this… some of you wives who live with unconverted husbands; some of you parents with rebellious children; some of you locked into a job that you don’t like anymore, with perhaps a boss who is unreasonable and makes unreasonable demands on you; and there’s many an evening you come home and you say just like the psalmist, “Woe is me, because the world is against me. The world is hostile to me.” And the closer you live, my friends, to Jesus Christ our King, the more likely you are to draw the arrows of this world, and the hostility of this world. That’s the first reason why this psalmist is spiritually discouraged: because he is living in this world – a fallen world, a world that’s hostile to God and hostile to the things of God.

But there’s a second reason, and a more profound reason than that, and that is he’s absent from the house of God. Now remember what I said about these fifteen Psalms: they’re making a journey from the wilderness to Jerusalem. Notice the places that he mentions. He mentions Meshech and Kedar, and both of these places are hundreds of miles away from Jerusalem, one to the northeast and one to the southwest. And wherever he is (and it’s not important where he is), the fact is that wherever he is, he isn’t in Jerusalem. He isn’t with people of God. He isn’t hearing the word of God being expounded. He’s not seeing those typical sacrifices of the Old Testament which were pointing to Jesus Christ. He’s not under, you see, the means of grace.

That’s what the church is, isn’t it? That’s one of the functions of the church. That’s why we gather together. That’s why the Book of Hebrews says, “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.” Because in coming together and sitting under the word of God and the preaching of the word of God, and the instruction of the word of God, and partaking and watching the sacraments that God has given to the church…all these things…the prayer and fellowship that we’ve enjoyed this evening…all of these things are designed to build us up and make us strong. How many Wednesday evenings do we go away from here thinking, “Well, I was glad I was in the house of God. God spoke to me; God spoke to me through His word. God spoke to me through the fellowship of His people.”

But this psalmist is hundreds of miles away from the people of God, and hundreds of miles away from means of grace. He’s in the Old Testament, of course, where the means of grace were located in Jerusalem. And the people of God had to make these pilgrimages to Jerusalem—grand occasions, wonderful occasions, conference-like occasions. Jerusalem would swell from, oh, about 50,000 in population to about 200,000 in the time of Christ, for example. Four times its size during Passover…you can imagine the sense of joy and wellbeing and nourishment! And the psalmist is saying ‘When I’m absent from those things, I feel so discouraged.’

Well, am I speaking to anybody here? I’m more likely speaking to those who are not here, aren’t I? But we need to speak to each other about this. That’s why it’s so important to be at the means of grace, and what the psalmist is saying to us is that it’s perfectly natural for a believer absent from the means of grace to become discouraged….absent from that very means of spiritual nutrition to become malnourished in his soul.

It’s a perfectly natural thing. If you stay away from the means of grace, if you don’t attend church on a regular basis, and you don’t feel what the psalmist is feeling here, and you don’t express what the psalmist is expressing here, there’s something wrong with you. I mean that very sincerely. You need to attend to your soul. If you’re away from the means of grace—maybe some of you have been in hospital, or you’ve been sick and you haven’t been able to gather with the people of God maybe for a number of weeks, or even a number of months, and you long to be able to gather with God’s people again! You long to be in the place where God has ordained that particular blessing. And here’s the psalmist, and he’s discouraged, and he’s dejected, and he’s cast down because he’s hundreds of miles away from Jerusalem.

It’s a good sign, isn’t it? You know, from one sense this Psalm is a melancholy Psalm. It’s singing the blues, as I said. But from another perspective this is a good sign. Isn’t it a good sign that the psalmist longs to be in Jerusalem? Isn’t it a good sign that this psalmist wants to be with God’s people? He wants to be in the fellowship of the Lord’s company and the Lord’s house.

God will sometimes put us in the condition this psalmist was in, and He’ll do that for a number of reasons. He’ll do that sometimes to perfect us, because testing times create within us an appetite for biblical worship. It creates within us a longing that otherwise would not be there. God wants to perfect us. He wants to make us more and more like His Son, Jesus Christ. He wants also to prepare us, and the rule of the kingdom is that when God wants you to do something special for Him, He prepares you for that. And don’t be surprised if He sends you through these lean times in order to ripen your soul for something He wants you to do and accomplish for Him.

And He wants to prove you. Not only perfect you and prepare you, but He wants to prove you, because every Christian, every believer, every child of God, ought to have the longing and the desire and the yearning that this psalmist has. “Woe is me, because I’m not in Jerusalem. Woe is me, because I’m in Meshech or Kedar. Woe is me, because I feel the pressure of the hostility of this world all around me, and I long to be with God’s people.”

Can you see, by the way, when we come to Psalm 133, when the psalmist cries out, “What a blessedness it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”…do you see, that’s where he wants to get, and that’s where he is going to get to?

III. What does the psalmist do about this condition, in the third place?

We’ve seen the condition and we’ve seen some of the ways that this condition is brought about, but what does the psalmist do about this condition?

Well, he does two things. The first thing that he does is that he’s honest before God about the condition of his soul.

Now, we will not grow, my friends, unless we are honest about our condition before God. The way to spiritual growth and the way to spiritual maturity is to do the very thing that the psalmist is doing here: to go to God and confess, “This is how I feel. This is how I am. This is my condition”; to remove all of what moderns call “denial” and be open and bare and naked, in a spiritual sense, before God.

But the second thing that the psalmist does is that he resorts to prayer. Isn’t that the opening line of this Psalm? “In my distress…” what did I do? “I cried unto the Lord, and He heard me.” In my distress and in my fear, what did I do? Well, I became angry. Or, I became even more discouraged; or, I got into a cycle of despair that took me down and down and down. And isn’t it true, my friends, that we do almost anything but pray? Is there anyone here who can say that they find prayer easy? It’s always a struggle, isn’t it? And here is the Bible teaching us this grand and simple lesson: that in every circumstance and in every condition, no matter what the condition of your soul may be tonight…

“Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?

You should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.”

And that’s why it was so encouraging tonight to hear you pray. And, oh, that we would find here in this sanctuary on Wednesday nights a greater honesty about our own soul’s condition before God, and cry unto Him!

And you say ‘Why should I cry unto Him?’ and here’s the answer: “He heard me.” He heard me. God hears and answers prayer. God always hears the cries of all of His children, and there’s no greater encouragement to prayer than that. “When all things seem against us to drive us to despair, we know one gate is open, one ear will hear our prayer.” And that’s our encouragement, isn’t it? It’s what makes us get up and go on with the events of that day, because we take our troubles, and we take our anxieties, and we take our cares, and we take our frustrations, and we unburden ourselves before the Lord – before our sovereign, omnipotent God, who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or even think.

Here’s the Psalm, and it begins in the doldrums, it begins in the dumps, but the way out of those doldrums, my friends, is prayer.


       Let’s pray together.

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