The Pain of Life, the Supreme Goodness of God, and the Joy of the Psalmists

From Stephen Westerholm’s little gem, Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans (Baker, 2004), pages 33, 87–88:

The psalmists of the Bible found joy in the presence of God: an overwhelming sense that, wherever one found oneself, and whatever one’s circumstances, God is there — and God is good. The joy may be expressed, as the Psalms frequently enjoin, with music and dance and boisterous shouts. It may find voice in a quiet prayer of assurance: “When I awake, I am still with thee.” In any case, the psalmists repeatedly speak of discovering in the Eternal not only their provision and protection but also their heart’s delight:

Thou hast put gladness in my heart,

more than in the time

that their corn and their wine increased.

In thy presence is fullness of joy;

at thy right hand

there are pleasures for evermore.

Delight thyself also in the LORD;

and he shall give thee

the desires of thine heart.

Not incidental to the pleasure was the belief that the enjoyment was mutual:

He [God] delighteth not in the strength of the horse:

he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man.

The LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him,

in those that hope in his mercy.

The psalmists’ joy is rooted in their conviction that, circumstances notwithstanding, life is good, and that they have a share in its goodness, loved by the One who matters most. Praise, for them, is the natural, appropriate venting of joy: to praise the Lord is “fitting” and “good.”

And yet,

The psalmists who found such satisfaction in God’s “face” were fully aware of the darker aspects of life: is there anywhere a literature that more profoundly probes the lot of the despised, the slandered, the despondent, those ravaged by disease or war? God’s ways are often disturbingly mysterious even for the psalmists. They feel that at times he has “hidden” his “face,” and they cannot understand why.

Nonetheless, what prevails in the end is the unshakable faith in their bones, whatever the fate of their flesh, that underlying all is goodness, beyond human understanding but deserving of human trust: a goodness not only worth clinging to when all else fails, but more precious by far than anything else one might desire.

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