A Key for Escaping from the Pit of Despair
The Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134, which the people of God sang on pilgrimages to Jerusalem) begin in “distress,” but they end in praise.
Compare the opening lament of Psalm 120 (“In my distress I cry to the Lord, that He may answer me: ‘Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.’”) to the opening joy of Psalm 134 (“Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand by night in the house of the Lord! Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord.”). And compare the closing groan of Psalm 120 (“Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”) to the closing exuberance of Psalm 134 (“May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.”).
Living in a world filled with deceit and war and sin and brokenness, we all struggle with some level of distress. But the fact that the Psalms of Ascent move from distress to rejoicing gives me hope that I am not doomed to a pit of despair even though I live in a sin-filled world.
One of the keys that enables us to escape from the pit of despair is shared in the middle of Psalm 134: “Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord.”
The word hand here is the Hebrew word yad. When this word is combined with a common abbreviation for the name of the Lord, ah, as in Jehovah, it becomes Yadah (sometimes anglicized into Judah). Yadah means to “lift one’s hands toward God” or to “reach out one’s hands toward God.” It is one of the most common words in Hebrew Scripture for worshiping God or for praising God.
What does this have to do with moving out of the pit of despair?
Consider it from this perspective: In the midst of despair, we do not lift up our hands. Instead, we wring our hands, or our hands hang limp and hopeless at our sides. In the midst of stubbornness, we do not reach out our hands. Instead, we cross our arms and bury our hands in our arm pits. When our hearts are closed, we bury our hands in our pockets.
But when we see someone we dearly love, someone whose embrace we long for, we run toward that person with outstretched arms. Running toward God with outstretched arms is the beginning of worship; it is the beginning of our escape from the pit of despair.
When a child feels scared or sad or lonely, that child looks up at her mother, with arms lifted up, longing to be picked up by that strong and loving parent. When we lift up our hands to God, with a longing for God to pick us up from the mess of our lives and hold us close to His own heart, it is the beginning of worship; it is the beginning of our escape from the pit of despair.
When something wonderful happens, we instinctively throw up our arms toward heaven in delight. Worship has to do with celebrating the wonderfulness of God. Sometimes our worship is a response to the wonderfulness of God; sometimes it is worship that leads us to see afresh the wonderfulness of God. Either way, worship lifts us up from the pit of despair.
Another time when we lift up our hands is when we have done something that fills us with regret—particularly when we have hurt someone we love. Then we reach up our hands in a plea for mercy. That, too, is the beginning of worship and a move away from the pit of despair.
The Bible invites us to reach out our hands to God, to lift up our arms to God, to worship God, and to praise God—not for the sake of ignoring or closing our eyes to the mess of our lives but for the sake of focusing our attention of something higher and better, more certain and longer lasting than the mess of our lives. Praise is the deliberate act of remembering and declaring the goodness of God. It is in the process of doing this that our hearts begin to settle into the truth that God’s goodness withstands all of our hard times. True praise is not a pretending that we are happy about how things are turning out in our lives, but it is the declaration that we cast our hope on the goodness of God, regardless of whether things are going well or poorly for us.