Up from the Pit
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the Lord.
Blessed is the man
who makes the Lord his trust.
Yet I am poor and needy;
may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
O my God, do not delay.
There are portions of Scripture that need substantial introductions, because they are not well known, and there are sections that need very little introduction, because they are. Psalm 40 is in the second category. It tells of a man who was stuck in a slimy pit, bogged down in mud and mire, but then was rescued by God, who set his feet on a rock and gave him a firm place to stand. That man was King David.
Perhaps that is the most important thing to say at the beginning of this study. I remind you that David was the beloved king of Israel, who reigned powerfully and well for forty years. He was installed, blessed, and approved by God, who called him “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). David was nearly always in close fellowship with God, and he wrote almost half of the psalms. By his writings and by his common speech he regularly and faithfully proclaimed the grace of God to others. Yet in Psalm 40 he describes himself as having been mired down in a pit from which he was unable to escape.
So I begin with the truth that muddy times may be the experience even of the greatest saints and slimy pits the lot even of kings and preachers.
Is this a messianic psalm? Saint Augustine, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, William L. Pettingill, and Harry A. Ironside thought so, in large part because verses 6 and 7 are applied to Jesus Christ in the New Testament. But this is an unnecessary and misleading assumption for the psalm as a whole. The mere fact that the psalmist confesses his sin in verse 12 warns us against applying everything in the psalm to Jesus Christ.
A more interesting question concerns the relation of this psalm to Psalm 70, which is an almost exact repetition of verses 13–17. A number of scholars, particularly those of the critical school, think that Psalm 40 was originally two psalms, verses 1–12 being the first and verses 13–17 being the second, and that they were put together somewhat awkwardly by an unknown editor. They think it awkward, because the first part speaks of deliverance from the pit and the second part is still seeking a deliverance. Such a combination of apparently diverse ideas is not strange to the psalms, however. It is equally possible—I believe this is actually the case—that Psalm 70 was detached from the longer psalm in order to salvage it for general use in a later period. The placing of the two psalms in the Psalter, the first in an early section among the many psalms of David and the second in a later, somewhat more eclectic section, may point in this direction.
Psalm 40 has three clear sections: an opening joyful testimony of God’s past deliverance (vv. 1–3); a present reflection on God’s goodness (vv. 4–10); and a prayer for God’s deliverance in the future (vv. 11–17). The tone is established in the last verse, which is presented to us as a poor man’s cry to God for God’s help.
A Joyful Testimony
In the thirty-eighth chapter of Jeremiah there is a well-known incident in which Jeremiah is thrown into a cistern because of his unpopular prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. It is a grim story. The cistern was empty of water, or Jeremiah would have drowned. But the bottom was filled with the accumulated mud of centuries so that Jeremiah sank down into it, into the “mud and mire.” He would have perished there if a foreigner from Cush named Ebed-Melech had not interceded for him with the king, who instructed the friendly Cushite to take thirty men and draw Jeremiah out of the cistern with ropes (Jer. 38:1–13).
Jeremiah was placed in the mud and mire of a pit quite literally, but there is no reason to think of the words pit, mud, and mire as anything more than metaphors in Psalm 40. We do not know what David was describing in this way, but it must picture a period in his life in which circumstances had trapped him so that he was unable, as we might say, to free himself.
It is good that we do not know the literal meaning of this pit, because we can the more easily see our own slimy pits in David’s reference. What is your slimy pit? I do not know the answer to that question. You will have to answer it for yourself. But I can think of a number of possible examples.
The pit of sin. Some people are caught in the mud and mire of sin. David himself was an example of this at one point in his life, although we do not know whether this is what he was describing in Psalm 40. He began his descent into this pit by staying home from battle in the season when kings were supposed to be at war. While enjoying himself in Jerusalem, he saw a woman named Bathsheba bathing herself on the roof of a home close to the palace. He asked about her and learned that she was married to a soldier named Uriah. In spite of that, David brought her to the palace, slept with her, and then, when he learned she was pregnant, arranged to have Uriah abandoned in battle so that he was killed by enemy soldiers. David continued nearly a year in this condition. The story is in 2 Samuel 11.
Maybe you are caught in just such a sin. Perhaps one sin has led to another. You know what is happening, but you can’t get out of it. That is no surprise. Sin is like that. Romans 1 describes the downward pull of sin on all people. When you are caught in this way, there is no point beyond which you may not go. You need help. Where is your help to come from if not from God?
The pit of defeat. Some people have a very different kind of pit from which they need to be lifted. It is the pit of personal defeat, whether at work or school or in the home or in some other setting or relationship. Some people would say that their entire lives have been one long and unending defeat. They have never succeeded at anything.
I do not know the answer in your specific case, of course. And I do not want to trivialize your discouragement or make light of it. But I can tell you this. God does have things he wants you to succeed at, and he will enable you to succeed at those, even though they may be different from what you are doing now. The place to begin is where David began. He began by laying his problem before the Lord. I repeat that I do not know what David was referring to by his metaphor of the pit, but there was a time early in his life when he could have spoken very graphically of his defeats. No matter what he did he was unable to please King Saul, and Saul in his hatred and jealousy of David ruthlessly hounded the young man from place to place. It was many years before the Lord intervened to remove Saul and eventually bring David to the throne. If you are defeated, bring your defeats to God. Wait on God. David “waited patiently for the Lord.” That is how Psalm 40 begins (v. 1). If you wait patiently, you too will learn that God has important things for you to do, and he will give you significant victories in his own perfect time.
The pit of bad habits. Other people are stuck in a pit of bad habits. Some of these habits are terribly destructive, like addictive drugs. Others are merely harmful, like an uncontrolled temper, patterns of self-pity, laziness, or overeating. Bad habits can be broken. New habits can take their place. But where are you going to learn these new habits? The best place is from God, who has made you in his image and wants to develop you into the fullness of the character of Jesus Christ. If that is to happen, you must turn to him and seek his help.
The pit of circumstances. The last example of a slimy pit that I think of here is circumstances, like the pattern of severe trials the apostle Paul mentions in 1 and 2 Corinthians. These were not sin, or defeats necessarily, or even the result of bad habits. Just the opposite was true. Paul had been persecuted because of his stand for Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, as he says,
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:24–28; cf. 1 Cor. 4:9–13; 2 Cor. 6:4–10).
Circumstances like those could be a pit for anyone. Yet Paul sought help from God, and God answered. Though he did not change the circumstances, he did help Paul, so that he was able to say, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8–9).
David’s testimony in respect to his own difficult and seemingly hopeless circumstances is that God heard him and helped him step by step. It is what verses 1–3 are all about. He says that God did five things: God turned to him, noticing his plight, God heard his cry, God lifted him out of the pit, God set his feet on a rock, giving him a firm place to stand, and God placed a new song of praise in his mouth.
Psalms, Volume 1 (Psalms 1-41): An Expositional Commentary by James Montgomery Boice