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Have you ever noticed that the Psalms contain two common themes that appear, at first glance, to be contradictory?

The Psalms repeatedly express human suffering - fear, despair, physical pain and physical danger, guilt and shame in the presence of personal sin, oppression by enemies, the presence of death, awareness of weakness and vulnerability, and so on.

But the Psalms also express joy. We repeatedly find ourselves reading words like rejoice, glad, gladness, joyful, joy, singing.

And the question is raised: how can these people who were so deeply and personally acquainted with the pathos and angst of human life also express this over-riding and undergirding joyfulness? How could they, within the space of a few verses of the same Psalm, honestly express both grief and gladness?

The foundation and focus of their joy was God himself.

      • 'I will be glad and rejoice in you' [9:2]
      • 'You fill me with joy in your presence' [16:11]
      • 'Rejoice in the LORD and be glad ...' [32:11]
      • 'In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name' [33:21]
      • 'Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD ...' [Psalm 35:9]
      • 'May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you' [40:16]
      • 'Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight' [43:4]

From their past, both national and personal,  they knew God as the sovereign and powerful Lord. From their past they knew him as the God of love and mercy, redemption and salvation. From their past they knew God as the God of justice and righteousness. From their past they knew God as the Lord who provides.

On the basis of their knowledge of God they rejoiced in him, and in that knowledge and joy both trusted and praised him.

Yes. They may be suffering guilt and shame because of their sin: but God, their God, was the merciful redeemer of their souls [71:22-23]. They did not trust in their own spiritual perfection for their acceptance with God, but in his mercy and in his salvation. Therefore they could rejoice. Therefore, sinners though they knew themselves to be, they could stand in his presence and praise him.

Yes. They may be threatened and suffering physically - by enemy attack, by natural disasters, by ill-health: but their God was the sovereign Lord, the Creator, the Ruler of the nations. They did not trust in their own strength or their own wisdom to sustain them and bring them through these difficulties, but in God and his power and authority. Therefore, trusting him, and trusting him to act in his way in his time, they could rejoice [Psalm 4]. Therefore, suffering though they were, they could praise him.

They did not form or alter their knowledge of God on the basis of their present pain; rather, they understood and related to their present pain from the viewpoint of their knowledge of God. That God-centred perspeceive is the perspective of joy.

 Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2008