God's Remedy for Despondency


Last week we left David at the end of 1Samuel 23 feeling as if he was sinking in the swamp of despair and hopelessness. It would be hard to imagine things going worse. He had lost his wife, had just said goodbye to his best friend (never to see him again). His own countrymen from his own region had betrayed him. He was a man without a home and without a country. Even as this Psalm came to him he was still being hunted down like a dog, and it looked as if he was on the verge of being caught. At the end of the Psalm we will see that David was able to bring comfort to his men even though he was going through emotional pain himself (and leaders many times have to do that). But how did he get to the place where he could comfort others when he himself was overwhelmed? How was he able to keep from despair when he himself felt so forsaken? This Psalm tells us.

And David's experience of supernatural help has been the experience of many, many people down through history. I read about a German pastor by the name of Paul Gerhardt, who himself was being hunted down like a dog during the thirty year war in the 1600's. He and his wife were running from place to place with nothing to their name and had run out of places to flee to. His wife finally broke down in tears and felt like giving up, expressing absolute despair of heart. And Gerhardt, whose own heart was breaking, tried to comfort her with the Scripture's promises of God's provision and protection. He was finally successful in calming her heart, but he went out to a private place and started sobbing his heart out because he felt like there was no one to comfort him. He felt he could no longer be strong for others. But as he cried out to God in exactly the way that David did, he felt God's supernatural presence with him calming his heart and giving him a renewed sense of hope. This is not psychology. This is about anchoring ourselves in the reality of God's sustaining presence and experiencing a help that cannot be explained in human terms. And pastor Gerhardt immediately got a pen and started writing a hymn of comfort just as David wrote of his experience in this Psalm to comfort the hearts of his men and of others. Gerhardt's hymn began:

Give to the winds thy fears;
Hope, and be undismayed;
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears;
God shall lift up thy head.
Through waves and clouds and storms
He gently clears the way.
Wait thou His time, so shall the night
Soon end in joyous day.

Brothers and sisters, I can't guarantee that all of you will get out of your troubles as amazingly as David and pastor Gerhardt did. But I can guarantee that if you will follow their lead, no matter how strong your despondency might be, God can help you to regain hope and profit from your difficulties. The advice in this Psalm is deceptively simple, but so is our whole walk of faith.

Let me start with a definition of despondency. Despondency means the loss of courage or confidence or the loss of hope resulting in being disheartened or low-spirited. It is having the wind taken out of your sails accompanied by an emotional low. There are many different causes for despondency. Yours might be totally different than David's. Some causes are physiological, some are spiritual, and some are circumstantial. You have probably had times where you have felt extremely discouraged, and you know from experience that all you need is a good nights sleep. Loss of sleep can do terrible things to a person's outlook on life, and once you have been refreshed with a good night's sleep, your spirits revive.

I had a roommate who claimed that his hormones changed once a month because he felt extremely despondent during a certain time of the month without fail. Medicine can sometimes make a person feel down. So there are multiple causes. I'm not going to deal with all of the causes of despondency this morning. It is important that you understand that there are physical and circumstantial things that you can do at times to alleviate those feelings. And I highly recommend Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones book, Spiritual Depression: It's Causes and Its Cures, to dig into that. But whether you can get rid of the causes or not (David did not), this psalm is one of several psalms that can give help during times of despondency. And those of you who rarely experience despondency, take note, because this Psalm will help you to minister them more realistically.

How Can God "Forget" Us or Hide His Face From Us? (vs. 1-2)

The Meaning Of Spiritual Desertions (cf. Deut. 8:1-6; 31:17; Judges 16:20; 2 Chron. 32:24-31; Job 1:1-20; Ps. 51:11; 19:25; 2 Cor. 12:1-10; Eph. 4:30; Rev. 3:19-20)

David starts his psalm tearfully asking God why He has allowed him to go through such anguish of soul. And he uses some interesting language; language that some of your counselors and friends might tell you not to use. Ignore them, and listen to David. Look at verses 1-2. "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?" Four times David cries out "How long?" He doesn't know if he is going to be able to bear up under the pressure, and he sobs his heart out to God. In verse 1 he feels as if God has forgotten him and as if God is hiding His face from him.

And I want to look at these verses from two perspectives. I want to look first at the appropriateness of these words, because these words scare some people off. Some think we shouldn't ever talk to a sovereign God like David di. And then second, I want to look at the comfort such words bring to those in despondency.

First, are these words appropriate? Are they even theologically appropriate? Surely God does not forget, does He? Surely God has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us. So how could we put these words on our lips when we know God will never forget us?

Well, it is true, in an ultimate sense God will always hold us in His hands and no one can pluck us out. So looking at life from God's perspective He is always there. But Scripture often condescends to look at life from our perspective of appearances. When we go through trials, it many times seems as if God is not doing anything. And Scripture uses the language of forsaking, departing, forgetting, turning away, to speak of those times. I've given you a long list of such Scriptures in your outline. In Psalm 22 David cries, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me." From God's perspective, he is not forsaken, but from David's perspective, he can't see God; it seems as if the heavens are brass - bouncing back his prayers; he has lost the comfort and the sense of God's presence. In Psalm 30:7 he says, "You hid Your face, and I was troubled." Again that subjective sense of what happens when we can't see God working.

You have probably experienced times when your spouse or child is in the same room with you, but for one reason or another seemed distant because of his or her attitude. David never worried about spatial distance. It was the distance of heart and action and perception.

Thirdly, keep in mind that this is God's inspired prayer book. He wants us to pray these Psalms. This means that God is identifying with the difficulties we are going through. He understands our feelings. And He wants us to express these words as our own – especially when we feel down because He is ministering to our emotions, not just our circumstances. So those are three reasons why I believe it is perfectly appropriate to take such Psalms upon our own lips. The Bible commands us to.

The Comfort Of These Words

But let's look next at the comfort of these words. One of the remarkable things about the psalms is that there is no attempt to cover over the agony and anguish that God's people go through. I remember when I was a teenager the disconnect I felt with the current Pepsi-like evangelistic campaign – "Try it, you'll like it!" It was a big thing with my friends to talk about trusting God and all your problems would go away, and to give the impression that the Christian life was the happiest, most blithesome thing you could imagine. Well, I wondered if there was something wrong with me, because I didn't always feel on top of the world. One of the things that bothered me when I was a teenager was that I was constantly being told that I needed to smile to show the world the wonder of God's grace. Well, I felt like a hypocrite smiling when I was sad. And what really bummed me out was people's counsel when I had anguish of heart. There were a lot of pat answers floating around, but one that stuck in my craw was "Smile, God loves you." How can you argue with that? I knew it was true that God loved me, but somehow I didn't feel better. When I read the psalms I felt like the psalms really understood what I was going through. God Himself was giving me words by which I could cry out to Him. That shows the degree to which He identifies with us.

Let's just do an experiment. Try to visualize that you are Job and you have just lost your sons and daughters, everything you own has been stolen from you, your house has been burned to the ground. To top it all off, you have painful sores all over your body. Now two counselors come along, and every piece of counsel that each counselor brings is Biblical. It is not that one is wrong and the other is right. But listen to the contrast between each type of counsel and see which would bring you more comfort and consolation.

Counselor A says Counselor B says I know you have lost your children, but time will heal this pain You must feel as if this pain will never end. I am so sorry. There is a hidden blessing in this; buck up; look at the positive side. I'm sorry this had to happen to you brother.

Both are right, but counselor B is entering into your pain, and understands what you are going through. There is a relational comfort there. Let's make some other contrasts. Counselor A says,

God never gives more than we can handle This must seem like more than you can handle. [He's not saying that it is more than you can handle. He's just saying, "It must seem like it."] Try to be strong Don't feel like you need to be strong for me. I know this is overwhelming and I am here for you. You're holding up so well It's OK to cry This is God's will. These things happen for a reason. Romans 8:28 promises us that. Some things just don't make any sense, do they? I know that God has a purpose, but sometimes life doesn't make sense to me either. I know how you feel I just don't know what to say, but let me give you a big hug. Let me know if I can do anything I'll call again tomorrow to see how I can help

Can you see the difference? Both counselors are giving correct statements, but counselor B enters into the pain of the other person. Both have understanding of theology, but counselor B has understanding of the person's plight and of his feelings.

And the reason these psalms have brought so much comfort to people going through despondency is because they are like counselor B. They indicate to the believer that God really understands; God through these psalms has entered into our feelings and has enabled us to have a vehicle by which to express them back to God and find healing and help. God is the ultimate counselor, and if we follow his lead, we will let people express their pain without feeling like we need to vindicate God by giving a theological answer, giving pat answers, or shutting them up.

But this psalm is not just a resource on counseling; it is also a song for the despondent. So let's see the process we can go through individually when we are down.

When You Experience A "Spiritual Desertion" What Can You Do?

Talk to yourself (v. 2a)

The first step that I see David taking is preaching to himself; talking to himself; counseling himself. Verse 2 begins, "How long shall I take counsel in my soul...?" David talked to himself whenever he was tempted with despair. In Psalms 42 and 43 David said, "Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, for the help of His countenance." He didn't even feel like talking to God, but he grabs himself by the scruff of the neck and talks to himself and says, "Self, you cannot do this. You cannot despair. You cannot walk away from God." He refuses to give in. Too many people have missed this first step and they have allowed their despondency to make them bitter against God and even to walk away from God. This first step doesn't understand the pain, but it still clings to God by faith. It will not let him go.

Be Honest With God About Your Feelings (vs. 1-2)

But this doesn't mean that he doesn't cry out to God in anguish. Point B says that David is quite honest with God about his feelings. While he is holding to God by faith, he lets God know that he isn't happy. He's not going to fake his feelings. He feels horrible and he lets God know it.

Now I will hasten to say that David ends up praising God, which shows that he does not have a bitter or resentful spirit. But he starts out where he is, and does not pretend that everything is hunky dory. And this is important. If David felt comfortable when the sense of God's presence was removed, it would be counterproductive to God's purposes. When God brings dryness, He doesn't bring it so that we will be happy with dryness. He wants us to seek for the waters of His grace. When he gives us troubles, it is because He wants us to look to Him for help. When He allows us to have despondency, it is because He wants us to look to Him for comfort. So the very expression of these feelings is still consistent with faith.

And sometimes Christians think it is wrong to feel this sense of distance and anguish. But think about it. Reusing the analogy I gave earlier of your being in the same room as a friend or relative, and yet feeling distant. You feel like there is some kind of barrier there. Well, common sense would tell you that it is not good to be happy and content with that; it's not good to be content with mere spatial closeness. To be content with the sense of distance would show a lack of caring and a lack of love. In the same way, God doesn't want us to say, "I'm a Stoic. I'm quite content with the way things are God. I like to feel distant from You." No. He wants us to be honest with Him – to pour out our heart before Him. We express this because faith makes us want more closeness.

As the great Puritan writer, Thomas Brooks once said, "By God's withdrawing from his people, he prevents his people's withdrawing from him; and so by an affliction he prevents a sin. ... God therefore forsakes us, that we may not forsake God." The whole purpose of God withdrawing the sense of His comfort is so that we will seek for Him. So be honest about your feelings and honor God by asking Him to draw near to you. God knows the way you feel anyway, and He delights in the fact that you long for Him and you long for His protection. Express it.

Focus on God, Not Your Problems (vv. 1-6)

The third thing that I see in this Psalm is that David focused on God, not on his problems. Of course, he doesn't ignore his problems. After all, he is presenting his problems to God. But where is his focus? If his focus had been exclusively on his problems, he might have been led to despair. But his focus was on God who was bigger than David's problems.

The historian Carolly Erickson tells of the grief of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, after the sudden death of her husband. She painted her rooms black, had the windows draped in black velvet, dressed in black, and forbad her attending ladies to wear rouge or to wear anything but black clothing. The historian said this:

…the empress seemed to lose heart completely, sitting alone in her darkened apartments, her hair shorn, her thoughts increasingly morbid… [She] ordered her own coffin prepared and placed beside her husband's… [and] spent a large part of each afternoon in the vault, sitting beside Francis' coffin and the empty one… weeping… [She wrote in her prayer book,] "Emperor Francis I, my husband, died on the evening of the eighteenth of August at half past nine o'clock. He lived 680 months, 2,958 weeks, 20,788 days, or 496,992 hours. Our happy marriage lasted twenty-nine years, six months, and six days – 1,540 weeks, 10,781 days, or 258,744 hours."1

You can see that her focus was almost entirely on her problem, not on the God who uses problems to bless us. While it is impossible to not see our problems, to spend so much focus day in and day out on the problem rather than on God is a great way to remain despondent forever. Some of you focus on your problems too much. David doesn't do that. He allows the pain of the problem (which has been expressed) to drive his eyes to God and resolve itself. His focus is on God, not on the problem. This is key. This is critical.

Give God Reasons Why He Should Deliver You (vs. 3-6)

Fourth step: Give reasons why God should deliver you from your affliction like David does in verses 3-6. I've seen Christians (even pastors) who passively endure. They don't aggressively ask for relief. They think acceptance of a horrible situation is submission to God. It is not. It is simply passivity. Let me outline some of David's reasons:

His covenantal relation with you (v. 3)

David points first of all to God's covenant relationship with him. He uses the covenant name, "LORD" or Yahweh, and then claims God as belonging rightly to him. "You have covenanted with me Lord, and therefore you are my God. That's why I long for you so much." Just like a wife might say to a husband, "But you are my husband. You say that you love me. Why don't you want to be with me?" David is claiming God's covenant relationship with Him, which implies God's promise that Israel would be His people and that He would be their God.

His kindness (v. 3)

He also appeals to God's kindness in verse 3. God says that He is a God of compassion who hears His people's cries, so David says, "Consider and hear me." God says that He will provide for His people when they have need, and David senses a need for wisdom, so he prays, "Enlighten my eyes." God has promised to protect His people, and David prays, "Lest I sleep the sleep of death." He is appealing to God's kindness; to His generous character. But he is not just asking God to take away his feelings. He asking God to give him whatever is needed to do the right thing.

His reputation (v. 4)

Subpoint 3 - he appeals to God's reputation. Since all things ultimately must reflect God's glory, and since God does not deny Himself, he prays that in this situation God would not allow the heathen to think that they have prevailed against Him or against His people. He says, "Lest the enemy say, ‘I have prevailed against him'; Lest those who trouble me rejoice when I am moved." Lord, what will the heathen think if you let me go under? And that is just a sampling of the ways in which you can appeal to God with reasons. But don't be passive in prayer and don't be passive in action. Most of the requests are for resources to help David to take the responsible actions, even though he doesn't feel like acting.

Thank, Praise And Sing To God In Faith (vs. 5-6)

The fifth step is to thank God, praise Him, and sing to Him in faith. And you can see this in verses 5-6. And I want to reverse that order and look at the submission of faith first. There are many ways of saying this, Christ said, "Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done." Here David says, "But I have trusted in Your mercy; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because He has dealt bountifully with me." This is the expression of faith. Despite all the appearances to the contrary, David knows that God is still in charge, that God has not left him in the lurch, and that there is still plenty that he can thank the Lord for and praise the Lord for. If our complaints don't end in praise, we will end up with bitterness of heart. Paul tells us that we need to not only offer up prayers and supplications, but we need to always do it with thanksgiving. In fact, he says that we need to thank God in all things and for all things. It gives us a proper focus in our prayers. Too many prayers just reinforce the depression. They are not expressions of faith.

And one of the reasons why David is able to offer up the complaint of the first half of the song and still is able to thank and praise God in the last half is found in that word "mercy" in verse 5, and in the word "salvation." "I have trusted in Your mercy." Anyone who knows even a fraction of how hateful our sins are to God; anyone who knows that our sins deserve the torments of hell, is going to be grateful to God for mercy even in the midst of persecution and trouble. It's a perspective issue. Like Lamentations says, "through the LORD's mercies we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not; they are new every morning."

Hopefully you know the distinctions between mercy, grace and justice. Justice is receiving what we do deserve. Grace is receiving the good things that we do not deserve. Mercy is not receiving bad things that we do deserve. David knew that he deserved far, far worse than what he was getting. And that gave him a perspective that enabled him to praise and thank God in the midst of trials. And that is the difference between the grumbling we sometimes do, and the plea for help that David makes. God gets irritated with grumblers. Grumblers think they deserve better. They think they want justice. They do not complain with humility. They don't understand that even their greatest difficulties are a mercy. 1 Corinthians 10:10 tells us, "Let us not ... murmur, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed by the destroyer." Next time you are tempted to get down because you didn't win the argument, or you lost something in the stock market, or you were hurt by a friend, put it all into perspective by meditating upon what you would be experiencing right now if you had justice, and not mercy.

Remember His Past Goodness (v. 6)

The last point under Roman numeral II - remember God's goodness in the past. During tribulation Satan would love you to forget God's goodness in the past and to focus only on the present. David refuses to do that. He says in verse 6, "I will sing to the Lord because He has dealt bountifully with me." That's past tense. He's remembering the good times that he had had with God. It keeps his focus on the goodness of God. And David not only remembers how bountiful God has been, but He sings about it. Why is he able to sing now? Is it because his troubles are past? No. His troubles are not past. He wrote this near the end of 1Samuel 23. It is because he is able to remind himself that God is good even during those times that he can't see Him.

When I was a child I was always fascinated with the ways certain flowers would turn to face the sun. And there was one kind of flower that had very dramatic movement. And I noticed that even on cloudy days when you couldn't see the sun, the flower still continued to move from east to west. That is how God has made the Christian soul. We have a homing device that makes us long and search after God even when His face is hidden by the clouds. The remembrance of His goodness makes us continue to love Him and long for Him and delight in Him even when the clouds cover His face. When Christ asked His disciples if they would leave Him too, they said, "Where can we go, for thou hast the words of eternal life." They experienced troubling times, but rather than letting those trials make them forsake Christ, they saw Christ as the only one who could take them through the trials. Remember God's blessings.

Minister to Others (Psalm 13)

But there is one last step that I see in this Psalm, and that is ministering to others. Yes, you heard it right – ministering to others. And you might think, "No way. A person going through the depths of despondency doesn't feel like ministering to others." That's true. Nevertheless, he should. Your counsel of each other is not done until you've got people ministering once again. If in your counsel of each other you never get them past point I, your counseling is not Bible. Hebrews 10:24 commands us, "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works." They were going through terrible persecution, yet Hebrews tells that they need to get all the way to point III if healing is to be complete. This is what David did when he recorded the Psalm that God had inspired him with. He didn't keep it to himself. He used that Psalm to minister to the 600 men who were with him and he continued to lead them in 1Samuel 24. Don't think he is the only one going through despondency. His other men needed his encouragement too. 2Corinthians 1:4 says that God "comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." This takes your attention away from your own problems, onto the problems of others, and enables you to be a conduit of God's grace. As God's grace flows through you to others you get the overflow of God's grace yourself. Let me illustrate:

Babe Ruth had hit 714 home runs during his baseball career and was playing rather poorly in one of his last full major league games. It was the Braves versus the Reds in Cincinnati. He had fumbled the ball, had thrown it badly, and in one inning alone his errors were responsible for most of the five runs scored by Cincinnati. As Babe walked off the field after the third out and headed toward the dugout, a crescendo of yelling and booing erupted from the bleachers. Just then a boy jumped over the railing onto the playing field and with tears of sympathy streaming down his face, the boy threw his arms around the legs of his hero. Babe Ruth didn't hesitate for a second. He picked the boy up, hugged him, and when he finally set him on his feet, was patting his head gently and trying to make him feel better. And the write-up I read said that the crowd's noise and booing came to an abrupt halt, and a profound hush came over the stadium as the fans witnessed two heroes ministering to each other: Babe Ruth, who despite his miserable day and despite the booing could still care about a little boy whose feelings were hurt, and the small boy who cared about the feelings of another human being. That display of mutual ministry (point #III) had melted the hearts of the fans.2 As they ministered to each other, they found themselves oddly ministered to.

And brothers and sisters, I would urge each of us to do the same. Don't focus all of your energies in surviving your own despondency. Save some of your energies to minister to others. This was the course that John Newton used to help William Cowper. Very few people mention it in their biographies. They focus on the encouraging words that Newton constantly used to help this incredibly depressed man. And yes, Newton's words were a powerful comfort. But part of Newton's success with Cowper came from the fact that he forced Cowper to minister in various ways. He introduced Cowper to people who were worse of them him – the poorest of poor. And as Cowper prayed for them and ministered to them, God's grace sustained Cowper himself. I don't know why this is the case, but it is. All three points are important.


Even though you may not be despondent today, I encourage you to take some of the melancholy psalms and memorize them so that when you go through tough times like David did, with little effort you can sing or say these psalms to the Lord as if they are your own. You will find the comfort of identification, you will find the release of being able to express your grief, you will find hope rising within you, and most importantly, in every one of these psalms you will be brought to the place of trust in God and praise Him for His ways. Brothers and sisters, don't use humanistic ways of dealing with despondency. Find the supernatural presence of God as you use the Psalms like David did. Amen.

Children of God, I charge you to handle your despondencies as David did. Amen.


  1. Carolly Erickson, To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1991), p. 35).

  2. Ted W. Engstrom,The Pursuit of Excellence, 1982, Zondervan Corporation, pp. 66-67.

God's Remedy for Despondency is part of the Life of David series published on September 11, 2011

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