We remind ourselves that, for all their piety and scholarship, translators remain captive to their own biases. We should never pretend that we have none, but be conscious of them and strive to make them serve our individual callings. It is wholly unfair to build a doctrine or theology from any English translation without at least being aware of the mystical character of Hebrew poetry. As much as any other Hebrew text, this one seeks to bring us vividly into that moment whence this psalm was inspired, to discover that precious moment when we come face to face with God in the midst of inner turmoil.
It matters not whether the sorrow as personal or national, or anything in between. Sorrow is a pervasive human experience. The only proper starting point is offered immediately, in that the psalmist cries out to his Creator. Surely He hears, as the writer notes. He goes on to paint the full image of calling on God because everything else was as good as dust in his life.
Don’t get hung up on the word “spirit” here as a doctrinal label. In Hebrew literature it takes a more organic meaning, an expression for the human sense of awareness. Nothing more than human, yet this is far more than mere animal, aspiring to things far beyond our sorrowful existence. Thus, the psalmist’s spirit was overwhelmed — the literal image is something shrouded or covered up and unable to find a way out.
But what words can indicate the depth of sorrow here? The inner conflict keeps him awake, bewildered and unable to reconcile things. He is fortunate to find some anchor, some solid awareness of God’s record of protection. He even sings of it, recalling old songs of God’s mighty acts. Where could the solution be to this imponderable inner conflict?
Against that deep and heavy history of God’s power and mercy is the apparent situation that finds the psalmist outside the boundaries of that protection. It’s a figure of speech that blames the sinner for being locked out of God’s Presence. In English translations it could be mistaken for whining that God is capricious; it was acknowledging that the one excluded simply could not comprehend because it was ineffable in the first place. So instead of blasphemy in accusing God, the psalmist recites the typical subjective human response. It was a common form of expression from ancient times.
Suddenly he confirms this by confessing that this is merely his human anguish speaking out of turn. Contrast that with the unquestionable history of God’s dealings with His people. It’s rather like that popular song, “Count Your Blessings.” When you hurt the worst, it’s not a mere distraction to recite the blessings of God from times past. Rather, it provides a far more substantial context for thinking about things the mere shallowness of current discomfort.
If nothing else, who could forget the Exodus and the sea crossing? We are talking about the God who made water stand aside for His nation to escape slavery, then drowned the slavers behind them. These were the people who just moments before whined about the Egyptian army and wondered aloud if there weren’t enough grave sites back in the Nile Delta that they had to be moved here to die. You can stand with Moses and Aaron, or you can walk wait to be herded through blessings you’ll never understand. God’s purpose never fails, despite whether you can grasp what He’s doing.