How to Complain Well | Psalm 3

How to Complain Well | Psalm 3

No one likes a complainer, but everyone likes to complain. Have you ever heard that? As human beings, we complain—we vent, we express, we share. But no one really wants a perpetual Eeyore in their lives. Eeyore is Winnie-the-Pooh’s donkey friend who has a never-ending rain-cloud hovering just above his head. He’s gloomy, depressed, pessimistic, and grey. He’s a complainer. Do you have a friend or family member who constantly complains? If you do, you probably don’t want to spend time with them. If you don’t know anyone who is a complainer, you may be the complainer. 

What if I were to tell you God invites us to complain? He invites us to complain to him in our prayers. What if I were to tell you God isn’t afraid of gloomy, depressed, pessimistic, and grey Eeyores? What if I were to tell you that God inserted a whole bunch of prayers designed just for you in the Bible? 

The most common type of Psalm in the Bible is not a Psalm of thanksgiving or praise, but of lament. Of the 150 Psalms, over 60 of them are either individual or corporate laments. In fact, the first Psalm to call itself a Psalm (the Hebrew word “mizmor”, which means “psalm” or “melody”) is Psalm 3, and it’s a lament. Psalm 1 is about the goodness of God’s law. Psalm 2 is about the Messiah. And Psalm 3 is a complaint.

Because of the presence of sin and evil in this world, complaining is necessary; but God can redeem our complaining for good if we bring our complaints to him. In Psalm 3, King David models how to bring our complaints to God. His lament follows a six element pattern that other laments tend to follow. So when you read other laments, you can look for these six elements. It’s as we reflect and incorporate each of these six elements into our prayers that we can be assured that we are complaining to God well.

Now I did not come up with these six elements. I’ve taken them from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. It uses Psalm 3 as an example of them, so I’m drawing from his book, so I encourage you to check it out. But I think each of these six elements of a lament, if we understand and use them, will help us complain to God well. What’s the first element of a lament? 

1. Address (v1a)

Looking at the very first part of verse 1, which is what “1a” means, we find King David addresses his Psalm directly to the Lord. When we encounter Lord in all capitals that’s a signal to us that this is the special covenant name of God, Yahweh. When David begins this prayer, he recalls the one true name of God and all the goodness and promises associated with his name. 

This pattern of addressing God directly continues throughout the Psalms and into the New Testament. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray he teaches them to say, “Our Father, who is in heaven.” (Matt 6:9) When the first church martyr Stephen is stoned he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59) 

When you pray, do you speak directly to God or do you speak about him? When you pray, do you say, “I pray the Lord would give me a good night’s sleep” or “Lord, would you give me a good night’s sleep”? Let’s say you’re the mother of a child. Wouldn’t it be weird if your child came up to you and said, “I really hope mom will buy me that toy.” That’s manipulative, that’s talking about you, not to you. But our Yahweh is interested in a relationship. And what does every healthy relationship need? Being on a first-name basis. If I can’t remember someone’s name at my gym, and call them “dude” or “hey you” it means I don’t know them very well. This is why we address our God directly. Our first element is address.

2. Complaint (v1-2)

Before I jump into verse one, I actually want us to pause and look at the header, which is verse 1 in the Hebrew translation of the Bible, “A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.” If you ever read about David’s life in 1-2 Samuel, it reads like a soap opera. He is a young man who comes from nothing to become King over Israel. But along the way he makes some mistakes, the biggest of which is killing a man so he could marry his wife Bathsheba. This act profoundly impacts how he rules. As he has sons and they do evil acts he is afraid to confront them. He lacks moral courage. His eldest son Amnon forces himself on one of his half sisters Tamar and David doesn’t do anything about it. Another one of his other sons Absalom is so angry he murders Amnon and David doesn’t do anything about that either. 

Instead of addressing the sin, he lets 5 years go by without ever seeing Absalom. Absalom grows so embittered and angry he leads a coup to overthrow his father and become king (2 Sam 15). He raises an army and David has to flee the capital of Jerusalem to save his own life. It’s at this time that King David composes this prayer to express his hurt and frustration.

1 Lord, how many are my foes!
     How many rise up against me!
2 Many are saying of me,
     “God will not deliver him.” (NIV®)

I want to make two points. 1) David has something specific to complain about. David doesn’t complain for the sake of complaining. When he’s joyful he rejoices and when he’s thankful he praises God. So when we come to God, we can address specific hurts in our lives, but we shouldn’t complain just because we like to complain. And 2) David doesn’t pray from a place of innocence. David is partially responsible for the situation he is in, but that does not prevent him from coming to God with his complaint. 

Think of a situation you’ve complained about recently. Maybe you’ve even complained to God. Are you entirely innocent? Is it really all their fault? We usually have some level of responsibility for the situations we complain about. God doesn’t mind that. God doesn’t tell us to go cleans ourselves up first, and then he’ll hear our prayers. He cleans us up while we pray. David doesn’t stay in complaint. He moves forward to…

3. Trust (v3-6)

In the next few verses David moves from complaint to trust.

3 But you, Lord, are a shield around me,
     my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
4 I call out to the Lord,
     and he answers me from his holy mountain.

5 I lie down and sleep;
      I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
6 I will not fear though tens of thousands
     assail me on every side.

David uses the language of his circumstances to fill his prayer. This is a military coup, so he pictures the Lord as a shield, the type of shield used in battle. This type of shield would have been either round or torso length and was meant to be maneuverable and offer protection from any side. David is picturing the Lord as a maneuverable defense protecting him from threats all around.

I’ve never been a car wreck where airbags were deployed. Praise the Lord (I’m not going to  knock on wood; that’s pagan mysticism…). But my Pontiac Vibe has had its airbags recalled. Today car airbags are designed to protect you from any direction. Since Ford and GM began installing airbags in cars in the 1970s, they’ve developed more and more airbags. There are steering wheel airbags, dashboard airbags, side torso airbags, and side curtain airbags. Now automakers are making knee airbags, center airbags, rear curtain airbags, seatbelt airbags, and even pedestrian airbags for the outside of the car. Our God can protect us from anything he chooses, financial threats, relational hardship, sickness, spiritual oppression, etc. So when you pray tonight you can pray, “But you, Lord, are an airbag around me. You protect me on every side. And you will never be recalled.” First, David’s trust is all-encompassing. 

Second, David’s trust is also confident. In verse 4 David has been chased away from Jerusalem, where the holy mountain is. This is the place where they keep the tabernacle and one day the place where the temple will be built. But David knows that even though he’s far from the holy mountain, God still hears him. So no matter where we are in life, whether we’re close to God because we’re at church or are reading our Bibles and praying all the time, or if God seems far away and we’re going through a dry season, God still hears us. You know that place on your drive home where the service drops and you lose connection with your spouse? God hears you there. He never drops us. We can have all-encompassing and confident trust in him.

Verses 5-6 tell us this trust should give us actual peace. David has been driven from his home and his men, women, children, and soldiers are refugees. They’re exhausted and tired and there is a chance for Absalom to pen them down with their backs to the Jordan River and destroy them, but God protects David and his people. He provides them with food and rest (2 Sam 16:2, 17:28-29). In the midst of all this stress, David lies down and has a good night’s sleep because the Lord sustains him. Absalom has a chance to send 12,000 men to destroy King David, but God thwarts his plans and saves David (2 Sam 17:1).

Our trust in God can give us actual, not imagined, peace. Imagined peace is when we busy our minds with other things like television or work or try to clear them through by just putting it out of mind. It doesn’t last. Actual peace is when we are aware of our circumstances but our understanding and trust in who God is gives our hearts rest. So let’s trust, but with hope of…

4. Deliverance (v7a)

We’re only looking at the first half of verse 7.

7a Arise, Lord!
     Deliver me, my God!

I think Stuart makes a really good point in How to Read Your Bible. He says, “Notice how the direct request for aid has been held until this point in the psalm, coming after the expression of trust.” Both “arise” and “deliver” are imperatives. David is making his request, but after he’s spent four verses trusting God first.

Sometimes I treat my prayers like letters to Santa. “Dear Santa, I’ve been good this year. I’d like a new bike, a new Nintendo, a new trampoline, and…” What if we tell our Heavenly Father we trust him ever before we ask for help? I don’t think it’s wrong to ask for help right away. Sometimes we need to get right into it. Neither do we tell God we trust him first because that increases the odds he’ll answer our prayer. Rather, we express our trust as a way to prepare our hearts to ask with humility, accepting whatever answer he gives. Our next element is…

5. Assurance (v7b)

When we assure someone that something is going to be okay, we try to give them confidence. Here David is making a statement that God will indeed deliver him. It’s like when we say in our prayers, “God, I know you’re going to act. You will deliver me. It may not be the way I’m asking for, but you’ll do it.” David nowhere says in this Psalm that God has to deliver him a certain way. God may let bad things happen to him, even death, but he knows that God will vindicate him according to the promises of God.

7b Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
      break the teeth of the wicked.

Psalm 3 is poetic and so this is a metaphor for God knocking out all of David’s problems. God is big enough to give our issues a mean right hook. Sometimes we need assurance that God is going to use our circumstances and prayers for good. We can find that assurance here and in Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (NASB) This is another reason we need a church community. We need brothers and sisters in Christ to come alongside us in our complaints and comfort us that God is going to use it for our good, and we will get through it with his help. The 5th element is assurance… The final is…

6. Praise (v8)

8 From the Lord comes deliverance.
     May your blessing be on your people.

David goes back to the name of the Lord, Yahweh, because he is his deliverer, and he knows that in the end, no matter how God acts, whether in this life or the next God will deliver him and bless his people. So often I forget to just praise God for how good he is, and how he can deliver us. David praises God and so can we.

Do you want to know what happened to David and how the story ends? Absalom leads his army into the woods to kill David, but David’s generals defeat Absalom. Absalom was a very prideful man who loved his own hair. He grew it out and as he was riding through the woods on his donkey his hair got caught in the “thick branches of a large oak” (NIV®), and the ESV says he was “suspended between heaven and earth” (2 Samuel 18:9). That’s when one of David’s commanders took three javelins and ran them through Absalom’s heart and he died. To die on a tree was to be considered cursed by God (Deut 21:23). 

The Lord delivers King David through great heartbreak. The Hebrew words for deliverance in verse 2 where his enemies say “God will not deliver him” and in verse 8 where David says “From the Lord comes deliverance” are the same Hebrew word. They’re the Hebrew noun “yeshua” which is where we get the name Joshua, which is where we get the name Jesus. The Hebrew name Yeshua means “Yahweh saves.” The angel told Joseph to name his child Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:21b) Psalm 3 whispers the name of Jesus. In his tears King David spoke his savior’s name and so do we.

Jesus, Yeshua, is not a son who rebelled and sinned against his father, trying to overthrow his father’s kingdom. No. Jesus is the humble and  submissive eldest son who obeyed his father’s will perfectly. He is the one who willingly climbed up onto a tree, the cross, and hung suspended between heaven and earth to bridge the gap for us, delivering us from death to life. He became a curse for us so that we who were enemies of God, could join the family. Now we can bring him our prayers no matter how high or how low we feel, even our complaints. When we remember Jesus it turns our complaints into praise.

Pastor Jonathan Romig preached this message at Cornerstone Congregational Church.
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