When God Hides
Why does God hide Himself in times of trouble? Why do we see so much evil, but not see Him? It’s a common question we ask, and it’s the question on which this Psalm focuses.
Psalms 1-72 (Kidner Classic Commentaries), Derek Kidner
“Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” When it comes to reasons people give for not worshiping the God of the Bible, isn’t this one near the top? If this God is so powerful and good, why do we see so much evil in the world and not see Him? In academic discourse philosophers point out that this is not a logically valid argument against God’s existence. It assumes that since we can’t think of a good reason God would allow evil, there can’t be one, and that’s obviously false. Ok, so it’s not a good argument against God’s existence, but it’s still a good question, right? Scripture itself asks the question in verse 1 of our passage, and don’t we feel the weight of it too? Don’t you know what it’s like for God to feel distant, to perhaps seem like He doesn’t exist at all? For Christians even, we sometimes go through seasons where our sense of God’s presence seems almost gone. And in the face of wickedness, perhaps especially wickedness of which we are the victims, we wonder why we don’t see God doing something about it. That question is what this Psalm is about, but can I spoil the ending for you now? It never quite answers the question. Instead, it answers the question behind the question, the thing we most need to know when God seems distant. It tells us that Even when He hides Himself, God is still good, because He sees, He hears, and He will act.
After asking God why He’s invisible in times of trouble, David describes what is visible, what he can see, in verses 2-11. In a word, he sees the wicked, who in their arrogance, verse 2 says, hotly pursue the poor. A wicked man thinks he’s better than the poor, so rather than feeling a responsibility to love the poor, he feels free to use them. He’s greedy for gain and boasts of the desires of his soul (v. 3). So he doesn’t even boast in what he already has; he boasts in what he will get. The words “if the LORD wills it” never come out of his mouth. In fact, he renounces the LORD, and in the pride of his face verse 4 says he does not seek him. He lives as though there is no God, and therefore he lives as though he is God. He even speaks of himself the way the Bible speaks of God in verse 6, when he says to himself that he shall not be moved. He is blasphemous: He uses his mouth to curse the LORD, and to deceive (verse 7). He’s a smooth talker who knows how to use his words to get his way, even when it means bending the truth a bit. Not only that, but he’s violent, murdering the innocent (verse 8). He is a man stealer: He seizes not just the property of others, but he seizes the poor themselves (verse 9). And so the helpless are crushed, sink down, and fall by his might, while his ways prosper at all times (verse 5). His prosperity is visible; God is not.
And this is often the case in our world. When the Egyptian pharaoh required the Israelite slaves to increase their production with less of their supplies, his prosperity was visible; God was not. When the Roman Emperor Nero used his mouth to lie and blame Christians for the fire in Rome in the first century and began having them killed, his prosperity was visible; God was not. When American professing Christians began seizing the poor in Africa and forcing them into slave labor in America, their prosperity was visible; God was not. It’s often said that America’s original sin was racism, but Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile suggests that America’s original sin was greed, and we then became racists to justify using slave labor for gain. A good legal system can and should punish and restrain wickedness, but how often do unjust laws pass? Slavery was legal in America. Abortion is legal today. How often does the legal system itself fail, even in developed nations where it runs better than in many other nations? I just saw a stat recently that for every 300 rapes reported to police, only 6 will be charged. Do any of us really think only 6 of them actually happened? The victims are crushed while the perpetrators prosper. Think of the victims who because of a failure in our legal system have now had to watch Bill Cosby go free again: Where is God in their time of trouble? Or what about when the rich deceive the poor through predatory loans, put a greater tax burden on the poor because they pay accountants to find the loopholes for them, withhold a fair wage to make themselves wealthier, charge exorbitant rent prices because they know they can, all within the law? Their prosperity is visible; God is not, and so the wicked says in his heart, verse 11, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
The wicked concludes from God’s hiding that God doesn’t and never will see his wickedness. But faced with the same observable data, David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says in verse 14: “You do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands.” Though David could not see God in all this wickedness, God saw the wickedness. Though we cannot see God in the wickedness around us and in the wickedness that’s been done to us, God sees it. Even when there are no other eyewitnesses, He is the ultimate eyewitness, and He cares. He notes it, verse 14 says. The image here is that God writes it down to ensure that He will execute justice on it. It won’t fall off His record. Nor does it matter to Him how mighty and prosperous the wicked may be. He can’t be bribed, He fears no retribution, and He’s not impressed by a great name or title.
And so He is the one to whom the helpless commits himself, verse 14 goes on to say. The word there is more literally “abandons” himself. To the LORD the helpless abandons himself. Wouldn’t it be so freeing to just let yourself go? This is the God to whom you can, especially if you feel helpless, for He has been the helper of the fatherless, the helper of those who have no help or protection against the wicked. Abandoning yourself to Him means at least four things. First, it means refusing to let bitterness and despair have the final word on the wickedness you see around you and experience yourself. There is a God who sees, who is storing up wrath for the day of judgment against the wicked, and so there is hope. Second, it means continuing in the path of obedience even when it appears to bring more wickedness against you. Though you will appear to lose, the LORD will see and take note of the wickedness done against you. Third, it means renouncing all attempts at vengeance, and instead entrusting into the LORD’s hands the final act of judgment. You’re submitting your case to His courtroom and trusting that He will render a just verdict and sentence. Fourth, it means crying out to Him instead of plunging headlong into other comforts: Another bite of food, another episode of the show, another video game, another 10 minutes on your phone, another person to recruit to your cause. After you’ve abandoned yourself to God, these things can sometimes be enjoyed with thanksgiving to Him, but you can’t abandon yourself to them. They can’t see the wickedness around you or done to you and execute perfect justice on it. Instead of running to them, cry out to Him, and that’s what David does here, because not only does God see; He hears.
So verse 16 goes on to say that even when God hides Himself, He is still king, because He is king forever and ever. And verse 17 tells us the kind of king He is: He hears the desire of the afflicted. We see, then, that God has something of a two-fold concern when it comes to the wicked oppressing the poor. On the one hand, He sees the wickedness and has a concern for justice. He feels a sense of responsibility toward the perpetrator: His justice requires that He judge them for their wickedness. But here we see He also has a concern for the victim, the afflicted. He hears their desires. How often is it the case in the world that the desires of the afflicted are exactly the ones that are not heard? We hear the desires of politicians, celebrities, professional athletes, news anchors and writers because they’re wealthy and powerful. When politicians are looking for whose desires to satisfy, it’s often the wealthy and powerful whose money and influence they need. But God is king forever and ever. He’s not worried about reelection or approval ratings. He doesn’t need the money and influence of anyone. And so He hears the desires of the afflicted.
This entire Psalm depends on Him hearing. It is a cry to Him, after all, and it teaches us that we should in fact cry to Him. Our prayers are not quarantined from our afflictions. God doesn’t tell His people simply to get over them and think positive thoughts instead, nor does He tell us to take our complaints elsewhere. This Psalm and many others call us to bring our complaints to Him. So in this Psalm in verses 2-11 we see David taking significant space to write out the wickedness he sees and experiences. When you are experiencing affliction or you sense God is hiding, this is one of the important ways to draw near to Him during that affliction: Tell Him about it. Get it all out there. Many find that using a journal and writing it down helps that, but at least say it aloud to Him. Tell Him why it sucks. Tell Him why it hurts, why it isn’t fair. And don’t rush past that. It’s uncomfortable to admit, but remember that this is the God who hears the desire of the afflicted.
Then, once you’ve got it all out there, ask Him to act. Verse 12: “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand. Forget not the afflicted…Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call His wickedness to account till you find none.” Stop hiding, in other words! Even when God hides Himself, He is still good: He sees, He hears, and precisely because He sees and hears, it is right and good to ask Him to stop hiding and to execute His justice. There are real people really hurting under the oppression of the wicked; do not forget them LORD! David even asks God to act in ways that may seem harsh to us: Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer. The arm in the Bible often stands for the power, and so we read elsewhere of the arm of the LORD. Asking God to break the arm of the evildoer, then, is a request for God to stop their power, which yes, does sometimes mean harm to them. David doesn’t feel free to break their arms himself, but he does feel free to ask God to do it, and similar prayers are appropriate for us today, as Christians have prayed for the defeat of dictators, the imprisonment of brutal police officers, and so forth. To call out to God in these ways is a call not for revenge, but for justice: Call his wickedness to account until you find none (verse 15). Leave no sin unpunished. That’s what justice requires, and God is just. Do you cry out to God like this? Are you glossing over wickedness? Or are you seeing it, but instead of crying out to God about it, are you simply crying out to others about it? Cry out to Him; He hears this desire of the afflicted, and so He will not hide forever.
He will not hide forever
In verse 17 we get this transition from the present tense to the future. Presently God is hiding Himself in a time of trouble (verse 1). Presently the wicked prosper (verse 5). But presently God sees their wickedness (verse 14). Presently God hears the desire of the afflicted (verse 17), and because He does, He will not hide forever, as the verse goes on to say: He will strengthen the hearts of the afflicted and He will incline His ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more. First, then, He will strengthen the heart of the afflicted. We aren’t told anything here of the timing of this, but the promise is that as we abandon ourselves to Him and cry out to Him, He will strengthen our hearts. This is why where you cry and the one to whom you abandon yourself is so important. If all you’re doing is venting to others or thinking in your own mind about all the wickedness you see or experience, there’s no strength to be found for your heart in that. And the beautiful thing with God is He’s not telling you to be less concerned, aware of, or hurt by that wickedness; He’s just telling you to bring it to Him! He will hear, and He will strengthen your heart, not beat you down further, even if it means you have to continue facing affliction for a time.
And then that too will end. He hears presently, but for God to incline His ear means He will act on what He hears and execute the justice for which the afflicted cry out, and the man who is of the earth will strike terror no more. A day is coming when the afflicted will never be afflicted again. They will have nothing left to fear. Even when God hides Himself in the present, this is the future. He will not remain hidden. He will act, and He will act with perfect justice on behalf of the fatherless and the oppressed. Those the world took advantage of, seized, lied to, and crushed, God will vindicate. Sometimes that happens in this life: The Egyptian and Roman Empires are ancient ruins. The Confederacy in the U.S. defending slavery, multiple tyrannical regimes that meet a brutal end, murderers who have faced the death penalty, others who have been sentenced to prison; in these cases, we get a glimpse of God’s judgment on earth. Other times His justice remains hidden, but in no case will it remain so forever. And as you cry out to Him, you need to say these sorts of things out loud. In biblical lament there is the complaint, where we list out all the ways it sucks, there’s the request, where we ask God to act, and then there’s the choice to trust, the choice to list out not only what’s true about wickedness, but what’s true about God and what He will do in the future. He will do justice, and man who is of the earth will strike terror no more.
This is good news for the afflicted of course, but what about for the wicked? When God comes out of hiding, is there any hope for him? That’s an important question for us, because in the words of Theologian Miroslav Volf, whose villages and people in Yugoslovia suffered awful violence at the hands of the wicked: “Once we accept the appropriateness of God’s wrath, condemnation, and judgment, there is no way of keeping it out there, reserved for others. We have to bring it home as well. I originally resisted the notion of a wrathful God because I dreaded being that wrath’s target; I still do. I knew I couldn’t just direct God’s wrath against others, as if it were a weapon I could aim at targets I particularly detested. It’s God’s wrath, not mine…If I want it to fall on evildoers, I must let it fall on myself…”
But there is at least one character in the Bible who shows us there is hope for the wicked who deserve God’s wrath, who fits the description of the wicked in our Psalm pretty well. His name is Paul, perhaps the most famous persecutor of the early Christians, who like the wicked man in this Psalm used his power as a Jewish leader to seize poor Christians, drag them off to prison, and even oversaw their murder. But here’s how Paul says God acted in his case:
“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” – 1 Tim 1:12-16
In Jesus Christ, God came out of hiding not to condemn the wicked, but to save them, of whom Paul says he was the foremost. He’s the truly innocent one whom the wicked of His day seized, crushed, and ultimately murdered on a cross. Yet in all this He was being afflicted for our wickedness. In breaking Him, God called our wickedness to account in Him until He found none. Every last one of our sins He paid for on the cross, and once all of our wickedness was accounted for, He rose from the dead, victorious over wickedness, so that we who were wicked, along with Paul, could be saved.
So why does God hide Himself in times of trouble? Why hasn’t He yet come and executed justice? In the shadow of the cross, we get at least a partial answer: Because if God had really executed justice when He came the first time, He would have broken all our arms, and we all would have had to account for our wickedness. Instead, He came first to save, and now He calls all people everywhere to repent and turn from their wickedness and instead to abandon themselves to Christ for salvation from it and from His coming judgment. We live in the days where His justice waits on His mercy, and if you are here today, He is extending that mercy to you now. Turn from your wickedness and abandon yourself to Christ, who came into the world to save sinners from the wrath to come.
Because the wrath is still coming. God is just. No sin will go unpunished. He will call all wickedness to account until He finds none, and those who have not trusted in Christ’s payment for sin will pay for their sins themselves. Even when you have lost all sense of God’s presence, He sees the wickedness you see and experience with greater clarity and care than you possibly could. When you can’t see Him, He sees you. When you can’t hear Him, He hears you. Cry out to Him. Tell Him why it hurts, why it’s unjust. Ask Him to act, only now we see that we can ask Him not only to break the arm of the evildoer, but to break the evil of the evildoer, to save the evildoer, just as He saved us when we were evildoers. And choose to trust that He will act with perfect justice to bring us into a world where there will be no crying, no pain, no death, and no fear anymore, a world in which He will no longer be hidden, but where we will see Him face to face, and worship Him forever.