top of page
  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Wrestling for Worship


Last time we looked at John 4:1-26. Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. And we saw that the woman had a superficial idea about what worship is. For her everything was about external forms. But Jesus spent the whole of their conversation pointing her to the heart of things, and wound up saying that the type of worshippers God the Father wants, are those who, when they hear truth about him, respond with lively spiritual affections. One of the massive implications of that reality is that – and Jesus points this out to her – external forms are no longer of the essence.

The place that worship happens isn’t what counts any more. Jesus says, ‘I tell you woman, a day is coming and is now come, when true worshippers will worship neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem’. He’s saying, ‘there aren’t any sacred places anymore, the sacred place is where the Spirit of God dwells and, in me, that has become the human soul’.

That is not to say, that there is anything wrong with Jerusalem or the mountain. But it is to say, that if you find yourself in Jerusalem or on the mountain encountering God in truth that leads you to well up in your heart with love for God, where your body is when that happens, is totally irrelevant.

The question is, is the heart worshipping the true God? That means all of life has the capacity to be worship. Romans 12:1, ‘offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship’.

So, imagine you’re in Lidl doing the food shopping – I’m choosing the most mundane, dull, dishwater type of activity I can think of. You choose something else, if food-shopping isn’t that for you – Imagine you’re in Lidl, and you get to the bread aisle and see the loaves all neatly stacked on the shelves, and your mind suddenly remembers: Jesus described himself as the bread of life, who came down from heaven. ‘Whoever eats of me will live. This bread is my flesh that I give for the life of the world’. And your heart just soars at that true thought. ‘He’s my bread! He’s my life. He’s my hope. “Lord Jesus I love you. You came to this world to be spiritual soul sustenance to me, forever. Like this bread in this aisle is for the body – you are to my soul. Why did you choose me? I don’t know, but I am eternally grateful that you did – my soul praises you O Lord”’. In the Lidl aisle, worship happens and Jesus is saying, ‘that’s what I came to create’.

Worshippers who behold God all the time, in all the circumstances of life. Location is not important any more. All worship will happen in a location because we have bodies, but it doesn’t matter where the body is. It matters where the heart is – tuned to God or tuned to something else? That’s the question.

So, that’s all recap from last time, but it’s important. Our focus this morning is Psalm 42. Last time I said we’d move towards looking at worship as it comes to expression, and we are doing, but consider this morning as a stepping stone in that direction.

Honest Psalmist What’s so wonderful about the Psalmists is, they are red-hot lovers of God, but they’re never afraid to express their troubles. You can’t read the psalms and conclude: these men were like ‘super' Christians. They never seem to have any setbacks. They never seem to struggle with sin. They never seem to be beset with problems. They never seem to have hopeless days. They never seem to be beat down. It’s not like that. Listen to this Psalmist – maybe David, we don’t know because it doesn’t tell us – Why my soul are you downcast, Why are you so disturbed within me’ (v. 5, 6 & 11).

Or, ‘Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by my enemy’ (v.9).

Or, ‘All your waves and breakers have swept over me’ (v.7).

He’s not putting a brave face on things. He’s saying it how he feels it. And he’s not afraid to do that. And it’s in our bible’s like that! That’s not an accident, and it’s for our benefit that it’s in there, because God knows our lives feel like that – a lot.

Context We need some context for the Psalm and verse 6 is the closest we get. From the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon – from mount Mizar’. Hermon is one of the highest mountains in Israel. It’s located to the very north of the northern-most territory and it forms part of a mountain range that defined Israel’s northern most boarder. During the early reign of King David, we know he took the Ark of the Covenant and brought it up to Jerusalem where he set it in a tent that he had made for it (1 Chronicles 15:1) – the tabernacle being still located in Gibeon at that time (1 Chronicles 16:39). Remember that in old testament times, the Ark of the Covenant was the place where God came to meet with his people (Exodus 30:36).

In those days, worship did have a place. The mercy seat above the covenant chest was where God presenced himself. That means that wherever the ark went the presence of God followed and now David had brought it up to Jerusalem, causing mount Zion to become the holy place for the Israelites – which is why the woman at the well said what she said.

Distant from God The implication of that for the Psalmist is that he is well over a hundred miles away from where God is. And that’s bad news for him because he really loves the Lord.

Listen to him, ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God’ (v.1).

Or, ‘I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God’ (v.5 & 11).

So, here’s the situation, for the psalmist it wasn’t like it is today. Jesus changed everything. Worship happened in a place back then. That place was Jerusalem. And for some reason – unknown to us – he’s exiled in the mountains, just about as far away as he can conceive of being from where God is. And he’s longing to be reunited with him. He’s longing to be where his God is. He’s longing to praise him. But he can’t. Here’s how it makes him feel. Verse 4 – ‘Tears have been my food day and night’.

Verse 7 – ‘Deep calls to deep’. That means his in-most spirit yearns for God.

Verse 9 – ‘I say to God, “Why have you forgotten me?”’. He feels bereft of God.

A certain kind of worship Now, there’s a kind of worship that seems obstacle free. A kind where the circumstances of life feel insubstantial; where the soul is unincumbered and where God feels very close at hand. To see his surpassing beauties and rejoice in them is natural and easy and flowing. Sometimes, worship is like that, when it seems like everything else is peripheral and your heart and mind are joined in unison to behold and overflow in praises to God. That is a rapturous worship. Those are exquisite moments and they must be savoured – you’ll see why in a moment.

But – perhaps more often – worship is less like that. Less rapturous, and more like a wrestle.

That’s what the Psalmist is showing us – wrestling worship.

I think we need a robust theology of worship that allows for wrestling. Wrestling worship is needed when a true child of God finds themselves yearning for God, but not feeling close to God. Wrestling worship is needed when the circumstances of life leave us feeling like we’re stood on a rock in the open sea and the waters are roaring and raging around about us and then suddenly a huge wave breaks right over us. And just as we find we’re still stood on the rock, another one breaks over us again. That’s what the Psalmist likens it to.

Verse 7, ‘In the roar of your waterfalls, all your waves and breakers have swept over me’. What do you do when you’re miles away from God and people are taunting you saying, Where is your God?’ (v.3)?

Or, when you feel like God has forgotten you? (v.9).

Or, when you’re being oppressed? (v.9). Or, when you’re in physical pain? (v.10) What do you do?

Remember, his goal is worship and if we’re Christians, that’s our goal too. Worship is the goal of the Christian. Listen to Hebrews 12, ‘Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken’ – that’s the goal right? Heaven not hell – but the verse goes on, ‘therefore, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe’ (v.28). God made us to be worshippers of Him. He saved us to be worshippers of him. He sent His Spirit into our hearts that we might be worshippers of him. You can hear that the Psalmist’s goal is worship: ‘Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him’ (v.5 & 11).

That means that in that moment, as he’s writing, he’s not praising - he’s not worshipping. But make no mistake about it, that is his goal.

I will yet praise him’. That’s my aim; my goal; my life. But how will he get from here – not worshipping – to there – where worship overflows?

I think there are at least three major strategies the Psalmist employs. First, he stops listening to himself and starts talking to himself. Second, he remembers God. And Third, he remembers the most exquisite times of overflowing worship he’s experienced.

No throwing in of the towel But before, we take a look at each of those positive strategies, its worth noting something that’s not there. Something he doesn’t do. The Psalmist doesn’t throw in the towel despite his terrible circumstances. He is always the spiritual wrestler. He is always like Jacob – wrestling with God through the watches of the night until God will bless him (Genesis 32:24).

Watch now for a staggering example of the wrestle.

Verse 7 is just an honest assessment of his life at that moment. And it’s not pleasant. Trouble after trouble beset his life in that season. Then verse 8. How can you say verse 8 in light of verse 7? Verse 8 – ‘By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me’. Verse 3 – his tears are day and night.

Verse 8 – God’s love and song to him are day and night. Those are the words of a man who is wrestling.

A towel-thrower would say, ‘my tears flow day and night, so how can He love me? I don’t think this God can be trusted. I don’t think I want to praise a God that would cause HIS waves and breakers to sweep over me and cause HIS waterfalls to descend on me. That’s not my kind of God’. That is emphatically not the rhetoric of a person who wrestles with God. One who wrestles with God says, ‘you, my God, have designed all these waterfalls to fall on me (Romans 8:28). Every single drop of trouble is from your hand (John 16:33). And you love me!’.

So, the starting point, is that he has a God-goal and that is worship, and he’s willing to wrestle for it. And we have to be like that. We have to be willing to go the distance, through the watches of the night, until day breaks, and our souls are happy in God again.

And, if you feel too faint even to contemplate the prospect of that kind of fight, then I council one thing. Pray. Verses 9-10 are a prayer. The psalmist is very honest with the Lord about the way he feels. So, pray for the goal of worship to be the desire of your heart, and pray for the strength that God supplies for the wrestling that needs to be done to arrive at that goal.

Three approaches But assuming our souls are wrestling, here’s what the Psalmist does, and I think these are the things we must do also.

First, he stops listening to himself and starts speaking to himself. Verses 5 & 11, ‘Why my soul are you downcast? Why my soul are you disturbed? Now the answer to that question is evident to us from his other words, so it must have been abundantly evident to him also. His soul is downcast and disturbed because of enemies; because of pain; because of exile; because of taunting; because of trouble. And those are exactly the things our minds and hearts would be telling us also.

Isn’t it obvious – you’ve got every reason to be downcast. It’s not a problem to be despondent in light of all this trouble’. Except, to him it is a problem. It’s a problem because it’s an obstacle to overflowing praise for God and that’s his goal.

So, rather than listening to his soul tell him, ‘it’s normal; it’s fine; you should feel downcast’. He wrestles with it. He doesn’t listen to his soul any more – soothing his ego and pitying his plight – he talks to himself. He tells himself to put his hope in God. He’s telling himself, there are good reasons to be hopeful that God will bring me through this and into a place where praise will flow freely again.

That’s where the second approach comes in. He remembers God. Verse 6 – ‘because my soul is downcast, therefore I will remember you God’. Hope that isn’t founded on rock-solid credentials isn’t any hope at all. ‘Put your hope in God’ has to be founded on truth about God. Truth that he knows. So, he turns his mind to his God. What is God like? What has he promised me? What are his credentials? What has he done in the past that would give me reason to have confidence? The Psalmist didn’t have a bible, he had to rely on his memory. We have bibles and they always need to be open and especially when we’re in this condition, they must never be closed.

We need to remind ourselves over and over of what our God is like that we might have good reason to place our hope in him, that we will yet praise him.

And then, thirdly, he remembers the joy he had when he could worship freely. Verse 4 – ‘These things I remember: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the mighty one, with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng’. So, he’s casting his mind back to when worship for God overflowed. He’s remembering when God was so exquisite to his soul that he shouted with joy. And, we should notice that that memory of exuberant joy in the Lord is something that happened not in isolation but with a gathered throng.

Corporate worship I think, that exquisite moments of worship can happen in the Lidl aisle – I do. I think Jesus assumed they could when he said, ‘when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen...and sees what is done in secret’. But, I think that there is a unique and God-ordained benefit to gathering together to worship the Lord as a company, which brings focus to worship that might otherwise be missing; that brings encouragement that might otherwise be lacking; that brings added dimensions that otherwise might be absent; that brings organisation that might be useful in our pursuit of God in worship.

It shouldn’t go unnoticed that the pictures of the church in the New Testament are of ‘wholes’ made up of ‘parts’ in assembly.

The church is likened to a body with assembled members. The church is likened to a priesthood with assembled priests. The church is likened to a house with assembled stones. The church is likened to a flock with assembled sheep. God expects his church to be an assembly, not a disparate people.

So, it’s not surprising that the most exquisite memories the Psalmist has of worshipping, are in a collective setting. Therefore, don’t ever leave off gathering with the Lord’s people.

Even when you don’t feel it. And, it is surely this impulse that caused us to strive to continue to meet together in the face of considerable obstacles this last year. Meeting together to worship as a gathered throng is simply too important to leave off doing. The value is seen here as the Psalmist uses his memory of it, as a tool to wrestle for an overflowing heart.

I think it’s safe to say that God is glorified when we engage is this kind of wrestling worship. Sometimes worship will look more like a wrestle than a rapture. But that kind of thirsting to overflow with praise and thanksgiving to God is not dishonouring to the Lord. It honours him when we want more sweet satisfaction in Him than we already have and we’re going to wrestle until we get it.

I hope we’ve had sweet moments of collective overflowing worship this morning, but if it’s been more like a wrestle, then take the Psalmist’s approach away with you this morning and think on his strategies. May the Lord bless his word to us. Amen.



bottom of page