Sermon: Psalm 142: When the Soul is Troubled

New Testament Reading

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31–39, ESV)

Old Testament Reading

“A Maskil of David, when he was in the cave. A Prayer.

With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him. When my spirit faints within me, you know my way! In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul. I cry to you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’ Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me! Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.” (Psalm 142, ESV)


There are a few Psalms that do not have a title attached to them (1, 2 & 8 for example). But many do have a title which reveal something about the Psalm. Many reveal who the author was. Some reveal who the Psalm was to be derived to, the purpose for which the Psalm was written, or the musical style to which the words were to be set. I enjoy these bits of information as they contribute something to our understanding of the Psalm. But there are a handful of Psalms that have a title which reveals something of the situation that provoked the writing of the Psalm. Take for example of the title of Psalm 18: ”To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, the servant of the Lord, who addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lord rescued him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul”. Wow, that’s a mouthful. Or consider the title of Psalm 34: “Of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away”. That was an interesting moment in David’s life! Psalm 51 is delivered to us with this heading: “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba”.  It’s no wonder that we find in this Psalm a model for true repentance. These titles are a gift to us in that they enable us to, not only enjoy the words of the Psalm itself, but to imagine the event or setting which provoked the author to write. We are able to enter into the narrative, relate the author, and feel the emotion of the soul which stirred the author to write, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The title of Psalm 142 is this: “A Maskil [wise song, or well crafted song] of David, when he was in the cave. A Prayer”. It should be noticed that Psalm 57 is also said to have been written by David when he was in the cave: “To the choirmaster: according to Do Not Destroy. A Miktam of David, when he fled from Saul, in the cave.” 

I suppose we could just ignore the title and get into the Psalm itself, but how much more rich the Psalm becomes when consider the setting and seek to identify with David in his struggle.

David is the author. This is the David who would become King David, the greatest of Israel’s kings. But he was not yet the king when he wrote this Psalm. Instead he was a man on the run. Remember that David was anointed king by the Prophet and Judge, Samuel. He was anointed as king, but he would not become king for some time. He served Saul, the current king, but Saul’s jealousy grew as David’s fame increased. Eventually Saul sought David’s life, and David found himself on the run.

There were in fact two occasions in which David hid himself in a cave while running from Saul. 1 Samuel 22 tells us of David taking refugee in the cave of Adullam. This took place not long after he began to flee from Saul. David was in a particularly desperate situation at this point. He was alone. He needed assistance from Ahimalech the priest in order to survive. He pretended to be a madman before Achish the King of Gath in order to escape his hand. He was truly hanging on by a thread, from a worldly perspective. He hid himself in the cave of Adullam and after some time he was joined by “his brothers… [and] everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, [they] gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.” (1 Samuel 22:1–2, ESV)


But after some time David found himself hiding in a cave again. 1 Samuel 23 and 24 tell of David fleeing from Saul into the wilderness of Engedi. As Saul closed in he took refuge with his men in a cave. It was there in that cave that David had an opportunity to kill Saul as Saul relieved himself, but would not, saying, “I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.” (1 Samuel 24:10, ESV)


It seems to me that we should think of David writing Psalm 142 and 57 from the first cave, that is the cave of Adullam. It was there that he was truly alone. He remained there for an extended period of time – Psalm writing would have been possible. And it was there that he would have felt most vulnerable, as if his life were hanging by a thread.


A Suffering Soul

Notice that that is the spirit of Psalm 142. We encounter here a soul in distress – a suffering soul.

David is crying out to the Lord, pleading for mercy (vs. 1). Have mercy on me Lord! Show me compassion! Vs. 2: He is pouring out his compliant. This does not mean that he was complaining as if he were grumbling against God, but that he was crying out to God concerning his anxiety. He is telling of his troubles – his anguish, affliction, tribulation, and distress. In verse 3 he says that his spirit faints. He spirit – his inner man – is weak and feeble. In verse 4 David reveals that he feels alone – no one takes notice; no one cares; no refuge remains for him. In verse 6 we see that he has been brought very low. He feels small, is the thought here. He has been made very tiny.  David, a man highly regarded by the people, is now on the run. He has been made small and insignificant. Vs. 7: He feels as if in prison – entrapped, walled in, with nowhere to go.

David was a suffering soul in this moment. It was his suffering that provoked the writing of this most beautiful Psalm.

The reason this Psalm resonates with your heart when you read it is because you too have been in a state of being like this. You’ve been in the cave, as it were. Some of you are in the cave now! I spent some time thinking about the members of Emmaus and what I know of your past and present experiences in Christ – I know that you know what it is to be in the cave.  You have not been pursued by armies as David was. And you have not taken refuge in the belly of a mountain as David did. But you do know what it is to suffer in the soul. You know what it is to be in anguish and distress. You’ve felt alone, as if no one notices you – as if no one cares. You’ve felt small and insignificant – entrapped, walled in, with nowhere to go. We’ve been driven to that place for different reasons and by different circumstances, but the experience is common to us all. We can identify with David as we read his Psalm.

Please do not miss this most obvious point: The Christian life is not all roses. The Christian life is sometimes very difficult. We may find ourselves in difficult circumstances. And those circumstances may lead us to anxiety, depression, and despair. This does not mean that you are not a Christian. This does not mean that you are not a child of God. What it means is that you are human! It is a part of what we experience in this fallen world.

The question is not, will we experience difficulty in this life and at times be tempted to despair? The question is, will we run to God in our time of need?

A Heartfelt Plea 

This Psalm is most helpful in that it encourages us to do that very thing! It’s true, we are comforted by this Psalm as we notice that even David, Israel’s great king, suffered in his soul – we are not alone or unique in our distress – but we are also exhorted by this Psalm as we notice what David did in the midst of his suffering.

And what did he do? He cried out to God. He issued a heartfelt plea.

Notice again the title: “A Maskil of David, when he was in the cave. A Prayer.” This is a prayer in song form. It is a prayer of David, but it for the people of God. Sometimes we do not know how to pray when we are in distress. It is good to take the prayers of scripture and to make them your own. Pray this prayer if you are at a loss to know how to pray.

Notice that David cried out to the Lord. It is legitimate to pray in the quite of the heart, but it is better, I think, to pray aloud. When we pray aloud we are more aware that a conversation is actually taking place. We hear the words with our own ears, and we are, perhaps, more cognizant of the fact that God also hears our prayers. David cried out for help in his time of distress.

Notice also that David pleaded with Lord for mercy. The word pleaded is strong, isn’t it? It carries the idea of begging. I do wonder if we plead with God in prayer as we ought. Crisis has a way of bringing intensity to our prayers. But should we not always plead with the Lord in prayer. Shouldn’t our prayers always carry a degree of urgency and intensity? David was not to shy or prideful to plea with God concerning his needs.

And notice also that David described his prayer as being poured out before God. This language is also strong. It implies that when David prayed to the Lord he held nothing back. He poured out his heart and soul to the God who made him.

It is no wonder that David was called a man after God’s own heart. He was so far from being perfect, as we all know. But he was a man of prayer and praise. He was a man who ran to God and not away from him in his time of need. He was a man who understood his need for God’s mercy and grace.

The very worst thing we can do when we are experiencing difficulty is to run from God and others, and yet that is often the thing we feel like doing most! David did not run from God; he did not wallow in self pity; he did not remain silent, as if a pouting child – no, he ran to God in prayer.

A Confident Expectation 

It is very important that we notice the way that this Psalm concludes. It concludes with words of confident expectation. Verse 6: “Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me! Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.” (Psalm 142:6–7, ESV)

This is a common feature of the Psalms of lament – Psalm 142 being that type of Psalm. Psalms of lament express sorrow. They are songs of disorientation, sung by those who are in distress. But most of them (not all; Ps. 88, 143) take a surprising turn near the end as the Psalmist moves from complaint to an expression of confident expectation.

This expression of joy, or expression of confidence, is subtle in Psalm 142, but it is there. Notice how David declares at the end of verse 7, “The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.”

The effect of this sudden shift is that it leaves the reader (or the worshiper) thinking, where does this confidence come from? Things were so dark for David; his heart was so overwhelmed; how can he say with such confidence, “The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.”

This was more than just wishful thinking on David’s part. He had a reason to be confident. Consider these four things:

First of all, remember that David had the promises of God. He had been anointed as king by the prophet Samuel according to the word of the Lord (1 Samuel 16:12). David’s circumstances pointed in the direction of utter despair. The promises of God, however, pointed in another direction. As he remember them, they bolstered his confidence. It was right for him to confidently say, “The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me”, given the word of the Lord concerning him.

Two, notice who it was that David cried out to. He cried out to the Lord! He cried out to YHWH, the convent making and covenant keeping God – the God who created the heavens and the earth and sustains all things. David could have called out to God by one of his other names, but he chose this one because it is most often used to signify that God is a God who makes and keeps covenants with men. He makes promises and keeps them. He is faithful.

Three, notice that David appealed to the Lord’s mercy in his prayer. David’s confidence did not rest in his own goodness or righteousness before God. He cried out for mercy. He understood that if God were to deliver him it would be, not because he deserved it, but because the Lord is gracious. His confidence was founded upon the mercy and grace of God.

Four, notice how David spoke truth to his own soul throughout this Psalm. His emotions were certainly leading him to despair. His human reason was undermining and eroding away at his confidence. But he preached truth to his own soul. In verse 3 he confessed that though his spirit faint within him, God knows my way. He felt utterly alone; it seemed as if all had forgotten him; it looked like no one took notice of his troubles. But here David preached truth to his own soul saying, God, you know my way! You see my trouble and understand it. You are here with me! This can also be seen in verse 5. After complaining that “no refuge remains for me” he then utters these words of truth, saying, “I cry to you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’” 

These are the reasons why David could conclude his song with such a confident word: “The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.” 

He knew the promises of God to him; he understood the character and ability of the God who made those promises; he knew that his confidence rested, not upon his own merits, but upon the mercy of God; and he was diligent to remind himself of these truths in his time of despair.


Brothers and sisters, may I suggest to you that our confidence in Christ does not come automatically. Our sense of assurance – the inward sense or confidence of heart that we are indeed children of the King, does not come to us automatically and apart from our diligence. Confidence, assurance, and joy in the Lord are not tied to faith so that the one who has faith automatically has these other things – confidence, assurance, and joy. It is not a package deal.

The circumstances of life, our own sins (sins of omission and commission), and the Evil One himself can and will lead us to despair in this life. We will find ourselves in the cave from time to time, overwhelmed, anxious, and afraid. This does not mean that we are not children of the King – these times of despair are common to the people of God. The question is, what will you do when you find yourself in that place.

Will you run to God or from him?

The ungodly flee further from God when life gets hard; the godly cling ever more tightly to their Savior.

And in running to him the question is, will you run to him well? 

Will you run to him knowing his promises to you? It is not that God has promised to make you the king of Israel as he had promised David. But he has promised that you will rule and reign with him for all eternity. He has promised you eternal life. John 10:27-30: Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Nowhere has God promised you health, wealth, and prosperity (in fact he has promised suffering), but he has promised to care for you and to sustain you to the end. Hebrews 13:5-6: “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” 

And he has promised that he will use all things (good and bad) for his glory and our good.  Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

These are the kinds of promises that you and I ought to hold onto tightly. These are the kinds of promises that assure our hearts.

But we also must know who it is that we are trusting in. We are trusting in the promises made by YHWH – the great I AM – God – the Creator of heaven and earth. He has entered into covenant with us. He has made an agreement with us. And praise God that it is not a covenant of works which depends upon our obedience, but a covenant of promise – a covenant of grace – which depends upon God’s faithfulness alone, and is received by faith alone. Our confidence rests, not in ourselves – not in our own merit, not in our own ability to persevere – but in God.

And this is why we come to him, not with hands full, as if we had something to offer to him to make us acceptable in his sight, but, like David, with hands empty, crying out, pleading, Lord have mercy upon me.

Brothers and sisters it is amazing how quickly these truths will vanish from our minds and hearts when we find ourselves in a season of despair.  We must preach these truths to our own souls, and we must seek the fellowship of the righteous ones to support us in our time of need.

Comments are closed.

"Him we proclaim,
warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
(Colossians 1:28, ESV)

© 2011-2022 Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church