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The Unseen Footprints

Even in the depths where questions loom large, remember that God is at work.

From the editor:

Timothy George packs a lot into this sermon. Besides showing us an effective way to preach an individual psalm—paying careful attention to structure, tone, and voice—he also manages to offer a few powerful illustrations, examine the complexity of human emotion, give a brief teaching on open theism, and share an insight from apocryphal literature.


Where does prayer begin? For this psalmist, prayer—like all genuine theology—begins in pain. Prayer is not reciting a formula learned by rote and repeated at a prescribed moment: "Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep" or even, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name." Nor is it the cozy communion of a self-satisfied soul contemplating the comforts of a well-ordered world where no one's stomach is growling, no one's heart is broken—a kind of syrupy sentimentalism or "God's-in-his-heaven-and-all-is-right-with-the-world." Whatever else you might think about that kind of prayer, it's a million miles away from where the psalmist lives. Look at his verbs: I cried out. I sought and stretched out. I groaned and was troubled. I mused and pondered. I was dazed and could not speak. All night long I was in deep distress. For this supplicant, prayer truly begins in pain.

The depths

What caused his pain? We don't know. Perhaps it was some national crisis or catastrophe that had befallen the children of Israel, as when the Babylonian army marched into Jerusalem and destroyed the temple and carried away thousands of Jews into captivity, leaving the nation devastated. Perhaps this psalm reflects the experience of the Exile, the cajoling sneer and contempt of the captors' taunts: "Where now is your God? Is he blind that he cannot see? Is he deaf that he will not hear? Is he paralyzed that he is not able to move? Sing us one of the songs of Zion." Or maybe it was a little more personal than that: "Out of the depths have I cried unto you," says the psalmist. "O Lord, hear my cry." Depths? What are the depths? The depths are those times when a mother or father hold an all-night vigil between the day their child was well and the day he will be well again. The depths are when the doctor comes in the room, takes your hand, and says, "I'm sorry; there's nothing else we can do;" when the roses have faded, the candlelight flickers dimly in your marriage, and she looks at you over a plate of leftover Tuna Helper and says, "I don't love you anymore. I found somebody else. I won't be here tomorrow when you get home;" when that unofficial committee wants to meet with you after a Sunday evening service to say: "Oh nothing personal, pastor. We love you; we just feel your ministry's no longer effective in this church." Those are the depths. Sooner or later, all of us know these depths. Prayer is born in these depths.

There are four movements or stanzas in this psalm. We've been dealing with the first one—six verses that we might call the troubles or the depths. There are two images for the depths in the Psalms. They recur again and again. One is found here: "I stretched out untiring hands." It's the image of a person who is drowning. The floods have come, swept over his head, and he's drowning. Another example is Psalm 69: "Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me." The other image is the pit. The pit was a deep cistern where a criminal was placed. Jeremiah was put there once. He sank down into the depths of the miry, muddy pit.

That's the depths or the troubles—that place where pain and prayer come together. Why is that the place where prayer is born? As the Irish poet William Butler Yeats puts it:

Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

Sometimes God has to knock us down before he can pick us up.

The questions

The troubles in this psalm lead to the second stanza, which I call the questions. It appears that there are six of them, but I'm going to argue there are really seven questions. Notice the questions: Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?

The background to these questions is Exodus 34:5–6. As the children of Israel were being prepared for the Promised Land, God came in a cloud and spoke through Moses:

The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.

This is an Old Testament creed or confession of faith that is at the very heart of the faith of Israel. In Psalm 77, each one of these great characteristics of God is called into question: the faithfulness of God ("Will the Lord reject forever?"). That calls God's election of Israel into question. "Will he never show his favor again?" His hesed or compassion—"Has it vanished forever?" Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Is there something wrong with his memory? Has he in anger withheld is compassion?" One-by-one, the psalmist is questioning the great attributes of the covenant God of Israel.

I want to ask this question of you: Why are these questions in the Bible? Don't they seem inappropriate? There are two answers. First of all, they're in the Bible because we do not serve an antiseptic God who is removed, remote, untouched, or untouchable. We serve a God who came into the very depths of our human condition and, according to the Book of Hebrews, was put to the test in every conceivable way that we can be put to the test—with the exception that he never sinned. This means Jesus was not a stranger to questions: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

The second reason these questions are in the Bible is that there is no pathway to Easter Sunday that does not lead through Good Friday. When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, I learned preaching from Dr. Gardner Taylor, a pastor in New York City. I'll never forget those lectures. I remember him telling us a story from when he was preaching in Louisiana during the Depression. Electricity was just coming into that part of the country, and he was out in a rural, black church that had just one little light bulb hanging down from the ceiling to light up the whole church building. He was preaching away, and in the middle of his sermon—all of a sudden—the electricity went out. The place was pitch dark, and he didn't know what to say, being a young preacher. He stumbled around until one of the elderly deacons sitting in the back of the church cried out, "Preach on, Preacher! We can still see Jesus in the dark!" Sometimes that's the only time we can see him—in the dark. The good news of the gospel is that whether we can see him in the dark or not, he can see us in the dark.

I said there were seven questions. A lot of modern translations render verse ten as the introduction to the rest of the psalm. This is how the NIV translates it, for example: "I will appeal to the years of the right hand of the Most High." But there is a variant way to read this in Hebrew, and I think it's the better way. Verse ten is not to be read as the introduction to the rest of the psalm but as the conclusion to the first part of the psalm, and as a seventh question. This is how the New English Bible translates it: "Has God's right hand lost its grip?" Does it hang powerless and withered, the arm of the Most High? Or as the New American Bible has it: "Has the right hand of the Most High changed?"

This is the presupposition of process theology: that God changes and does the best he can with what he has. Ultimately he's not in control of these forces that swirl about and within. He can feel our pain, but he can't really make it go away. This is why I write so much against the openness of God theology. It has a diminished view of God, a view that God doesn't really know the future. They say, for example, that God doesn't really know who's going to win the World Series. I will concede God may not care a lot, but God does know. He knows who's going to win the election. He knows everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen. The right hand of God has not lost its grip!

The confession

I call these next two stanzas the confession. The confession begins in verse eleven, and the key word is remember. This is the turning point of the psalm. The psalm began with the pain that leads to questions and despair and then comes to the turning point: "I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your words and consider all your mighty deeds." The surest way to reconnect when you're in the depths is to remember how good God has been to you.

There's a song that comes from the African-American tradition: "If it had not been for the Lord on my side, where would I be? Oh, where would I be?" That song has some gospel. Where would we be if it hadn't been for the Lord on our side? That's what this psalmist is talking about: I will remember; I will meditate; I will think about who God is, what he has done, and his faithfulness in days gone by, and I will let it sink into my soul.

The psalmist says he will remember all of God's mighty deeds, his works among the nations and the peoples. God is at work everywhere in this world, and don't you ever forget it. He is the one who raises up kings, potentates, and princes and puts them down again. Whoever is elected President of the United States, God Almighty will still be God Almighty.

It's when we remember this that we come back to ourselves. I don't see movies very much, but one I remember seeing with my wife is The Notebook. It's a love story about Noah and his wife Allie. Most of the movie is about their young love together and how they met, but every now and then, the movie tells the other end of their life, showing them in their old age. Allie has developed Alzheimer's disease, and she's in a nursing home. Noah doesn't have to be there, but he insists on staying with her. Some years before, she had written down the story of their love in a notebook. Every day, Noah comes, they have lunch together, and Noah takes out the notebook and reads Allie the story of their love. As he reads the story, her eyes will open every now and then, and she comes back to him for a few minutes.

That's what the Bible is. The Bible is God's covenant love story for his people through all the ages. When we're in the depths and it seems that the Lord has rejected us forever and his mercy is gone, we take out the notebook and we read, "In the beginning, God created" and "he delivered my people out of Egypt with a mighty hand," and "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son." When we read, we come back to reality, and we know who we are because we know who God is, what he has done, and that his unfailing love will never perish.

The conclusion

There's a final stanza I call the conclusion. You have this thunderstorm psalm here: the waters saw you, the depths were convulsed, thunder was in the whirlwind, lightning lit up the world, the earth trembled and quaked, your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, and—here's the sermon title—your footprints were unseen. Unseen footprints. We often don't immediately and obviously see how God is at work in the circumstances that are swirling about us when we're in the pit, sinking in the depths and wondering where God is. But the witness of the Holy Scriptures and the people of God through the ages, is that God has never left his people alone, and that he guides us through all the torturous pathways of life even though his footprints are frequently unseen:

I fled him, down the night and down the days;
I fled him down the arches of the years; I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes, I sped
And shot, precipitated,
Down titanic glooms of chasmed fears.
And I fled Him and I fled him,
And I ran from those strong feet that followed, followed after.

That's Francis Thompson's The Hound of Heaven. He was an alcoholic on the streets of London. He was a drug addict in the gutter, utterly lost, running. But behind him, invisibly and imperceptibly, came those strong feet that followed, followed after.

There's an Apocryphal book called Bel and the Dragon. It's a story about Daniel in Babylon. Bel was an idol that "consumed" a lot of food—40 sheep a night and all kinds of wine and grain. However, it was the priests in charge of keeping the temple of Bel who were really eating all that was being put out. The king asked Daniel, "Why don't you sacrifice something to the god Bel?" Daniel laughed, saying, "That's no god! He's an idol. He can't eat anything. He's as empty on the inside as he is on the outside." "That couldn't be true," the king said. He called all the priests together and said, "Daniel says Bel isn't eating the food you put out. What's happening?" The priests replied, "Why don't you seal off the building and not let anybody in at night? Bring all the food in, and the next morning you can tell us whether or not Bel has eaten all the food." All the while, they had a little secret door in the back of the building. They were going to come in, sneak out the food, and the king wouldn't know.

Daniel was on to their tricks, so he took some dust and ashes and spread it all around the floor. Sure enough, the priests put all the food out—the 40 sheep and everything else—and they locked the door. During the night, the priests come in and do what they always did—they took away the food and ate it. The next morning the king came and said, "Is the door locked?" "Yes!" the priests replied. "Is the seal still on the door?" "Yes!" said the priests. "Looks like old Daniel is a liar, isn't he?" Daniel then said to the king, "Ha! Look at the floor. See their footprints all over the place? That's what happened to that food! The priests came in at night and snuck it away and ate it. Bel is an idol! He's not a god! You don't need to give him any food! Look at their footprints!"

You can see the Devil's footprints, but the footprints of our God are unseen. They lead through the sea, through the depths where we know he goes before us, where he walks beside us, where he lives within us, where he has promised never to leave us nor forsake us. Isn't that how the song concludes? "You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron." What does that recall? It recalls Psalm 23: "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down." Yes, in green pastures sometimes, but also along the ravenous craven. Always, though, he leads his people to that land where there will be no more tears, no more sorrow, no more death. There will be no more pits. There will be no more mire and muck to sink into. But we shall forever bask in the presence of our great and living God.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism" and "Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize)

Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School and a prolific author, having written more than 20 books. George also serves as executive editor for Christianity Today.

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Sermon Outline:


For this psalmist, prayer—like all genuine theology—begins in pain.

I. The depths

II. The questions

III. The confession

IV. The conclusion


God always leads his people to that land where there will be no more tears, no more sorrow, no more death—no more pits. Once there, we shall forever bask in the presence of our great and living God.