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the vagaries of life and the constancy of God

We’ve all been there: on the top of the world and life cruising along just as it should. Then we’re not, and it’s not. As followers of Jesus we have, of course, every confidence that God remains in control and will get us through, yet we often seem utterly wrecked when difficulties come.

In Psalm 30 David writes of the vagaries of life, the erratic and unpredictable series of events and circumstances that come our way. The psalm begins with a declaration of praise for God’s rescue:

I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up and have not let my foes rejoice over me. O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.

Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Psalm 30:1–5 ESV

David acknowledges that he was once in desperate need and as we all do, he cried out to the Lord for rescue—and the Lord rescued him. He encourages all of God’s people to praise the Lord, to give thanks to the Lord and then he gives two key reasons. First, God’s anger is momentary yet his favor lasts a lifetime. That is, difficulties are brief but God’s love lasts forever. Second, weeping can come for a night, just like an unwelcome houseguest, but joy comes bright and early—just like a houseguest who is told to be gone by breakfast.

It is easy to have this sort of faith, for we’ve all been through difficult times and we’ve seen God get us through it. We’ve been in the valley, only to soon find ourselves on the mountaintop. As prosperous Westerners living in a truly prosperous time (for even our poor have indoor plumbing, heating, microwave ovens, and cable TV), we love victory. We love the feeling of triumph and we know we can endure the valley for the coming of the mountaintop. We strive to live in that triumph, and so did David.

As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” By your favor, O LORD, you made my mountain stand strong; you hid your face; I was dismayed.

Psalm 30:6–7 ESV

The problem with striving for the mountaintop is when we get there we tend to think we’ve arrived, that we’re finally where we belong and we’ll do everything within our power to remain there. This is living! This is triumph! No one and no thing can ever move us from this spot! This was the psalmist’s boast. He even acknowledges that God is the one who placed him there, so surely this is faith speaking, right? No. It was not faith speaking, for as soon as God “hid” his face—removed the blessing of prosperity—David was dismayed. He crashed from victory to a feeling of utter defeat. He was undone. How quickly life can move a person from incredible victory to such profound defeat! Such are the vagaries of life.

The psalm ends on a note of victory, but a victory that is rooted in something other than the uncertainty of life.

To you, O LORD, I cry, and to the Lord I plead for mercy: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and be merciful to me! O LORD, be my helper!”

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

Psalm 30:8–12 ESV

Again David acknowledges that switch from suffering to joy, from desperate pleading to deliverance. He calls upon the Lord’s greatness. He declares he will praise the Lord with thanksgiving forever. How can he say “forever” when he does not know when the next valley will come? Scripture is clear that David’s life seems to have been a trip from mountain to valley to mountain to valley and back to mountain.

There is a subtle shift in the psalm. David admitted that for him, he said in his prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” What was he really trusting in when he said this? His circumstances. He even declared God made his mountain unmovable! As soon as God allowed a little more adversity to come, David was undone because David was not really trusting in the Lord but trusting in his circumstances. Notice that David pleads with the Lord for deliverance and asks how, if he dies, he will praise the Lord? He’s finally seeing that all of life is in God’s hands, the good and the bad, the mountaintop and the valley, the prosperity and the poverty and that whether in the valley or on top of the mountain, whether experiencing prosperity or poverty, whether good or bad has come, the right response is to praise the Lord and give him thanks. David was learning what Paul said explicitly in his letter to the church at Philippi.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:11–13 ESV

As Westerners who love victory and triumph, we love the last part: I can do all things through him who strengthens me. I’m reminded of a T-shirt Ray recently told me about that read, “I can do all things…through a verse taken out of context.” Paul said he can be brought low and abound. He can face both plenty and hunger. He can receive abundance and he can experience need. The “all things” refers to these, to the mountaintop and the valley.

As David was learning and as Paul had learned, come what may, our confidence is in the Lord to get us through the bad and to get us through the good, for if the Lord will not walk with us through the good we have no hope of coming through the good faithfully any more than we can come through the bad faithfully without him. Life is unpredictable, yet God is constant. It is the constancy of God we trust, in the good and in the bad.