From Pit to Pinnacle |           Psalm 40:1-11   |   January 20, 2008
 “Help! I’m sinking!”

That’s the classic cry in an action-adventure movie when someone, usually the villain, steps into a bog — quicksand — and slowly disappears under the thick, brown, gooey slop.

Glug. Glug. One final bubble; then nothing.

Something like that may be happening to
Tuvalu. It’s a tiny island nation in the South Pacific — actually a string of islands. Not that you should be expected to know that. Only that record-breaking-Jeopardy-genius-guy would have known about Tuvalu until it became public knowledge that the little-known nation is sinking into the deep blue sea.

Now you would think that slowly dipping under water would be bad enough, but for some business sharks it gets worse. The nation of
Tuvalu, above or below the water, is entitled to its Internet domain name, and the URL ends in dot tv. That fact has those people who troll the waters of the Internet looking for new domain names gnashing their teeth, especially television executives who would love to own the suffix, dot tv. Lawyers, accustomed to sharks but unacquainted with teeth gnashing, can’t do much about the situation because the law is clear: A nation remains a nation, even if it’s sunk.

The people of
Tuvalu, of course, are not laughing at any of these puns. They are concerned about matters far worse than their nation’s domain name. In fact, the contention of the island leaders is that tiny Tuvalu may well be the first nation that is victim to the effects of global warming, particularly drastic climate changes that cause worldwide rising sea levels. They want other nations of the world to take notice of their plight and enact the changes that they believe may save their nation along with the lives of 10,000 people who inhabit the islands.

Australia and the United States are the main culprits because of the steadily increasing levels of greenhouse gases emitted by both nations. Both nations refused to sign the Kyoto agreements and remain at the top of the list for environmental activists seeking changes.

One can scarcely imagine a fate worse than slowly sinking into oblivion. Yet, that is precisely how the psalmist felt when he cried, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me” (Psalm 69:1-2).

We know the feeling. We've been there, and done that.

The ancient prayers, especially the psalms of praise and lament, often speak of having a
Tuvalu experience — drowning or sinking into the pit of despair. The faithful cry out when the bog of oblivion threatens to overwhelm them. They sing praises filled with gratitude because they have been rescued from the billowing waves crashing over, threatening to drown them. Nothing of the human experience is left out, from the pits of depression to the awe-stricken wonders of grateful praise.

And when do you and I get that sinking feeling? Is it when we’re facing another visit with the doctor? Is it when we can’t seem to help a wayward child get on track? Is it when a spouse or parent doesn’t return home from work until very late? Is it when grief overcomes us at the memory of a loved one now departed, or with the memories of opportunities squandered?

We can imagine with the psalmist the scene of deadly quicksand, only now the out stretched arm is firmly grasped. A strong rescuing hand pulls the victim from the pit of despair and places him safely on land. In Psalm 40, our text for today, the rescued one gratefully sings, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure” (Psalm 40:1-2).

Let's look at this verse closely.
He. God, the agent of change.

Drew. God initiates the pulling action.

Up. God draws us up. God does not pull us down. That we may be sunk in the mire is not because God put us there in the first place.

From the pit, the miry bog. This is the place from which God has up-drawn us. A pit. Or, the pits. Life that’s the pits. The bog. The miry, marshy, mucky bog when forward movement, any movement, is impossible in this environment where we’re all “bogged” down.

Set my feet on a rock. God up-draws us, trading one environment, the pit and the bog, for a rock and a hard place.

Making my steps secure. The result of all the up-drawing and the setting of our feet on a rock. We’re safe, we can walk with confidence again.

Of course this all began with “waiting” and not only waiting, but “patiently” waiting, and throwing up a “cry” like a lifeline, to God, hoping God will grab it (40:1).

When we do, God does.

We can look at Psalm 40 another way, as a model prayer that combines both movements of our soul — the fear of falling and grateful praise for being rescued. Doesn’t this rhythm of falling and praising, praising and falling, then praising again, describe the way it is with us? When we believe our depression will literally suck us into a dark pit and never let us go, somehow a hand reaches out in the darkness.

We have the presence of mind to grab on to the gift of life and we are once again standing on solid ground, maybe — well not maybe, more like absolutely — still covered in mud, but we are alive again, giving thanks and praise for the God of our salvation.

It happens that way; when our fears of what might happen make our feet seem as if they are stuck in a bog of concrete. We are unable to move and our faith is wrapped tightly in a cocoon of fear. Then, something happens. A word comes, not just any word, but a Word from the Lord, often spoken on the lips of a friend, a pastor, even a stranger. That Word softens the bog, our fears become smaller, as our faith grows stronger. We take the next best step, trusting God, resting in the confidence that the future belongs to the Lord and not to us alone. We are lifted from the bog. Fear gives way to faithful praise and thanksgiving.

Of course, our rescue doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye or in the time it takes to cry, “Save me!” Those who have been brought up from the pits of despair testify to the harrowing journey.

Some, like
Jacob, walk forever with a limp as a sign of their wrestling with the Holy One. Nevertheless, more often than not, gratitude and praise rise up the strongest when they come from the experience of sinking.
The psalm prayer also reminds us that we are always in need of God’s help. Our standing soon gives way to falling and we cry again for rescue. “Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me; O LORD, make haste to help me” (Psalm 40:13).

It is not a very flattering view of our condition, but it is a truthful one. There is an anonymous saying, attributed to an Hassidic rabbi, “I walk, I fall, I get up. I walk, I fall, I get up. I walk, I fall, I get up. All the while, I keep dancing.”

The most remarkable lesson of this psalm is that praise precedes petition. The joyful testimony of the Lord’s saving gift comes from the remembrance of past deliverance. What has been done in the past has not been forgotten. In fact, it becomes the ground of all praise and thanksgiving and the sure confidence that God will indeed continue to deliver in the future. Here we have a model for how faithful believers can live boldly in the present by recalling the past with hope for the future. (cf. Ps.42, "Hope thou in God")

When we recall past experiences of God’s goodness, it is not merely an exercise in nostalgia. The faithful testimony to God’s deeds in the past helps us when we encounter new threats in the present. Because we know God accompanied us in the past, we are more confident that God is with us now and will be with us in the future. “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah," which we sang earlier, is one of countless hymns that display this pattern.
Worship itself through our joyful praise, honest confession and grateful affirmation, can be an enactment of this pattern of remembrance. The Presbyterian Order of Service, Book of Common Worship, is laid out in this format. Building on joyful praise, honest confession and grateful affirmation builds us up as the people of God willing to step out in faith, not because we are confident in ourselves, but because of God’s steadfast presence in our lives.
Tuvalu may be sinking, and perhaps nothing can be done about it.

But if we’ve got that sinking feeling, best to start “waiting patiently” for the One who is about to up-draw us from the pit and the bog, and set our feet on solid ground.

The old gospel hymn, “Higher Ground,” says it well. The first verse reads: I’m pressing on the upward way/ new heights I’m gaining every day/ still praying as I’m onward bound/ Lord, set my feet on higher ground. The chorus goes: Lord, lift me up and let me stand/ by faith on heaven’s table land/ A higher plane than I have found/ Lord, plant my feet on higher ground. With this prayer in mind, let us confidently begin a new week. Amen.
Rev. RosemaryStelz


Allen, Leslie. “Will Tuvalu disappear beneath the sea?” Smithsonian, August 2004, 44ff.
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