Meridian Magazine will be running four excerpts from Elder Holland’s new book, “For Times of Trouble,” whose subtitle is Spiritual Solace from the Psalms in this week leading up to General Conference.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.
Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof…
The Lord…will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. Psalms 46:1-3, 9:9.
“The Troubles of My Heart”
One of the unfailing facts of mortal life is the recurring presence of trouble, the recurring challenge of difficulty and pain. So often, we find ourselves swimming against the tide in what Hamlet called “a sea of troubles.” Someone once reasoned that confronting problems is apparently the common denominator of the living-the great bond between the rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the believer and the skeptic. It is very clear that anyone, including the righteous, which enters the chaotic currents of life is going to face trials and tribulations along the way. One popular writer said that expecting a trouble-free life because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.
When these difficult days (and nights!) come-and they will-it will help us to remember that “it must needs be,” that in the grand councils of heaven before the world was, we agreed to such a time of challenge and refinement. We were taught then that facing, resolving, and enduring troublesome times was the price we would pay for progress. And we were committed to progress eternally. In a great patriarchal pronouncement given nearly three millennia ago, the prophet Lehi taught that it was fundamental to God’s eternal plan that our quest for exaltation-the triumph of righteousness over wickedness, of happiness over misery, of good over evil-requires “opposition in all things.” Thus, even though on some days we might wish it otherwise, it is essential that our temporal journey be laced with all kinds of choices and alternatives, opportunity and obstacles, exhilarating highs and sometimes devastating lows. Through addressing-and occasionally simply enduring-these myriad experiences we are to learn and improve, grow and repent, have faith, keep trying, and make our way toward our eternal home.
Of course, the greatest reassurance in this plan is that there was from the beginning a fail-safe protection built into the arrangement, an unassailable guarantee (if we want it) against every mistake we might make, every sin we would commit, ever trial we would confront, every discouragement, disease, and the death we will all ultimately face. This salvation would come in the form of a Messiah, the Messiah-the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He would come “with healing in his wings,” both temporally and spiritually. His message would be one of hope and peace. His atoning sacrifice would overcome death and hell for every man, woman, and child from Adam to the end of the world. He would break the bands of our bondage and our troubles, and He would set us free. But more about that later.
Though we have received great promises regarding the lifting of our burdens, the weight of them is still often ponderous while we wait for that relief. It was for just such days of opposition, such “times of trouble,” that a large percentage of the biblical psalms were written. Consider these pleading passages:
Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help. Psalm 22:11
Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me: for I am desolate and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged: O bring thou me out of my distresses.
Look upon mine afflictions and my pain; and forgive all my sins. Psalm 25:16-18
Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.
I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried; mine eyes fail while I wait for my God…
Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters.
Let not the waterflood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up, and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me.
Hear me, O Lord; for thy lovingkindness is good: turn unto me according to the multitude of thy tender mercies.
And hide not thy face from thy servant; for I am in trouble: hear me speedily. Psalm 69: 1-3. 14-17.
They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths; their soul is melted because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.
Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.
Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.
Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness and for his wonderful works to the children of men! Psalm 107: 26-31.
These and so many other passages like them become the spiritual equivalent of what a fierce combatant declared in the days of political and religious revolution that set the stage for the Restoration of the gospel. Paraphrasing the defiant Thomas Paine, I, too, “love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. It is the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.”
The primary purpose of these scriptural psalms is to help us “grow brave by reflection,” help us exert the faith necessary to “smile in trouble” and “gather strength from distress.” The promises of light to those who are engulfed in darkness and strength for those who are battling an enemy are regularly recurring themes throughout the psalms…
It has been asserted that the book of Psalms as a whole has exerted more influence on the Western world than any other collection of poetic verse ever written. Whether or not that is true may be a matter of literary opinion, but surely it is true that for Bible readers generally, the Psalms have been among the most personally applicable and most privately embraced scriptures in the entire canon.
In that canon, this book is unique in its intense longing for deliverance, solace, and safety. It does not document history in the way much of the Old Testament does, nor does it focus on the ministries or doctrinal writings of the prophetic figures. Furthermore, other collections of “wisdom literature,” such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, ad the Song of Solomon, are included in the Bible alongside Psalms. But none of these others-combined!-compare with the personal tone, content, quantity, and quality of the psalms, these pleas to a compassionate God, to the healer of broken hearts, to the Savior of the downtrodden and destitute. As such, the book of Psalms may be the one biblical text admired nearly equally by both Christians and Jews, to say nothing of those of other faiths-or no faith at all-who find comfort in its verses and encouragement in the hope they convey.
In this sense the psalms are something of a biblical bridge reaching to all people, most particularly to those traveling back and forth between the Old and New Testaments. Of a total of 283 direct citations from the Old Testament contained in the New, 116 are identified as coming from Psalms. Jesus Himself quoted the book of Psalms more than any other Old Testament text. Beyond the Savior’s own use of these writings, the authors of the four Gospels drew heavily on the psalms as they strove to document His life and ministry, particularly those excruciating hours of His arrest, trial and Crucifixion. It could be argued that in all of holy writ, no book of scripture goes on so extensively about the Messianic mission or the looking and longing for His return that is expressed in the songs of the Psalmist. Certainly nothing so elevated the status of the psalms in this regard as did Jesus’ own words to His disciples after His Resurrection and before His ascension. After spearing to them, showing them His resurrected body and eating fish and honeycomb with them, “He said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (Luke 24: 44-45). In terms of Messianic message and insight into the great Jehovah-past, present and future-the book of Psalms here takes its rightful place with the highly esteemed and much more frequently acknowledged “law and the prophets.”
…It should be understood that a significant number of the psalms were composed for use in the temple, or at the very least were incorporated into the temple experience because of their beauty and doctrinal relevance. Entire volumes of scholarly commentary have been devoted to the consideration of these “temple psalms.”…When the ancient Israelites heard certain of these prayerful texts, they would have immediately associated them with the temple. It is not surprising that such encouraging doctrine would be linked with a temple experience that was meant to be as comforting anciently as it is today. When any of us are distressed or discouraged or needing special guidance, we go to the temple. Both then and now the children of Israel could turn to the psalms as being part of-and reminiscent of-that experience.
That leads to the second link to be noted, which is that the Sermon on the Mount generally-and the introductory verses known as the Beatitudes in particular-reflect both the teachings of the psalms and the temple experience. Rather than pursue this Sermon on the Mount/temple relationship in detail, let me use just two examples from the Beatitudes to make this point.
Biblical scholars have noted that in the Old Testament texts, the word blessed (ashre in Hebrew) is used to introduce a verse more than forty times. At least twenty-six of those examples are in the book of Psalms. Indeed, it is not coincidental that the very first psalm begins “Blessed is the man…”
With this phrasing so familiar to those who loved the psalms, and with Jesus having gone up “into a mountain” just as Israelites went up “to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob,” (Isaiah 2:3) the beatitude/temple/psalms connection is as firm as it is intentional.
Then, on the mountain (of Beatitudes), Jesus taught, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). It can be safely assumed that the Savior knew that His listeners, when hearing those words would remember Psalm 24, one of the “psalms of ascent” sung by both priest and layman who “went up” to the temple to worship God and-someday-to see Him. The link between purity of heart and the privilege of beholding the face of the Lord is quite clear in the King James Version…
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord: or who shall stand in his holy place?
He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hat not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob…
Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory. (Psalm 24:3-6
The psalm makes it clear that those who go to “the mountain of the Lord” to “stand in his holy place”-the temple-must have clean, innocent hands and a pure heart. Then, and only then, is one entitled to see the face of God. Thus, in one simple sentence-“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God”-Jesus makes an immediate connection with the psalms, with the temple, and with the Christian discipleship expected of the people He was teaching.