My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? (Ps. 6:3)
It’s one of the main questions on our minds when the hard stuff happens.
When pain seems interminable.
When conflict looks unresolvable.
When the rug is yanked out from under us and we don’t know where we stand any more.
When uncertainty stretches out with no end in sight.
At this moment, a lot of us may be asking, “How long will this virus last? How long until they find a vaccine? How long will we have to go on like this? How long can I go on like this?”
David was in that kind of place when he asked God “how long?” So were Asaph and Ethan, the prophetic musicians he appointed to lead the Levitical choirs. They asked how long God would let evil make a mockery of His goodness; how long He would stay hidden from them; how long He would be angry with them for what they had brought on themselves. (Ps. 79:5; Ps. 80:4; Ps. 89:46)
We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be. (Ps. 74:9-10)
God had sometimes given timelines through His prophets: how long His people would wander in the wilderness, how long they would be captive in Babylon, for example. Whether or not the news was welcome, knowing the duration at least at least provided some certainty.
We humans do love certainty! Timelines, like boundary lines, give us the parameters within which we can work. We feel more in touch with our situation. Not knowing is anathema to most of us. We feel helpless to create a solid framework when we have no idea of its dimensions. It makes us feel exposed, vulnerable, and futile.
The prophets also revealed God’s state of mind. Sometimes He was angry, having warned His people to the point of exasperation.. Sometimes He was pleased, and wanted His children to know it. Sometimes He explained exactly why He was doing, or allowing, what was happening. Often, He was heartbroken by incurably stubborn wills, ears that were deaf, minds unaltered by repeated lessons, and perennially ungrateful hearts. Many rejected His words out of hand; the ones who listened may not have liked the message, but at least they had some firsthand information to chew on.
God has His own “how long” questions. David records them in Psalm 2:4: How long will you people turn my glory into shame? how long will you love delusions and seek false gods?
Jesus expressed the same frustration at persistent lack of faith even after many miracles: “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? how long shall I put up with you?” (Matt 17:17)
There’s a progression here: the more we look elsewhere, refuse to listen and cling to unbelief, the fewer the messages. Asaph, a Levite musician and seer, laments that no prophets are left. God may not send someone to tell the people how long. He may leave them to wallow in their ‘whys?’
The Bible is God’s complete prophetic utterance, recorded for us in black and white, completely accessible to those who want to know and follow Him. In it we find that God’s timing is perfect: When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son . . . (Gal 4:4) The time set by God occured when the Romans had established law and order throughout their vast empire, and built a network of good roads that made travel much easier. Greek had become the common language spoken in many countries, allowing ease of communication for spreading the gospel. It seemed an interminable time for those waiting for their Messiah, but it was the right time for the right purposes.
God alone knows the answer to the “how long?” questions. He alone knows all the purposes He wants to bring about, and the time that will take. We don’t know how long, but we do know this: God is good, His purposes are for the good of His kingdom, and His timing will be exactly right. He will wring every drop of benefit from whatever the duration of the trial. Our part is to trust Him, to keep His Word as our guide, and to persevere.