Waiting Through the Night

November 6, 2017

“Lord, in the morning you will hear my voice; in the morning I will set my case before you and I will wait.”

–Psalm 5:3

Almost four years ago, I faced one of those life decisions that drops you into an impenetrable fog from which escape seems unlikely. Having applied for master’s programs in theology that fall, I learned in the spring that I would need to choose between two schools. Both schools had given me very good offers from a financial perspective, but the schools themselves were polar opposites, each promising different opportunities, comforts, and challenges. I knew that my choice could potentially shape not just the next two years, but also the rest of my career. I had a month to decide, and I immediately began praying.

To absolutely no effect.

Each day I would wake up thinking one of the options was the better choice, and by evening I had changed my mind completely. Long walks, long talks with my husband, and fervent prayers did nothing to illuminate my choice. As the deadline neared, I started to become a bit frantic.

Just two days before the decision had to be made, my husband and I met with a priest who listened patiently and asked many questions, offering little advice but somehow bringing us great peace (as good clergy often do). The next morning, my husband and I both woke up with a sense of certainty about which school I should choose, and the clarity and resolve that we shared after a month of misgivings seemed almost miraculous to me.

But why did God wait until the very last minute? It certainly would have saved me a great deal of anguish—and several pints of ice cream—if he had made himself clear much sooner.

In his commentary on Psalm 5:3, Augustine of Hippo also poses a question about God’s timing. Why are the psalmist’s prayers expressed here in the future tense when just one verse earlier—“Listen to the voice of my cry, my king and my God”—the psalmist seemed to be requesting immediate relief? Augustine suggests that perhaps the prayer has not been answered, but the psalmist does not give up hope. Perhaps the deadline has been extended, so to speak. The prayer has not been answered, Augustine says, “because the night is not yet over.”1

Because the night is not yet over. Augustine was addressing a context very different from ours, and his interpretation of this psalm has more to do with widespread sin in the world than with an individual’s prayer request. (In my opinion, both interpretations are valid!) But, this phrase needs little explanation or adaptation—it comes down to us through the centuries with resonant clarity.

The honesty of this sentence is a comfort to me. In seasons of anxiety, stress, grief, and loneliness, it can be a relief just to admit “The night is not yet over.” No need for forced smiles, no need to pretend. This phrase recognizes the grimness of present reality and even brings that grimness to the foreground—but without shutting us off from the hope that defines the Christian faith.

The answer to so many of our prayers is that the night is not yet over. Sometimes morning comes in this life, as when I received guidance about graduate programs. At other times—when cancer can’t be healed, when racism and poverty persist despite our best work—we are forced to acknowledge that we live now in the small hours, in the time before the dawn. We wait and hope for the perpetual morning, when all will be made right. The night is not yet over, but one day, “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us” (Luke 1:78, NRSV). Christ our dawn will break upon us. Amen.

About the Author
  • Erin Zoutendam is a student at Western Theological Seminary. She enjoys researching ancient methods of scriptural interpretation and medieval women’s contributions to theology. When not reading, she is usually gardening, cooking, or hanging out with her cats.

  1. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 1–32, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 94.