You are at sea. Your ship is sound, having passed all pre-departure checks with flying colors. The waves are calm, beating a slow, low rhythm against the hull. You climb the rigging and reach the crow’s nest for another long, boring day of keeping watch along the horizon for any signs of trouble. Hours of this go by with no end to the plainness of the blue-on-blue horizon line of water meeting sky. Then suddenly, a small patch appears to the west. You think nothing of it for a while, but as it grows steadily larger to your eyes, the beat of the waves on the hull grows more pronounced to your ears. The up-and-down movement of the ship also becomes more noticeable. Your instincts as a sailor begin to kick in.
“Storm brewing to forward!” you shout to the deck below. By this time, other experienced sailors have begun to notice the change in the weather as well, and several are already out on the deck, eyeing the approaching storm warily. The captain begins calling orders to various crewmen, and they all set to work as you scramble back down the rigging. But they seem to have barely accomplished any of their set tasks before the storm is upon the ship. The rain falls hard on the deck and the crew alike, feeling like so many stinging insects each second. The wind howls, making it impossible for the captain’s continued shouted orders to be understood. The storm reaches a point of such ferocity that the boat seems to climb for an eternity between waves before dropping what feels like thousands of feet into the next trough. Water flows in torrents over the deck at every moment. Some men scream and curse as they are swept overboard. Those who are not cling for their lives to whatever secured object they can grasp. The mast creaks and groans in protest, threatening at any moment to snap in half. Many begin calling out to God for mercy and to save the ship, seemingly to no avail. Most have become violently ill. The face of every crew member still aboard glows white with fear.
The sea remains tumultuous for hours, the ship barely managing to stay afloat. But then, just as all seems lost, the storm subsides. The sea begins to calm, and the clouds cease from their deluge, passing slowly across the sky. The sun finally makes its reappearance as you near the harbor you originally set sail for. You and the others begin to take stock of who and what has been lost.
This may seem just a fantastic story, but odds are, you have lived this. In Psalm 107:23–30, a reader can find a very similar story to the one written above. There the psalmist draws a correlation between the trials and difficulties of life and a ship at sea during a storm. It is a beautiful passage and one well worth memorizing, as well as analyzing for its parallel to life and death, as we do here.
Verses 23 and 24 begin the section with a bold statement: all who go down to the sea, whatever their reason for doing so, see the works of God and his power. There is no “maybe” here; everyone who goes to the sea will experience this. Drawing the connection to reality, the sea pictures life. This means that all who ever have lived or will live on this earth have seen or will see the wondrous works of the Lord—his “wonders in the deep” (verse 24). This serves as proof that there truly is no such thing as an atheist. A person may well deny the existence of God, or claim to have never seen any hard evidence of it, but in the hearts of all mankind, there is always a deep-seated knowledge, an undeniable testimony of God’s existence and power. Paul echoes this idea in Romans 1:20, where he writes that the invisible things of God are clearly seen in creation, leaving all mankind “without excuse.”
In his next thought, the psalmist describes the ferocity of the storm—the wind and waves beat upon the ship mercilessly, constantly threatening to take the vessel down to the ocean’s depths. The obvious connection to our lives here is the trials we face throughout life. God never promises in his word that being a follower of him is an easy task. On the contrary, he promises the opposite, guaranteeing persecution and other hardships on the elect. These hardships and trials we find ourselves in, along with the temptations we constantly face, are our wind and waves. However, there is comfort even in the ferocious peak of the storm’s power: God is in control. Just as he is the one to raise up the stormy sea in the first place in the picture (verse 25), so too is he the one who causes the difficulties in our lives. God is sovereign even in the difficult times, and nothing operates outside of his control.
Even still, we are often overcome. We, as do the sailors in the Psalm, “reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man” in the face of these trials of life (verse 27). The verse even goes on to accurately say that we are brought to our wit’s end. We can do nothing, and we realize that trying to save ourselves from this hurricane will do us no good. We eventually realize our hard-heartedness, and turn to the only viable remaining option—calling on God.
Astoundingly, even after we have so blatantly ignored God for so long a time, and have even done everything in our power to avoid turning to him until we are certain we will drown, He does something incredible and totally uncalled for: he hears us. He would be totally justified in ignoring our pathetic cries for help, even in leaving us to drown in our sins and miseries. But instead, he acts out of mercy. Not only does he notice our prayers, but he also answers them. Certainly the answer is sometimes not what we hope for. God’s answer does not always come instantaneously, nor is it always the answer we want to hear in our sinful natures. When we cry out to God, we so often do so in such a way that betrays that we expect a particular response from him—healing of an illness, for example—when in reality, we should turn to God, acknowledging that his will is perfect, infinitely wiser than any thoughts of ours (Isa. 55:8–9).
However, even when God does not provide the exact answer that we seek, he still provides an ultimate victory. In verses 29–30, we find a beautiful summary of how this is the case. God calms the storm. Again, this is not always something that comes in an immediate fashion. As a matter of fact, there are some situations in which our “storm” does not end at all, at least not in the way that we expect it to. Going back to the example of illness, God may respond such that the illness is not healed and removed from us for the remainder of our earthly life; that illness may even be the cause of our death. But even in this scenario, God has provided us the best possible outcome—we go to live with him for eternity. The psalmist words it far more beautifully and eloquently than I ever could, calling heaven our “desired haven” (verse 30). He even writes that we find gladness because we are quiet (verse 30). This idea serves as a good reminder as well. In the modern world, noise surrounds. It seems rare, if not well-nigh impossible at times to obtain a moment of quiet reflection. But these times of quiet, of dwelling on God’s word and communing with him, are how we obtain peace; we ought to make every effort to establish a habit of clearing time for this in our everyday life.
Trials come to us in a variety of ways. Some are very visible to our peers, some are not. Some are widely considered to be terrible things to experience; others are things that most would find trivial and seem only to be a problem for us. But all are very real, and all often seem to be things that we cannot overcome. And indeed, we cannot, apart from the help of God. But what a comfort to know that he holds us by the hand, guiding us through each trial; we need not fear (Isa. 41:13). We inevitably will find ourselves on rough seas many times throughout life. In fact, this is promised us; God tells us in Psalm 77:19 that his way leads through the sea. However, that is also a means of assurance for us: even when we cannot understand why, the way through the sea is God’s way. It matters not how disoriented we become at the hands of the storm—God is our compass, a faithful guide for the entirety of life’s voyage (Ps. 48:14).
*Matthew is a member of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI.