Hope is Not a Feather – Psalm 119:73-96
By Stephanie Rische
Not long ago my husband, Daniel, and I went to our friends’ house to introduce ourselves to the latest addition to their family—an adorable eight-pound bundle, newly arrived from the hospital and decked out in a duck-themed onesie.
We asked his parents if there was any special meaning to his name, and we found out that his first name means “Big Hope” in Korean. As I held him, I looked in his eyes—wide and unblinking, taking in everything with solemn contemplation. Big Hope. So much hope wrapped in something so small.
A couple of days after our visit, I met with my weekly prayer buddy. We meet every Tuesday to talk and pray over coffee, and we’ve been praying about one thing consistently ever since we started meeting. Week after week, year after year. But nothing seems to be happening. “I’ve been wondering,” she said. “What’s the point of hoping?”
The question wasn’t bitter, nor did it stem from a lack of belief. She was asking genuinely, almost pragmatically. “Is there any real benefit to hoping?” If you don’t hope for something and God delivers, it’s a pleasant surprise, right? And if that longed-for thing doesn’t happen, well, then, maybe it prevents a little piece of your heart from breaking.
We don’t know much about the writer of Psalm 119, but as I read I get a sense he’d be welcome to join our weekly prayers. He seems like someone who is desperate in the best possible way—someone who knows he’s not going to make it unless God steps in:
They persecute me with falsehood….
The insolent have dug pitfalls for me….
I have become like a wineskin in the smoke….
They have almost made an end of me on earth….
How long must your servant endure?
But along with the thread of desperation that runs through this psalm, there’s another rather surprising theme: hope. Longing, aching, clinging hope.
I have hoped in your word….
My soul longs for your salvation….
I hope in your word….
And the psalmist seems to know there’s only one place solid enough to put his hope. Out of all 176 verses of this psalm, only two verses (122 and 132) don’t contain some reference to God’s Word. In his mind, hope and God’s Word are inextricably linked.
Our friends with the baby were taken aback to discover that in the United States, Hope is exclusively a girl’s name. I guess I’d never given that much consideration before, but it does seem a little strange. What kind of commentary does that offer on our view of hope? Does the fact that we don’t name our boys Big Hope reflect that we consider it lightweight? Dainty, even?
The poet Emily Dickinson didn’t do much for hope’s macho image when she described it as “the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul.” Our lingo betrays our own fluffy interpretation: “I hope it won’t rain.” “I hope he’ll call me.” “I hope that semi coming toward me gets back on his side of the road.” We treat hope like so much wishful thinking, a feather that falls haphazardly wherever it chooses.
After doing a little digging about hope, I was intrigued to discover that in church history, the image used to depict it was pretty much the opposite of a feather: an anchor (see Hebrews 6:19). Up until around the fifth century AD, it was one of the main symbols for Christianity, more prevalent than a cross. Believers in the first century even had the image of an anchor etched into their tombs as a symbol of the eternal hope they clung to.
I have to wonder if hope isn’t so much about the thing we’re hoping for itself as it is a tether to keep us close to the Granter of Hopes. For without hope, we drift aimlessly in the big ocean of doubt and fear and uncertainty.
We don’t know how long the psalmist had to wait to see the fulfillment of his hopes—or if he ever saw that fulfillment on this earth. But whether or not God gives us the specific thing we long for, I believe hope is worth it. Hope pulls us back in, close to the heart of the one who anchors our souls, so we can sing with the psalmist:
Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89)
When we’re tethered to God and his Word, we won’t drift away. In him alone, we have hope.
Stephanie Rische is a senior editor of nonfiction books at Tyndale House Publishers, as well as a freelance writer for publications such as Her.meneutics, Today’s Christian Woman, Christian Marriage Today, and Significant Living magazine. She and her husband, Daniel, live in the Chicago area, where they enjoy riding their bikes, making homemade ice cream, and swapping bad puns. You can follow Stephanie’s blog, “Stubbing My Toe on Grace,” at StephanieRische.com.