I like to read labels when I shop. It’s a sickness, I think. But the way things are marketed can say a lot about a people. Walk down any aisle in the grocery store and you will quickly see that we are obsessed with things in their most natural state–natural, unfiltered, raw, organic, wild.
When you’re talking about food, that’s all well and good. I’m all for wild caught salmon and free range eggs and even all-natural cake mix. Although I would argue that the true glory of the Brussels sprout is not in its raw form but after it has been sauteed in bacon grease. That is true glorification! But it’s a much bigger issue when talking about other things like words and emotions and desires.
And it’s not isolated to food, is it? We do have this sense in our culture today that the most genuine, most authentic, most honest expression of truth is that which is uncensored, raw, and spontaneous. We’re just keeping it real.
In Psalm 77, we find a truly honest, genuine dealing with life when the day of trouble comes. We find not only one man’s experience and expression, but a wonderful gift given by God to his people throughout all times and in all places in how to deal honestly with the realities of life when troubles invade your life, your family, your church, or your community.
This is not emotion in the raw, but a song of contemplation. Think about many modern songs expressing the realities of life. Everything is let loose, feelings and words flow more like a water hose than a mighty river channeled between the shores.
But does it really matter how we express ourselves; how we deal with the trouble as long as we’re being honest? Yes! Because how we express ourselves will either muddy the waters of reality or it will bring clarity. The Psalms, whether rushing swiftly over jagged rocks or flowing as quiet waters, always bring us to see life clearly; as it truly is, as it is meant to be, as it is going to be for the people of the cross.
As we step inside Asaph’s world and walk with him in his day of trouble, we also are learning how to walk. As the Lord Himself invites his people to sing this song, we are learning how to dance when the music of life plays the minor key.
This may not even be for your benefit right now. Maybe it’s for you to help another when their day of trouble comes. And they will come. Each day has enough trouble of its own, Jesus reminded his followers (see Matthew 6).
Psalm 77 breaks up nicely into 4 stanzas with a pause between each one. Stanza 1 is verses 1-3. Stanza 2 is verses 4-9. Stanza 3 is verses 10-15. Stanza 4 is verses 16-20.
v.1-3 I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. SELAH
This first stanza sets the context for the Psalm. Notice particularly verse 2: “In the day of my trouble, I seek the Lord.” Troubled times provoke a certain response in the people of God.
When trouble comes, his eyes look heavenward. Why does he seek the Lord in the day of trouble? The response seems so obvious to us. It’s a question that seems too simple to even warrant consideration. But consideration is exactly what’s needed.
There’s a lot to think about here. First of all, we see that the Psalmist recognizes that only the Lord can deliver him out of his troubles. So it’s to the Lord he runs. We don’t know what those troubles are. It really doesn’t matter. It’s not the nature of the trouble but the nature of our God that determines our response.
He recognizes the power of God to save. Have you ever been drowning (either literally or figuratively)? I’ve never literally been in danger of drowning, but I definitely know the feeling of drowning under the pressures of life. Desperation and panic can set in quickly.
But Asaph is not a drowning man thrashing and clawing for anything he can find to hold on to. His eyes are not searching for relief and deliverance. His eyes are drawn to a certain deliverer. Asaph echoes the truth gloriously expressed in that great Song of Ascent, Psalm 121.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”
So in verse 1, he cries aloud to God. He gives voice to his troubles. He brings them out into the open. He does not keep them shut up. He does not silently endure. He shapes these troubles into tangible, spoken words. Not because God needs our words to be spoken in order to hear them, but because this is not a private lament. It’s not a personal trial.
We give voice to our need so that it brings our burdens into the midst of the congregation. It brings our need for God into the light. I’ve had to remind myself and others many times that there are no private sins. The same is true of our sufferings. To be united together as the body of Christ means that there are no private troubles.
I am one of those people who tend to silently endure. I have no right to do that!
1 Corinthians 12:21-26 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Remember, this is a song meant to be sung among God’s people. And the Psalmist recognizes that not only is his eyes looking to God, but God is very attentive to him. He cries aloud to the Lord and the Lord will hear him. (v.1)
In the second part of verse 2, we see the extent to which he seeks the Lord’s help.
In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
When we think of the night, the picture we get is of resting from the labors and activities of the day. We think of laying our head down in peace. Night should be a time of peaceful rest. But it is not so for Asaph.
In the midst of troubles, the night does not bring rest. Either he will not allow his body rest until his soul is also at rest, or the troubles make it impossible for body or soul to be at peace. His hand stretches out in help to God and he will not let it fall until he finds it.
But his soul refuses to be comforted. His soul refuses to be at peace. Why?
Verse 3, “When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints.”
This is so different from the way we instinctively try to seek comfort. We often seek comfort by forgetting. We try to find peace by escaping reality not contemplating it. Think of all the things we do to check out of life for a little while.
But Asaph isn’t trying to escape trouble, he is seeking to find comfort in the presence of the Almighty. He knows what St. Augustine would come to understand and pray centuries later, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
But when Asaph contemplates God, that meditation initially brings sorrow and weakness to his heart and soul. Why would it do that? Because the greatest delight of the Christian is to have the favor of God. The heartcry of the child of God is echoed in Moses’s benediction: May the Lord bless you and guard you. May he make his face to shine upon you. May he lift up his countenance and give you peace.
But days of trouble can set a cloud over us. We do not sense his favor. We do not feel the warmth of his presence. “Darkness hides his lovely face,” as the hymn puts it.
Remembering the goodness and favor and blessing of God in the past makes the present darkness all the more dark. Only those who have been to the summit of Everest can fully appreciate the climb ahead of them when they find themselves standing at the base of that mountain looking up into the clouds to a peak that cannot even be seen.
But those are also the people who will not settle for anything less. Which means they must face it; they must not shut their eyes, but look through the trouble until they see clearly once again. And this is what we learn to do as we move into Stanza 2.
Verses 4-9 “You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I consider the days of old, the years long ago. I said, ‘Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.’ Then my spirit made a diligent search:”
The Psalmist who cries out to the Lord in verse 1 now has no more words to speak. He moves from crying out in the day of trouble to now considering the days of old.
He has moved from the present to now looking back to the past. Stanza 2 begins to move us further out from the depths of our present circumstances.
Thus far, Asaph has been the reference point. There are plenty of personal pronouns in the first two stanzas. Some commentators are critical of this. They see the Psalmist self-absorbed in his trouble. That could certainly be the case. If not true for Asaph, then at least true in my own experience.
But I think Asaph starts us where he does because we are in the midst of the trouble. It flows out of our own experiences, and we, as the people of God must learn how to rightly understand and deal with those experiences.
We are not to be stoics who minimize our experiences, nor are we to be sentimentalists who are enslaved to experience. Experience is the world in which we live, but it is not the hope on which we stand. We must be able to discern both. Paul reminds us that we must be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us. That hope is real world hope. And it is often forged in the fires of trouble and polished in the daily rub of relationships.
So Asaph moves from considering and meditating on his need for God’s presence and blessing to now considering how the Lord has revealed himself to his people in the past.
He moves from refusing to be comforted in the night to now praying that he remember his song in the night. What song would he have sung that brought back to him eyes to see the Lord’s favor, his protection, his salvation?
Maybe it was the song of Moses recorded in Exodus 15. The Psalmist will turn to images from the Exodus experience in stanzas 3 and 4.
“I will sing to the LORD for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and my song. He has become my salvation; this is my God and I will praise Him, my father’s God and I will exalt Him.
Maybe it is the other song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 that God commanded him to write and teach the people as they were ready to follow Joshua into the land of Promise.
“The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation. Do you thus repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you? Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations;
It was a song of judgment upon the people. The faithfulness and favor of God is contrasted with the coming unfaithfulness and ungratefulness of his chosen people, Israel. They will grow fat in the day of prosperity and forget the God who delivered them out of the hands of their enemies and made them great.
It was also a song for the faithful remnant, that although God had forsaken unbelieving Israel, he would remain true to his promises to those who fear him, to those who call upon his name.
Whatever the song, he turns to it now. And the spirit that had grown faint from remembering in verse 3, now makes a diligent search. He’s in a place where the greatest comfort is not in being delivered out of his troubles, but in the hope that God is with him and for him in every circumstance.
Now he is ready to ask the questions rising up in his mind. These are not questions allowed to come unfiltered from his heart to the ears of Yahweh. Notice the nature of the questions. He asks 6 of them.
- Will the Lord spurn forever?
- Will he never again be favorable?
- Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
- Are his promises at an end for all time?
- Has God forgotten to be gracious?
- Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Selah.
These aren’t accusatory questions directed at God, but questions that stir his heart to search diligently for the truth. Listen to how different these questions are from the ones that arise from a me-centered perspective.
- Why has the Lord rejected me?
- Why is he withholding his blessings in my life?
- Why doesn’t he love me?
- Why are his promises not coming to pass?
- Why has the Lord forgotten me?
- Why is he punishing me like this?
The Psalm, Asaph’s song, is teaching us the dance. We’re learning to let the Spirit lead us rather than rushing ahead. The Lord is not being asked to get in step with our lives. We are seeking to get into step with His. It is a descending down that leads to a glorious ascending up.
Stanza 3 brings that turning point. The veil has been lifted and the darkness fades. He is able to see beyond the trouble, beyond the present circumstances to the One who is his very present help whatever the day may bring. And he finds his voice again.
Verse 10 “Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.’”
There’s some debate over what exactly the Psalmist means here. Two words in this phrase could be translated two different ways, making 4 possible renderings. I think the ESV has it right here, when seen in the context of the lines that follow.
How does he answer the questions? He appeals to the years in which the works and rule of God were clearly demonstrated. He lets what is clear inform his understanding of what is cloudy.
Verse 11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work and meditate on your mighty deeds.
Earlier the Psalmist remembers his experience of God in the past as it related to the present. And it brought sorrow. Now he remembers the character of God as revealed in the past and it makes all the difference in how he experiences the present trouble. What does he remember?
First, that God is holy.
Verse 13 Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?
Second, that God is all-powerful.
Verse 14 You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.
Third, that God is good.
Verse 15 You with your arm redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph.
The final stanza looks to the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt as evidence of God’s power and love. Some of the imagery is drawn from Moses’ account recorded earlier in Scripture while additional images are added to great effect.
When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed, the deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
The Psalmist looks back at the great deliverance of God’s people and he finds great comfort and hope in the midst of present trouble. The Lord is faithful to his own. His steadfast love endures forever. His promises stand firm. He is gracious, slow to anger and rich in compassion.
But there is a greater exodus that we are to look back and remember. We have experienced a greater deliverance by a greater Moses. We have been given a greater kingdom by a greater Joshua.
It was all perfectly accomplished as water and blood flowed from His side, as the earth trembled and shook at the empty tomb, as He ascended to the right hand of the Father to shepherd His little lambs to become kings and priests to the world.