Praying through trouble

suffering

Psalm 77

The Psalms are a unique genre of Biblical literature.  For some Psalms, we can find the historical setting from clues within the psalm itself.  Many of David’s psalms are like that.  When we know the circumstances surrounding the psalm, the psalm means so much more.  Some psalms were written as hymns of praise to be sung in the worship of Jehovah.   Generally speaking, the psalms are not dissertations of doctrine and theology.  They are poems and songs written either to magnify the nature and attributes of God, or to reflect the mood of whoever composed them.  Generally we don’t find promises or doctrinal statements upon which to hang our faith on in the psalms.  But there is a lot we can learn from each and every psalm.

Psalm 77 is known as a “lament.”  In fact, it is a personal lament, not a national one for it describes the desperation of one man:  Asaph, the writer of this pslam.   It follows the pattern of other laments in the Bible: it begins down in the valley of despair but rises to the summit of hopefulness.  Verse 10 is the turning point of the psalm—

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

This verse separates the major segments of the psalm; the first section tells of great sadness and sorrow and in the second section, the lament turns into a song where the sorrow is all but forgotten.  In the first, the individual is predominant and in the second it is all about God.  In fact, in the first 9 verses the personal pronoun occurs 22 times and there only 11 references to God.  But in the second section, God is mentioned 24 times with only 3 personal references.

This makes the basic message of the psalm so powerful:  to dwell on the negative side of life leaves a person broken and disheartened; but when we focus on God our troubles pale.

We know nothing of the personal story that inspired the writing of this psalm, although Bible scholars love to try and figure it out.  For us, we’ll just say that the author was probably very much like we are who have good days and bad days, and at the time of this psalm, Aspah is having a very bad day.

1.  Sorrow, verses 1—3

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands
and my soul refused to be comforted.
I remembered you, O God, and I groaned;
I mused, and my spirit grew faint.
Selah

Here was a desperate man.  Day and night he cried out to the Lord.  While we don’t know exactly what is problem was, the KJV’s translation of verse 2 may give us a clue—

In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted.

His “sore ran in the night” seems to suggest some sort of physical ailment was at the root of this man’s distress.  This is, of course pure speculation, but whatever the problem was it was serious enough to cause the writer wonder if God turned His back on him.

The sadness of this verse cannot be missed: here was a faithful man who sought the Lord in time of trouble, yet he found no relief.  This made the writer restless and confused.  He writes in verse 3 that he “mused” when he thought about God.  His present predicament seemed to run contrary to what he knew about God!  In this instance, because of his self-centered mind-set, the more he thought about God the more he became discouraged and the more he “groaned” in despair.  Usually good memories about God have the opposite effect, but if we are mired in negatively, even good thoughts can be turned negative.

2.  Searching and questioning, verses 4—9

You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.

I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;

I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart mused and my spirit inquired:

“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?

Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?

Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Selah

In his darkest hour, the psalmist recalls what it used to be like and he recalled the “songs in the night.”  These hymns were sung in the nighttime hours to comfort the people of God as they rededicated themselves to Him.  As they lay awake, unable to sleep, they would sing these special hymns and their anxiety, hopefully, would leave and sleep would finally come.  Unfortunately, things were now so bad, that not only could Asaph not sleep, but these “songs in the night,” these spiritual lullabies, no longer worked.

As he sat up in bed, unable to sleep, he asks a serious of six questions.  These are common questions that depressed people often ask, but they came from the psalmist’s heart and were not considered complaints.  Doubts and questions, incidentally, are actually therapeutic and common to many of the great men of Scripture.  Even our Lord on the Cross quoted Psalm 22:1—

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)

Each of these questions demands a negative answer because they are asked from a negative mindset:

  • Will the Lord reject forever?  Answer:  No.
  • Will he never show is favor again?  Answer:  No.
  • Has his unfailing love vanished forever?  Answer:  No.  His love is still there, in fact.
  • Has his promise failed for all time?  Answer:  God is still keeping His promise whether we see them coming to fruition or not.
  • Has God forgotten to be merciful?  Answer:  No.  Being merciful is part of God’s character.  He has never stopped showing mercy.
  • Has he in anger withheld his compassion?  Answer:  No.  Again, being compassionate is part of God’s nature; the fact that we cannot feel that compassion says something about us, not God.

If we look at these questions, we see a kind of progression from the writer’s personal present situation (he feels rejected) to the cause:  the Lord’s apparent anger (He withholds His compassion).

What is interesting about these questions is that they reveal something very precious about the psalmist’s heart.  His heart finally comes to rest because as he gives voice to his doubts he realizes that the living God cannot be as he perceives him to be at this dark moment.   The more questions he asked, the more hope swelled in his heart.

3.  Surrender, verses 10—15

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.

I will meditate on all your works
and consider all your mighty deeds.

Your ways, O God, are holy.
What god is so great as our God?

You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.

With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
Selah

The questions asked are followed by some determined statements, each beginning with the phrase “I will.”  Remembering God’s acts in history provides the foundation for a faith that trusts.  This is why knowing the Word of God is so important.  The great stories of the Bible are meant to teach us something, to encourage us, and to lift us up when we find ourselves in a desperate position like the psalmist found himself in.

Verse 10, as previously mentioned, is the turning point in the psalm.  Here are other ways to read this verse—

And I said, This is my infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High.  (KJV)

Then I said, “It is my grief,
That the right hand of the Most High has changed.”  (NASB)

Then said I, This is my weakness: — the years of the right hand of the Most High.  (Darby)

In other words, the psalmist has realized:  “This is my trial, this is my grief.”  Here he had reached the absolute lowest point of his experience; he had come to the end of his resources.  At that point, his whole attitude began to change.  What changed his attitude?  He took his eyes off himself, after all there was nothing he could for himself, and started to look at God; the God of the Bible.  He “remembers” all the amazing things God did throughout the history of Israel.   The Hebrew for “remember” may also be rendered “proclaim,” suggesting that in the midst of his misery, Asaph proclaimed the goodness of God!   He did not complain or whine; he preached.

Aspah reached the bottom and there was no way to go but up, which is why verse 10 signals such a change is thinking and direction.

4.  Sovereignty, verses 16—20

The waters saw you, O God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.

The clouds poured down water,
the skies resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.

Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.

Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.

You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

These verses remind us of some of the things Job said of God in the midst of his suffering.  He, like the psalmist, hit rock bottom and was forced to see the greatness of God from a different perspective; from the bottom up, so to speak.  From a literary stand point, these verses are powerfully dramatic and imaginatively written.  In this passage we read of the supremacy of God in nature and in the history of Israel.   God is seen as working in and through nature; He who made the earth has not left it merely hanging in space.  God continually uses His creation to benefit his people.  Even terrible things, like violent storms, are used by God to help man.

John James Stewart Perowne, bishop, Hebrew scholar and author of an excellent commentary on the Psalms wrote this:

We know not, they knew not, by what precise means the deliverance was wrought…and we need not know; the obscurity, the mystery here, as elsewhere was part of the lesson.  All that we see distinctly is, that through this dark and terrible night, with enemy pressing close behind, and the driving sea on either side, He led His people like sheep by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

God is sovereign.  When we are suffering we see things very narrowly.  The urgency of the moment crowds out the important and eternal truths we know about God.  The great lesson of this psalm is that sometimes, when times are rough, we need to reach the bottom before we may begin our ascent.  God uses the circumstances around us to affect a positive change in us.

May each of strive to keep our eyes fixed on Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, instead of on the passing circumstances around us.  Only then will we be lifted up, like the psalmist was.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd
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