From Evangelical Action, February-March 2012.
In February 1555 Bishop John Hooper was burned at the stake. His wife had escaped to the continent, and from prison he had written to her, and recommended that she read, among other things, Psalm 77. It is a Psalm designed for the Christian in dark days. The Psalmist is Asaph, and he is possibly writing after the destruction of Jerusalem. Things are not going well for the covenant people of God. He knows of what God has done in the past, but the present looks gloomy indeed. The Psalmist is downcast. The Psalm breaks into two sections, divided at verse 10.
1. Keep Praying in Times of Struggle
The Psalmist prays but it does not do him any immediate good: ‘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’ (77:1-3). This was not a quiet time. He cries out to God, as Christ Himself did (see Heb.5:7-8). I know that God knows our prayers before we utter them, and He knows our very thoughts, but there are times when praying out loud is beneficial to us. The Psalmist was perplexed, almost in agony but he kept crying out to God. He could not sleep and was so confused that he could not string his words together: ‘You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak’ (77:4). But he kept praying. Matthew Henry says: ‘Days of trouble must be days of prayer.’ Here is Martin Luther: ‘When God seems to be my enemy and to stand with a drawn sword against me, then do I cast and throw myself into His arms.’ But prayer is not an instantaneous cure.
The Psalmist thinks of times past but that does not help him at first. He complains: ‘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’ (77:5-6). That is remarkable, because down in verses 10-20 we shall see that it is remembering past mercies which helps the Psalmist get out of his depression, but here it seems to make him worse, initially at least. It is not clear whether the Psalmist is thinking of his own life. It is more likely that he is going further back in Israel’s history, and the contrast between what God did in the exodus, for example, and now is all a bit much. He explodes with six grim questions: ‘Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favourable? 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?’ (77:7-9) God may have done wonderful things in the past but He is not doing so in the present. An American Baptist pastor, Don Baker, has written of his own depression: ‘It was as if someone had altered my eardrums so that only life’s discordant sounds would penetrate.’ That is how the Psalmist is operating.
What he does do right is that he talks to himself. By talking to yourself, eventually the inner contradictions in your thoughts can be brought to light. Read the NIV for 77:8a: ‘Has his unfailing love vanished forever?’ The ESV has ‘steadfast love’ and the NKJV has ‘mercy’. But how can unfailing love vanish forever? It does not make sense; it shows the Psalmist’s state of mind. He cannot forget to be gracious! (77:9a) He does not change (Malachi 3:6), but the Psalmist thinks He has! It is like Jonah trying to flee from God by taking a ship to Tarshish when he knows deep down that God is omnipresent. In Asaph’s jaundiced view, God has forgotten His people. What a charge to bring against Him! A woman may forget her child, but God cannot forget His people! (see Isa.49:14-16) Yet the Christian can descend into just such a frame of mind. It is as though God has become the enemy. What is the answer when you feel like that, when you look out onto the world and see nothing but emptiness and despair, and the one you are meant to trust as your Shepherd seems like He is far away?
2. Light Comes from Remembering God’s Mercies
‘Then I said, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.” 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. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; You have made known Your might among the peoples. You with Your arm redeemed Your People, the children of Jacob and Joseph. 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’ (77:10-20). Verses 10-12 are the turning point in the Psalm. Asaph looks at the same history, but with clearer vision.
We have all had the experience of looking at something, and thinking it is one thing, and then looking again, and seeing that it was something quite different. I remember about dusk one day, waving and singing out quite vigorously at a woman I went to school with, only to find when she turned around that she was not who I thought she was. I felt rather silly. This is the Psalmist’s situation: he thought about the past and it made him depressed, then he thought about it again and it encouraged him. The past had not changed but he had. He recalled that God had done wondrous things in the past. He brought His people out of slavery in Egypt, and brought them to the Red Sea and divided the waters, and delivered them when they had no hope apart from Him. The history and the interpretation are together in Exodus 15:11-13. That is the way to look at the past.
The Psalmist had been overwhelmed by a sense of despair, but now he sees hope. Because God cannot change, there is comfort and encouragement:
His love in time past
Forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last
In trouble to sink.
We have more than the Psalmist. He looked back to the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt and from the threat of death at the Red Sea. We look back to the death of the Son of God and His rising from the dead. What are you oppressed by? Sin? Well, Christ has died for sinners. Death? Christ has defeated it. What God has done in the past and the fact that His promises are true is the foundation for our hopes now and in the future.
Here is what happened to Charles Spurgeon. Just after the birth of his twin boys (the only children he had), Spurgeon was preaching at the Surrey Gardens Music Hall on 19 October 1856. Some irresponsible person shouted out ‘Fire!’ There were thousands in the congregation, and in the ensuing panic, seven were killed and many more were maimed and injured. At first Spurgeon was not aware of what had happened, but when he was informed, he collapsed, and was unable to function for many days. It appeared that he might never preach again. He was brought through this breakdown by contemplating Philippians 2:9-11, that Christ’s name would be exalted by God the Father’s determination, no matter what happened to Spurgeon. It can be difficult to gauge exactly what might minister to a depressed Christian, but God’s Word heals.
This is a Psalm of internal struggle and turmoil. But the lesson is clear. So often we become bogged down in our circumstances, but the key is not our circumstances but how we look at them. Learn from the Psalmist. Because of God’s mercies in the past, and because of His unchanging nature, and because of the truth of His promises, we can be sure of His love in the present and into the future.