We come now to our fifth and final lesson in an Old Testament Survey course on the Psalms. Our introductory lesson laid out general material pertaining to the Psalter’s authorship and date, poetry, structure, theology and bibliography. In our second and third studies, we considered in some depth Psalms 1 and 2, the gateway psalms. Last time we undertook the message of a song of thanksgiving, Psalm 138.
We are now becoming accustomed to reading and unpacking a psalm as a poem marked by elevated language and economy of words. Our analysis has displayed a somewhat wooden method of inductive Bible study that yields a succinct outline of an inspired poet’s message. (We have learned to consider our method as an exegesis, a “drawing out” of the text the message of the poet, by following a measure of mechanical literary strictness the structure and vocabulary.)
A survey series forces the student and the writer to select strategically a final topic or text. What aspect of the Psalter most deserves attention when there’s only one more occasion to unpack its multifaceted material? In my estimation, a psalm of personal lament deserves such priority. After all, there are, by one scholar’s count, sixty-seven lament psalms, comprising nearly half the poems in the Psalter, the majority of which are “petitions by individuals as they approach God with their particular needs” (Estes 2005: 165). (Examples: Psalms 3; 4; 5; 7; 9; 10; 13; 14 ; 17; 22; 23; 26.)
Sometimes called psalms of disorientation (Allender 1994: 17), these psalms are not limited to the Psalter. Look through Job, Jeremiah, and Lamentations to find similar poetic complaints; there are parallels to lament poems in contemporaneous Babylonian literature as well (Estes 2005: 165). Their structure evidences a somewhat fixed form of six parts: address or invocation, complaint, confession of trust, petition, oracle of salvation, and praise (Estes 2005: 167-168).
With this as background, we come to one of my favorite lament psalms, the seventy-seventh. I first came to appreciate it when I read The Cry of the Soul: How our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions about God (Allender and Longman 1994). Allender and Longman apply their love of God, their astute scholarship, and their real-world experience as doctors of the soul to extract meaning and application from the psalms that transformed my previous forty years of meditating on them. This was particularly true with the seventy-seventh psalm. And, I confess, it has provided warm and comforting spiritual food to my hungry and aching soul.
(Read Psalm 77.)
Written by “a man of exercised mind [who] often touched the minor key,” (Spurgeon 1966: vol. 2a, 312), Asaph’s lament models a faith-response to a life afflicted by mental, emotional and spiritual torment. Kidner (1975: 276) opens his comments on this psalm with a thankful heart obviously acquainted with the realism of anguish in the unseen, inner man: “All who have known the enveloping pressure of a dark mood can be grateful for the candour of this fellow-sufferer, but also for his courage.”
In a strikingly transparent comment, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1966: vol. 2a, 312) prays aloud, telling how he identifies with Asaph’s mood: “Alas, my God, the writer of this exposition well knows what thy servant Asaph meant, for his soul is familiar with the way of grief. Deep glens and lonely caves of soul depressions, my spirit knows full well your awful glooms.” And he suggests how we might contemplate the message of the Psalm: “Let the song go softly; this is no merry dance for the swift feet of the daughters of music, pause ye awhile, and let sorrow take breath between her sighs.”
Now, if you are not inclined toward being so melancholic or pensive, or if acknowledging and addressing feelings seems awkward or unspiritual, never mind, never fear. This, too, is the Word of God. And I repeat, lament psalms comprise nearly half of the inspired Psalter. Allender and Longman (1994: 18-19) helps us gain perspective:
Perhaps no section of Scripture more poignantly exposes the inner world of our heart and more vividly reveals the emotional life of God than the Psalms.
The Psalms were composed in poetic form. Poetry reaches to the realm beyond the world of sight and sound to reveal what our senses long to see and hear. It is the language not so much of the sublime, but of the truly real—a reality that cannot be grasped through scientific or theoretical precision. Theological propositions are necessary for understanding truth, but truth is ultimately relational, and relationship is the domain of poetry. Poetry is God’s invitation to glimpse the unseen—His very character…. The journey into our difficult emotions will reveal something about the awesome nature of the sacrifice of eternal Son on our behalf (“the scandalous wonder of the Cross”). Ultimately it will lead us to worship.
As the psalmist cries earnestly in the night from his troubled spirit, he searches his soul for the answer from the eternal God and finds comfort in his meditations on the incomparable God of the Exodus.
After the superscription identifies this psalm as one used in the public worship of God’s people (Jeduthun and Asaph were leaders of music according to the Chronicler—see the introductory lesson in this series for brief comment about authorship), the psalm divides into two stanzas. In the first stanza (1-9), the psalmist utters his sorrow and disquietude in the night when he cries earnestly to God without answer (1-9). In the second, the psalmist expresses that he found the solution in his musings when he remembered God’s ways at the great Exodus (10-20).
Stanza I: The psalm opens as the psalmist utters his sorrow and disquietude in the night when he cries earnestly to God without answer (1-9). He cries all night (1-3), searches his spirit for comfort (4-6) and then searches out God by questions (7-9).
“I cry aloud to God,” expresses the poet’s raising of his voice to God. He repeats, “aloud to God,” perhaps implying that his importunity knocks and knocks again until the Lord opens the door. Jesus teaches us that faith persists in prayer (Matt. 7:7; Luke 11:5-9). “I cry to God and he will hear me,” the singer expresses with assurance. That’s why we even bother to raise our voices to God—we are sure that He hears us. Alexander (1975: 324) says, “He would not pray if he despaired of being heard.” Kidner (1975: 277) guides us with this wisdom: “If we think it naïve to cry to God aloud…, that he may hear me, God, reading the heart, may think otherwise. Jesus Himself prayed ‘with loud cries and tears…, and he was heard for his godly fear’ (Heb. 5:7).”
First, the psalmist cries earnestly all the night because he is overwhelmed in his spirit when he remembers God (1-3). In verse one, he expresses his faith in prayer that God will hear. In verse two, he recalls that he prayed earnestly and yet his soul refused comfort “Day” and “night” he perseveres with cries to God. But, like a running sore, the psalmist’s soul found no comfort. Hear the echo of the patriarch Jacob when his broken heart refused comfort over the loss of his beloved son Joseph (Gen. 38:35), or Rachel’s bitter mourning at the senseless slaughter of her innocent children (Jer. 31:15).
Such refusal of comfort could have been willful and faithless. Spurgeon (1966: vol. 2a, 313) instructs: “Many a daughter of despondency has pushed aside the cup of gladness, and many a son of sorrow has hugged his chains.” But not all uncomforted hearts spurn solace. Sometimes the depth of one’s cup of bitterness exceeds any attempts to locate even a hint of sweetness in the nectar that others may offer. At times, the Lord’s holy purpose for an individual require an extended period of affliction that obscures a comforting sense of his loving presence. The suffering soul languishes; others step back unable to help.
We are wise to tread carefully here with our fellow soldiers. Landmines lurk under the surface of our relationships with those wracked by emotional pain, doubt, fear and the like. We are prudent to stand alongside the suffering soul with the discernment of a caring presence marked by an initial, gracious silence. If we do speak, our words should be salted with love and grace. But I digress.
In verse three, the poet recalls that even remembering God is troubling: “When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. Spurgeon understands the realism that applies beyond Psalm 77:
He who is the wellspring of delight to faith became an object of dread to the Psalmist’s distracted heart. The justice, holiness, power, and truth of God have all a dark side, and indeed all the attributes may be made to look black…. [E]ven the brightness of divine love blinds us, and fills us with a horrible suspicion that we have neither part nor lot in it. He is wretched indeed whose memories of The Ever Blessed prove distressing to him; yet the best of men know the depth of this abyss.
In the next section the psalmist, troubled by God, searches his own spirit for comfort (4-6). He complains that God troubles him by holding him watching (4). “You hold my eyelids open.” Evidently sleeplessness marked his nights. “Sleep is a great comforter, but it forsakes the sorrowful, and then… sorrow deepens and eats into the soul” (Spurgeon: vol. 2a, 313). Psalm 127 affirms that sleep is a gift from God to his beloved, and this is especially true when we are full of inner struggles. But let us not miss the point either, that sleeplessness may be God’s intention, God’s doing for divinely important reasons. So the psalmist thought, “You hold my eyelids open.”
With sleeplessness came speechlessness: “I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” Great grief strikes one dumb. And in the sleepless, speechless silence, the psalmist can search his own soul. He considers the past, “the days of old” (5), ancient times when God has acted powerfully and graciously for His people. But that poses a troubling riddle to the psalmist. He now sets out to search it out: “Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.” Then my spirit made a diligent search” (6).
First, the psalmist cries earnestly all the night because he is overwhelmed in his spirit when he remembers God (1-3). Then the psalmist, troubled by God, searches his own spirit for comfort (4-6). Now the psalmist searches out God by questions (7-9). First, he wonders if God has cast him off: “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?” (7). Is God’s well of grace dried up? Then he wonders if God’s loyal love is clean gone: “Has his steadfast love forever ceased?” (8a). “Is that mercy which binds God in covenant relationship with His people now gone?” God’s loyal love is a covenant relationship that includes promises from the Lover to the Beloved. “Are his promises at an end for all time?” (8b). Can we no longer trust god to do as he swore to do to our forefathers? In Romans 9:6, the Apostle Paul concerns himself with this as well as he develops the idea that God’s word of promise to Abraham has indeed not failed, despite what we our senses find in external evidences. “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (9). The term “God” here translates the Hebrew “El,” short for Elohim. It is the name of God that accents his greatness and might. Does the goodness (graciousness) of God no longer hold up to the proportion of his greatness? (Alexander 1975: 325). Has God in anger become resistant to the concerns of his people that used to move him deeply? Thus the psalmist searches out God by questions.
Allender (1994: 67) sees here an angry and confused psalmist. He comments:
Our initial reaction of anger to any perceived injustice may be righteous or unrighteous—it is nearly impossible to evaluate. Only the absence of anger is noteworthy as an indication that something is terribly wrong.
What happens after the initial arousal of anger, however, can be assessed. Righteous anger grieves and struggles with God: “What are You doing, God? What am I to understand about You? What am I to face about myself, given the fury I feel?”
Unrighteous anger refused to turn to God with out deepest questions—“Are You just? Are You going to let the wicked win? Are You going to let them violate me with no justice in sight?” In the midst of helpless confusion and hurt, unrighteous anger refuses to surrender, to wait on God, to look to Him for perspective. Instead, we feel righteous in taking justice into our own hands when the One we cry to for justice does not hear or respond. We become vigilantes, seeking to impose our own sense of justice according to the demands of our desire.
Thus the first stanza of the psalm ends. The psalmist has cried earnestly all the night because he is overwhelmed in his spirit when he remembers God (1-3). He has searched his own troubled spirit for comfort (4-6) and searched out God by questions (7-9). The psalmist now moves his focus “from his hurt and aner toward God to pondering the character and deeds of God” (Allender 1994: 67).
Stanza II: Now in stanza two, the psalmist expresses that he found the solution in his musings when he remembered God’s ways at the great Exodus (10-20).
First, he vows to remember God’s incomparable deeds (10-12). Then he praises the incomparable God as redeemer (13-15). Finally, he finds comfort in the great redemption at the Exodus (16-20).
“Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High” (10). Here is the turning point of the poem, recognized by the Selah as well as the content of verse 10. Note there is no verb in this line. “The years of the right hand.” Ah, yes, the repinings and disillusionment and anger with God are stopped short with the memory of “the years of God’s right hand at work.” Those years, indeed, are a memory with which to reckon. That right hand of God that has executed goodness and power, protection and provision—ah, yes, those years of divine intervention, those years of grace, those years of faithfulness. It is those years that link the past to the present and promise in abundance.
The psalmist is determined to remember what God has done for him and for his people: “I will remember the deeds of Yahweh, yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work and meditate on your mighty deeds” (11-12). “Mighty deeds” are incomparable ones, stupendous displays of power that no one but Yahweh does. No one compares to Yahweh. He is supreme in every aspect. Our God reigns. Jesus is King of Kings and Lord or Lords. “Wonders” (11) translates a single Hebrew word, particularly frequent in the Psalms, used especially of the great redemptive miracles (e.g., 106:7, 22), but also of their less obvious counterparts in daily experience (cf. 71:17) and of the hidden glories of Scripture (119:18) (Kidner 1975: 69).
Not only does the psalmist vow to remember God’s incomparable deeds (10-12), but he also praises the incomparable God as redeemer (13-15). He affirms that God’s incomparable way is holy. It is a unique way that sets God apart from all others. He dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16). He is “fearful as an enemy but glorious as a friend” (Kidner 1975: 279). We hear echoes of the victory song following the Exodus that exalts God as “majestic in holiness.” “Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exod. 15:11). He is strong and marvelous (14). And he has exercised not only his right hand but also his strong arm to free his people from the slavery of that mighty master, Egypt (15). He is redeemer to Jacob and Joseph and all their heirs. Note the personal touch, “You redeemed your people.”
So, in this second stanza, the psalmist is expressing the solution to his hurt and anger against God. In his musings, he remembers God’s ways at the great Exodus (10-20). Now he rivets his attention to the history that unfolds for us in the first fifteen chapters of Moses’ second book in the Pentateuch. He finds comfort in the great redemption at the Exodus (16-20). He utilizes his senses to see and hear and feel the force of God’s powerful redemption (16-19). Do not miss the drama as the psalmist now paints it—
When the fledgling nation of Israel had rushed out of Egypt in the middle of the night and had tromped over the desert ahead of the hostile pursuit of Pharaoh’s army; when, alas, they were trapped by mountains to their sides, imminent attack to their backs, and the Sea of Reeds before them, note what their Redeemer did: The waters trembled (16). The clouds poured (17). There was thunder, lightning and earthquakes (18). And with all this display of divine power in nature, there opened up before them a path through the sea (19). WOW! But they are not there alone. God led them through the instrumentality of Moses and Aaron. WOW!
Kidner (1975: 280) summarizes:
The tremendous events at the Red Sea and at Sinai fire the poet’s mind as he gives himself to the thought of them and to conveying what he sees. Not only is his trouble dwarfed and forgotten, but our picture of the world is given a corrective against any impression of autonomous forces and an absentee creator. Poetic freedom, of course, as in 114:3ff, heightens and personalizes the drama, with the waters not merely in turmoil but in travail (the lit. sense of afraid, 16) and the lightning and thunder pictured as God’s flaming arrows (17) and, perhaps roaring chariot-wheels (a frequent sense of the word translated whirlwind, 18). But it is a true picture of God’s sway over nature. Even when He was incarnate, the winds and waves would obey Him and the sea provide a path for Him.
The closing verse, if it is an anticlimax, is a calculated one. Displays of power (as Elijah was to find) are means, not ends; God’s overriding concern is for His flock. With that unflattering but reassuring word, and with the mixed human leadership of Moses and Aaron, the psalm comes to a close which is within hailing distance of the psalmist and his day of small things, yet one which marked a stage in Israel’s pilgrimage destined to be no less formative than its spectacular beginning..
If indeed the common form of a lament psalm has an oracle of salvation and then a statement of praise as its final elements, then Psalm 77 is no exception. The praise is implicit in the awe and wonder the Exodus inspires within the worshipper. Jesus our Savior deserves all our praise, too, for He has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness, translated us to the kingdom of light, granted us an inheritance that is reserved in heaven for us, given His Spirit as a deposit of the life in glory forever with God in heaven.
- v. 2: Prayer is not an instant anesthetic for a pained soul.
- v. 3: A true and living faith will honestly struggle with the seeming logical absurdity of God’s ways. (And Spurgeon adds: “The justice, holiness, power and truth of God have all a dark side…even the brightness of divine love blinds us, and fill us with a horrible suspicion” that we may not become recipients of it after all.2)
- v. 4: Sleepless and speechless—the agony of this condition might well breed a humility that prepares the believer to receive from God a deeper sleep and a wiser speech.
- vv. 5, 10ff: Memory is a handmaiden to faith. Present troubles gain perspective when seen against the backdrop of God’s past providence.
- v. 20: In the midst of trouble, recall whom God used to help you in the past as well as what he did to relieve you. This may give new insights into how God will work in your behalf through your present troubles.
Allen, Leslie. C. 1983: 244. Psalms 101-150. Word Biblical Commentary Volume 21. Waco: Word Books.
Allender, Dan. B, and Longman III, Tremper. 1994. The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions about God. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
Alexander, Joseph Addison. 1975 (first published 1850). The Psalms Translated and Explained. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Estes, Daniel J. 2005. Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Kidner, Derek. 1973. Psalm 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press. Also Psalms 73-150, published by the same in 1975.
Spurgeon, C. H. 1966. The Treasury of David in Three Volumes. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.