Out of the Depths

  • Series: Obtaining God's Help
  • Author: Ray C. Stedman
Read the Scripture: Psalm 77:16-20
Psalm 77:16-20

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

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

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

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

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

New International Version
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When the waters saw thee, O God,
  when the waters saw thee, they were afraid,
  yea, the deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
  the skies gave forth thunder;
  thy arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of thy thunder was in the whirlwind;
  thy lightnings lighted up the world;
  the earth trembled and shook.
Thy way was through the sea,
  thy path through the great waters;
  yet thy footprints were unseen.
Thou didst lead thy people like a flock
  by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalms 77:16-20 RSV)

This psalm opened with a cry of doubt and despair. Here is a man who had almost lost his faith because of the thought that God had changed his mind, that God is capricious and cannot be trusted -- a thought that troubles many from time to time. But the psalmist traced for us his way back from despair so that at last he came to say, "Thy way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?"

He accomplished this, he tells us, by thinking and meditating on the actions of God in history, the unmistakable movings of God in human events. As he thought about these deeds, he saw two things about them that unmistakably marked them as God's actions, so that they could never be explained in terms of man's activity. First, he saw that these were supernatural actions. They were things beyond the power of man to do. And the amazing thing is, some thirty centuries after these words were written, it still remains beyond the power of man to duplicate these great actions of God. Second, he saw that they had a special purpose -- they were redemptive. They restored people, they bought them back. God's actions always have this characteristic about them.

In these verses before us the psalmist is focusing upon the specific action of God which helped him the most. He had thought through many of the things God had done in the past, but there was one thing that particularly helped him in his problem. We will discover that when we are up against emotional disturbances and pressures, and especially on those difficult days when everything seems to go wrong and our faith is tried to the utmost, as we think back through the activity of God in our lives and in the recorded acts of Scripture, we will always find one thing that helps us more than anything else. That is what this man found, and he records it for us. He thinks through the great deeds of God which he knew, and he chooses the crossing of the Red Sea as the thing that helped him the most. This is the event which cleared away his doubts and made him say at last, "Thy way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?"

He saw in this event certain great truths which were the final release to his spirit and which removed his doubts. As we look at these truths we will see that they not only helped him, but that they can help us as well. What did this man see in this event of the crossing of the Red Sea that particularly helped him in his time of distress? First, he recognized the sovereign control of God over all human events. This was most evident here in the crossing of the Red Sea. He puts these truths poetically, because poetry is often the best possible way to express deep emotion. But he sees two things about this event that made him realize that God is always sovereign over every human event, every force in life.

The first thing he saw was that whatever made the Israelites afraid when they crossed the Red Sea was itself, in turn, afraid of God. He puts it poetically in Verse 16:

When the waters saw thee, O God,
  when the waters saw thee, they were afraid,
  yea, the deep trembled. (Psalms 77:16 RSV)

You can well imagine that when the Israelites came to the edge of the Red Sea in their flight from Egypt they were very much afraid of the waters that lay in their pathway. The Egyptians were behind them and there was no time to go around to the north. God had led them to this point, and yet before them was nothing but water. Then God acted; Moses stretched forth his rod and the waters parted and they were told to go through the Sea, but they were afraid as they went through. You would have been too! Here were these great walls of water, stacked up on either side, held by the hand of God. They were told to walk through the midst of this and that they would safely pass through. And so they did, but you can imagine that they did it with considerable fear.

But they noticed something strange about the waters. They seemed to be afraid, too. They were trembling. This is what the psalmist says. He puts it in this poetic form to express the fact that the waters seemed to be afraid of God. The thing that made the Israelites afraid was itself afraid of the greatness and might of God. Thus the psalmist is expressing for us the great truth that he learned from this, that even these mighty forces, quite outside human control, were still under the control of God.

There is something like this in the New Testament as well. On the occasion when the disciples were sent by Jesus out into a storm while he remained on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the storm blew, the waves grew higher and the wind beat down upon them in the darkness of the night, and they were afraid for their lives. Suddenly, looking out through the gloom, they saw a figure walking toward them upon the water, and the Scripture says they were terribly frightened. It was Jesus coming to them on the water, and his action was symbolic. He was saying to them, by his approach on the very waves that frightened them, that that which made them afraid was already under his feet. He was in full control.

As they looked out at him on the waves they thought it was a ghost and that struck additional terror to their hearts. But he said to them, "It is I" (Matthew 14:27), i.e., the thing that makes you afraid is I. This is the great truth that God is always seeking to impart to us. Behind every event, every force, every power that frightens us, is God's hand in control. That is what the psalmist learned as he thought through the crossing of the Red Sea; the very powers and forces that frighten men are themselves under the control and power of God.

Then he sees the same thing in a different way, in Verses 17-18. He learned that all the forces of life are but the instruments of God.

The clouds poured out water;
  the skies gave forth thunder;
  thy arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of thy thunder was in the whirlwind;
  thy lightnings lighted up the world;
  the earth trembled and shook. (Psalms 77:17-18 RSV)

Anyone who has ever been through an electric storm knows what the psalmist is describing here: lightning flashing all around, the sound of thunder crashing in response, the earth trembling and shaking at the might and power being released. But notice the personal pronouns here -- thy thunder, thy lightnings. These forces were all God's, they were in his control. That is what this man learned as he thought about the crossing of the Red Sea. These events that so frightened the Israelites at the time were under the control and authority of God at all times. No power, natural or human, can operate except by express permission of the Almighty. That is the great truth that helped to set him free as he thought these things through.

Some time ago I read an account of a Swiss-French pastor who was imprisoned by the Nazis. This man said, "I was not able to stand firm except by remembering every day that the Gestapo was the hand of God -- the left hand. The worst of tyrants and the last of cowards will only end by accomplishing Christ's will." That is what keeps men in days of pressure and times of trial, when everything seems to be going wrong and nothing is in accord with what is expected, the realization that every force, natural or human, is under the control of God.

There is nothing more magnificent in the New Testament than the story of the incident in the last week of Jesus when he stood forsaken by his friends, betrayed by his disciples, powerless and apparently helpless in the presence of Pilate, the representative of the imperial power. Pilate said to him, "Do you not know that I have the power to crucify you?" (John 19:10). And Jesus looked at him and said, "You could have no power except it be given you from above," John 19:11). Is there anything greater than that in the records of man? It is the recognition that all power is under God's control. Power belongs to God -- all power, every form of it -- and it is under his control. That is the first thing this man learned as he considered the event of the Red Sea.

Then there is a second truth he learned, in Verse 19:

Thy way was through the sea,
  thy path through the great waters;
  yet thy footprints were unseen. (Psalms 77:19 RSV)

Here were the hosts of the Israelites being led out of Egypt. They knew they were being led by God for God had prepared the way. God had sent the plagues upon the Egyptians which had softened Pharaohs heart so that he had let them go. Now they were being led by Moses and Aaron out into the wilderness and they had come to the edge of the Red Sea. They did not know where God was going, they could not understand what he was doing, but there they were. Yet the ultimate end of the experience was to prove and demonstrate that God knew all the time what he was doing. As the psalmist thinks about this, he learns a second great truth -- that inability to understand how God is working is no sign that he is not at work.

I wish there were some way to impart that truth to many today. We are so insistent that God explain to us everything he is doing. Unless we can see this, we get panicky; all excited and frightened, like the Israelites did when they got to the edge of the Red Sea. Here they were and they did not know what to do. They panicked, just as you and I do. They came to Moses and said, "What do you mean, leading us out here like this? Why, there's no place to go, no way to save us, we're doomed! The Egyptians are coming upon us and you've led us into a trap." How many times have you or I said something similar in like circumstances? "Lord, there's no way out. I'm in a trap, and there's nothing anyone can do." We hit the panic button, just as these men and women did. But as this psalmist thought this through, he realized that God's intention was to lead them through the sea. This was his intention when they left Egypt and he had it in mind all the way. "His way was through the sea, his path through the great waters." They could not see that. It never entered their minds. But God knew it. Though his footprints were unseen and they could not predict what he was going to do, nevertheless the outcome of it proved that God knew all the time what he was doing.

All this was a special help to this man. Remember that the psalmist's problem was the apparent inactivity of God. This is what brought him to the crisis that is reflected in the opening words,

I think of God, and I moan;
  I meditate, and my spirit faints.
Thou dost hold my eyelids from closing;
  I am so troubled that I cannot speak. (Psalms 77:3-4 RSV)

What is troubling is these questions he cannot answer:

"Will the Lord spurn for ever,
  and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love for ever ceased?
  and his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
  Has he in anger shut up his compassion?" (Psalms 77:7-9 RSV)

God is doing nothing, he said. Here I am in deep trouble and God apparently is doing nothing. And now as he has thought through the event of the crossing of the Red Sea, he saw that it was a parallel experience. Here were these people brought to the edge of the Red Sea. There was no visible way out, no human alternative they could see. But God knew the answer all the time. His footprints were unseen, but his way was through the sea, his path through the great waters, and he led them on that way.

Have you ever had this kind of an experience? I think it is a rather common one among Christians. Annie Johnson Flint has captured this in a poem that gathers up the challenge of this incident for us. She asks,

Have you come to the Red Sea place in your life
Where, in spite of all you can do,
There is no way out,
There is no way back,
There is no other way but through?

Then wait on the Lord with a trust serene,
Tell the night of your fear is gone.
He will send the wind,
He will send the floods.
But He will say to your soul, "Go on."

And His hand will lead you through -- clear through,
Ere the watery wall roll down,
No foe can reach you,
No wave can touch,
No mightiest sea can drown.

The tossing billows may rear their crests,
Their foam at your feet may break.
But over their bed,
You may walk dryshod,
In a path that your Lord will make.

In the morning watch, 'neath the lifted cloud,
You shall see but the Lord alone.
Where He leads you on,
>From the place by the sea,
To the land that you have not known.

And your fears shall pass, as your foes have passed.
You shall be no more afraid.
You shall sing His praise
In a better place,
A place that His hand has made.

That is the Red Sea. What a great lesson that has been for all the men and women of faith who have lived in the many centuries since. God's path leads through the sea, through the trouble, through the trial: not around it, but right through the middle! That is where he will take you, but he will take you through.

The third thing this man learned as he contemplated this great deed was that God is forever the Shepherd of his people,

Thou didst lead thy people like a flock
  by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalms 77:20 RSV)

I do not think there is any figure so beautifully descriptive of the relationship of God to his people than that of a shepherd with his sheep. As the Shepherd, God supplies to us what we so desperately lack in ourselves. First, he supplies purpose. A shepherd always has a goal in mind for his flock. If he leads them to the mountain pastures it is because he has something he wants to accomplish there. If he leads them beside the still water he has some reason for it. If he leads them out in the midst of wolves it is because he wants them there. It is the shepherd who supplies the purpose.

If there is anything that is lacking in the day in which we live it is this one essential ingredient of life, this element of purpose, of meaning in existence. Suicide rates are skyrocketing today because men and women who have everything else lack this one essential: they have no reason for living. A man came into my study not long ago and told me that though he had everything he wanted, he didn't want anything that he had. He was suffering from "destination sickness," the sickness of having gotten all that he had striven for in life, but still having nothing that made life worth the living. But that is what a shepherd supplies. He supplies purpose, a goal ahead, a reason for existence, something beyond that makes all this meaningful and worthwhile.

And a shepherd supplies the other desperate lack in life, love: protection and supply, all that love involves. He cares for his sheep. Are not those wonderful words in First Peter where he urges Christians to watch for the coming of the Chief Shepherd, and then says, "Cast all your cares upon him, for it matters to him about you," 1 Peter 5:7). Think of that! It matters to him about you. That is how a shepherd feels.

This is a common figure in the Scriptures. In the very next psalm, Psalm 78, Verses 51-54, the psalmist is again recounting these events of God in the past.

He smote all the first-born in Egypt,
  the first issue of their strength in the tents of Ham.
Then he led forth his people like sheep,
  and guided them in the like a flock.
He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid;
  but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
And he brought them to his holy land,
  to the mountain which his right hand had won. (Psalms 78:51-54 RSV)

That is the activity of a shepherd. Again, the 80th Psalm begins with these words,

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
  thou who leadest Joseph like a flock!
Thou who art enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
  before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh!
Stir up thy might,
  and come to save us! (Psalms 80:1-3 RSV)

There are wonderful words in this psalm concerning the great Shepherd of Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus came to his own and said, "I am the True Shepherd," (John 10:11-15). Later on in Hebrews he is called the Great Shepherd (Hebrews13:20); and again, in First Peter, the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). He delighted in this role of a shepherd, who takes up his own, gathering his lambs to his bosom and leading those who are weary; gently, tenderly, as a shepherd does. This is forever God's chief relationship to his own people. Primarily and above everything else, he is the Shepherd of his own. This is what the psalmist learned, that through difficulties and trials, when it seemed that he was abandoned, he was not. He was still in the care and protective love of a Shepherd. God was shepherding his own.

The most beloved of all the psalms is the 23rd Psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures," (Psalms 23:1-2a RSV). There have been thousands who have found the needed solace for their own hearts in that beautiful psalm which describes this great and underlying truth of the relationship of God to his own. "The Lord is my shepherd." Notice the personal pronoun. Not, the Lord is a shepherd; he is my shepherd. He is leading me this way. I stand in this relationship to him, and "I shall not want."

A few weeks ago I was in one of the local department stores and a lady sales clerk was waiting on me. When I signed the sales slip she noticed my name. "Oh, you are Mr. Stedman, are you, the pastor of the Peninsula Bible Church?" I replied, "Yes." She said, "I don't know if you would remember me, but my name is so-and-so." As soon as she spoke the name I recalled the incident when I had first met this family. They were moving into this area two or three years ago. They had come in, utter strangers to anyone in this community, and had rented a motel on El Camino Real. They went out one day looking for houses, but their 12 year old son had wanted to stay behind, so they left him in the motel alone. When they came back they found him hanging, dead, in the closet.

They did not know where to go for solace or whom to call but, thumbing through the phone book, they chanced upon my name. They had been raised as Christians and so they called me. I remember going over and finding a terribly grief-stricken family, numb with the awful thing that had happened. I did not know the family or anything about them, and at first I did not know what to say. But as we sat in the motel room together discussing what had happened, I felt led to turn to the words of the 23rd Psalm. I read them through and we prayed together, and it seemed to give them a bit of peace. Then at the funeral service I built the message around that wonderful psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
  I will fear no evil;
  for thou art with me. (Psalms 23:1-4a RSV)

In the store, this lady said to me, "You will never know the comfort that psalm brought to our hearts as a family. We've all talked about it many times since. It brought peace when nothing else could, the realization that through this dark time of tragedy, when our hearts were torn with grief, we could lean upon the great fact: 'The Lord is my shepherd.'"

That is what this man came to. He saw that underneath the apparent inactivity of God was a shepherd's love, protection, and care, and God would lead him safely through. And he did come through. He tells us he did. He came through to the great and glorious conclusion of Verse 13:

Thy way, O God, is holy.
  What god is great like our God? (Psalms 77:13 RSV)

Have you come to that place, through the time of doubt and pressure, or trial and temptation? Come at last through the difficulty, right through the sea, through the great waters, come out at last on the other side to the place where you could say, "What god is great like our God?" We have so much more to look back upon than this psalmist had. He had the record of God's activity up to his own day. He could look back upon the great events of Egypt and the wilderness and other unchangeable, unremovable events, but think how much more we have today. There is not only the record of the Exodus, but of the days of David himself, the days of the Psalmists, and the faithfulness of God to them. Then we have the record of the prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Elijah and Elisha. Then the glorious days of the appearance of the Son of God among men, the wonderful record of his days on earth. And then the stirring, exciting days of the explosion of the church out against a pagan world, and the faithfulness of God who worked with them to do signs and wonders that established their faith and made them strong. There are these great facts of our Christian faith, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, that foundation stone upon which all faith ultimately rests. Also there are the long 1900 years and more of church history and the great events that took place throughout that time when God has repeatedly moved to awaken his people and turn them back to the truth: the stirring days of the Reformation under Martin Luther, when he challenged the entrenched tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church and delivered the people from the bondage of legalism and other false emphases. How much we have to look back upon! How God has moved; how he has fulfilled his word!

He has brought Israel back to the land, exactly as he promised. Through century after century it looked like the promise was absolutely impossible to fulfill, but there they are, back in the land today, possessing that ancient city, ready again to rebuild the temple, just as Scripture has predicted. How much we have to rest upon in these great activities of God. All of them are redemptive, all of them supernatural, utterly beyond the power of man; all of them revealing, in one way or another, the shepherd character of God in relationship to his own. Do we not have much reason to have faith in God in these days, to rest upon his love, to reflect upon his truth and his faithfulness, and to rest our faith there?" What god is great like our God?"

Prayer:

We thank you, Father, for teaching us from this psalm the realities upon which faith can rest in any day of temptation or doubt. As we face such a day in our own time, when men are questioning the very foundations of life, and throwing overboard those foundations that have been proved through many centuries to be solid and true, forsaking them, turning the world into anarchy and revolt and rebellion, we pray that we may renew our faith and our confidence in you and, resting upon these unshakable things, remain true in the hour of pressure or distress. We ask to be made faithful to your word, and faithful to your love, ever remembering that great shepherd-heart that beats in your father's breast for your own. We ask in Christ's name, Amen.

Title: Out of the Depths Author: Ray C. Stedman
Series:Obtaining God's Help Date:September 17, 1967
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