In the 77th Psalm we have a report, given for our benefit, by a man who almost lost his faith, but who found his way back eventually to greater faith and trust in God than ever before. He tells us just how he did it. That is the helpful thing about this psalm, and all the psalms, for in these wonderful poetic passages, so beautiful in their language, so soothing in their effect, so true to the experience of the heart, we have the reports of men and women who have faced the problems we must face in the spiritual life and have recorded for us, step by step, the way they were led to the solution of these problems.
The opening verses of this 77th Psalm record for us the emotional distress the psalmist experienced when he faced a very troublesome problem in his life which brought him to God, crying out in heartache and anguish. Then the second problem, which grew out of the first, came upon him when he faced the fact that God seemingly ignored his prayer. He began to ask certain searching and probing questions which are the same questions you and I have asked in times of doubt and the trial of our faith.
Finally, this man saw where he was heading and for a moment his slide to despair was stopped. He was heading toward the total loss of faith. He saw in a flash what he had been doing and that he had begun in the wrong place. He had been caught up with himself and his circumstances and was therefore governed by his emotions.
This is always what happens. The minute we allow ourselves to be governed by our emotions we short-circuit the processes that God intended to govern in our lives. We begin on a narrow, limited plane and we are restricted to that plane. We can see no other facts but the ones to which we are reacting emotionally. This is the problem with many, many people. They are temporarily unable to see anything other than what is immediately before them and is affecting their feelings. Governed by their feelings, therefore, their judgment is distorted.
As we have seen, this is what prejudice is. These kinds of people are highly prejudiced people who often strongly resist any attempt to broaden their vision. That was what was happening to this man in the 77th Psalm. He suddenly realized what he was doing and what the answer was. He describes it for us in Verses 11-12.
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
yea, I will remember thy wonders of old.
I will meditate on all thy work,
and muse on thy mighty deeds. (Psalms 77:11-12 RSV)
We saw in a very general way that he learned that the place to begin in his thinking was with God. "I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord," he says. When you start thinking about God in relationship to these pressing emotional problems you soon discover that you have begun with the great fact which includes all other facts. Your vision is stretched to take in the whole range of truth. God is the great Being who encompasses all other facts within himself.
We must now take up those same verses and look at them more in detail. We must ask ourselves. "Where do you begin in thinking about God?" The answer is seen in this 11th verse. It is to begin with the deeds of the Lord, with his actions -- not his words, but his deeds.
That distinction is very important. The words of the Lord are tremendous words. The whole of the Bible we call the Word of God and those words of God are extremely important to human life. Jesus underscored that when he said, "No man can live [as God intended him to live] by bread alone." If you think life is made up only of getting the things you need for your physical existence then you are living a very shallow and sub-human life. Man was never intended to live by bread alone but "by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God." Life will never take on the dimension of depth and richness it should have if we do not give ourselves to reading and understanding the words of God.
But that is not the place to start with God! This is what the psalmist is making clear to us. The words of God are very helpful and very enriching, but they make their appeal to a faith that rests upon the deeds of God. That is the place to start in your thinking about God, especially if you are going through a trial of faith. Then the thing to do is to start your thinking with the deeds of God.
You can see how this is true even on the human level. Have you ever said to someone else, "Look, what you do speaks so loudly, I can't hear what you say." By that common expression we recognize that deeds are more fundamentally revealing of what a person is than his words. Deeds are far more fundamentally revealing of what people are than words. That is why we must begin our thinking about God in times of doubt with his deeds and not with his words. It is extremely important that we learn the lesson this psalmist learned and which he has recorded particularly for our benefit in times of doubt, to begin our thinking with the deeds of God.
You can see how this is true all through the Scriptures. Read these psalms and whenever you see an Israelite in trouble, shaken by doubt, you will see that his way of correcting it is to recite to himself the historic actions of God. The psalms are filled with this kind of thing, and it carries on throughout the whole Bible.
In the New Testament, when the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was about to be stoned to death outside the gate, he sought to bring home to the unbelieving Jews the fact that God was at work in their nation at that time and he attacked their unbelief by tracing the history of God's dealings with the people. Stephen simply went back through the history of the nation and revealed how God had been dealing with them, (Acts 7:1-58).
There was a day when John the Baptist temporarily lost his faith. It is an encouragement to some of us perhaps to realize that a man like John could lose faith; this man of whom Jesus said, "No man has ever been born of women greater than John the Baptist." He sent one of his disciples to Jesus with the question, "Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?" Matthew 11:3). Jesus answered him, "Go back and tell John what you have seen, that the blind are given their sight, the lame are being healed, the deaf are made to hear, the lepers are being healed, and even the dead are brought to life," Matthew 11:4-6). The deeds of God in history! This is where faith must rest.
On one occasion Thomas, the disciple, doubted the stories he had heard of the resurrection. For Thomas these were merely words. He had heard them from men and women whom he believed in, and yet these tales were so incredible that Thomas could not bring himself to accept them even when he heard them from people he trusted. You remember that Jesus appeared to him when Thomas was gathered with the other disciples. Did he argue with him? No, He simply said, "Come, Thomas, put your hand in my side and feel the wounds in my hands. Handle me and see. It is I, the same one, risen from the dead," John 20:26-27). Thus it was the deeds of God in history that convinced this man in his time of doubt.
This is why these historic facts of Christian faith are so continually under attack. This is the point where unbelief always makes its thrust. They seek to destroy the credibility of the deeds of God in history. They use every weapon they can to do this, from sneering ridicule, such as calling evangelicals "crass literalists" and "obscurantists," who give themselves to "primitive concepts" and other such sneering terms to what we might call ponderous pseudo-scholarship, giving themselves to immense scholastic labors and utilizing what they call scientific methods which ultimately seek to destroy the credibility of the Scriptures. All of this is simply an enormous attempt to break down the foundation of the activity of God in history, because that is where faith rests. That is the only solid ground on which faith can rest. As the 11th Psalm puts it, "If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalms 11:3 RSV).
That is an unanswerable question. As Paul says in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians, "If Christ be not raised, then our faith is in vain," (1 Corinthians 15:17). He frankly and boldly acknowledges it. That is why it is so important to resist these attempts to destroy the credibility of the Scriptures, to expose the error of their arguments and the foolishness of these claims that are so widely accepted on every side today. Let us recognize that our faith rests upon unshakable facts, the great realities of God's actions in human history.
A pastor and I were recently discussing certain trends in theology and I mentioned something about the fact of the empty tomb. He said, "But I don't believe that is important." I said, "What do you mean? The empty tomb is not important to Christian faith?" "Oh, no," he said, "Our faith doesn't rest on that." "Well," I said, "what about the 15th chapter of First Corinthians where Paul says that "if Christ be not risen, our faith is in vain?" He said, "That is just the point. It isn't the empty tomb that is important. It is Christ risen that is important." I said. "Do you mean that you are drawing a distinction between the empty tomb and the risen Christ? I realize that the statement, 'Christ is risen' is an advance upon the statement, 'the tomb is empty,' but it certainly includes it." He said, "Not to my thinking. I think you can have a risen Christ, but not have an empty tomb." Then I said, "You are using language in a way no one else uses it, and quite opposite to the way it is commonly used in the normal course of human events." Paul makes a special point of identifying the risen Christ with the empty tomb. It is the fact that the tomb was empty which helped the disciples to believe in a risen Christ. These great articles of faith, these great doctrinal truths of Christianity rest upon these fundamental actions of God in human history.
Well, you ask, "Why is this true? What do deeds do to strengthen our faith like this?" If you think this through, you will see rather clearly why faith rests upon actions of God. In the first place, these deeds of God derive their value from the fact that they are objective evidence. They are something outside of us. As long as our faith is resting upon subjective feelings within, we are unsure and uncertain. We have all learned that our feelings are not very reliable, that sometimes they deceive us, and so we seek to find confirming evidence outside us, something that we can touch or look at and thus confirm and strengthen the inward feelings we have. That is the peculiar value of the deeds of God. These deeds do not lie in the realm of ideas, philosophies, or speculations but they are hard, stubborn, concrete, confirmable things that happened in human history.
They can be seen by others as well as us. That is the trouble with ideas, with philosophies, theories or feelings. The only one who can witness to what you feel is you. But when you have deeds and events that can be seen and witnessed by many, then there is a confirmation from various people, ruling out the possibility of hallucinations or imaginations. That is the value of deeds and especially the deeds of God.
For instance, take the events of the Exodus when God led the people out of the land of Egypt. This formed the basis of faith for the Israelites throughout all their history. In the Psalms they are forever referring back to these events when God opened up the Red Sea, led the children of Israel out, and brought the plagues upon Egypt that forced Pharaoh to open the door to them to go. He fed them in the wilderness, and took care of them in the desert, giving them water and food and going before them in a flaming pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day.
All these events, by and large, were events in which whole nations were involved. Thousands and even millions of people saw or participated in these things. The details were well known throughout the ancient world. When Israel came to the edge of the Jordan River and was about to enter in they found that the spies that had gone before them into Jericho found the people already dispirited, already defeated, so that it was an easy task for them to take over. What had dispirited them? They had heard the stories of the way God had opened up the Red Sea and taken the Israelites through. This miracle had been heralded abroad all over the land, and they could not deny that a god of great power was behind these people.
Take the great facts of the New Testament. As Paul puts it, "these things were not done in a corner," (Acts 26:26). Take especially the fact we have already mentioned, the supreme fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He did not appear only to one or two people, one or two women who might perhaps be subject to hallucinatory concepts because of the power of their emotions. But he appeared to groups of two, and five, and several times eleven; and on one occasion he appeared to over five hundred individuals at once. These all saw him in his risen, resurrected body. They bore witness to this fact. Paul says that many of them were still alive when he was writing to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:6), seeking to convey these facts to them. All of these events were proof that God was at work and it was the kind of proof that could be tested by the evidence of the senses. That is one great advantage of deeds.
Furthermore, deeds are timeless. They are contemporary. Once having occurred, these facts remain in human history. The results remain and you can trace back through the course of centuries and confirm that these things actually happened.
When I was in the Holy Land, this kind of evidence surrounded me on every side. I went down to Hebron and went into the building built over the Cave of Machpelah. What is so noteworthy about that? There Abraham is buried. Think of that! This great pioneer of faith who lived two thousand years on the other side of Calvary's cross -- as far distant from the cross on that side as we are on this side. Yet, as we stood there, four thousand years of history rolled away for here was the exact place the Bible records as the cave where Abraham was buried. We had evidence that he had lived. He had walked through these places, as the Bible records.
When we went into the temple area we stood in the very place on which Solomon's temple had once stood, also the temple of Herod, the place where Jesus had walked. These stones cried out to us of the historicity of these events. The Wailing Wall contains the very stones that were once part of Solomon's temple in the heyday of the glory of Israel. Those stones are still there as a silent but powerful witness to the historic occurrence of these events recorded in the Old Testament. We walked on the paving stones where Jesus stood before Pilate. We saw the place where the Roman soldiers had scratched games in the rocks as they waited for the judgments to end in the court.
We stood at the foot of the hill where Jesus was crucified and saw that it is indeed shaped like a skull. We could see the eye-sockets and the shallow caves that form the mouth and knew why the Hebrew people called it "the place of the skull." We walked along the shores of Galilee and saw a synagogue where perhaps Jesus himself had taught. We saw many of the scenes that are mentioned in the Bible and all served as confirming evidence that this was not merely a dream. It was not an illusion. It is a fact. God has acted in history.
How different the Bible is, for instance, from the Book of Mormon. Here is another book that claims to be history. It claims to record historical evidence of a pre-American race that once lived on these continents. But every archaeological excavation in the Americas denies flatly the Book of Mormon. If you walk through these lands you can see that the civilizations that are being dug up by the archaeologists' spade are completely and entirely different from that recorded in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon mentions, for instance, the existence of cattle, sheep, camels, horses, and elephants, yet every archaeological excavation confirms the fact that not one of these animals were known on the American continent in the days of the Mayan, Incan and Aztec empires.
The Book of Mormon speaks of wars that were fought with metal weapons of brass, iron and steel. but not one of these metals were employed as weapons of war in the Americas. The Book of Mormon speaks of chariots with wheels but they didn't even know the use of the wheel in the American continent except for toys for children, but they had no wheeled carriages and no wheeled vehicles of any kind. Everywhere you look there is a denial, from the evidence of the earth itself of these strange and spurious claims of the Book of Mormon.
But the Bible is grounded in history and that is why you can test the reality of these events today. Take again the resurrection of Christ. The presence of the Christian church itself confirms that this event took place. How else can you explain this strange group of people all through history who have been absolutely convinced that Jesus Christ rose from the dead? How do you explain the changes in the apostles, the tremendous psychological differences between their actions before the resurrection and afterward? You cannot unless the resurrection be a fact. Furthermore, how do you explain what happens to people all over the world and which has been happening for twenty centuries, if this resurrection is not a fact? Take some of the testimonies today. I clipped this out of Decision Magazine, where someone has written this account of her own story. She says,
For a long time I have been bitter about life. It seemed that it had dealt me a dirty blow, for ever since I was 12 years old I have been waiting for death to close in on me. It was at that time I learned I had muscular dystrophy. I fought hard against this disease, and exercised hard, but to no avail. I only grew weaker. All I could see was what I had missed. My friends went away to college. then got married and started having families of their own. When I lay in bed at night thinking, despair would creep from the dark corners to haunt me. Life was meaningless.
(That sounds like the opening words of the 77th Psalm. doesn't it?)
Whenever you [Billy Graham] came on television. I would be watching, and when you gave the invitation for the viewers to receive Jesus into their lives, I sat back and listened, but actually I heard nothing. In March of last year my mother brought home from our public library your book World Aflame. I started reading it. and as I read I realized that I wanted God. I wanted there to be a meaning to life. I wanted to receive this faith. this deep faith and peace. Then a strange thing happened. Suddenly there came a strong assurance that there was indeed a God. an assurance so powerful that it led to a deep conviction. An odd emotion struck me and I was numb for a week.
This was her experience of conversion, though it may not be the same for any other person. But now hear what she says,
I have never experienced anything like it. All I know is that now my life has changed and I now have joy in living. No longer is the universe chaotic. No longer does life have no goal. No longer is there no hope. I here is instead God. who "so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." I continue to grow weaker. I am close to being totally helpless and am in pain most of the time, but sometimes I am so glad I am alive that it is hard to keep myself from bursting at the seams. I can see for the first time the beauty all around me and I realize how very lucky I am. Despair is such a waste of time when there is joy, and lack of faith is such a waste of time when there is God.
What a testimony! But that is only one among millions who can testify to the change that is made by a resurrected Christ. If that isn't proof of the resurrection, what is? The deeds of God in history! Not only in the past but in the present. There is the cure for doubt. It is these unchangeable facts of God's actions.
We must note another thing before we close. The psalmist reveals also the process by which he saw the value of God's deeds. There are two steps to it. He says first,
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
yea, I will remember thy wonders of Old. (Psalms 77:11 RSV)
That is step number one. "I will remember -- call to mind," these things. Second,
I will meditate on all thy work,
and muse on thy mighty deeds. (Psalms 77:12 RSV)
Meditate, muse, what does that mean? It is not enough to recall what God does. One must also think through as to the significance. That is the important thing. "I will meditate on them, think about them, concentrate upon these, until I see the meaning of these events." That is the important thing.
Here is the trouble with many Christians. Many faint at the second step. They do the first, they think about what God has done in their life or in another person's life, or in the past, such as the resurrection or some other event of history. But then they expect some kind of an automatic reaction to occur. They feel just to think about the event should do something for them. But it isn't like that. "I will meditate on them. I will muse on them. I will think them through." There is need to ask, "What does this mean? How does it affect me? What is the significance of this event?"
When the writer began to do that, then the answer came. This is what we need so much today. I dare say that this is a major reason for the weakness of Christians today. We don't want to think about events. We don't want to take time to think about what God has said or what he does, and thus come through to a significant understanding of the meaning of God's action. Turn off your television sets and think about what God has said! You can think even while you are working. I find that some of the most valuable and glorious times of understanding of what God is doing come when I meditate on the Scriptures as I am driving on the highways or in the city. A certain part of my mind can handle the activities of driving, if I am not facing any traffic problem, and I can give myself to thinking about Scripture passages. I have discovered that this is far better than the radio in turning a long trip into a short one. Oftentimes I can spend an hour or two thinking about these things and the time goes by so fast that I arrive at my destination hardly realizing that an hour or so has gone by.
You can meditate like this while you are washing the dishes. I don't know a greater place for a woman to meditate than while washing the dishes. You don't need to think about washing the dishes! You can do that automatically. But if you have a verse of Scripture propped up on the window sill before you or a passage that you are trying to think through to an understanding of it, your kitchen sink can become the greatest altar you have ever experienced. Try it. This is what the psalmist is telling us here.
Let me quickly gather up the rest. In Verses 13-15 he gives us the results of his meditation. What did he see in these works of God? What were the results of his meditation and his musing? First, he gives it to us in a general statement.
Thy way, O God, is holy.
What god is great like our God? (Psalms 77:13 RSV)
That is the conclusion to which he finally came. Then he gives us certain details of how he arrived at that conclusion.
Thou are the God who workest wonders,
who has manifested thy might among the peoples.
Thou didst with thy arm redeem thy people,
the sons of Jacob and Joseph. (Psalms 77:14-15 RSV)
The conclusion that he ultimately comes to is the holiness and greatness of God. That is always the ground of faith. Faith is always strong when one is aware of these two mighty things. But the thing that led him to this was his understanding of the supernatural power and the redemptive love of God. These were the steps which brought him to his awareness of the greatness of God.
We shall leave it to our next study to examine what it was that he actually saw about the deeds of God that strengthened his faith, but I shall close with the great fact to which he finally came, the supreme understanding to which he arrived at last, declared in Verse 13:
Thy way, O God, is holy.
What god is great like our God? (Psalms 77:13 RSV)
His meditation on the works of God led him to stand at last before God himself and to feel something of the awe of spirit that comes to all who consider the moral perfections of God, God's holiness, his total absence of error, sin, or wrong in his life. He is a holy, perfect being, complete in every detail. Thus this man became aware of the incomparable greatness of God.
Now this man has come to understand more fully the thought that stopped his downward decline. He was stopped by the thought, "Where is this line of thinking taking me? Where am I going in this despair and defeatism?" He saw that it was plunging him right back into uncertainty and confusion and the lack of an authoritative word about life. Now he realizes that he has come before one who is incomparable. There is no one like him. "To whom shall we go," said the Apostle Peter, "You alone have the words of eternal life. There is no one like you Lord," (John 6:68). That is where this man has come. There is no one like God. There is absolutely no other place we can turn. We human beings must have something, we must have some god to follow, some voice to obey, and the psalmist has arrived at the place where he is so struck by the power, the greatness and the love of God that says,
Thy way, O God, is holy.
What god is great like our God? (Psalms 77:13 RSV)
Our Father, we pause at this moment to let our hearts express to you what our lips cannot, something of the awareness of the greatness of the Being whom we serve. How puny do the problems we have been concerned about this week appear now as we compare them with the greatness of our God! How futile and insignificant are the strutting pretensions of man; these great nations with their atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs in which they put such trust, how little they appear in the face of the greatness of a God like thee! Lord we pray that we may quiet our hearts and rest our faith where it ought to be resting; on One who is unchangeable, whose way is holy, and who can lead us step by step through all of life. We thank you for this realization, in Jesus' name, Amen.