Through the centuries the Psalms have been read and loved by Christian people largely because they reflect the experience of men and women in the life of faith. In times of struggle and persecution, in times of deep personal distress, in times of great overflowing joy, there is nothing like the Psalms to match the experience of the heart. That is why this book has been the most loved of all books of the Old Testament. I have chosen Psalm 77 for our study because I have found so many people today facing exactly the same problem that this psalm faces.
We are all religious people here, at least that is what the world would call us. There is, of course, a sense in which everyone in the world is religious, even though they may reject that term for themselves. But we particularly believe in the unseen dimension of life. We believe that life can never be adequately explained by what one can see or taste or touch or hear or smell; that there are realities beyond these and those realities are more important than the things of sight and taste and touch. We are, in that sense, religious people. We believe God touches life at every phase and every facet of our experience. As such we are hearing continual testimonies being given of prayers that are answered and victories that are won in the life of faith.
But I suppose that even the youngest Christian here has had at least one experience of turning to God in some moment of desperate need, of praying and asking God to help, and finding nothing happening; an experience of finding all the doors apparently shut, of no response even to the most urgent and ardent plea from our hearts. When we do not get the help we crave and need so desperately, our hearts ask, Why? Doubts flood our minds and we wonder what is wrong, either with God or with us.
There may be some that are going through this experience even today. You have been crying to God for help, but no help is given. That is the problem that is faced in the 77th Psalm. This Psalm was written in order to help people who have that kind of a problem. The psalm relates the story of a man who experienced the seeming unresponsiveness of God to his prayers, and it drove him almost to the point of despair. Then he saw what was wrong, changed and corrected his thinking. and thus came at last to the place of trust, of peace, and of strength again. From despair to peace: that is the story of the 77th Psalm.
I suggest that this Psalm, with its emphasis on experience, can help us even when New Testament teaching cannot help. Many of us have had the experience of being so tired, so emotionally battered, that we cannot respond to teaching. Someone tries to help us by pointing out some truth and we know that what he is saying is true but it does not seem to grip us, it does not do anything for us. There are circumstances when even the language of the New Testament, rich and glorious as it is, seems to be flat and hard, and we realize that though the truth is there, somehow we cannot grasp it. At times like that, battered and beaten by the storms of life, many turn to the Psalms and read the experiences of men and women of God who have gone through exactly the same struggles and the same pressures. Somehow this speaks to their need, gets hold of their hearts, helps them to know that at least they are not alone in this struggle, that others have had it before them. As the New Testament puts it, "There has no temptation taken us but such as is common to man," 1 Corinthians 10:13). Even that point alone helps, and that is why the Psalms have been such a tremendous book in times of really serious emotional problem and distress. Thus this psalm rings a bell with many. Have you ever felt like this?
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may 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.
I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints.
Thou dost hold my eyelids closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak. (Psalms 77:1-4 RSV)
There is a note of desperation about that. Here is a man who is faced with a deep and serious problem. We are never told in this psalm what the trouble is, specifically, but the effect of it is very clear. Perhaps it is some deep disappointment, as many of us experience from time to time; something he had set his heart on, but in the course of events it all fell through and, absolutely crushed with disappointment, he comes to God in his distress. Perhaps it is a sorrow that has come into his life; the death of a loved one, the parting of a friend, something that has utterly crushed his heart with sorrow. Perhaps it is only a fearful possibility he seems looming on the horizon of his life and it looks unavoidable. Or perhaps it is some defiling experience that he has gone through, something that he stumbled into without realizing what he was doing, and he found himself caught up in things that made him utterly ashamed of himself afterwards. All these experiences can produce this kind of reaction. The psalmist only refers to it as "the day of my trouble."
But notice how it strikes him. He cries to God again and again. Here is a man who is pouring out his heart in prayer, pleading with God, crying out for help, stretching out his hand in entreaty to God. Those of you who have had an experience like this know how it is. There is an involuntary sense of pleading with God, praying, crying out to him, asking him to help.
He seeks to comfort his soul, like many of us have done. He says to himself, "I mustn't get carried away like this. Look how distressed, how upset I am. I'll only make things worse this way. I mustn't do this. I'll just forget this for awhile, get busy with something else, and let it go." But, as he says, his soul refuses to be comforted. The problem, whatever it is, haunts him. He cannot take his mind off it. Every time he tries to do something else he is derailed by his mind returning again to this noxious problem that irks him, eats at him, haunts him, and tortures him, and never will let him go.
Then the problem gets even worse. He thinks of God, and the thought of it does not help a bit; it only makes him moan; it increases his anguish, and he cries out all the more. He tries to think about God, but his spirit faints within him and he feels himself growing weak, almost despairing. He tries to sleep, but his eyelids refuse to close. All night long he tosses and turns in restless anguish and sleeplessness. Finally, he is rendered absolutely speechless. He cannot even describe his problem to someone else.
What a marvelously honest description we have here of a man in trouble! This is the wonderful thing about the Word of God. It never glosses over human problems; never treats them as writers of human literature often do. The Scriptures plunge right into the depths, right into the heart of the circumstances. Here is the psalmist, holding nothing back, describing exactly how he feels. And some of you are saying, "That is my experience, exactly. That's just what I have been going through."
To understand this we must take note of certain factors in this man's experience. It is evident, first of all, that he is obviously a believer in God. He has brought his trouble to the Lord. He realizes there is help in God and that is where he has come. He is a godly person. This is true of all the psalms; they represent the struggles and problems of godly people. Perhaps that will surprise many. Many of us in our innocence, especially at the beginning of the Christian life. think that once we become a believer everything will take care of itself, there will be no more problems. But the whole book of Psalms is testimony to the contrary. There are many problems in the life of faith. There are many distressing, puzzling, perplexing experiences that a believer can go through.
You find that, even in the New Testament, in our Lord's experience in the Garden in Gethsemane. There he is puzzled, perplexed, troubled by what is happening to him. crying out to the Father and saying, "I don't know what it is that is happening; if it be possible, let it pass from me; nevertheless, not my will but thine be done," (Luke 22:42 KJV). You see it in the apostles as they are constantly under pressure. Paul speaks of being so crushed, so pressed upon with problems that he despaired even of life. It is not wrong to be faced with these kinds of problems. It is superficial to think that the life of faith cannot have circumstances like this. Here is a godly man, yet he is confronted with this terrible circumstance that makes him cry out like this to God.
Further, it is evident that he is not a mere beginner in the faith. He is not an immature believer. He seems to be quite well acquainted with the Scriptures. He knows the history of God's people, and has obviously been instructed in certain techniques to employ when he is seeking help from God. He mentions two of them here: prayer and meditation. He knows that it is important to bring his problem to God. He knows the way to approach him, the techniques to use, and he is sincerely attempting to do these very things.
Yet, as a second factor for our consideration, it is evident that he is confronted here with two problems, not just one. There is, first of all, the distressing circumstances that have brought him to God, reflected in Verses 1-2; but, in Verses 3-4, there is a second kind of problem that grows out of the first: there is the apparent failure of God to respond to his plea for help. Of the two problems, this is the greater one. That is why he says in Verse 3, "I think of God, and I moan..." It only makes him feel worse. Why does not God do something? This is the cry that comes welling up out of the depths of his anguish. "I think of God and it makes me ask, Why doesn't he help me? I moan, I meditate, and my spirit just melts away."
It is bad enough to endure the circumstances that he has to go through, but what really troubles this man is that he is facing the possible collapse of his faith. He sees the possibility of not only losing this battle. but losing all battles. What is really troubling him is the gnawing feeling down underneath that if prayer does not work, then God is not real. And if God is not real, then faith is a delusion, life is a nightmare of hopelessness, and man is but a helpless victim of forces too great for him to control. That is his major problem. That is what is really bothering him.
If we are honest, this is often what distresses us. It is not so much the fact that we must go through difficult times, pressing circumstances. But what gets to us in moments like this is that when we pray and ask God for help, nothing seems to happen. The skies are brass; there is no response. We have to struggle with the specters of the mind that tell us that perhaps we have been kidding ourselves all along, that faith is all a delusion and God is not real. Distress opens the door to temptation. Every time we enter a period of struggle, of pressure, of unhappy circumstances, we are exposed to severe and pressing temptation to doubt, to disbelieve. It all seems to come at us so logically. That is the experience this man had. Like a drowning man he grasps at every straw that comes by. He has tried prayer and it does not seem to work. God is unresponsive and nothing within lifts the burden of his heart. He decides now to try something else, something that very likely has been suggested to him by some well-meaning counselor. He decides to meditate, to think about God. to think through on his problem. All right, he says. I'll do this,
I consider the days of old,
I remember the years long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit: (Psalms 77:5-6 RSV)
The Authorized Version has, perhaps a little more accurately, the phrase, "my spirit searches." I'm looking for answers, he says. I go back over the past, I commune with my heart, I meditate, I remember the years long ago. He remembers past blessings, he recalls God's favor.
Verse 6 is translated in the RSV, "I commune with my heart in the night. "This is quite possible as a translation, but the Hebrew literally says, "I remember my song in the night," i.e., I remember times when I have been troubled before in the night (when all these problems come upon us) and I remember how God has given a song in my heart. Though the circumstances were distressing, I have been kept strong by an inner song.
What is the result of this kind of approach? Questions fling themselves at him. Doubts assail from every direction. All of them are asking in one way or another, why doesn't God respond? In fact, instead of being helped by his search, he is only made worse, because he faces seemingly unanswerable questions.
Will the Lord spurn for ever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love for ever ceased?
Are 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)
Are you familiar with this kind of thing: Do you know these searching, probing questions? They all seem so logical. If God has blessed in the past, then why doesn't he bless now? Why do I seem so abandoned? These are the questions that press upon him. Finally, the terrible conclusion comes. It seems to be irresistible in the light of what he is experiencing, in the light of the facts as he sees them. Slowly, almost painfully, the psalmist states his conclusion, trying desperately to be honest.
And I say, "It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed." (Psalms 77:10 RSV)
Here is a man who is really trying to be honest. He says, "I have analyzed my situation: I tried prayer all night long. In the past I have been given help, but no help has come now. God has made my heart to sing in the past, but it is empty, barren, and cheerless, now. Why is this? I have thought about it: I searched my own life, my own heart, and these questions have come at me and I cannot answer them. My conclusion must be: I have misjudged God. I have thought that God was changeless, that he would always respond every time I came to him but he has not. Therefore, I am driven to the irresistible conclusion that God has changed, that he is like a man, and you cannot count on him. He is capricious. God has changed. This is what is really troubling me."
This man is facing the possibility of losing his faith. He sees the terrible tragedy of it. All this he has once rested on, which has been such a comfort to him, which has strengthened him and given him character and power among men. seems to be nothing but a crumbling foundation that is disappearing fast. Soon he must lose all that he has held onto in the past. That is his "day of trouble" and his present distress. Is that not the hidden problem with many of us? I have lost track of the times people have called me up and said, "I just don't know what to do. I've tried prayer, I've tried reading my Bible, I've tried to think through. but nothing seems to help. I don't know what to do. What's happening to me?"
But that is exactly why this psalm was written. This man found what was wrong. He found it very quickly, and he began to change. He worked his way through on a different approach, and it soon brought him out to a place of peace and trust. We shall leave the secret of deliverance for our next study.
First, apparent unresponsiveness from God is not unusual. All of God's saints have experienced this from time to time. This is part of the standard program God has for disciplining and training his own. "There has no temptation taken you that is not common to man: but is God is faithful," (1 Corinthians 10:13a KJV). The faithfulness of God is deliberately put into contrast with the statement, "no temptation has taken you but such as is common to man," because every one of us tends to suffer from the feeling that what is happening to us is unique. But many have if they are seeking to live the life of faith. That is one of the great things we can learn from this psalm right at the beginning.
The reason why this is true is declared by the prophet Isaiah. (It is found in many places in Scripture, but most clearly there.) Isaiah reveals that God says. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither my ways, your ways," (Isaiah 55:8). That is, my reason is above yours. You understand so little of life compared to what I see in it. "My thoughts are not your thoughts," therefore you can expect there will come times when you will not understand but will be perplexed. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts, as the heavens are above the earth, so much greater is his vision of what reality is. If we are limited then to but the tiny section of life that we can grasp with our puny understanding, it is only to be expected that there will come times when we will be perplexed, when we do not understand what God is doing. So, do not be troubled by these times of perplexity. They are not sinful in themselves. They are normal experiences coming to all in the life of faith.
Second, the power to resist doubt does not lie in certain techniques, e.g., prayer or meditation. That is clear from what we have already seen in the psalm. How this unmasks the glib and superficial advice we Christians often give to one another in times of difficulty or hardship! Have you ever had someone say to you, when your heart was torn with some pressing circumstances, "Well, pray about it"? There is nothing wrong with saying that, but it is so futile. It is not that it is wrong; it is simply useless advice. Prayer (as we will see further on in the psalm) is not the first thing to do when you are in trouble.
That may surprise many. Many feel that the first thing to do in trouble is to pray. But we will learn from this psalmist that this is not the case; there is something else first. That was the problem with this man. He thought that prayer would automatically solve his problems and that the technique of prayer is provided to solve problems. But that is not the purpose of prayer. Prayer, as a technique, and meditation, as a technique, is not the answer to the doubts that come flooding into the heart when you are under the gun, under pressure from God. That is what this man was to learn.
And that is what we need to learn. There are so many who are ready with a quick answer: "Think it through," they say, or, "Go home and pray about it." And many a Christian has gone home, plunged deeper into distress because of that advice. They have already tried prayer and, like this man, there was no response; they did not know what to do next.
That brings us to the third point that this psalm teaches us, even this early in our study: We must and can learn to deal with this kind of temptation. This psalmist has given us his experience (which answers to the experience of many of us) in order to teach us how he found the answer, how he found the way to deal with temptation of this sort. For it can be dealt with. God has provided an answer, and the psalmist went on to find it. And we too must learn how to find these answers. We must not be content with having these kinds of experiences and somehow muddling through them, then going on to repeat them a few months later, as though these were experiences in the midst of which we could not help ourselves. No. Each one is designed to teach us something, and we must learn how to handle these experiences and these problems, even these distressing kind that seem to pull the ground right out from under our faith and make it almost impossible for us logically to believe any longer in the existence and faithfulness of God. That is what this man did.
Let me stress again this fact: It is not sinful to be confronted with this kind of a circumstance. It is not unusual to have to go through a time of apparent unresponsiveness on the part of God. This is part of God's disciplining program, of which we will see more later. But we need not be overthrown by these experiences. They seem unanswerable, and that is the way it appeared to this man, but God has provided a way. This whole psalm is nothing more than a wonderful commentary, told through the experience of one man, on that verse I have already quoted to you from the New Testament. "There has no temptation taken you but such is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape [not to escape from the pressure, but to escape from the defeat caused by the pressure], that you may be able to bear it," (1 Corinthians 10:13 KJV). May God grant that we will search and seek to understand that his Word has been provided for these very purposes, to learn these answers.
Our Father, we are so grateful that the things we talk about here on Sunday morning out of your Word are not remote from our experiences; that you are the God who is interested in life. And not simply life on Sunday only, but life on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and all through the week. Teach us that these great truths which we learn here are to be worked out and tested in the proving ground of Monday through Saturday. We pray, Lord, that we may be attentive, therefore, and listen carefully, and realize that here are the vital answers that we need. Grant to us searching minds and searching hearts and believing spirits. We pray in Christ's name. Amen.