We have discovered that the man who wrote Psalm 77 went through an experience which many of us have had, or will have at some time or another in living the life of faith. Here is a man who faced a very distressing circumstance (which is never named for us) which sent him flying to God for help. He tells how he prayed and wept and tried to meditate on God all night long, but, to his great distress, he received no help at all from God. Apparently the lines were all down; the skies were as brass. As a consequence, doubts began to rise in his heart. Suddenly he realized that the problem which he faced in the circumstances that brought him to God in the first place was being dwarfed by a much greater problem, that he was really being faced with the question, Is God real? Can he be depended on? Is faith valid? He realized suddenly that he was facing the possibility of losing his faith completely, and this frightened him.
As we read the first ten verses of this psalm, we saw that this man sought to face these questions honestly. The apparent logic of the questions that arise in his heart, growing out of his circumstances, however, seems to drive him to a conviction that he does not wish to come to. But he can find no way out. Evidently, his thoughts went something like this: "I am desperately in need of help. The problem that is before me is tearing me apart." So he has come to God. Then he says to himself, "All the promises of God are to the effect that God offers help in times of need like this. Yet I've called upon him all night long, I've wept before him, I've pleaded with him, I've thought about what he has said, but no help has been given." The only apparent conclusion to which he can logically come he expresses in Verse 10. "And I say, 'It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.'" God is changeable; he cannot be depended upon. Thus, in great affliction of heart and mind, he expresses what the logic of his circumstances has driven him to.
Many of us have had, or perhaps are having, this very problem. Every time we get into circumstances of great pressure, we find ourselves facing an open door of temptation to doubt and to question the foundations of faith. But in Verses 11-12 we have a sudden change of direction in this man's thoughts. He says,
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)
As you read, on it is very apparent that this man, at this point, has experienced a great change in his thinking. Instead of doubt and despair, as was expressed in the opening verses, there is now voiced a growing sense of confidence and of peace, which he expresses in prayer to God . The psalm concludes with a statement of trust and rest.
Thou didst lead thy people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalms 77:20 RSV)
This is reminiscent of the words of the 23rd Psalm,
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want... (Psalms 23:1a RSV)
To understand what is happening in this man's experience, we must ask ourselves certain questions about this psalm. I urge this as a standard procedure when reading the Scriptures. Ask yourselves questions about the writer, his circumstances and background, and just what it is he is facing, then seek to answer those questions. This is the way to get something out of the Word of God. There are many people who treat the Psalms, especially, as though they were some kind of tranquilizing drug. It is comforting to pick out a psalm when you are a little depressed, or unhappy, read it, and simply enjoy its quieting, soothing effect upon you. That is all you really want from it. It is possible to use the Psalms this way because they do have this soothing effect. They consist of beautiful words, beautifully put. But it is never the intent of Scripture to be only a soothing emollient for the distresses of life.
Many people use church in this way. They like the service and the beautiful music; it has a soothing effect upon them. They like the temporary relief of their feelings which comes when they gather as a congregation and sing these songs and hear the prayers. They can then go away, feeling for awhile a little better. But that is really no different a basis than the worldling lives on. You can read a book or go to a secular meeting and sing some inspiring songs, encouraging you; you can get a lift for your spirit in that way. You can go to the bottle you have hidden in a closet at home and get a temporary lift, or take a drug of some kind. But the Scriptures are not provided for the temporary relief of feelings.
I love the closing verse in the first letter of John: "And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding," (1 John 5:20a RSV). That is what the Book is all about. It is to give us an understanding of life. We are to see things as they are. This is also the glory of the psalms. If you ask yourselves questions about what you read you will see behind the circumstances of life and, in following through what happens to these writers of the psalms, you will come to the understanding of life which is the intention of God in giving us the Scriptures in the first place. Thus, learn to ask yourselves questions about the psalms.
At this point there are three questions we need to ask about what happens to this man here. The first question is, "What changed him so drastically, so suddenly, from his attitude of despair, of almost hysteria, to a quiet determination to take a new line of thought? What happened between Verses 10 and 11 that changed this man?" The second question we must ask is, "What did he do next, after the change had come, which launched him on the path that led back to trust and peace?" And the third question is, "Why did this whole circumstance of unresponsiveness on the part of God occur?" Then do not stop with merely asking the questions. Seek out the answers yourself, and, in doing so, you will get at the very point God wants you to learn.
Let us take this first question: "What changed this man?" Why does he suddenly revert from expressions of despair, grief, and affliction, to the determination expressed in Verse 11: "I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; yea, I will remember thy wonders of old."
Here he is, almost swept away by a flood of doubt. He has been caught up in a wild torrent of emotions that has brought him to the very brink of despair. He has even put the terrible thought into words. "This is my grief," he says, "this is my affliction, that, as I see the circumstances, I am driven to the conclusion that God has changed, that the right hand of the Most High has changed." But then he stops, and completely reverses his direction. Why?
Is it not because he saw where he was heading and he drew back from it? He had been forced to conclude that God could change and he suddenly saw that the next step would be, inescapably, that God is not really God? If God can change then he is no more than a man. And if God can change and is no more than a man, then perhaps there is no God. Maybe he is but an expression of the desire of man everywhere for a father image, as we are so often told, and that image has been projected into eternal proportions, and there really is no God. When he saw that, as the next inevitable step, he drew back.
The fundamental declaration of Scripture about God is that God cannot change. He is immutable, changeless. He cannot change. As James puts it, "with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning," (James 1:17 KJV). He is absolutely reliable, and that is fundamental to the whole idea of God. If you have a being who can change, then you do not have a God at all. That is what the pagans discovered, and why the pagan world is always a world of uncertainty, doubt and fear. Changelessness is fundamental to the idea of a God who is truly God.
As this man was driven by his emotions and his thoughts to the conclusion that God can change, he was suddenly appalled, arrested by the thought, "the next step is to deny God exists." That stopped him, and gave him pause. He was faced with what was to him (at the moment, at least) an unthinkable thought. He could see that it was a plunge back into darkness, back into fear, into uncertainty, back into the anxiety that constantly arises in man when he thinks himself to be a creature alone in the universe, with nothing beyond, in the grip of powers and forces greater than he can control.
Do not misunderstand. It did not answer his doubts; it did not solve his major problem at all: it simply stopped him for the moment in his downward course. It made him change his approach. He saw over the edge into the abyss below. He decided to reexamine his position, to come at it from a different point of view. He was forced to broaden his view and that is what eventually saved him.
There is a similar situation to this in the 73rd psalm. In Verse 2 the psalmist declares,
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had well nigh slipped. (Psalms 73:2 RSV)
Here is a man in the same position, almost on the verge of a complete loss of faith. His problem was envy at the prosperity of the wicked, the question of how they could live such untroubled lives. This question had thrown him. Why do the godly suffer and the wicked live such apparently untroubled lives? He says in Verse 13 that his thought was, "All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence," (Psalms 73:13 RSV). That is what he was about to say. He had thought this but he had not said it yet. But in verse 15 he is stopped by that thought.
If I had said, "I will speak thus,"
I would have been untrue to the generation of thy children. (Psalms 73:15 RSV)
What stopped him was the idea that he would do someone else harm by expressing his doubt, so he kept it to himself. It was a sense of responsibility which made him stop for a moment. But, as in Psalm 77, this did not answer his problem. It did, however, change his direction enough that he began to find the answer. This man in Psalm 77 has gone even further. He has said what is in his heart. He put it into words: "It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High is changed," (Psalms 77:10 RSV). But then he is stopped by his view of where this is taking him, and so he pauses for the moment.
This is a very good thing to do in a time of doubt. It is a good idea to look on to the end where you are heading. When you are confronted with doubts about the Christian faith, drain the cup of doubt to the dregs. I find many Christians afraid to do that, especially young Christians. They are afraid that if they trace their doubt out to the end they will be driven to lose their faith; they fear they will discover that faith is but a psychological trick. They have received great blessing from their faith; it has been a comfort to them, and they are afraid to look squarely at their doubts. But do not be afraid of this. The psalmist was driven by his circumstances to this. But it is a good thing to do it deliberately, because when you see the end it will appall you, and make you stop to see if you have overlooked something. It will make you realize that the end is a serious matter, involving you in a fundamental change of philosophy that is going to affect everything in your life. And when you see the end it will make you stop and take another look at where you are going, and how you are arriving there.
In the New Testament this was evidently the experience of the Apostle Peter. In the 6th chapter of John, Jesus said some very severe things to his disciples, things that were harsh to their ears, demanding things. As a result we are told that "many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him," (John 6:66 KJV). (Incidentally, we make so much of the attractiveness of the Lord Jesus, and how he drew the crowds to him, but you cannot read the Gospels honestly without seeing that there were times when he deliberately said things that drove people away. He was always sending men home.) When he saw the crowds leaving he said to the twelve disciples, "Will you go away also?" (John 6:67). The implication is, "If you want to go, I'm not going to hold you; go ahead. If, in thinking through what I have said, and feeling the full force of it, you want to go, go ahead." Do you remember Peter's reply? It is a wonderful word: "Lord, to whom can we go? You alone have the words of eternal life," (John 6:68). That indicated that Peter had been thinking about this. He was saying, in effect, "Lord, you're a very difficult man to live with. You say things that upset us, disturb us. We think we have you all figured out and then you come up with the most outrageous statement. We have thought about going back. We've looked into the matter and examined the alternatives. But, Lord, we're always faced with this question: to whom can we go?"
That is a great word. If you are not going to go with Christ, whom are you going with? You have to go with someone. You are not going to invent a new system of religion which the world has never heard of before. I run into people constantly who think they are going to do this. But when you ask them what it is, it turns out to be the same tired ideas that have been set forth for centuries. No, you are not going to come up with anything new. And if you leave Christ, to whom will you go? What leader are you going to follow, what philosophical school, what line of thought will you pursue? Peter's word is a great one.
That is where this psalmist came. "To whom can I go?" he said to himself. "Where is this taking me? There's only one possibility: this whole line of thought is taking me right back into uncertainty, into despair, into confusion, into darkness, into a world in which there is no God, into all the accompanying emotional pressures that that kind of belief brings upon a man -- that is where it is heading." And that made him stop for a moment, to pause and rethink his position.
I once talked with a Christian leader who was facing this very problem. His faith was absolutely threatened and he was on the verge of throwing over his work and his lifetime of service for God. As we talked it through he saw, too, that there was no place else he could go. That is where our psalmist came, and that stopped him. He found a foothold for the moment in his headlong rush into despair.
But it did not solve his problem, and so we must come to the second question: How did he proceed from this point on?
That is a very important question. It is one thing to be stopped momentarily in your slide into defeat; but the really important thing is, what do you do once you are stopped? If you do nothing, in a moment, you will start sliding again. This has been the story of many Christians. They do not take any positive action. But this man does. He immediately decides to try another line of approach: he decides to begin his thinking with God.
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
yea, I will remember thy wonders of old.
I will meditate on all thy works
and muse on thy mighty deeds. (Psalms 77:11-12 RSV)
The crucial words there are the introductory words, "I will." They indicate that he has caught hold of himself. He is no longer the victim of his feelings, that is the point. The mind, the will, has come into the picture again. The control of his life shifts from his heart to his head, and that is the way God intended it to be. The minute he does this he sees that the place to begin is not with himself, as he has been doing, or with his circumstances, but with God. And the proper order is not with prayer and then meditation: first with petition, crying out to God, and then trying to think about him, but the reverse: to begin with meditating about God which leads to petition based on an understanding of who God is.
That is the way out, and it points up the trouble this man has had before. His trouble was, he began his prayer with himself at the center. You can see that in his words. This problem that has brought him to God occupies his mind. He is relating everything to that God is there, but only peripherally. This man's whole thought is: what is happening to me? Look how I am affected, look how I am afflicted, look how I cry and nothing happens.
The result of that is always the same. When self is at the center, then the heart takes over and the mind is governed by the feelings. We then find ourselves limited to what the Bible calls "natural" thinking, i.e., thinking on a limited narrow plane, which does not take into consideration all the facts. There is a very profound psychology involved in this whole account. Here is a picture of a man who is giving way to his feelings, allowing them to drive him step by step into increasing distress and despair. He finds himself attempting to be logical, but only on this one plane of thought, related to self. That is why he misses the point so completely.
The heart is a powerful factor in human thinking. The heart, the emotions, the feelings, when they get hold of us, bludgeon us, control us, and make us stupid. That is what this man is doing. When the feelings control our thinking then we discover that we are helpless to reason properly. But when something stops us, even as in this case when this man saw where he was heading and the terribleness of the conclusion he was facing made him pause, then the head and the will can assert themselves and take over.
Perhaps you say, why is that the place to begin? What is wrong with beginning with myself? The answer is obvious. Man is a limited being, so when you begin with man your thinking is necessarily limited. But when you start with God, you are starting with the great fact which includes all other facts. You have broadened your vision to take in every phase, every aspect of truth. Someone has described that kind of thinking as "cubical thinking." Truth is not a single level of thought; it is a cube. It has sides, it has other aspects that need to be considered. We know by experience how this is. All truth is related to other truth. You will discover that as you relate a fact to other truth that touches it on every side, this fact must be seen in a different light than when it is considered alone.
This is the whole problem with prejudice. Prejudice is the power that prejudges every condition, limits it, shuts out all aspects of truth but one, and then judges the whole thing on that one. That is why prejudiced people dislike having their thinking broadened. They want only certain lines of thought that agree with what they have already concluded. "Don't bother me with the facts; I've already made up my mind." That is prejudice.
You can see how this infiltrates all the thinking of humanity. This is the problem with Communism, which operates only on one level. It views man as merely a material being, concerned with economics and material things, and that is all. It shuts out the whole range of human reaction and interaction that relates to the spirit. Consequently it is prejudiced, lopsided, out of focus.
I have noticed that Christians are given to spiritual thinking on most things but when it comes to politics they frequently drop right down to the level of natural thinking. They rule out of their thought all that God has said about human life, the nations of the world, and what is going on in the world, and they start talking like any worldling around, as to which party is best, and which candidate can do this, etc.
This man was prejudiced by his emotions, and they almost drove him into despairing unbelief. But he began to return when his head took over and he remembered to start with fact number one in life: the existence and being of God. That is where the Bible starts. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," (Genesis 1:1). Where else would you start if you want to take in all the facts of life? That is the only program that faces everything fairly and squarely, rightly related to everything else. You must start with God. We shall go on to see how this man traces this all out, how his beginning with God leads him step by step to a growing reassurance that God is there and God is at work. He learns that things are not as he saw them originally.
But I want to ask one more question of ourselves at this point: "Why was God so unresponsive at first?"
Why this silence on God's part? Why is this man permitted to cry out all night long like this and nothing happens? Why cannot God say something to him, to encourage him? This is the question we ask ourselves at times like this. The answer is quite clear. This sort of thing is always a deliberate action on God's part. This man had not always experienced unresponsiveness from God like this. I think he had never had this kind of experience before. In the past he had come to God and found instant help, and naturally he came to think that this is the way God would always react.
I find many young Christians have this difficulty. When they are first Christians they get into some difficulty or pressure, and they come to God, and cry out to him. They find God responds instantaneously as the Lord Jesus did with Peter when he began to sink in the water and cried out, "Lord, save me!" (Matthew 14:30). Many a Christian has had the experience of God giving immediate inward peace, a sense of assurance, a quietness within which gives strength to face the situation. This man had thought this would be his experience now, but when he comes he finds God is not there. Then he remembers the years of long ago, thinks back over the olden days, and all this adds to his despair.
There is only one answer to that, and that is that God has deliberately done this. He does it because it is an integral part of the discipline by which he forces us to grow. If he always responded to us instantaneously we would remain children. spiritually. forever: we would always be governed by our feelings; we would be mastered by our moods. This is why the mark of maturity in a Christian's life is that he becomes freed from moods. The sign of a Christian's growing up is that he becomes stable, steady, dependable. He still has the feelings, but they do not govern him any longer. His is no longer an up-and-down experience, up one moment and down the next, but he becomes steady, stable, dependable, faithful, reliable as God is.
We would never get to that place if God instantly responded to us. We would depend upon our feelings for everything. So God deliberately hides himself at times. If you are going through an experience like that it will help to realize that it is because God is teaching you a lesson you need to know. Thus he forces us to operate as man was intended to operate: from the head, not from the heart; with all the facts, not merely a part of them; beginning with God in our thinking, and not with man, or ourselves; moving from meditation to prayer, and not the reverse; realizing that the way we were intended to operate was first, to think about God and then on that basis, to pray unto him with confidence and quietness and expectation. That is the way God intended man to live.
Have you found this way? Are you doing this in your Christian life?
Some of you have been Christians for ten or twenty years, and you are still as much the victim of your moods, mastered by your feelings, as you were at the beginning. That is the kind of experience to which the writer of Hebrewsrefers. He says, "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God's word," (Hebrews 5:12 RSV).
Have you grown up? Have you begun to learn how to handle the temptations to doubt that come to you; how to systematically, thoughtfully, and carefully begin where God wants you to begin, and work through from that basis? Have you risen above the limitations of natural thinking, and begun to think spiritually, having "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16), facing every issue on this basis? That is the sign of whether you are growing up as a Christian or not.
Our Father, we ask you to teach us this by the Holy Spirit as we go. We are so conscious of the fact that we cannot learn this merely by intellectual instruction; we must be taught by the Spirit. We must have our minds open to the reality of these truths, and we ask for this as we go on. We pray that the experiences that we have will confirm what we have learned here. In Jesus' name, Amen.