Despair & Hope. Psalm 77

We’re looking at Psalm 77 today and the themes of despair and hope.

Let me say at the beginning that parts of this Psalm are translated differently, but I’m not going to get into any of that. I will use the NIV today.

Let’s jump right into the first part of the Psalm. And here we note that . . .

The psalmist is really struggling

There are several indications of this. 1) He’s desperately calling on God. 

v. 1 – “I cried out to God for help;I cried out to God to hear me.”

2) He refuses to stop crying out.

v. 2 – “When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;at night I stretched out untiring hands and I would not be comforted.”

Stretched out hands are a posture of prayer. He is, as it were, lifting his prayers up to God. Yet despite this, his prayers are unanswered. There’s no relief.

3) When he thinks of God, instead of being encouraged, he’s dejected.

v. 3 – “I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I mused, and my spirit grew faint.”

 4) He’s unable to sleep.

v. 4a – “You kept my eyes from closing.”

Here he addresses God directly and says, ‘You’re the reason I can’t sleep.’

5) He’s so upset he can’t talk.

v. 4b – “I was too troubled to speak.”

He is definitely going through a hard time: distress – v. 2; without comfort – v. 2;  groaning – v. 3; faint of spirit – v. 3; sleepless – v. 4; troubled – v. 4; speechless – v. 4.

Now let’s look at –

The source of his distress

v 5-6a says, “I thought about the former days,the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night.”

He’s thinking about a time in his life when things were better. When he used to sing joyful songs. When all was well. It isn’t like this anymore. Now he’s overwhelmed by difficulties.

This leads him to deep thought.

v. 6b – “My heart meditated and my spirit asked.”

And from this pondering he is able to articulate his inner struggle. This comes in the form of six questions – vs. 7-9:

“Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

It’s obvious from these that he feels rejected by God, uncared for, and forgotten. God is not answering prayer and seems entirely absent. All seems hopeless, which is highlighted by his language – “forever, never again, for all time.” It’s never gonna get better.

This is a full blown crisis of faith. He has the expectation that, if God is truly God, things should be a certain way – like they were before his troubles. So there’s a gap between what should be, his assumptions and expectations, and what is.

This leads him to question God’s character. Exodus 34:6 gives a foundational statement of who God is in the Old Testament. It says, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” It’s this very description that the Psalmist is struggling with in his questions, using some of these very terms. Is God really like this? Has God changed?

Now, his actual circumstances aren’t made clear. From the questions, and the Psalm as a whole, it seems that it’s not just something in his individual life. The problem involves the whole people of God; the people of Israel. And it has gone on for a long time without resolution. It could be that he’s speaking from exile in Babylon wondering if God will ever remember and deliver them from that foreign land.

Remembering the deeds of the Lord

This brings us to v. 10,which is the turning point in this Psalm.

“Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.’”

He decides to look back at when God was so active among Israel; when God’s favor was abundantly evident – in the days of Moses.

vs. 11-12 – “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

The focus is now on God’s actions in the past: “deeds,” “miracles,” “works,” “mighty deeds.” These, the Psalmist will “remember” (2x), “consider” and “meditate on.”

When he looks back at what God has done for Israel in the past, he can see God’s greatness.

vs. 13-15 – “Your ways, God, are holy.What god is as great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.”

 This refers back to the Red Sea crossing and even uses some of the language of Exodus 15:11-14, where Moses talks about this. From this the psalmist remembers that God is holy, that is, better than and greater than all other gods. He remembers that God is in a class all his own. God performed miracles and did deeds of power. God rescued his people.

Finally, the psalmist describes –

The great Red Sea deliverance

– in more poetic detail.

We need to remember here the symbolic meaning of “the waters” as chaotic, evil and in opposition to God. The waters were blocking Israel from escaping the chariots of Egypt. But God confronts the waters, who are afraid of him.

v. 16 says, “The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed.”

vs.  17-18 picture God coming as a warrior on the storm clouds –

“The clouds poured down water, the heavens resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked.”

vs. 19-20 speak of the Red Sea crossing

“Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”

God defeated the waters of the Red Sea and saved his people by making a way through for them. And he did this without leaving any footprints.

The message is clear: God will also act to deliver the Psalmist and the people of Israel in their current situation. This is who God is. This is what God does.

So by looking back, he takes heart. He can’t see God at work in his present circumstances, but by seeing who God is in the past; God’s track record – he can have hope even in his difficult circumstances.

Lessons

What can we take from this? 1. You will go through times of despair. When we are young in years or new in faith, we may not think so. I didn’t. But your faith will be tested. It will be tried so thoroughly that you will have deep inner struggles and doubts about God and God’s faithfulness.

The Psalmist certainly went through this. And the point here is that this is normal. It’s a part of walking by faith. So, don’t be surprised when it happens.

2. It’s good to bring your doubts and complaints to God. Just as the Psalmist does here.

It should be done with respect, for sure. But we can be honest with God. God already knows our thoughts and feelings. So pour out your heart:

  • God, this is my distress.
  • This is how I feel.
  • This is what I don’t understand.
  • These are my questions

When we do this then God can help us to gain a right perspective. We can both be honest and also look to God for help in dealing with our situation.

3. When we’re despairing of God’s purpose, it helps us to see the bigger picture. In the smaller picture of our current crises all we can see is cause for despair. This was true for the psalmist. But when we step back and see the bigger picture; when we remember who God is and what God has done in the past to deliver, this gives us something to hang on to; it gives us some hope.