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.

How long, O Lord. Psalm 13

The literary structure of  Psalm 13

Psalm 13 is really powerful; full of intense and honest struggle, but also faith. And I want to hold it up for you as a model for when you are being overwhelmed by difficult circumstances.

As we get started, a few words about –

Psalm 13

It is the shortest prayer for help in the book of Psalms. There are shorter Psalms, but these are not requests to God.

In terms of how it is put together, there are three obvious parts to this psalm.

  • In vs.  1-2 the Psalmist pours out his heart to God.
  • In vs. 3-4 he makes his request
  • And in vs. 5-6 he expresses his faith and hope in God

And each of these sections has the name of God or “Yahweh” in it, indicated in English by the capitalized “LORD.”

We don’t know the specifics of his situation, but it involves enemies and the threat of death. This is a Davidic Psalm (written by him or in honor of/about him) perhaps referring to his time in the wilderness hiding from King Saul, who was trying to kill him. Whatever the case may be he is facing a very serious situation and needs God’s help.

Let’s look at the first section, which is a cry of despair.

1How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

There is no indication in these verses that the Psalmist has sinned or has been unfaithful so that his difficulties are the result of this. He is simply in an overwhelming time of testing and trial.

Notice the phrase “How long?” This is used several times in scriptural prayers, but this is the only place where it is repeated four times, and in such a short space. There is an intensity in this prayer in asking this question of God. These questions also show us that it’s OK to ask God questions like this. God can take it. We don’t have to put on a smile, or fake it when we come into God’s presence. After all, he already knows what we are thinking and feeling. We only need be careful that we do this with proper respect for God.

You can feel the raw emotions and the brutal honesty of this prayer as you read these two verses.

  • In relation to God the Psalmist feels abandoned and ignored by God. God has hidden his face, that is it feels like God has turned away and is not looking out for him; he feels that God has forgotten him.
  • In relation to himself he feels greatly distressed within. “Taking counsel in his soul” perhaps has to do with trying to sort out what he should do, since God doesn’t seem to be acting for him; it has to do with anxious worrying. And he has sorrow in his heart.
  • In relation to his problem , his enemy, he feels defeated. His enemy has the upper hand and this means that his life is in danger.

Also notice the time indicators, the “how long?” questions, the word “forever” and the phrase “all the day.” The sense is that he is barely hanging on. He is worn down. He is at the breaking point. The test is so hard that he can’t take it anymore. So if God doesn’t act soon, it will overwhelm him and be too late.

Next we have his request to God.

3Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 4lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.”

In general, he wants God to consider him or take note of his situation to answer him. He’s saying, ‘God, don’t forget me or hide your face from me.’ He wants God to act to bring him help him in the midst of his difficulty.

Specifically, he wants God to “light up his eyes.” In Scripture to have dim eyes means that you are overwhelmed, weak and weary (Job 17:7; Deuteronomy 34:7). And to have eyes that are lit up has to do with being strong, full of life and vigor (Deuteronomy 34:7; Ezra 9:8; Proverbs 29:13). Even today we can tell how someone is doing by their eyes, right? We can tell whether they are full of energy and life or whether they are worn down and discouraged. You can see it.

So, being worn down by his trials, he is asking God to give him strength, new life, vigor, encouragement and hope.

And he doesn’t just make his request for help, he gives God three reasons to act:

  1. lest he die, because he is in danger of death.
  2. lest his enemy win
  3. lest they rejoice at his downfall

In this situation the Psalmist understands himself to be in the right; he is doing God’s will but is being persecuted by evildoers. And so, yes, he wants to be saved and vindicated, and have his enemies put down. But it is bigger than this. He is appealing to God in all this to act for your Name’s sake. Since he is representing God and the righteous, it’s not good that evildoers think that God doesn’t care about their evil, or about the well-being of his own. He needs to act for his Name’s sake and for the sake of righteousness.

In section one the writer is hanging by a thread. In section two he is asking God to give him strength. And then we have a tremendous change of tone in vs. 5-6 where the Psalmist speaks of his faith and hope.

5But I trust in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

Two things are going on here:

1) He is given strength to trust in God. God has indeed begun to enlighten his eyes, even as he has been pouring out his heart and asking God for help. (It is healing to pour out our hearts to God.)

 Now, instead of seeing just his outward circumstances and choosing to give up, he sees God’s faithfulness; that is his “steadfast love” or “unfailing love.” This is God’s covenant love or commitment to him and his well-being. So he has his circumstances on the one hand and then God’s character and promises on the other and he chooses God. This  is called faith.

2) He now looks forward to God’s salvation; for deliverance from his trial and testing. We know he is not yet delivered because his salvation and rejoicing is spoken of as a future reality. But he can now move forward in faith and hope that God will save him, since his faith has been renewed.

  • Even though he may still have some “sorrow in (his) my heart,” – v. 2, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when “(his) my heart shall rejoice” – v. 5.
  • Even though his enemies are exalted “over (him) me” – v. 2, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when God will have dealt bountifully “with (him) me” – v. 6.
  • Even though his enemies are “exalted” – v. 2 over him and seek to “rejoice” – v. 4 at his demise, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when he “shall rejoice – v. 6 in God’s salvation.

And this will not just be a minor thing. God will “bountifully” deliver and save him.

Finally, I want you to look at –

Psalm 13 as a model prayer

It is a model for when you find yourself in times of testing and are ready to give up. Follow the threefold pattern we find here:

1. Pour out your heart to God. Be honest with God. Express your emotions to God – about how distant he seems; about how you are in inner turmoil; about how your problem has the upper hand. And ask God questions, What’s going on? Why, God? Or as here, how long?God, I’m barely hanging on.

2. Ask God for strength. God, enlighten my eyes. Give me renewed life, vigor, vitality and encouragement. And tell him why; so you don’t give in and fail in time of trial and thus dishonor his Name; so that others will see and know that God is faithful to his own and upholds righteousness.

And then, 3. Receive renewed trust in God to make it through. Let God work a work in you as you pour out your heart and as you make your request known and as you think of his unfailing love for you and commitment to you.

Receive the strength to choose to trust in God and stand on his character and promises despite your difficult circumstances. And having been renewed, look forward to God’s salvation; deliverance from your trial when you will rejoice and sing praises to God.