Saturday, September 7, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 77

Psalm 77 is both a lament and a recollection. The psalm has two main parts: 1. verses 1-10, in which the psalmist, Asaph, cries out to God in grief, wondering why God doesn't seem to be listening, and 2. verses 11-20, in which the psalmist remembers God's great deeds of the past. 

The psalmist begins with a cry of misery: “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that He may hear me” (verse 1). Day and night he seeks the Lord, stretching out his hand constantly towards God (verse 2). He is troubled and in great distress. His soul “refuses to be comforted” (verse 2). When he thinks about God, he moans. When he meditates, his spirit faints (verse 3). He can't sleep or speak (verse 4). He has hit rock bottom. God seems far, far away.

Let's examine the psalmist's anguish in greater detail. These four verses are intense with strong, descriptive language. The Hebrew word for “cry” is tsâ‛aq, which has connotations of shrieking and clamoring in need and distress. The psalmist adds the Hebrew word for voice, qôl, twice to emphasize that this is vocal cry, something loud. His misery is breaking out into a ringing cry that doesn't even include words. It comes from his very depths. He just wants God to hear him. His days are troubled, afflicted. His nights are long. He seeks God constantly, reaching out to Him. He will not stop or grow weak or sluggish in his appeals. His knows that he cannot comfort himself. Only God can console him. 

Yet the psalmist does not feel God's consolation. He thinks of God and moans. The Hebrew for thinks here is zâkar, which suggest remembrance. The psalmist is remembering God and all He has done. But this doesn't comfort him. He moans. The Hebrew is hâmâh; it can mean to murmur (sometimes as in prayer) or groan, but it can also mean to roar or make a loud sound. It suggests great commotion and turbulence, disquiet and uproar. The psalmist is so disturbed that he is in a state of severe internal agitation. He meditates (the Hebrew word is śı̂yach, which suggests pondering but also complaining, sighing, or even praying), but his spirit faints within him. He is weak. He accuses God of preventing him from sleeping. He is so anxious and troubled and stirred up (Hebrew pâ‛am) that he cannot even speak. 

All this leaves us with the question, “Why?” What has upset the psalmist so much that he is falling apart? He tells us: 

I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago. 
I commune with my heart in the night; I meditated and search my spirit: 
“Will the Lord spurn forever and never again be favorable? 
Has His steadfast love ceased forever? Are His promises at an end for all time? 
Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His compassion?”...
It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed. (verses 6-10)

God seems to have changed. God seems to have cast His people off, rejected them, moved far away (Hebrew zânach). The psalmist can no longer feel His love. It seems to have disappeared, gone completely for all time, along with His promises, which seem to be broken. The psalmist is afraid that God has forgotten His grace, that He has ceased to care and closed off the fountain of compassion He once poured out upon Israel. God's power, His right hand, seems to have lifted from Israel and changed its course, leaving the people weak and poor. 

The psalmist can't get all of this out of his mind. He thinks about God's great deeds of the past and compares them to His present silence. He turns the problem over and over in his mind, pondering, searching, considering, trying as hard as he can to figure things out. But he cannot. He grieves (Hebrew châlâh), becoming weak and sick, worn out in his anguish. 

In verse 11, the psalmist changes his focus. He decides to concentrate on God's great deeds and remember the wonderful things God has done in the past. He will fill his mind with these things and recount them to himself (verse 12). In doing so, his mood lifts, and he bursts out in praise: “Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?” (verse 13). He continues his prayer, remembering God's power, the great works He has done in the sight of all nations and the wonders He has shown to Israel, the people He has redeemed (verses 14-15). The Hebrew word for redeemed, gâ'al, suggests that God has acted as a kinsman toward the Israelites, ransoming them from slavery. God and His people are family. 

Even the natural elements of the world trembled before God. The waters were afraid; the clouds poured out their rain; the thunder roared; and the lightening flashed. The earth shook before God's might (verses 16-18). God is in control, perfectly, completely. The whole world does His bidding. 

God made His way through the sea and led His people out behind Him (verses 19-20). The psalmist is referring, of course, to the parting of the Red Sea and the departure from Egypt. “Your way was through the sea, Your path, through the mighty waters; yet Your footprints were unseen,” the psalmist muses. “You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” 

The psalm ends with these words, and we are left to draw our own conclusions. Has the psalmist comforted himself by remembering God's works of the past? Or is he more upset that those works have not continued, at least in a way he can see? God is more powerful than the psalmist can ever imagine. He has control over the whole world. Is this consoling? Has the psalmist settled his mind through his praise-filled recollections? Have praise and worship conquered melancholy and distress? Has the psalmist come to terms with God's apparent silence? Has remembering God's power taught him to trust in God's timing? Has he learned to wait for God in peace? We don't know, and perhaps we aren't meant to, for we must all ask ourselves these same questions in our own lives when God seems silent and far away. And we must answer them honestly.

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