Comfort of Psalm 77
We are comforted on cold afternoons in the office with Oriole Coffee Roasters‘ single origin beans from Sidama, Ethiopia, freshly ground in a Hario Slim Mill grinder and brewed in a Hario V60 pour-over, and
wholewheat brownies crunchy on the outside and, inside, walnuts and cranberries enfolded by chocolatey gooeyness, passed round huddled cubicles.
At home, lightly toasted hot cross buns, fragrant with mixed fruits and spices, and pots of hot Earl Grey tea (from Gryphon Tea Company, or French Earl Grey from TWG) are one of the best things to snuggle up to in a thunderstorm.
David Jackman, in his talks at Orchard Road Presbyterian Church last week, reminded us of a much more fulfilling and lasting source of comfort. Rather rough notes on Psalm 77:
We can relate to this psalm because it’s not always easy to keep going as a Christian. Life throws us loads of difficulties which sometimes might baffle our understanding and sometimes seem to mock our faith – we wonder where God was or where God is, or what happened to the vision of a glorious future we once enjoyed. Many people and congregations go through periods of discouragement – loads of work, little fruit.
1-3 Psalmist needs help because he is in great distress and he needs comfort or strengthening. We tend to think of “comfort” very much in terms of self-indulgence – a nice cup of cocoa on gloomy days, or lots of friends around to help and encourage us. Of course “comfort” doesn’t just mean feeling cozy; “comfort” means “comes with strength”. The whole idea of comfort in the Bible is strengthening us. His soul in weakness doesn’t seem to be able to be strengthened. His life is characterised by what he calls groaning and weakness, faintness or spiritual exhaustion. There will be times of life like that for us all, and how do we get to God?
People will tell us that what you need to do in a situation like this is to pray. Of course it is always right to pray in response to the difficulties we are in. But that is precisely the problem. It’s not that he is not praying, nor is it that God cannot or will not hear his prayer. The problem is the lack of God’s answer, there is no response from God, there is no Bible verse that suddenly leaps out of the page, there is no miraculous change in his circumstances, there is just nothing. There are few things more difficult to take than that. On a human level, it is as if you’re chatting to someone, and then you notice their eyes start to wander and they start looking over your shoulder to see if there’s anyone more interesting to talk to. He knows that it is not as though God doesn’t care nor is God a call centre; he is intimately concerned with his people, but sometimes it doesn’t seem like that. Prayer leads to groaning because the very thing that is supposed to help, the privilege of taking everything to the LORD in prayer sometimes seems to mock us. The psalmist exhibits signs of nervous fatigue, insomnia, stress. This problem is not uncommon.
4-9 He is sleepless and largely speechless. Here is the contrast between the present and the past. He is too troubled to sleep, he has been praying, and he will pray again. But the past is going round and round in his mind – he recalls the glory days of Israel and the glory days of his own experience when his sleeplessness was not due to despair but joy – praising God late into the night.
7-9 This is the essence of the matter. This is the enquiry his heart makes. There are 6 probing questions:
– will the LORD reject forever?
– will he never show his favour again?
– has his unfailing love vanished forever?
– has his promise failed for all time?
– has God forgotten to be merciful?
– has he withheld his compassion?
The great things of the past focus the present problem. Now he’s read all the great revival books of the past, but if this is God’s character (to love, to be faithful, to be merciful and compassionate), has it changed? Because the psalmist isn’t experiencing this but rejection. He is becoming unsure about his own relationship with God.
Like Psalm 46. The mind and the heart differ – the mind knows in its doctrinal purity that God cannot change or he couldn’t be God, but the heart says that while God hasn’t changed in himself, perhaps he has changed towards me. And if he has really changed in his relationship to me, then that’s really desperate – there’s no way out of that (“forever”, “never”). If this was really true, then God’s promises can’t be trusted, he doesn’t keep his word, his mercy has failed and is actually vindictive. It is easy to read our situation like that, but it is against everything in Scripture. The psalmist comes to this position because he needs to really look at his fears properly.
10 is the turning point – “then i thought”. We move from the fear that God has rejected him. Having faced that, he begins the essential correction. The tense has changed from the past to the future – “i will”. There is a sense of resolution – he does not wallow in nostalgia, not “i believe in yesterday”. He says “i am going to give my mind to the studying of God’s mighty deeds in the past, and on the basis of this i am going to appeal to the years of the right hand of the most high”. The most high is the ultimate authority and his right hand is the expression of the power of God, his unlimited strength at work in the circumstances of life. “I am not going to be me-centred or problem-centred; i am going to go back and meditate on his Word and works and consider all his mighty deeds.”
And the psalmist makes a great discovery. God’s mighty deeds were in response to situations that were just as impossible as those he was currently facing. We tend to romanticise the past – oh those people had such an intimate relationship with God. But actually, those people were facing the same difficulties or even worse than what the psalmist was facing. Human ability could not solve the problem; only the right hand of God changed the situation (eg. God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt by his own right hand). In the New Testament, Paul was suffering from the thorn in his flesh – God did not take it away from him but said that his grace was sufficient for him. Suffering knocks away the human props that we tend to rely on, and that it is an essential correction in our lives.
13 We are forced to trust him in a new way. What does the psalmist do? It is as if he takes his Old Testament bible and he starts to read it – sees what God has done in history. If we ever wonder if God is disinterested, whether he is involved or not, we are brought back to this bedrock that God is holy – the Godness of God is holiness. Not just that he is a God of moral purity but that he is set apart from us; he dwells in unapproachable places; his greatness transcends every other tinpot idol that is in the hearts of men. 14 He is a God who performs miracles. 15 All of this for the redemption of his people. This points forward to the redemption of Jesus in the New Testament – he is the saviour, the great deliverer, the Passover lamb that was sacrificed for us, the lamb of God who bears away the sins of the world. His mighty redemption achieved on the cross means that the problem is not with God, but with our perception of God. God is holy and we are not; God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts. He is always beyond reproach, therefore we can have confidence in God that he will bring us through: he is too loving to be unkind to us, too wise to make mistakes, too good to wrong us, too great us not to be bothered with the little details of our lives, also too holy to let us get away with our sins and self-centredness, and that holiness is combined with a power that cannot be thwarted; this God is the God who calls, and he knows precisely what he is doing with the psalmist and with our lives today. And the cross of Jesus demonstrates that he could not love us more than he does, that he would let his Son die for us.
So this is how the psalmist counteracts this circular thinking that is going round and round in his mind. God doesn’t change, but our perception of him must change. 16-18 Exodus – great mighty expression of power of God, great redemptive act. So 19 says that when i think about God’s power, it is the unseen footprints of God going before his people, bringing fresh lives and deliverance. Very easy to say that i don’t see God at work so he isn’t at work. This is the reality – he does rule, he does redeem, he is in control, notice his path leads through the waters. We are all on an adventure of faith – he goes before us. Human leaders are there but God is the shepherd of the flock. Encourages us to trust him – don’t judge by what you see, don’t force God to do what you want. The cross is the greatest demonstration of his love for us. So we look back with thanksgiving, and look forward with faith and confidence because God has not changed.