By James Boice
Theme: Three Important Matters
In this week’s lessons we are reminded that when we are discouraged and God seems distant, we are to remember who God is, what he has done in the past, and what he promises to do in the future.
Scripture: Psalm 77:1-20
Verse 10 is difficult to translate or interpret, because it contains two words that are of doubtful meaning. The word the translators of the New International Version render “appeal” (“To this I will appeal’”) might be the word for “supplication,” hence, “appeal.” Or it could be the word for “affliction,” hence, “wound” or “grief.” Likewise, the word rendered “years” could be either “years” or “change.” Those variations give four possible meanings of the verse:
- “This is my appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
- “This is my grief: the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
- “This is my grief: the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
- “This is my appeal: the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
The interesting thing is that each of these gives a tolerable meaning. If we choose the first, the idea is that in his present depressed state the psalmist will encourage himself by appealing to the merciful acts of God in past years. If we choose the second, he is explaining that his distress comes from remembering what God has done in the past, precisely what we have found in earlier stanzas. The third view is like the second; it would say that Asaph’s grief comes from the fact that God is acting differently from what he did in the past. The fourth meaning is not a good one, but it could mean that since God has changed in one direction, from mercy to indifference, he might change back again and be favorable. That would give the psalmist a ground for some hope.1
There are two factors that tip the balance in the direction of the NIV reading. First, the Hebrew word translated “years” in verse 10 also occurs in verse 5 where it must mean years since it is parallel to the words “former days.” Second, from verse 10 onward the psalmist reviews what God has done in past years. At this point his review of the past is not a cause for grief but a foundation for spiritual growth and comfort.
In verse 11 the word “remember” comes back after being introduced in verses 3 and 6. Earlier he was remembering the past and how wonderful it was compared to his grim present. In this stanza he is remembering God and his works, which makes all the difference.
What the psalmist remembers about God when he reflects on the years of his working is in the stanza comprising verses 13-15. This is all about God, just as the opening stanzas of the psalm were mostly about Asaph. Here, in a manner that makes us think of the musings of Habakkuk in the first chapter of his prophecy, the psalmist muses on the attributes of God as seen in Israel’s history. He recalls three matters.
1. That God is holy. The holiness of God is a rich concept, having to do more with God’s transcendence than his uprightness. Yet it embraces his moral qualities, and here “holy” must refer to the fact that whatever God does is upright. This has been true in the past; therefore, it must be true in the present, too. Consequently, however matters may seem to the poet from his personal perspective in history, his review of the past teaches him that God can always be trusted to do the right thing. This is true of all his “ways,” including those in which the poet himself is called to walk.
2. That God is great. In the previous stanza Asaph has reflected on God’s “deeds” and “miracles” (v. 11), and also his “works” and “mighty deeds” (v. 12). This leads him to ask, “What god is so great as our God” (v. 13)? The implied answer is “No god at all,” and then repeats that Israel’s God “performs miracles,” “display[s] [his] power” (v. 14) and bares his “mighty arm” (v. 15). This is important because it tells us that God is not only an upright God (“Your ways, O God, are holy,” v. 13), but also that he is able and does put all his holy decrees into action. In other words, nothing frustrates him; nothing turns him aside from his perfect right and moral path.
3. That God is caring. How do we know that God is caring? It is because he “redeemed” the people, meaning that God delivered them from their bondage under the slave lords of Egypt (v. 15). Therefore, if God is caring as well as being powerful or sovereign, he can be counted on to work in each detail of history for his people’s good. And this means that even allowing the psalmist to fall into the depression with which the psalm began is not carelessness on God’s part, but rather a part of his total loving plan. Do you believe that? Can you reason that way? This is practical theology of the best sort, for it reasons from the immutable character of God to reasons for his acts in history and takes comfort from such truths.
1For helpful discussions of these variations see H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, pp. 560, 561; J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 2, p. 50; Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 2, p. 377; and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), vol. 2, pp. 352, 253. Leupold prefers: “This is my grief, that the right hand of the Most High has changed” (p. 555). Perowne is similar: “This is my sorrow, that the right hand of the Highest hath changed” (p. 50). Maclaren reads, “It is my sickness; [But I will remember] the years of the right hand of the Most High” (p. 371). Delitzsch translates, “My decree of affliction is this, The years of the right hand of the Most High” (p. 348). Marvin E. Tate, who discusses the problem only briefly in the notes, has, “My sorrow is this: the changing of the right hand of the Most High” (Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word, 1990), p. 268.
- What is thought to be the best interpretation of verse 10 and why?
- Name the attributes of God contained in verses 13-15.
- What does each attribute of God mean in terms of your everyday life?
- How do you know God is caring?
- How are your hard times a reflection of God’s caring?
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