By James Boice
Theme: When God Seems Far Away
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
One thing you have to say about Asaph: he tells it like it is. He is respectful, but if he is unhappy or puzzled about what God is doing in the lives of his people (or not doing), he says so. And he describes his own state of mind, too—his doubts and struggles, his questions and his inability to find satisfying answers to life’s great problems.
In Psalm 77 this honest poet of Israel, whoever he may have been, is remembering the past. His memories are troubling. He has a long historical memory, and he remembers how graciously God used to deal with his people, and with himself as well. He remembers how God cared for him, how he fulfilled his promises and showed his mercy. He even remembers how he used to sing about God during the long hours of the night. Now there hasn’t been any mercy for a long time, at least as far as he can see. God seems to have rejected both him and his people, and the rejection is so complete that it looks as if it is going to go on forever. When he compares his life in the present with the past, his memories of the past drag him down, depress him and keep him from being comforted.
Have you ever gone through a time like that? You probably have. Most of us have. If so, you will find Asaph’s psalm helpful. The reason is that as he thinks about the past, the focus of his remembering shifts from himself and what he experienced and now fails to experience, and onto God, and he begins to move upward to trust and quiet confidence again.1
The obvious division of the psalm is into two parts (vv. 1-9 and 10-20), the first part expressing the psalmist’s depression, the second part his journey upward again. But each of these parts may be subdivided, perhaps into three stanzas apiece. The “selahs” give meaningful breaks, which would suggest a good four-part outline; this is the division followed by Charles Haddon Spurgeon in his Treasury of David. However, we can also follow the stanzas of the New International Version, which I will do in this study.
As we go through the psalm, one thing we want to pay special attention to is the pronouns. In the NIV translation, in the first six verses of the psalm there are eighteen occurrences of the first person singular pronoun (“I” or “me”), and six references to God by name, title and pronoun. In the last eight verses (vv. 13-20), there are twenty-one mentions of God and no personal references at all. (There is one first person plural possessive, “our,” in verse 13.) The transition from the poet’s thoughts about himself to God comes in the middle section (vv. 7-12).
Verses 1 and 2 are a first expression of the psalmist’s plight. God does not seem to be working in his life or in the life of the nation, which would not be so depressing if God had never worked. But he had. The poet remembers it; it is what he will describe in the next stanza. But now all he seems to be able to do is cry out in the night with outstretched hands to God, and his hands are always empty. H. C. Leupold asks the psalmist’s question: “Why does God let things go on as long and as tragically as they do without giving any tokens of his interest and concern?”2
This is a portion of the psalms that appealed strongly to Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who identified with Asaph’s physical and spiritual anguish closely. Spurgeon’s studies of the psalms were produced between 1865 and 1885, and during those twenty years he experienced much ill health, which continued to deteriorate until his death in 1892. He had neuralgia and gout, which left him with swollen, red painful limbs, so that he frequently could not walk or even write. He had debilitating headaches, and with these physical ills came frightful bouts of depression, leading almost to despair. In his later years he was forced to leave London for the sunnier, drier weather in southern France during the months of November, December and January. In fact, he was in France at the Mediterranean village of Mentone when he died.
This gives us some appreciation for what he was talking about when he wrote on Psalm 77. Spurgeon said, “Some of us know what it is, both physically and spiritually, to be compelled to use these words; no respite has been afforded us by the silence of the night, our bed has been a rack to us, our body has been in torment, and our spirit in anguish.” Again, “Alas, my God, the writer of this exposition well knows what thy servant Asaph meant, for his soul is familiar with the way of grief. Deep glens and lonely caves of soul depressions, my spirit knows full well your awful glooms!”3
Have you ever felt like that? Again I say, you probably have. And some who will hear or read these words have felt such pains intensely.
Before moving on to stanza two, we should notice that this stanza is preoccupied with “I.” It occurs five times, and the pronouns “me” or “my” occur twice more. This is all right. If we hurt, there is nothing wrong with expressing it and telling the Lord what we feel. However, we must not stop there, rehearsing our disappointments endlessly. We need to move on, as the psalmist does.
1Walter C. Kaiser writes, “Before verse 10 the psalmist had been too subjective and had looked only within himself in attempting to determine the mystery of God’s dealings. The psalmist was thinking solely in light of his own experiences. Accordingly he experienced deep despondency. But when the psalmist’s meditation (hagh) focused on the works of God, then he remembered that great deliverance of God experienced in the Exodus, which was a pledge of every other deliverance experienced by individuals or nations. Thus the text of the psalm emphasizes that it is a matter of great concern how one meditates and on what he fixes his heart and mind. Some meditation can be harmful, but biblically approved meditations strengthen” (Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “What Is Biblical Meditation?” in John D. Woodbridge, editor, Renewing Your Mind in a Secular World (Chicago: Moody, 1985), pp. 42, 43.
2H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 554.
3Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 2a, Psalms 58-87 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), pp. 312, 313.
- Describe some of the psalmist’s memories. What is bothering him now? Why is the contrast between the psalmist’s plight and his past depressing him?
- List the two parts of the psalm.
Reflection: How can you learn from Asaph’s attitude and approach to God? Think of a time when you felt as Asaph did. What was the outcome? How can you move from despair to trust?
Application: Sometimes Christians can be depressed. Reach out to any Christian brother or sister who is struggling and encourage him or her.
For Further Study: Is there someone you know who is going through a particularly hard time right now, and who could really be encouraged and comforted by James Boice’s clear and practical teaching on the Psalms? Order your copy of the three-volume paperback set and receive 25% off the regular price.
The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.
Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.