Comfort in the Chaos: How Psalm 77 Helps Pilgrims on the Way (Part 1)—The Day of Trouble

“Now what?” It is the question we would rather not ask. We still find ourselves asking it in different contexts, of course. Sometimes we have acquired knowledge but do not know how to put it into practice, or we have finally obtained an achievement and we are not sure where we ought to turn. Other times, however, the question has more to do with despair. We all experience frustration, and that is putting it mildly. Each and every believer goes through valleys as well as peaks in the Christian life—and if you have not yet gone through a valley, you will. Maybe a grown child will walk away from the faith, or you will have to grieve the death of a family member or close friend. Perhaps you will be diagnosed with a terminal illness and wonder where God is in the midst of the pain. What is the answer to the question now what? What about when life seems dark and hopeless? Worse, what is the answer when it seems as if God himself has abandoned you? Your prayers seem to bounce off the floor of heaven and there is no sense of the LORD’s nearness to you. There is only pain, confusion, and heartache. Now what?

This can be one of the most profound and personal questions we ever ask. Thankfully our gracious God knows this, and He has given us help in His Word, especially in Psalm 77. This psalm of Asaph is classified as a psalm of lament, which means it is a psalm written by a man who was dealing with severe disorientation.1 Asaph felt lost, but not geographically. His was a spiritual and emotional disorientation. Psalms of lament usually have two parts: first, the psalmist pleads with God in the midst of heartbreak, and then he praises the One who can and does rescue His people. Therefore, it is helpful when interpreting these sorrowful songs to look in the middle of the psalm for a pivot from one direction to another. Psalm 77 is no exception to this trend: it gives us both the diagnosis and the prescription. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Asaph reminds us of our problem and shows what we should do about it. He does it first by outlining his day of trouble.

The Day of Trouble

1 I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me. 2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. 3 When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah 4 You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. 5 I consider the days of old, the years long ago. 6 I said, “Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.”

In the interest of full disclosure, Psalm 77 is my favorite psalm, and it has been for years. Soon after graduating from seminary, I burned out and spiraled into a deep depression—I cratered harder than I thought possible. There were a lot of things that the Lord used to bring me out of it: counseling, medication, regular sleep, friends, and family. There was another factor, however: Psalm 77. What was it that drew me to this psalm in some of my lowest, darkest moments? Well, for starters Asaph is very honest here. These are the thoughts and prayers of God’s child when it seems as if God has abandoned him. He was in the dark deep pit of despair. It seemed as if his only companions were suffering, frustration, and disorientation. His life did not make sense—this was not how he thought it would be, and even worse he did not think this was how it should be. His only recourse was to cry out to God in pain, confusion, and grief. Psalm 77 is one of the most helpful psalms for showing us how we should think in the midst of hardship.

Asaph began in verse 1 by “crying aloud to God.” His pain was so intense that he was audibly praying to God in his anguish, and this does not seem to have been a recent situation, either. The impression Asaph gives is that this hardship has been a problem for some time. As with most of the psalms, we do not know what is causing the situation. We are not sure about the source of his pain; we just know it was intense. It was biting and gnawing within him until he could not help but cry aloud to God.

Asaph was part of the covenant people of God and had faith in Yahweh’s promises. He was a child of Abraham, both outwardly and inwardly. Clearly, however, this did not mean that his life was easy or free of doubting and wondering. In fact, the number of psalms that can be classified as laments should open our eyes to an important fact: life is hard and full of trials, and the Bible faces this head-on. Do we? Or are we closer to health and wealth prosperity teachers than we would like to admit? Do we tend to think in terms of the “gospel” proclamation I heard as a teenager: “Come to Jesus and all your problems will be over”? The psalms, and the Bible as a whole, do not ignore hardship. The psalmists look at life the way it is, warts and all. They recognized their own sin, and they repented of it. They acknowledged pain and suffering and cried out because of it. They sometimes wondered and doubted if God was going to remain faithful to His promises, like Asaph here.

In verse 2, he is shown stretching out his hand in prayer. He knew that he should be turning to God, so he did. This was his “day of trouble,” (v. 2) and he cannot seem to get relief, yet he knew that if relief did come it would only be from God. He already knew in verse 1 that God would hear him, yet he was not comforted. He remembered God, yet he moaned and his spirit fainted. Notice how in verse 4 he was so troubled that he could not sleep. Whatever this situation was, it had caused insomnia; in fact, Asaph saw it as God Himself holding open the psalmist’s eyelids. Things were really starting to spiral out of control for him at this point. Many of us can probably relate to this: when it rains it pours. Sleep is one of the first things to go, which makes things worse, which makes us sleep less, and on and on. That is one of the most vicious cycles we can experience on this fallen planet.

As Asaph was sitting there in his sleepless, despairing state, he began to think of God’s promises in the past and compared them to his present situation (vv. 5–6). That surely solved everything, right? Wrong. This exercise made him even more disoriented. God made these promises to His people, He saved them in the past, yet Asaph was suffering in the present without any relief in sight. He is like a little kid playing with a Lego set too advanced for him. Try as he might, he cannot seem to build the airplane that he sees on the cover of the box—the pieces just will not fit like they ought to. That is Asaph, and if we are being honest that can often be us. We know who God is and what He has done, but we also know what we are going through right now. We know our LORD is sovereign and all these pieces fit, but how? We are creatures, and sinful creatures to boot, so we cannot always understand what our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer is doing, just like Asaph.

What did he do at this point? If the diagnosis is suffering and feelings of divine abandonment, then what is the prescription? Well, Asaph began to do the exact thing he should have done: he asked deep questions. That is what we should do in these situations as well. We should not attempt to sweep our suffering under the rug or pretend it is not that bad. A stiff upper lip only takes us so far. Asaph turned to Yahweh his covenant God and began to ask probing questions, which we will examine in parts two and three of this series.

This is not to say that we are left without hope here in part one, for Asaph reminds us that God has a track record of hearing us in our distress and delivering on His promises to His people, even when it does not seem so in the moment. In this way, the psalter is always a supreme source of consolation. God has been remarkably gracious in giving us the psalter, as John Calvin notes,

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, An Anatomy of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.2

God Himself has given us 150 inspired songs/prayers that we can use to respond to Him no matter the situation. He condescends to our weakness in a multitude of ways, and this is one of them.

A psalm of lament was on the lips of our Savior as He suffered on the cross for our sins (Ps 22:1). You can use these psalms of lament too, Christian, whatever comes. In other words, God allows us to suffer even if we think we should hide it, and we can know that one day God will wipe away all tears from our eyes when Jesus returns, and all is made new. In the meantime, He cares about us enough to hear us when we call to Him in the midst of chaos and pain, and He has even given us the words to use.

Notes

  1. Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.
  2. Denis Janz and Sherry E. Jordon, eds., A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions, Augmented & Improved (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 205.

©Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here. 


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6 comments

  1. This is beautiful and ministered to me deeply in my time of need. Thank you encouraging this heart sick pilgrim & pointing me to the songs of lament.

    • You are welcome, Becky, I’m thankful it helped! The psalms are such comforts in good times and bad. I’m thankful the Spirit inspired and preserved them.

  2. Thank you so much, I really needed this,looking forward for part 2. do you have anything on Psalms 88?

  3. Chris, I realize that part of the challenge faced in these ‘last hours’ is understanding where we are in Redemptive History – Christ inaugurated The Kingdom of God in His Resurrection.
    The Kingdom of God is His New Creation. When we believe Christ by Grace through Faith, we are in the inaugurated Kingdom of God.

    Because God chose us in Christ we believe Christ. We believe His Work in us and for us. Therefore we live in the Newness of Life He covenanted with us as His people whom Paul identified as ‘justified sinners’, ‘sanctified saints’, His people living ‘at peace with God.’

    Steve Baugh’s ‘fun book’, ‘The Majesty On High’ increases the ability to be in, see, and rejoice in His inaugurated Kingdom as elect sojourners, praying and preparing for the Consummation of The Kingdom of God.

    • That’s a great book! I worked through some of it with the men at our church about a year ago and many of them found it helpful.

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