Comfort in the Chaos: How Psalm 77 Helps Pilgrims on the Way (Part 2)—The Deeds of the LORD

Asaph was desperate, looking to Yahweh for help in his day of trouble. That is how Psalm 77 begins, but in this second installment, we see things begin to change. The psalmist was looking in the right direction: his desperate cries for help were directed to the LORD of heaven and earth. Notice how he began to ask rhetorical questions in verses 6–9:

Then my spirit made a diligent search: 7 “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? 8 Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? 9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah

From these questions, we can conclude that whatever was afflicting Asaph had affected the nation of Israel as a whole—whether a plague, invasion, or something else. His rhetorical questions were full of covenantal terms: “chosen people,” “promises,” “his own people,” and so on.  Remember, the entire nation of Israel was in covenant with God (Ex 24:7–8), and Asaph was asking if God had forgotten His covenantal promises to them. Would He spurn His chosen people forever and never again be favorable to them? Were His promises to them over? Would God’s compassion and grace never again come to His own people? It is easy to identify with the psalmist here. We do this too, at least sometimes. We question our salvation and lack assurance in Christ. While we may not always phrase it this way, these doubts are the result of our questioning God’s covenant promises. Perhaps we know who God is and what He has done in the past, but we feel a tension in our experience. Is the LORD still gracious to His people? More personally, is He still gracious to me? Asaph understood these questions, and he was not pretending to be fine. Instead, he was being honest—shockingly honest, even. Can we really read and even sing these words? We can be thankful the Holy Spirit inspired and preserved psalms like this for us because they are probably not the kinds of songs we would sing to God if left to our own devices. Thank God He has not left us to our own devices!

Asaph could not yet see what he was looking for, but at least he was looking in the right direction. This reminds us that the pilgrim life is lived in a Godward direction, no matter the circumstances and stages of life we pilgrims traverse. God made us, and He made us for Himself. Jesus came and redeemed a people for the LORD’s great name with the intention of bringing us to God (1 Pet 3:18). We see some evidence of God drawing His children to Himself in Psalm 77 as Asaph did not turn inward. He did not do what we are tempted to do in our own modern context: follow our heart or look inside ourselves to find answers. His help would come from the LORD, from Yahweh his covenant God, or it would not come at all. It is the same for us. The only one who can help us is the One who has need of nothing. As Matthew Barrett reminds us, “It is precisely because God is free from creation that he is able to save lost sinners like you and me. If God were a needy God, he would need our help just as much as we need his. What good news it is, then, that the gospel depends on a God who does not depend on us.”1

In spite of the pain and disorientation, Asaph knew that his only hope was the God who is in need of nothing. The LORD who is not dependent or suffering, and who can reach into a situation and work salvation in it. Finally, the answers began to come to him, even in the pain. Why? Because his God has acted.

The Deeds of the LORD

10 Then I said, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.” 11 I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. 12 I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. 13 Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? 14 You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. 15 You with your arm redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah

We see the familiar pivot in the midst of this psalm of lament. If you turn to Psalm 77 in your Bible, you might notice a little note on verse 10. In the ESV there is a little superscript 2. The Hebrew word שְׁ֝נֹ֗ות can refer to “years” or “changing,” so this verse can either mean “the years of the right hand of the Most High,” where Asaph is trusting in what Yahweh did long ago, or something like “the right hand of the Most High has changed,” where he is saying that God does not act like He did in the past. Without getting too far into the weeds (an ever-present danger), no matter where the exact pivot occurs in Psalm 77, Asaph is thinking differently by verse 11. Suddenly he began to remember the deeds of God on behalf of His people, and instead of leading to disorientation these deeds began to reorient him. No god is great like his God, he realized, and this God redeemed and rescued His people in the past. This is what began to change Asaph’s thinking, because he realized “that just as God has worked on his people’s behalf in the past, so he will deliver them in the present and the future. . . [Whenever] times of bewilderment overshadow God’s people, they can meditate on his mighty works of the past. And so they redouble their courage for present and future challenges.”2 In other words, Asaph was suddenly taking comfort in what God has done in history.

Asaph was a believer in God and the Messiah to come. He was an outward and inward member of Yahweh’s covenant people. Yet Asaph did not think “this just feels right to me,” or “this has made such a positive difference in my life.” Those things clearly were not true for him, at least not as he began Psalm 77. These things were not his foundation when the going got tough. Now, these statements may be true for you at this time in your life. You may be able to say Christianity has often felt right to you and made a noticeably positive difference in your life. But in the midst of suffering and doubt, is this what you should bank on? Is this where your hope should lie—in feelings found within you? Could Asaph, as he was lying awake at night crying out to God, say “Well, at least this feels right to me?” No, it did not make any sense to him, as life often does not make sense to us. Could he take comfort in the fact that “it has made such a positive difference in my life”? No, his life was full of pain and suffering because what he knew about God did not seem to match up with his present experience. Think of the persecuted church across the world and throughout the ages. Could they say on their way to martyrdom, “Come to Jesus for an easy life without trouble”? Can we say this as we war against the world, the flesh, and the devil while the various trials, tribulations, and tragedies of life pile up higher on this fallen planet? No, certainly not.

Instead, we ought to follow Asaph’s example here: he looked at and remembered what God has done in history for His people. What specifically did the psalmist focus on? The Exodus of Israel from Egypt: a real historical event where Yahweh brought salvation to His people in time and space. We will get into the Exodus in more detail in Part 3, but for now, let us consider the importance of God’s acts in history for us today. Where can we look for confidence and assurance even in the midst of pain and chaos? What hope is there for pilgrims traveling through this painful world on the way to our heavenly homeland? The only hope we can have is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This good news happened in history, in time and space. Just think about Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8:

I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Have you ever wondered why Paul included verses 5–8? After all, they seem so much less important than the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, right? Why include the witnesses? Well, because witnesses prove it is a historical account. Jesus really died, was buried, and rose again. In history. In time and space. This is not just a story we tell ourselves. The gospel is not based on myth, and it is not an allegory meant to make us be better people. It is the good news that the God who has need of nothing came to save us. God the Son took on flesh and, according to His humanity, entered history to live, die, rise again, and ascend for His people. This is only good news because it actually happened. If you can prove that Jesus did not rise from the dead I would never darken the door of a church again, and I say that as a pastor. A non-historical gospel is no good news at all, and it could never be the foundation for our hope in this world.

Where should we look when times of chaos descend upon our pilgrim life? We ought to look to what God did in history, just like Asaph did. We ought to remember that the life of pilgrims is a Godward-facing life. We ought to look to Jesus and His gospel. To quote John Webster, Asaph was trusting “God to do God’s work,” and so should we, no matter where His providence has placed us at the moment.3 He remains our God and Savior—the God Who has acted, is acting, and will act. Christ died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again—in history. Hope in Him!

Notes

  1. Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 69.
  2. Bryan D. Estelle, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing a Biblical Motif (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 2018), 140–41.
  3. John Webster, Christ Our Salvation: Expositions and Proclamations (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2020), 5.

©Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here. 


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2 comments

  1. Chris,
    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on this famous song/Psalm of suffering for us through Asaph from God. God’s guiding hand in actual conditions of suffering is better than gold.

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