Rev. Ken Montgomery
In Psalm 77, Asaph cannot sleep. Feeling his eyes glued open in the dead of night (v. 4), he begins asking himself a series of intensely troubling questions.
Before looking at these questions, what is the context of this psalm? Psalm 77 is part of Book III (Ps. 73–89), which in the landscape of the Psalter can be seen as the “dark valley.” Israel is in exile, and the psalmist observes that the wicked (Babylonian) prospers (Ps. 73:3), the Jerusalem temple is now rubble (Ps. 74:7), and there is no Davidic king reigning—the crown lies in the dust (Ps. 89:39). A heavy shadow has settled over the place that once basked in the brightness of the rule of Solomon and his kingdom, which once stretched from ‘sea to shining sea’ (Ps. 72).
Asaph is the choirmaster who authored Psalms 73—83, and clearly he does not shy away from playing the blue note. The minor key is the dominant key for the psalms of Asaph. The minor key (at least in our cultural associations) is tied with feeling of tension and disorientation and need for resolution. He picks up his baton to conduct the choir to sing in and through its sorrows.
I am quite confident that Asaph could not make a living as a motivational speaker. Why? Because the assumptions of the motivational speaker are that whatever the problems you have and may face, they are not too much for you to surmount and overcome with the right approach and ‘go-get-em’ spirit. But Asaph understands his plight (shared with the chosen remnant) is too deep and severe for his own resources to be of any use in effort at self-extrication.
This brings us to the questions of Psalm 77:7–9. To paraphrase, “How can God turn his back to us?” (instead of the shining face promised in the Aaronic benediction). And, “Am I standing at the end of the road of the promises of God?” (the road that was first paved in the call of Abraham). Finally, “Has God failed to remember the bond he formed with us in mercy?” (through his name of “Compassion” revealed to Moses in the cleft of the rock). Asaph’s middle-of-the night musings are profoundly upsetting, and his perception is akin to sensing an ominous cloud forming directly overhead. Similarly, Augustine in the Confessions recounts, “From a hidden depth a profound self-examination had dredged up a heap of all my misery and set it in the sight of my heart. That precipitated a vast storm bearing a massive downpour of tears.”
The grief exhibited in the earlier psalms in Book III is now even more acute, because it is more than Asaph’s perplexity at apparent injustice (Ps. 73) and the trauma of walking through the ruins of the city of God (Ps. 74): now he fears that God has actively turned against him! “When I remember God, I moan” (v. 3). He fears that God has become his enemy. The first part of Psalm 77 echoes Job’s cry: “You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind; you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm” (Job 30:21–22).
Asaph is on the verge of despair. When Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress is caught in the “Slough of Despond,” he asks Evangelist how to navigate out of it. Evangelist replies, “there are according to the direction of the lawgiver certain good and substantial steps placed evenly through the midst of the slough, but at such times this place does spew up and these steps are hardly seen; or it may be that men by the dizziness of their heads step beside, and fall into this mire.” How does Asaph find these “certain good and substantial steps” on which to walk and regain his footing? Vs 10 is the key hinge verse of the psalm: “Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.’”
Asaph does not permit himself to be captive to his own present experience. He does not accept the terms of what Rosaria Butterfield has called, “Sola Experientia”—the notion that one’s personal instinct and awareness is the final standard and authority for knowledge. Asaph understands that he cannot shape his own narrative arc, and that there is a higher court to which he can appeal beyond his own subjectivity. In his despondency, he had only focused on what his retinas were telling him: like the horse with its blinders on, he could only view what was immediately in front of him. Having realized this, he effectively asks himself, “What I am doing? I am going to remove those blinders and take in the ‘whole counsel of God.’” Asaph with determination states, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord” (v. 11). As the hymn goes, “When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace. In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the vale.”
Beginning in the second part of Psalm 77, Asaph does the work of a ‘covenant archaeologist.’ Unlike other archaeologists who can dig for months, years, and even decades with no assurance of success, Asaph in digging for past treasure (the “wonders of old,” v. 11) is guaranteed to strike gold! I remember reading the comment somewhere, “If one digs deep enough in the Sinai wilderness and Canaan, one will find the footprints of the I AM.” Deeper down, further back: that is the direction Asaph travels. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls’” (Jer. 6:16). Hesed-history (the history of God’s steadfast love) becomes for Asaph the source of a solace and encouragement he could not discover within the terms of the present.
Psalm 77:16–20 is effectively a sung commentary and mediation on Exodus 15, the song of Moses. The words of that familiar hymn which were lost in the back of his mind are brought to the forefront, and he starts singing the lyrics and the tune. “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Ex. 15:1–2).
Asaph’s is not a generic spirituality. This is not faith in the ether or the abstract. It’s in the concrete: at this moment and at this location, this is where God was and what God did! And the surging sea became the split-open sea; the God who ‘passed over’ his people on Passover night made them the ‘passing through’ people, with not a drop of water to fall upon their sandals as they go through the Red Sea.
Asaph’s observation in vs 19 that the Lord’s “footprints were unseen/unknown” in the time of the Exodus is instructive. There, God was clearly acting in his singular and sovereign power, for on the shores of the Sea of Reeds with Pharaoh behind them and the forboding waters in front of them, the people were commanded to “stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today” (Ex. 14:13). And yet there was nonetheless a hidden dimension to the Lord’s presence even when he revealed his awesome deeds. “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa. 45:15). For Asaph and the exiles, the God whose steps were inconspicuous on one level was not far removed or inaccessible to his people in captivity. Rather, his presence could be apprehended as faith-filled recollection was exercised: “I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds” (v. 12).
As Christians, we’re not believers in vague principles or even in ‘absolute truths’ in the idealistic sense. The core of our worship is to respond to God as he has revealed himself, our God as he has acted in time and the fullness of time (cf. Gal. 4:4). The redemptive events of the Red Sea and Israel’s deliverance from Egypt were preparing for the final Exodus in the death and resurrection of Christ. Through his crucifixion, Jesus destroyed the capital-P “Pharaoh” who is Satan: “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14–15). In emerging from tomb, Christ is the Shepherd greater than Moses who leads his blood-bought flock behind him on the path of life (Heb. 13:20). These are for us the ‘wonders of old’ over which to reflect with grateful remembrance.
The word “re-member” literally means to put the members back together in one piece. What is the opposite of “re-member”? To “dis-member.” To forget is to leave ourselves in pieces, to be individually taken apart and corporately scattered (recall Humpty-Dumpty, could not be put back together again). In contrast, the church as it lives by faith is gathered together through a shared, sanctified memory. We are part of the communion of those who remember God. “The LORD, the God of hosts, the LORD is his memorial name: So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God” (Hosea 12:5–6).
What does Asaph show us in this psalm? Sleeplessness is much to be preferred to forgetfulness—especially if in our wakefulness in the watches of the night, we are stirred to remember the Lord and his wondrous works (Ps. 63:6).
Rev. Ken Montgomery is pastor of Christ OPC in Marietta, Georgia.
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