In the opening half of Psalm 77, Asaph is grievously afflicted. What is it that troubles him? Is it some terrible illness or grievous sin? Is it the opposition of God’s enemies or the slandering of his name or the declension of the church?
If you read this Psalm, you will see that we are not told. It simply uses words like “trouble” or being “overwhelmed,” but it does not specify the source of his distress. That the nature of Asaph’s trouble is not revealed might somewhat disappoint us, although it should not. Since our heavenly Father has not told us, we do not need to know. In fact, this is the very point: whatever our affliction, we can identify with the Psalmist and put ourselves in his place.
So what is the first thing Asaph does in his distress? He prays—the right thing to do! “In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord” (2). Verse 1 adds that Asaph “cried” out to God with his “voice.” The word “voice” is used twice, emphasizing that this was not merely mental but oral prayer. Asaph’s passionate desires were spoken aloud to God.
What was the result of these fervent prayers? Asaph declares, “My soul refused to be comforted” (2). He received no consolation. He experienced no comfort in his heart and soul. Have you ever had this, beloved? No comfort! No comfort, even after many earnest prayers! Still distressed and downcast and dispirited in soul after seeking the Lord! This creates a second problem for the believer: “What is wrong with my prayers? Why does not God hear? Does He not care?”
This brings us to the next thing that Asaph tried: he thought upon God. The Psalmist reckoned that this would bring relief, and it does, if done in the right way and in the right spirit and in God’s good time. But what happened here? “I remembered God, and was troubled: I complained [i.e., meditated], and my spirit was overwhelmed” (3). Asaph remembered, mused and meditated upon the Lord, His character, His rule over all things, His purposes and ways.
The result? He was “troubled” (3) and further distressed! His situation was now worse! His “spirit was overwhelmed” (3), so that he was crushed and confused even more. Why was this? First, he was upset and distressed over his initial affliction. Then he was tired and disconsolate after his earnest “night” prayers brought no comfort (2). Now he has hard thoughts of God and a certain amount of bitterness towards the Almighty. In such circumstances, his meditations upon God are easily led astray by Satan and bring not relief but only further distress so that the Psalmist is overwhelmed. Have you ever felt like this? Your mind is in a turmoil. Your thoughts go round and round in circles. There seems no way out. Your spirit is overwhelmed.
Perhaps Asaph can find some relief through sleep? You know how it goes sometimes. You are upset for things are not going well, but after a good night’s sleep, things do not look half as bad. After becoming overwrought, rest restores us once again to sober, right-thinking. But poor Asaph exclaims, “Thou holdest mine eyes waking” (4). The eyelids are the watchmen or guardians of our eyes. They protect our eyes (and our whole bodies) by closing each night to give us sleep. But there was no sleep for Asaph, no rest for his weary body and no repose for his over-wrought mind. And it was God who was doing it! In His providence, which governs absolutely all things, God would not let him sleep. Asaph was so distressed and tormented with anguished thoughts that he could not fall asleep. And he knew that God was in sovereign control over this too!
This tiredness and mental stress made things worse. Asaph complains, “I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (4). Sometimes our weariness is so great that it is too much of an effort to talk, or perhaps it means that Asaph is so distressed that he did not want to speak with other people.
In desperation, the Psalmist tried to comfort himself by thinking of the church in the past: “I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times” (5). He reflected upon the ancient church’s history: Israel, the patriarchs, the antediluvians. He went way back looking for wisdom from the past, but received no comfort.
Then Asaph recalled better days in his own personal history. “Maybe,” he thought, “this will encourage me.” “I call to remembrance my song in the night” (6), those good times with the Lord when the Psalmist went to bed singing His praises with joy and gladness. In itself, this is a good thing to do in times of distress, like many of the other things Asaph tried. But these things must not be done in a spirit of complaint or grumbling or out of self-pity (Ecc. 7:10).
Next, Asaph engaged in self-examination: “I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search” (Ps. 77:6). But mixed in with Asaph’s cogitations and questions was a certain measure of doubting God: “Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?” (7-9). You see the mess into which the Psalmist has gotten himself? He is questioning God’s favour (7), mercy (8), grace (9) and tender mercies (9) and, thus, God’s covenant promise (8) so that he feels “cast off” (7).
But Asaph is not wholly unbelieving. The child of God never totally loses his faith. He may feel cast off in the present. Currently, he may not experience God’s covenant mercies but the Lord will always bring all of His sons and daughters back.
We are on dangerous ground if we question God’s gracious favour, because in God’s mercy and promise in Jesus Christ lies all our salvation. To cut ourselves off from these (totally and finally) is damnation. See how far the Psalmist has gone since his initial trouble? To echo Asaph from one of his earlier Psalms, “But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped” (73:2). “Almost gone”—almost, but not quite!
That “almost” (but not quite) is a testimony to Jehovah’s preservation of His saints, so that sometimes it is only by the skin of his teeth that the child of God hangs on. Believe God’s promises in Jesus Christ! Do not give way to your doubts and fears and worries and self-pity! Never start on that downward spiral, beloved!
- Volume: 14
- Issue: 10
Rev. Angust Stewart (Wife: Mary)
Ordained - 2001
Pastorates: Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Ballymena, Northern Ireland - 2001Website: www.cprf.co.uk/
Address7 Lislunnan Road
State or ProvinceCo.Antrim
Zip CodeBT42 3NR
Telephone(01144) 28 25 891851