Sleepless but not hopeless
Long before we get to the end of Psalm 77, we know it will turn out well.
How? In the opening verse, Asaph says: “I cried out to God with my voice…and He gave ear to me” (v. 1). He was in trouble, but he wants to immediately reassure us: God heard him!
For it cannot end badly when we begin with prayer. When we’re distressed or worried about something, we shouldn’t rationalize it away, or laugh it away, or drink it away, or find some other escape. No, we should pray. Pray at once. Pray, for our God in Christ has an open ear. He is sufficient to meet our concerns, and always willing to help. It was through giving voice to his despair to God that Asaph gained peace.
But first consider the trials of this lowly soul, recorded in verse 2:
In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord.
Other Psalms mention a range of problems and concerns: the pursuit of enemies, a body wracked by illness, the heart oppressed by guilt. But not here. This child of God is overwhelmed, depressed and embittered, for some unnamed reason.
And saying so little of the cause opens up Psalm 77 to even more people. For everyone has some measure of trouble. We can mention the loneliness that God’s children experience, or the misery of chronic pain, or a flood of family disappointments, and conflict with other people, and anxiety over finances, and regret over the past. You can surely add your own.
In the day of trouble, we all know what to do. Asaph tells us, “My hand was stretched out in the night without ceasing” (v. 2). This is the posture for prayer: reaching out for the LORD. Asaph is going to the right place. But notice a couple things about this prayer, things which reveal how deeply distressed he is.
First, he’s praying “in the night,” when he should be sleeping. Trouble can be so bad that it won’t even let a person rest. Instead of being a time of sweet relief and comfort, night-time can see us oppressed by our thoughts and unable to overcome our anxieties. In nervous fear, we toss and turn.
On the one hand, tomorrow can’t come soon enough because then we’ll actually be able to do something. But we also know that when tomorrow comes, the difficult situation will only confront us again. So the psalmist can’t sleep, nor even talk coherently: “You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (v. 4).
He’s praying, but it’s really difficult.
Second, verse 2 says that he offers his prayer “without ceasing.” Sometimes we pray to God and we’re filled almost at once with a sense of peace. You just know that God surrounds you. You don’t have your answer, but you do have comfort.
But not for Asaph, who must keep up the intensity of prayer as he waits and waits.
And here’s the worst of it: “I remembered God, and was troubled” (v. 3). Thinking about God doesn’t bring peace but pain! Is it because he is contemplating God’s wrath against sinners, or thinking on God’s mysterious ways in the world? Asaph has been meditating on things past. Like verse 5, “I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times.” There were better days for him, like when he had temple songs on his lips. But now there is no joy.
This is true to life. When we look at what we used to have, when we consider the changing seasons of God’s providence, there are almost always better memories in the past. In the past, all was well (seemingly). Life was easier then, the blessings fuller. Back then we were more carefree, or we still enjoyed life together with our spouse. It was before we got sick, and before all the trouble with the kids. Today can seem full of trouble and regret, while yesterday was a time of joy.
Asaph has entered a spiritual wilderness, where remembering happier times only confirms the thought that God has left. He is coming close to losing hope. Among life’s multitude of burdens, this is surely the most severe: the sense of God being far away, the Father withdrawing his hand. You need to pray, you ought to pray, but your confidence wavers. What is one more prayer going to do?
Yet this child of God hasn’t given up. Just as Jesus taught us to do, Asaph began with prayer, and he’ll persist in prayer. In Psalm 77 he is coming to that critical moment when it can go either way—hope or despair—when the truth must be faced.
And in verses 7-9 he does, posing six hard questions. A “yes” to any of these weighty questions means that all hope is lost. Even one “yes” means that we should probably surrender to the darkness, give up praying and give up on God. But Asaph cannot bring himself to answer anything but “no.” Listen to his questions, and to the answers that rest invisibly and powerfully between the lines.
“Will the Lord cast off forever?” No, for He is faithful.
“And will He be favourable no more?” No, for God is full of grace.
“Has his mercy ceased forever?” No, his mercies are new every morning.
“Has his promise failed forevermore?” No, God’s Word endures.
“Has God forgotten to be gracious?” No, his grace is never-ending.
“Has He in anger shut up his tender mercies?” No, for his love lasts forever.
Much more than remembering the good ol’ days when life seemed better, Asaph in Psalm 77 is remembering the Lord and his great works and loving ways. These days we call it self-talk, or maybe “preaching to yourself,” when we remind ourselves of the holiness and goodness and faithfulness of God. And it is a good thing to do, and often.
For this truth alone is what will pull you from the depths: God is your never-failing Father through Jesus Christ. He will not cast off forever!