For the director of music. For Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A psalm.
I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.
I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
‘Will the Lord reject for ever?
Will he never show his favour again?
Has his unfailing love vanished for ever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?’
Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.’
Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.
With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
The waters saw you, God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
The clouds poured down water,
the heavens resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.
You led your people like a flock(Ps. 77:1-20 NIV)
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Sweet hour of Prayer
The footprints of the Lord are not seen, yet God is present. That is the conclusion of this Psalm but it is not how it begins. This Psalm teaches the powerful impact that remembrance can have in the life of faith. Remembering in the presence of God and rehearsing an account of God’s dealings in the past moves the heart of the Psalmist from lament and lostness to hope and praise.
In the lament Psalms we’re tempted to feel that the lament is the bad mood that needs to be changed, but that would be to oversimplify the lament Psalm. There is a world of difference in a lament to others and a lament in the presence of God. It can be of some help to lament to others. Sometimes it can be cathartic to share a problem. But lamenting in the presence of God finds more than catharsis, it gains the sanctuary’s perspective on the circumstances, we learn to see things in God’s light.
This particular lament is different to the laments that we have already looked at. Here the Psalmist is speaking of a past lament. He is recalling the lament after having been in the presence of God and having already been encouraged by God’s presence. At some point back in time the Psalmist cried out to God for help. Those days were days of great distress. The specific nature of the Psalmist’s distress is not shared with us. This is deliberate, because when it is left general, it is a prayer that we can pray. Whatever the Psalmist’s distress, it was made worse because his prayer remained unanswered. This happens quite a lot to us and it can be quite damaging to our prayer life. When we see no answers our prayers can become more shallow, vague and very general. If we stay vague and general then we’ll not know whether or not the prayers were answered, and that acts as a kind of a shield to protect us from dealing with the issue of unanswered prayer. The Psalmist doesn’t move towards the shallow waters here, he goes deep into the prayer because he needs an answer. We must remember what God said in Psalm 75, ‘I choose the appointed time.’ It is always right to bring the problem to God, but we sometimes offer God the solution and we expect our asking ought to be answered now. Sometimes I’m asked a question and I have to reply that I don’t know the answer and that I will need a little time to investigate, maybe read more, maybe talk to friends. When we ask of God, God does not have to take more time to find out what the answer is, God knows what the answer is and he knows the appropriate time to provide the answer. Our curious mind of course has another follow question, ‘Could You let us know what the answer is and when we can expect it?’ That’s the way our hearts work. God withholds the answer about solution and timing for a number of reasons, to begin with we probably wouldn’t understand the answer, or we might be able to understand it but we would miss out on a valuable lesson of learning to trust God.
There is something smug about being ‘in the know’, when we have insider information that others haven’t. I recently heard a number of people having a conversation about the difficulties of opening up after the lockdown. One person present was able to answer a difficult question, saying that he had been speaking to someone high up in government, someone who was very involved, and of course he said ‘I can’t mention their name’ (reinforcing that this is a very public figure) ‘and they said …’. That little piece of conversation tells us a number of things – the person was well connected, had access to people that the rest of us haven’t, and they have privileged information. I’m sorry to say that if God was giving us instant answers, we would end up being very smug people. Can you imagine the conversation, ‘I was talking to God this morning, you know God the Father, and God was saying to me …, so I’m able to share with you the answer, how good am I! The truth is, ‘I was bowing in prayer before God and I desperately needed help, there is no answer to that, and I don’t know if it will be the answer I want or when it will come, but I feel reassured because I was able to talk to God and remember that He has saved me from my sins and made me part of the Kingdom of God.’ The result is that everybody realises that we are small people with a very big God.
This Psalmist gives us an example of a very deep prayer of the heart. One commentator describes the Psalmist as grappling with God in prayer. He sought the Lord and audibly cried his prayer. This was no time for decorum or restraint. The Psalmist wasn’t in a panic, otherwise he would have run away, he stayed put, and came into the presence of God. The business at hand is so troubling that there is no time to sleep, he is before the Lord day and night.
The act of coming to God in prayer is an acknowledgment of the deep need for God. If we remain prayerless, it is clear that we feel no need for God.
Lord the absence of Your voice is a great challenge to us. We sometimes don’t want to face the fact that You haven’t answered, and so we ask less specifically. Lord forgive us for vague prayers but we feel we need help with specific prayers, the prayers that expect, the prayer of faith. Lord take us by the hand into this better place of trust, where we realise that You are the only warrior in prayer and we come with empty hands that You might fill them. Lord teach us to pray, for Christ our Saviour’s sake. Amen.