I Will Remember the Deeds of the Lord
To deal with the inner demons that can plague us, often we turn to the Psalms. They’re a source of comfort for all kinds of situations we find ourselves in.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, society has been experiencing another pandemic of people struggling with mental health. We Christadelphians are not immune, and I’ve had to deal with a case of extreme anxiety myself.
What we go through was experienced by men like David and Asaph, and we have the privilege of insight into their psychology by reading their thoughts in the Psalms and singing them in the words of our hymns. But the Psalms need to be for us more than things we read or think about when we are looking for comfort. Just like with the rest of Scripture, the Psalms are designed to change our way of thinking, to alter our perspective, and see things from an eternal point of view.
Asaph, who penned Psalm 77, struggled with getting his mind straight. In the opening verse he makes a very clear doctrinal statement: “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me.” On an intellectual level we can all understand what Asaph says. We know that prayer is powerful, that we have access to the throne of grace, and that our prayers and hymns rise to the God of heaven. We also know that he hears our prayers and answers them.
The problem for Asaph, and for you and me from time to time, is that while we can appreciate these things intellectually, yet sometimes we just don’t “feel” it. Do you ever pray to God, or sing a song of praise, but feel like nobody is listening, that you’re not being heard? That’s how Asaph felt.
In verse 2 he writes, “In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.” Asaph has prayed without ceasing, but it’s not working. Have you experienced what Asaph is going through? You turn to God in time of need, and nothing happens. You pray urgently, but it feels like the door is slammed shut.
That feeling drove Asaph to despair. He prayed and prayed and prayed but his trouble kept coming back to haunt him, and he couldn’t find rest. We’ve all gone through times of trouble, and perhaps you’re going through one right now. Maybe you’re experiencing a deep sense of loss, or something has caused you so much stress that your heart has been crushed with sorrow.
Thinking about God choosing not to answer only makes it worse.
Maybe it’s thinking about something ahead of you, a deep worry you have that won’t go away, or you feel trapped by your sin and guilt. You want God to alleviate the pain, to take the sorrow away, to fix the problem. And you know He can—He’s the Creator of the Universe! But there’s only silence and your troubles persist. At the end of the next verse, verse 3, the psalm inserts a Selah, and it’s worth thinking about what Asaph said— “When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints.”
He’s doing all the right things, and he knows it. He’s remembering God. He’s appealing to God. He’s depending on God. But all that does is make him moan? Why? Whatever trouble Asaph was going through was bad enough, but it was compounded by the fact that he felt like God wasn’t listening. The Master of the Universe, Who is within instant reach through prayer, was not rushing to his aid. It would almost feel better if God didn’t exist. Thinking about God choosing not to answer only makes it worse.
Verse 4 says, “You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” Asaph can’t sleep. Lying awake at night, tossing, and turning, his trouble dominating his mind. Prayer has become a burden to him. He can’t get the words out to express how he feels. He wonders, does God even care? Then his thoughts turn to the past—“I consider the days of old, the years long ago. I said, ‘Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.’” (vs 5-6a).
I think Asaph here is thinking back to times when God did answer his prayers. Everything seemed so clear back then, in his youth. He prayed and God answered. But now he’s beginning to doubt. What if those previously answered prayers were a figment of his imagination? What if it was all one big coincidence and God never was listening? What if he had so wanted to believe in God and answered prayer that he convinced himself that it was so? He’s on the edge of the abyss,
It feels like he’s come to an end as he stares down into the darkness of the abyss. There’s a Selah at the end of this section too. It’s at this point that the psalmist pauses, reflects, and tries to get his head straight. He doesn’t like what he sees. Jumping into the abyss, losing his faith like that doesn’t seem to be a better option. When you’ve been going through your troubles, has anyone ever said to you, “Just pray about it,” or “Meditate on some Bible verses,” or “Think about how God has helped you in the past”? But none of it works, none of it helps— in fact it can just make things feel worse than they already were. God starts to feel unreal to you. What you thought was a powerful thing—your faith in God— feels like it’s being shredded to pieces.
However, somewhere amid his chain of thought something clicks in his mind. It is hard to know whether the turning point is in verse 10 or 11. Verse 10 is awkwardly translated—“Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.’” What are “the years” of God’s right hand? To illustrate how much difficulty translators have had with this verse my margin reads completely differently—“Or, This is my grief: that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
Perhaps the idea of God changing has got to him. He thought God was immutable—unchanging— but is He really? It seemed like He used to answer prayer but all that’s changed. It would be a very unnerving thing to worry about the God of heaven changing like that. Whether that’s a valid translation or not, the next verse, through to the end of the psalm, tells us that something changed in Asaph’s thinking.
In verses 11-15 he chooses to remember what God has done in the past:
The first half of the psalm was entirely dismal, but Asaph’s spirit changes completely in the second half. He reflects on God’s greatness, His wonderful ways, the fact that He saves his people. What was it that clicked in Asaph’s mind? What changed between verses 10 and 11? It’s not about praying more, or more earnestly. It’s not about reading the Bible more and meditating on it. He tried that, and it wasn’t working. Instead, it just helped him drive himself closer and closer to despair. There is a change in his thinking, however, but what is it?
It’s on the edge of the abyss, staring into the darkness, almost losing his faith, that the psalmist finds the answer. The key is in the words at the start of verse 11—“I will remember the deeds of the LORD.” Before this, in the first half of the psalm, it might have felt like he remembered God—he even says he remembered him in verse 3—but in reality, he wasn’t remembering God at all. At least not in the same spirit as verse 11.
In times of trouble, we can be constantly bombarded by our feelings of insecurity and doubt
Have you ever felt like you’re trapped in your own head? That was Asaph’s problem in the first half of the psalm. He was driven by his emotions and how he felt. In times of trouble, we can be constantly bombarded by our feelings of insecurity and doubt, projecting how we feel onto others and imagining they’re feeling the same way about us as we feel about ourselves. These are false messages, but they can plague us, eat away at us, dominate our minds, and control our thinking.
But in verse 11 Asaph takes hold of himself and gets a grip on his emotions. Look at these two verses, one from the first half, the other from the second. They sound very similar, “When I remember God” (vs 3), “I will remember the deeds of the LORD.” (vs 11). What’s the difference between these two remembrances of God? Look again at the immediate context of verse 3. Is it really about God? Or is it all about himself? He is so caught up in his own thoughts, emotions, and feelings, if the first half of the psalm can be termed a prayer, it’s a prayer that is wholly centered on himself. It’s one long “woe is me.”
There are plenty of psalms recorded for us of others who when they are going through trouble make their complaint to God, He answers. This one is different. This Psalm is an exercise in one of the fundamental lessons of our lives—to get out of our heads and into God’s.
What Asaph does in verse 11 is shift his thinking to be God rather than me-centered. It’s not going to magically fix his situation. He still must deal with the trouble he’s experiencing. But that shift of focus provides a change of perspective and he can look at his trouble through a brand-new lens. When we allow the false messages in our brains to dominate our thinking, we can end up like Asaph in the first half of the Psalm. We follow a seemingly logical route down the path of questioning God and questioning our faith until we end up at the edge of the abyss.
It’s not about me, it’s about God.
The key is to remember it’s not meant to be about me; it’s meant to be about God. When the psalmist remembered God initially, it was in the context of the unnerving thought that God had failed him. That God hadn’t rushed to his aid. That God didn’t care. That he wasn’t the center of God’s universe. It was only when he remembered that things should be the other way around, that God should be at the center of his universe that he could step away from the abyss.
It’s not about me, it’s about God. It’s about seeing the big picture from an eternal point of view. When our focus is on God and not our woes, we begin to see things more clearly. I have personal experience of the power in this change of perspective. I felt like Asaph recently, captured and held hostage by my feelings, having more faith in the false message of my brain and my insecurities than in God. I’ve felt like, at times I’ve been staring into the dark abyss. But something clicked in my mind too. In my prayers and meditations, I had forgotten all about God. I’ve realized if I can stop looking down and instead lift my head to see God, I don’t feel as anxious anymore.
Why does God allow us to experience these things? Why does God allow us to travel to the edge of the abyss? Why does He allow us to feel like He’s utterly silent? When we were younger, we often felt spiritually vibrant. God answered our prayers. He strengthened us. Life as a son or daughter of God was good. But God wants us to mature. He wants us to grow up. While we might want God to rush to our aid the moment we find ourselves in trouble, God doesn’t want to spoon feed us like He did when we were younger.
If He’s constantly there, rushing to solve our problems for us like an umbrella parent, we would never learn. But He wants us to learn. He wants us to confront ourselves. He wants us to appreciate the vanity of life without Him as we circle the abyss. He wants us to value the bigger picture which we can’t see if we’re constantly worried about ourselves.
The Psalm ends with Asaph thinking about the specific time when the children of Israel found themselves in trouble. They were stuck between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea and there was no way out. They were staring directly into the abyss. But as Asaph records in verses 16-20:
Sometimes life can feel like the clouds won’t stop pouring out water, and there’s lightning and thunder and an earthquake. But the irony of this psalm is that sometimes the answer to our prayers in times of trouble is that there is no answer. God lets us travel to the edge of the abyss. He allows us to stare into the depths of the sea with the enemy on the other side. It’s in those moments that something clicks in our minds, and we figure it out.
But look at verse 19. In being silent, in not rushing to our aid, in allowing us to go through the torment of sleepless nights, anxious thoughts, feelings of despair, through it all God’s footprints, although unseen, were right there next to us. God was holding our hand the whole time. We just needed to look up and see.
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA