Psalm 77: A Psalm for the Burdened
The Psalms have been the prayer book of God’s people for millennia for many reasons, but one in particular stands out to me: The Psalms give expression to every emotional frame that a human being can experience. From ecstatic joy to disappointment so deep we can feel it in our bones, the Psalms give us vocabulary to rejoice, to lament, and even to doubt. An intimate familiarity with this inspired vocabulary allows us and our students to rejoice, lament, and doubt well. Let’s take Asaph, author of the seventy-seventh Psalm, among others, as an example.
As a youth minister, I can relate deeply to Asaph’s desperate tone in Psalm 77, both for myself and for my students. The first half of this Psalm can’t be described as anything other than hopeless. Asaph wastes no time in expressing his despair to God. The urgency of his appeal can be seen in his repetition of his first statement: “I cry aloud to God, I cry aloud to God!” Even though the psalmist says that God will hear him, he doesn’t seem to find much solace in this—at least not at the beginning of his prayer. He goes on to say that his soul refuses to be comforted and that when he thinks of God, he is in turmoil (v. 3). The structure of first three verses makes it seem as though Asaph is not dealing with a sudden tragedy, but rather that his life has become characterized by the doubt and anguish of his circumstances. At this point, even the thought of God has become a source of distress for him.
This is a darkness that will not lift. The psalmist is unable even to sleep or speak, and is unable to feel God’s presence with him. So he reaches back in his memory to recount God’s faithfulness to His people, and even this enterprise is colored by the despairing lens of the present moment. The psalmist asks questions like, “Will God never again be faithful? Has His love to me ceased now?”
Many of us have ministered to students during seasons of their lives in which the first nine verses of Psalm 77 are some of the most relevant words in all of Scripture. Early in my role as a student minister one of my high school students mentioned that his parents were getting a divorce. I could see the weight of that situation on his face. He had bags under his eyes and his face had lost some color. He looked tired—not just “I was up late doing homework,” tired, but “deep in my soul, I am weary,” tired, like one who’s eyelids have been held open (v. 4). His difficult circumstances weren’t his fault; the issues his folks were having laid squarely on their own shoulders. And yet, he felt this terrible burden, as though their impending divorce was his responsibility to stop. The words he used to describe this experience were essentially the 21st-century suburban equivalent of the first nine verses of Psalm 77. Will God ever again be faithful? Has He forgotten His love for me?
I’ve heard the same words used when one of my students struggled with a particular sin for a long time. Every time he spoke to me after he committed this particular sin, he wondered if he had out-sinned the grace of God. Each time he had this same physically visible burden–a weariness of his sin. Like Asaph, he wondered how God could continue to love someone who continued to fall into the same trap, who continued to sin, even though it would inevitably lead to the very thing this student wanted so desperately to avoid. He wanted to know how God could be faithful to him in the midst of his unfaithfulness. Thousands of years after Asaph penned Psalm 77, this student asked the same questions—could God continue to draw him back?
As you minister to stressed and burdened students, remind them frequently that the story doesn’t end in verse 9. In verse 10, we read, “Then I said, I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.” Asaph reminds himself to look at the record of God’s actions on behalf of His people. A remarkable turn occurs here. Continued pondering of God’s work in the past leads the psalmist to say that God is the One who works wonders, and that there are no gods like the God of Israel. Indeed, with His right arm, He has redeemed, and continues to redeem, His people. Remind your students that this is the God they worship, and the God who has saved them not because of what they have done, but because of what He has done.
God’s redemption of His people is a theme, perhaps the theme, which runs throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. God clothes Adam and Eve after they sin, atoning for them with the death of an animal. God leads His people out of their slavery in Egypt. God leads His people through exile. And finally, God comes to earth Himself to make things right. God the Son takes on human flesh, leaving the glory He had with the Father and the Spirit, all to come to earth to redeem—both to pay for the sins we commit, and to make right the unjust circumstances which we experience. This is the record of what God has done for us. This is the down payment guaranteeing that Jesus is coming back soon to make all things new. Stress this until you cannot stress it anymore. If your kids leave to go to college with only this knowledge—that after verse 9 comes verse 10, that after Good Friday comes Easter Sunday, that Christ has paid the penalty for their sins—youth minister, that is a victory. As your students see more and more of a broken world and experience that brokenness for themselves, the victory of Christ not only in their lives but ultimately in this world should become more and more encouraging to them.
A remarkable progression occurs in Psalm 77, and it’s not one our students alone experience. It’s a progression we make countless times over the course of our ministries. During some seasons, we feel the weight of the psalmist’s first nine verses. Like my students, in the throes of horrible circumstances or in the midst of that one sin we can’t seem to overcome, we ask the same questions as this Psalmist: “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
God’s answer, in the person and work of Jesus Christ, is a resounding, “No!” God is not in the business of reneging on His promises. He is a God who is not only“faithful and just to forgive us” because of his own work on our behalf in Christ (1 Jn. 1:9), but He is a God who promises to make all things new one day soon (Rev. 21:5).
A note from the editors: Psalms are meant to be experienced, helping us to take the truths of God’s character deep into our souls. Here’s a song based on this psalm for your encouragement: by Michael Van Patter.