THE PROBLEM OF HANDLING DOUBT IN DIFFICULT TIMES
The big factor in this psalm is the problem of doubt. It appears to us that Dummelow’s analysis of this psalm is as good as any. And from that understanding of it, it is not hard to figure out why the psalmist is almost overcome with doubt.
“Here we have the psalmist’s experience of personal perplexity and darkness, caused by the contemplation of Israel’s national distress. It may be dated approximately in the time of the exile: (1) Psalms 77:1-3 describe the psalmist’s trouble, in which prayer has brought no comfort. (2) Psalms 77:4-9 tell how his remembrance of a brighter past suggests that perhaps God has now cast off his people forever. (3) In Psalms 77:10-20, he turns for comfort to the story of God’s wondrous works of old, such as (a) the deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Psalms 77:15); (b) the marvelous miracle of the Red Sea crossing (Psalms 77:16-19); and (c) God’s guidance of Israel through the wilderness experiences (Psalms 77:20).”
The terrible doubt and sorrow that depressed God’s faithful remnant among the notoriously apostate people of Israel in the period ending in their Babylonian captivity must indeed have reached epic proportions. The reprobate nation fully deserved to be cut off forever, and their godless kingdom cried out to heaven for its destruction.
Of course, God did what God had to do. He liquidated the kingdom and sent the residue of it to Babylon, where, through generations of hardship, the righteous remnant were given the privilege of re-focusing their love, not upon an earthly state, but upon the godly lives required in those who really desired to be a part of God’s “chosen people.”
It was no slackening of God’s love for his people that brought about the traumatic experience of the exile. It was required by the gross wickedness of the vast majority of racial Israel. It was impossible for the righteous minority to understand why things were everywhere turning into unqualified disaster and destruction for national Israel, hence, the terrible doubt of the psalmist expressed here.
Some scholars understand this psalm as a “national lament,” and others think of it as the lament of an individual; but the simple truth seems to be that it is indeed the lament of an individual brought about by the terrible fate of the kingdom which was in the process of being providentially destroyed.
DESCRIPTION OF THE PSALMIST’S CONDITION
“I will cry unto God with my voice,
Even unto God with my voice; and he will give ear unto me.
In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord:
My hand was stretched out in the night, and slacked not;
My soul refused to be comforted.
I remember God, and am disquieted:
I complain, and my spirit is overwhelmed.
One may feel nothing but sympathetic concern for all of God’s children who suffered the incredible agony of living through all of the sorrows that fell upon national Israel during those days leading up to the captivity. It was indeed a time of darkness and doubt for all of them.
“I sought the Lord” (Psalms 77:2) … “My soul refused to be comforted” (Psalms 77:2) … “I remember God … am disquieted … and my spirit is overwhelmed” (Psalms 77:3). The trouble was due to the cessation of God’s blessings upon national Israel in the manner that he had once so gloriously done. The impossibility was not with God; it was with Israel; their sins and rebellion against the Lord had finally reached a climax beyond which God was determined to “cut them off.” The precious saints who still loved the Lord still prayed for the beloved nation; but God could no longer answer such prayers. Given the lack of understanding on the part of the saints, and the rapidly worsening conditions afflicting the nation, and their doubt is easily understood.
AN EXPRESSION OF THE PSALMIST’S DOUBTS
“Thou holdest mine eyes watching;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I have considered the days of old,
The years of ancient times.
I call to remembrance my song in the night:
I commune with mine own heart;
And my spirit maketh diligent search.
Will the Lord cast off forever?
And will he be favorable no more?
Is his lovingkindness clean gone forever?
Doth his promise fail forever more?
Hath God forgotten to be gracious?
Hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?”
“Thou holdest mine eyes watching” (Psalms 77:4). The Anchor Bible translates this: “Mine eyes are accustomed to vigils; I pace the floor and do not recline.”
“I call to remembrance my song in the night” (Psalms 77:6). “Many have been the songs that he either composed or sang; and he had once derived much spiritual comfort from them; but they gave him no help now, and aroused no feelings of confident faith.”
The six plaintive questions of Psalms 77:7-9 are eloquent expressions indeed of the doubts and fears of the psalmist. He strongly desired to find negative answers to all these questions, but the harsh conditions confronting the nation of Israel seemed to demand an affirmation of his worst fears, namely, that God indeed: (1) had cast off; (2) was no longer favorable; (3) His lovingkindness gone; (4) His promise had failed; (5) had forgotten to be gracious; (6) and had shut up His tender mercies.
No, God had not really “forgotten” His promise, nor shut off His mercies, nor cast off His true people, but the promises to Israel had always been conditional, that condition being their faithfulness to God; and when Israel no longer met that condition, God’s blessings indeed ceased. That is why that such questions as these, as regarded the vast majority of ancient Israel, were indeed required to be answered affirmatively.
THE HISTORY OF GOD’S LOVE OF ISRAEL ENCOURAGING
“And I said, This is my infirmity;
But I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.
I will make mention of the deeds of Jehovah;
For I will remember thy wonders of old.
I will meditate also upon all thy work,
And muse on thy doings.
Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary:
Who is a great God like unto God?
Thou art the God that doest wonders:
Thou hast made known thy strength among the peoples.
Thou hast with thine arm redeemed thy people,
The sons of Jacob and Joseph. (Selah)”
“This is my infirmity” (Psalms 77:10). Here the psalmist acknowledges that all of those doubts and misgivings are his own infirmity, not God’s. He then announces that he will think upon the wonderful things God has done in the past for Israel.
“Thy way is in the sanctuary” (Psalms 77:13). Later versions render this, “Thy way is holy,” but that seriously weakens the passage. God’s way is always in and through the institution which he has created to establish and nourish faith. It was true of the ancient sanctuary for Israel, and it is true in the Church of God today.
Psalms 77:10 here is the turning point in the psalm. The psalmist’s recognition of the fact that the fault was with himself, not with God, and his resolution to think upon the wonders of what God had already done for His people, and his determination to find in the sanctuary the solution for all his doubts, we believe, must surely have resulted, as Barnes suggested. “By all this his mind was comforted, and his soul was made calm. God heard his prayer and gave him peace.”
“Thou hast made known thy strength among the peoples” (Psalms 77:14). This is a reference to the fact that God had delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery in such a sensational manner that nobody on earth could have been unaware of it.
“Thou hast redeemed thy people … sons of Jacob and Joseph” (Psalms 77:15). As Dummelow noted, this is a clear reference to, “God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt.” This was not the only wonderful thing, however, that God had done. The psalmist went on to mention others.
It appears to us that the mention of “Jacob” and “Joseph” in this context is due to the fact that in the times of this psalm, the kingdom was divided, Jacob standing for the Southern Israel, and Joseph for the Northern Israel. Cheyne also so understood this.
THE MARVELOUS MIRACLE AT THE RED SEA
“The waters saw thee, O God;
The waters saw thee, they were afraid:
The depths also trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
The skies sent out a sound:
Thine arrows also went abroad.
The voice of thy thunder was in the whirlwind;
The lightnings lightened the world: The earth trembled and shook.
Thy way was in the sea,
And thy paths in the great waters,
And thy footsteps were not known.”
Dummelow considered these words a reference to the Red Sea crossing; and McCullough affirmed that, “Psalms 77:20 interprets the preceding verses (Psalms 77:16-19) as pertinent to the Exodus.” Rawlinson likewise called these verses, “A magnificent description of the deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea.”
The problem with this understanding is that the account of the Red Sea crossing in Exodus says nothing about the clouds, the rain, the thunder and the lightning which are mentioned here. It could be that this information is supplementary to that given in Exodus; and we do not rule that out as a possibility. We have also observed that in the Psalms, the sacred writers often preempt language used by the pagans in speaking of their false gods to describe the actions of the true God. Baal, for example, was the storm God; but Baal never did anything, even in the false claims of mythology, that could be compared to what God did at the Red Sea.
We do not know, of course, that such an adaptation of mythological terminology is in view here; but one thing we feel very sure about is that, we do not have a separate psalm in these last five verses, describing God’s appearance in a thunderstorm, as in Psalms 29. This, of course, is the view of Briggs who said, “Psalms 77 is a composite”; and the last five verses, “Describe the advent of Yahweh in a storm.”
To us, by far the most acceptable interpretation is that which refers these verses to the Crossing of the Red Sea.
“And thy footsteps were not known” (Psalms 77:19). The strong suggestion here is that men cannot certainly know the purposes and intentions of Almighty God. His ways are above our ways; he has not revealed to men the reasons behind any of his actions; his deeds, as far as men are concerned, are indeed inscrutable.
Even today, when men are tempted to doubt because of conditions in the world which seem contrary to all truth and righteousness, it is the duty of all believers to “trust where they cannot see.” “God’s in his heaven,” all right, “But all is not well with the world.” There are many conditions that upright people recognize as contrary to the will of God; and such things should not be allowed to foster doubt in Christian hearts. Even though we do not know what it is, God surely knows what he is doing!
“Thy way was in the sea … paths in the great waters” (Psalms 77:19). As Kidner said, “All of the words here are a true picture of God’s sway over nature. Even when He was incarnate, the winds and the waves obeyed him, and the sea provided a path for Him.”
GOD’S GUIDANCE OF ISRAEL IN THE WILDERNESS
“Thou leddest thy people like a flock,
By the hand of Moses and Aaron.”
This was another of the mighty works of God upon which the psalmist had resolved to meditate; and this was indeed a wonder. The manna from heaven, the water from the rock, the victories over enemies, the bitter waters made sweet, the thunders of Sinai, the giving of the Law, etc., etc. There was never anything else in the history of mankind that deserves to be compared with what God did for Israel in the Wilderness of Sinai.
As Leupold expressed it, “A man is well on the way to recovery from all uncertainty and doubts when he remembers the record of God’s guidance of his people in the past, and the fact of God’s always providing adequate leadership for his true followers.”
The great lesson of this psalm is that those who love God must trust him however distasteful or even disastrous may be the circumstances through which it is our duty to pass. This writer has known persons who in some disaster, such as the sudden death of a beloved child, have turned against God in bitterness and unbelief; but such a reaction is never right. God loves his children no matter what wretched sorrows they suffer; and the heart of faith must always, “take it to the Lord in prayer.” There is no consolation, utterly no help, anywhere else.
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.