I remember hitting my forehead over and over on the glass door of the shower. My mentor and dear friend, Ray Dillard, had just died at age 49. He had trained me in seminary, encouraged me to go to graduate school, and eventually hired me to teach Old Testament alongside him. Besides the loss, his death meant that my already heavy workload would double, as I would need to teach his classes in addition to my own. This increased responsibility came at a bad time: my teenage sons were acting up at school and needed my attention. To say I felt sad and stressed was not even half of it.
That year, my friend Dan Allender and I were writing a book on psalms of lament. What a mistake, I thought. When we started our work, we both were in good places with few troubles in our lives. Apparently God thought that anyone writing on lament psalms should have something to lament. Sure enough, I thought as I continued to bang my head on the shower door. God was starting to come through in spades. I realized he was going to show me what lament really is.
I already understood that the lament psalms gave me permission to complain to God. God invites us to speak to him with utter honesty and boldness. This is different from grumbling against him, as the Israelites did when they journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land (Num. 11).
The Israelites spoke about God behind his back—or so they thought. Conversely, the complaints of the psalmists are spoken directly to God. And whereas the wilderness generation had given up on God, the psalmists had not. Even though they often addressed God in anger, they spoke to him, asking for help and hoping that he would answer them in their distress.
I was not ready to turn my back on God. But the laments, at the time, took me only so far. Sure, they helped me express frustration and anger. I could resonate with this cry from David:
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
looking for my God. (69:2–3)
And David expressed the hope I felt comingle with the pain: “But as for me, afflicted and in pain—may your salvation, God, protect me” (v. 29). But it exasperated me how David could, in the next verse, begin to praise God: “I will praise God’s name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving.” What moved David from the pit of despair to the ecstasy of praise? As I was struggling with these questions, I came across another psalm of lament that powerfully guided me through my grief.
Looking to the Past
I had read the psalm many times, but as I was writing the book in the midst of my grief, exhaustion, and anxiety, I noticed something I had previously neglected. Unlike other psalms of lament, Psalm 77 names what moved the writer from weeping to rejoicing.
The composer—identified in the title as Asaph, the temple musician—starts by explaining his sorry situation to the congregation:
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. (vv. 1–2)
Asaph doesn’t specify his problem. We don’t know whether he or a loved one was ill, or whether he or his community was under attack or threatened. We do know that the Psalms, while borne of personal experience, were composed in such a way that later generations could use them for similar, though not necessarily identical, situations. I wasn’t the first person—and I certainly won’t be the last—to find my own thoughts and feelings fleshed out in this psalm. John Calvin called the Psalms a mirror of the soul: “I have been wont to call this book, not inappropriately, an anatomy of all parts of the soul; for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”
Just as a mirror helps us see how we’re doing on the outside, so the Psalms help us find words to articulate what’s going on inside. That was certainly the case for me as I read on. In the next few verses, the psalmist addresses his anger and disappointment directly to God:
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. (vv. 3–4)
As I beat my head against a literal wall, I too groaned, and my spirit grew faint. I had trouble sleeping, tossing and turning as I worried about class preparation and my children causing trouble at school. I couldn’t help thinking about the past, as the psalmist did, and wondering why life had grown so difficult:
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 forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” (vv. 5–9)
The “former days” were good days, ones of celebration and singing songs, presumably praise hymns. After all, those are the songs we sing when life is going well. Laments are for times when life is difficult. And when we’re in a season of lament, remembering the good times usually just deepens our pain.
The psalmist’s angry disappointment—with which I keenly identified—that God did not appear to be listening or helping escalated, as is seen in the series of questions he directs at God. We can appreciate the pain behind these questions, which are not only rhetorical but also veiled accusations. Words like favor, unfailinglove, promise, and compassion, as well as the reference to God’s mercy, relate to God’s covenant with his people. God had promised to treat his people with favor, compassion, mercy, and love; the psalmist questions God’s faithfulness: “You said you would be our God and take care of us. But the way my life is going—I think you were lying!”
The psalmist expressed what I felt at the time. I was glad God wanted me to speak directly to him, even if in anger, rather than feign feeling fine, only to grow bitter like the Israelites had in the wilderness. But the psalm did more than help me pour out my feelings to God. It also directed me to him. This certainly didn’t happen overnight, but as I continued to read and pray through the psalm over the next couple of weeks, I found hope, especially as I meditated on the last part:
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. (vv. 13–15)
Like Psalm 69, this one ends on a positive note. But unlike most other laments, this one tells us what had caused Asaph’s change in attitude:
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.” (vv. 10–12)
In order to live in the present with confidence and to approach the future with hope, the psalmist looks to the past. But how does remembering the past help us now, especially when we’re in a season of turmoil? At the end, the psalmist gives us a concrete example:
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
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (vv. 16–20)
Asaph is referring to Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex. 14–15). He pictures the event as a battle between God and the waters, which represent chaos and evil. God fights the waters to open a path for Israel, his flock, whom he leads through “the darkest valley” (Ps. 23:4) to safety.
What is it about the Exodus that so encourages the suffering psalmist and us as we identify with him? Asaph can’t sleep because he can’t see any way out of his predicament. There’s nothing he can do to help himself. The only way he could understand his situation was by comparing it to that of the slaves in Egypt. The Israelites had no escape from a gruesome fate, an impassable sea before them and Pharaoh charging furiously behind with “600 of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them” (Ex. 14:7).
In the face of what looked like certain destruction, God parted the sea and provided a surprising escape. And in the light of this event, Asaph remembered that God could continue to rescue his people, even when redemption seemed impossible.
A Greater Deliverance
As I thought about the psalmist’s testimony, I too began to see that my situation was not hopeless. To be sure, we have no guarantee of rescue or escape from trials in this life. But we needn’t bow to despair when we have a God like the one who led his people out of Egypt. And according to the New Testament, the Exodus anticipated an even greater deliverance. The Gospels go to great lengths to show that Jesus’ life and ministry follow the pattern of the Exodus. Many Christian readers miss this because we’re not as familiar with the Old Testament as we could be.
The parallels between the Exodus and Jesus’ work are so extensive that we can only scratch the surface here. Let’s look at a few. First, Jesus’ baptism corresponds to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. After Jesus was baptized, he spent 40 days in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11), which echoes Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. After fasting 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus experienced the same temptations that Israel had, yet came out victorious.
Satan tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread. The Israelites constantly grumbled about food, but Jesus resisted the Devil by citing Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on
every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Second, Jesus was tempted to test God—which the Israelites did time and again—by throwing himself down from the temple. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy a second time: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (6:16). Jesus’ final temptation was to worship the Devil, and he quoted Deuteronomy yet again: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (6:13). Jesus, therefore, is the obedient Son of God, contrasted with the disobedient Israelites.
The comparisons continue. Jesus chose 12 disciples, who correspond to the 12 tribes of Israel, to reflect a new people of God. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus discussed the law (Matt. 5–7) and alludes to God’s giving of the law on Mount Sinai. And the analogy culminates with Jesus’ crucifixion during Passover, the annual celebration of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.
As a Christian reading Psalm 77, I looked back not only to the Exodus, but also to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. If God can save Israel from Egypt and raise Jesus from the dead, then he can help me in times of despair. Not only that, I could recall times in my own life when God brought me out of trouble. I also came to realize how he could sustain me even when he, for his own good reasons, might choose not to provide an escape route.
While reading Psalm 77 anew didn’t “solve my problem” of grief and stress, it nevertheless bolstered my confidence to face trials. Jesus doesn’t remove suffering from our lives when we follow him. Rather, he gives us hope and even joy to endure it, knowing that one day we will be delivered once and for all.
Tremper Longman III is Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College and coauthor of God Loves Sex: An Honest Conversation about Sexual Desire and Holiness (Baker Books).
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