His soul was in such turmoil he could not sleep. So confused and disturbed were his emotions (and the questions that fueled them), he couldn’t capture them all in words. He wasn’t experiencing a generalized, undefined depression. He mentioned no specific enemy threatening his life. The person he was in anguish over was God. When Asaph penned Psalm 77, he was experiencing a crisis of faith.
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
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.
When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah
You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak. (Psalm 77:1–4)
Why was Asaph so troubled? Because from his perspective it appeared God had decided to abandon his promises to Israel. And if God doesn’t keep his word, those who trust in him build the house of their faith on the sand — a very disturbing thought.
You Hold My Eyelids Open
Many who have endured a faith crisis recognize the experience Asaph describes. Something happens that shakes our confidence in what God has said, causing us to waver over what we’ve understood to be true about him or his character. This uncertainty produces anxiety and fear. In an effort to quell our anxiety, our mind becomes an incessant investigator, diligently searching for answers that will restore our confidence (Psalm 77:6).
Such anxiety can rob us of sleep. It did for Asaph. During the day, other responsibilities, activities, and people require our attention, offering some distracting respite. But in the dead of night, it’s just us and our troubled thoughts. So we lie awake in bed or pace a dark room with our figurative (or literal) “hand . . . stretched out [toward God] without wearying,” and our “soul refus[ing] to be comforted” (Psalm 77:2).
Refusing to be comforted? Is that okay? Asaph’s example here doesn’t endorse every inconsolable moment we have. We all battle sinful unbelief. But this psalm, I believe, is not a clinic in sinful unbelief, but in honest, anguished spiritual wrestling. There can come desperate moments in life — and we’ll see shortly just how desperate Asaph’s moment was — where telling our turmoil-afflicted soul to “hope in God” (Psalm 43:5) doesn’t bring quick comfort, because at that moment we’re wondering if God can be hoped in. This is why Asaph says, “When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints” (Psalm 77:3).
Before we go on, we simply need to let this sink in: Asaph’s faith in God was shaken, the resulting anxiety was keeping him awake at night (he even told God, “You hold my eyelids open”), and this experience made it into the canon of Scripture. There’s a reason God preserved this psalm for us.
Has God Forgotten to Be Gracious?
Psalm 77 doesn’t tell us what was fueling Asaph’s distress. But Psalm 79, also attributed to Asaph, very likely does:
O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the heavens for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.
They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
mocked and derided by those around us. (Psalm 79:1–4)
Asaph had witnessed horrors, even if he speaks of them in poetic language. Many of us have seen gruesomely prosaic photographs of war — of brutalized corpses of men, women, and children rotting in the streets. Those who have actually seen the violence, walked those streets, and personally known some of the slain are often scarred by such trauma for a lifetime.
Asaph knew God’s judgment (most likely the Babylonian conquest of Judah) had fallen upon the nation due to unfaithfulness (Psalm 79:8). But the experience of it, described even more graphically by the author of Lamentations, was overwhelmingly horrific on every level. It didn’t just look like judgment; it looked like wholesale abandonment. So, in his midnight anguish, Asaph was asking,
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? (Psalm 77:7–9)
He was asking these disturbing questions because, from his vantage point, at that moment, the answer to each of them had every appearance and emotional impact of yes.
I Will Appeal to This
But Asaph knew his Bible. He knew the covenants God had made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. He knew Israel’s history, from Abraham’s sojourning to the Egyptian slavery to the exodus to the Mosaic law to the conquest of the Promised Land to the reign of kings. He knew the holiness and power God had manifested (Psalm 77:13–14).
And so, in the midst of his disorientation and disillusionment and fear, having witnessed traumatic devastation of God’s people and God’s land, Asaph looked backward for hope:
Then I said, “I will appeal to this,
to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds. (Psalm 77:10–12)
In particular, he focused his troubled mind on the crossing of the Red Sea, reminding himself of how, at that desperate moment, when by all appearances it had looked like Egypt would wipe Israel out and the covenants would fail, God had “redeemed [his] people, the children of Jacob and Joseph” (Psalm 77:15).
When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
indeed, the deep trembled. . . .
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77:16, 19–20)
In his crisis of faith, Asaph reminded himself how, repeatedly through history, those who hope in God have had to hope against hope (Romans 4:18) that God would keep his promises despite circumstances appearing hopeless. If we read Asaph’s psalms (Psalms 73–83), we’ll see how many times he had to remember God’s faithfulness in the past to keep his faith in God’s promised future grace from failing in the present — or in his words, to keep his foot from slipping (Psalm 73:2).
Hope When Circumstances Are Unchanged
Psalm 77 was birthed during an anguished, sleep-deprived night. And it has no explicit resolution; no pretty bow of hopeful words to wrap it up. It just ends, “You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Psalm 77:20). However, the hope is implicit: God, as horrible as this looks right now, as much as it appears that you have forgotten to be gracious, redemptive history tells me that you will still keep your promises and bring your deliverance.
That is one reason God has preserved this psalm and this experience: to help us if and when our faith undergoes severe testing. Asaph provides us language for lament, and an example of what to do when anxiety is surging, and by all appearances it looks like God’s “promises [may be] at an end for all time” (Psalm 77:8).
Like Asaph, our horrible moment might make it appear like God isn’t being or won’t be faithful to his promises, fueling sleepless nights of anxious praying and pondering. Like Asaph, we can pour out our heart to God with profound candor during such a moment. Like Asaph, we can remember God’s faithfulness in the past to keep our faith in God’s future grace from failing in the present.
And like Asaph, we might not quickly receive the comfort we long for, but we fight for it with all our might.