This is a slightly edited version of my response to an email that a dear friend and sister in the Lord, Emma, sent me, in which she quoted verses from Psalm 77 for my encouragement. It was in writing this response that I first considered the idea of keeping a written record of my reflections on the Psalms.
‘When I read this psalm, it frightened me. You see, it was as though I was reading something I could have written for myself. And for some time, I simply couldn’t get past the Selah – the invitation to pause and to think about what I had just read – in verse 9. I felt compelled to go back over and over the first half of the psalm. I read it almost like a justification of where I am. I know that might sound strange, but it’s true. I almost found myself rationalising my condition, using the psalm to excuse my inertia.
‘God may have been good to me in the past, but He’s not now.
‘I’ve prayed, but He hasn’t answered.
‘I’ve stretched out my hands, but He hasn’t comforted me.
‘I’m afraid to go to bed because He won’t let me sleep.
‘I remember what things used to be like, and I’m bitter and perplexed that they are not like that now.
‘I feel spurned by God. I feel that He has closed His ears to me and turned His face from me.
‘I’ve wondered what the point of living is.
‘After some time, I got past the Selah. But straight away, verse 10 held me up, because I couldn’t work out what it meant. The more I read, the more I became convinced that this is the hinge on which the psalm turns. It’s as though the psalmist cries out in his frustration, hurling his accusation toward God:
‘“You’ve changed! And it hurts!”
But he can’t quite bring himself to say that, so he says, instead,
‘“It grieves me that the Most High has changed.”
‘And that resonated with me. It’s exactly how I felt!
‘But some part of me couldn’t believe that that’s where the psalmist could leave it, however desperately abandoned he felt. And recognising that was like someone opening a door and letting in the light. It reminded me of several things you have already, in your kind faithfulness, sent me to reflect on. Surely, this desperation, this bitterness and confusion couldn’t be all that there is.
‘But even as my mind seemed to be encouraged by that, it was as though the door was slammed on me again. You see, I know that God hasn’t changed. Or, at least, I keep telling myself that I know that he hasn’t changed.
‘So, why am I where I am? What is there left for me?
‘And the rest of the psalm reminded me of something that I have preached so many, many times before, how we need, actively and consciously, to remind ourselves of the covenant loyalty and tender mercies of God. God’s way is holy (v13) – it’s so incredibly different and other from ours, or any man’s. It is always perfect – and perhaps never more so than when we do not or cannot understand it. His way is also through the sea (v19). It’s God Most High who brought order out of chaos and set the bounds of the seas when He created them. It’s God Most High who so gloriously led His people from captivity to a broad place when He parted the waters of the Red Sea in remembrance of His covenant. And not just led them but led them tenderly, like a shepherd leads His flock, into the Promised Land.
‘And yet – and yet! – His footprints were unseen. He left no visible trace of Himself in these acts of mercy.
‘Isn’t this why, despite all that He has done for us, some of us still look for an earthly redemption in our need? Just as Israel began to moan as soon as their feet reached dry land, seeing their salvation as back in Egypt; just as, centuries later, they cried for a king like the nations, just at the very time that God’s presence, in the form of the Ark of Covenant, had been returned to them: so some of us, when the way gets too hard, when God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way or the time that we think He should, lose heart. We lose heart because we cannot see His footprints. We cannot see Him leading us in the trial.
‘Our God is both the transcendent and yet the immanent; the utterly holy, incomprehensible, and yet the incarnate; the immutable, and yet the One who knows the frailty of our frame, having been tempted in every way, even as we have been tempted.
‘Because we do not see Him in the oh-so-lonely depths of the trial, some of us struggle to believe Him, and we fail to love Him. And so we rob the Most High of His glory.
‘I’m reminded of the famous picture of the single set of footprints in the sand when a man complained that God had not been with him as he walked his weary way, only to be told that there was only one set of footprints because God had carried the man through the wilderness. Verses 19-20 are the perfect blend of encouragement and wake-up call, presented in the way that Biblical wisdom literature does best.
‘I have to confess that I can’t see God’s footprints. I struggle to believe Him and to love Him as I ought. Yet, I need to remember that He has made His way through the sea, and that His way is always perfect. He has nothing to prove to me. He has already proved His way. All I can do is trust Him.
‘”I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
yea, I will remember thy wonders of old.
I will meditate on all thy work,
and muse on thy mighty deeds.”
‘Lord, I believe! Help Thou mine unbelief!‘