Sometimes worship feels beyond my grasp.
God seems to have abandoned me, and my arms cannot find him no matter how high they are raised. So instead, my hands shove deep into my pockets, my lips seal tight, and I close my body like a shield to protect my battered heart.
The Psalms give two responses appropriate for these times.
One is to lament. To open those lips with the words of anger and raise those hands with fists clenched. To let out the sadness and frustration and anguish to the God who listens.
The other is to praise in spite of feelings. To force out words the lips do not want to speak. To sing that foreign language of thanksgiving and praise and rejoicing to the God who deserves it regardless of our feelings.
Both responses are appropriate. And both are needed.
Psalm 77 shows us both responses in the same Psalm. It begins in lament.
I cry out to God; yes, I shout. Oh, that God would listen to me! When I was in deep trouble, I searched for the Lord. All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven, but my soul was not comforted. I think of God, and I moan, overwhelmed with longing for his help.
You don’t let me sleep. I am too distressed even to pray! I think of the good old days, long since ended, when my nights were filled with joyful songs. I search my soul and ponder the difference now. Has the Lord rejected me forever? Will he never again be kind to me? Is his unfailing love gone forever? Have his promises permanently failed? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he slammed the door on his compassion? –Psalm 77:1-9
This psalmist knows that his frustration does not put God’s love at risk. He does not fake his feelings or muster up his morality before coming to God’s throne. He is honest, raw, and authentic.
He laments his situation, knowing that healing is found in honesty, and God is found in our searching.
But lament is not the only movement of Psalm 77. The next stanza is a key turn in the poem.
And I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me.” But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. They are constantly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works. –Psalm 77:10-12
I picture the psalmist sitting in exasperation, wondering what to do, when he notices a pen next to him. He picks it up and makes himself to list out the ways God has shown himself faithful in the past.
As the psalmist begins this discipline of forced remembering, the moments flood his memory, and it seems as though he can’t get the praise recorded fast enough.
O God, your ways are holy. Is there any god as mighty as you? You are the God of great wonders! You demonstrate your awesome power among the nations. By your strong arm, you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Interlude
When the Red Sea saw you, O God, its waters looked and trembled! The sea quaked to its very depths. The clouds poured down rain; the thunder rumbled in the sky. Your arrows of lightning flashed. Your thunder roared from the whirlwind; the lightning lit up the world! The earth trembled and shook. Your road led through the sea, your pathway through the mighty waters— a pathway no one knew was there! You led your people along that road like a flock of sheep, with Moses and Aaron as their shepherds. –Psalm 77:13-20
Are these words sung with arms raised and heart open? I doubt they begin that way. The psalmist’s situation has not changed. His feelings are still those of abandonment and despair. He praises through gritted teeth.
But I wonder if in times of trouble the language of praise is like any foreign language: the more we speak it, the more we understand it.
In Hebrew poetry, it is the middle of that receives the emphasis. In this poem, that is the stanza in which the psalmist makes the turn from lament to praise. I wonder if God wants us to see that despair and worship are not mutually exclusive.
It’s possible to speak the words of pain and praise at the same time.
That was my reflection on Psalm 77. Please read the posts of others below. And join us next week for reflections on Psalm 78.