Psalm 77 — Psalms of Asaph
When I meditate I feel discouraged. Words from the Good News Bible from verse 3, and for a lot of my time in the last 14 years also my experience. Following an accident, not my fault, I went through a difficult time in my relationship with God and particularly with other Christians, whose advice consisted of little more than victim-blaming. “You should pray more.” I was praying. I was meditating, and it brought no relief. In hindsight, I was probably depressed. If I had been advised to seek psychiatric or psychological help things could have been better, but I wasn’t given that advise, and things did not get better for a long time.
Asaph had a long career. Appointed by David as one of the chief musicians in the Temple, and still serving under Solomon. Asaph’s role was prophetic, his job was to listen to the prayers concerns and laments of the people, and to give God’s relpy. The Psalms of Asaph, Psalms 50 and 73–83 are both communal laments and words of prophesy
For the director of music. For Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A psalm.
1 I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
2 When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.
3 I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
4 You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
5 I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
6 I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
7 ‘Will the Lord reject for ever?
Will he never show his favour again?
8 Has his unfailing love vanished for ever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?’
10 Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
11 I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
12 I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.’
13 Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
14 You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.
15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
16 The waters saw you, God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
17 The clouds poured down water,
the heavens resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
18 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
19 Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.
20 You led your people like a flockPsalm 77 NIV UK
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Things are no better when you look beyond Christianity. Buddhism has similar sayings about the benefits of meditation on the soul, it is not meant to make things worse. I have not looked in this very deeply but this shallow stuff is what searching the internet with this blog title and Buddhism brings up. Basically, they say that discouragement when meditating is because the self is deluded so we must lose the self.
The wellness answer is that if we focus on the positive then the negative will go away. Sadly Christians said this to me too. Look at that statement and consider how it relates to other things. Brexit won’t happen if we concentrate positively on the EC or We won’t remain if we think about Brexit. ‘Send some positive thoughts.’ What good is that when what is needed is positive action? This Wellness stuff, along with a lot of motivational stuff does not really help more than a brief feel-good moment.
Psalm 77, according to the introductory words is the first of eleven consecutive psalms written by Asaph. Asaph was one of the three top musicians in the Temple commissioned by David for when it was opened. Can you imagine a church giving the job of worship leader to someone who had written a worship song that contained the lyric, ‘When I meditate I feel discouraged,’ do you think they would get the job? I doubt it.
You can become discouraged even when things are going well. In the September 10th episode of the Channel 4 reality series Sink or Swim for Stand Up for Cancer, James ‘Arg’ Argent was doing well in the river swim when he was overtaken by disabled TV presenter Alex Brooker. Arg became disillusioned at being overtaken, and the disillusionment spread to Brooker when he saw someone who was improving as much as Arg ready to throw the towel in. Disillusionment is contagious. The pep talks to Arg were about looking back at how well he was doing, being a strong swimmer starting from nothing at all, and Arg ended the episode qualifying for the next stage, the relay swim of the English Channel.
This is what Asaph does in this psalm, he looks back at what God has done in the past, which brings no conclusion, the psalm ends with this list, but before the list Asaph asks if God has forgotten his promises, has his love ceased or forgotten to be gracious. The answer to these rhetorical questions is implied to be no. But although there is a hope for the future here the present situation is still uncertain.
I have always loved the psalms. Before the accident that disabled me, I loved the Songs of Ascents, Psalms 120–134, songs of praise for approaching the Temple. The first if these also has little hopefulness in it. The psalmist was distressed, feeling like a foreigner in his own land, like Asaph here. Being a Christian on Earth is like being a stranger in a strange land. We are citizens of Heaven living in exile waiting to go back to our homeland.
The difference between the Songs of Ascents and the psalms of Asaph is that the Songs of Ascents look forward to a future, in the short term worship at the Temple in Jerusalem and long term being with God forever. Asaph, on the other hand, is not looking forward but telling it like it is for him now. The Songs of Ascents are aspirational, Asaph’s psalms are about what he is going through. In the book of Psalms, there is room for both these views of worship.
It is not about feel-good sayings, it is not about losing ourselves, it is about finding God in a place that is not our own. We are on a journey from a place where we do not belong. Along the journey, things can be hard for us and the end whilst inevitable may not yet be in sight. We travel through dark places, some of them very dark, when the going is very hard prayer and meditation can be really difficult, and this is not our fault. We need to find where God is in dark places and worship him there. We need more worship leaders like Asaph.
This blog was first published on 23rd October 2019. I have republished it here, with amendments, because it fits in with my series on Asaph’s psalms.