Psalm 77

January 28, 2001


Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

This Psalm begins the way some of our days do with the Psalmist crying out to God, “Help, Help!” Notice the variety in his attempt to get God’s attention. Even in distress though he is creative: I cried out to God. I sought the Lord. I stretched out untiring hands. I remembered God and I groaned. I mused. I was troubled.

Well, first of all, nothing is wrong with crying out to God. Jesus did that. Remember Hebrews 5:7, “he prayed with loud cries and tears..., and he was heard for his godly fear.”

Jesus also asked questions of God like the Psalmist does, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But the Psalmist’s questions seem to me to be more troubling. Look at verses 7-9. Will the Lord reject us forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Notice the emphasis, will this be, verse 7, forever? Will God never again favor us? I thought his love was unfailing, but is it vanished forever? Is it gone for all time? Now there may be a bit of hyperbole in the poet’s words. When we are in hard days it seems as if things can never be right again. But though the Psalmist does not answer the questions of verses 7-9, those questions do not measure his belief about God.

What does this tell us? All the monologue from verses 1-12 focuses on the Psalmist himself, his questions, his problems. When a person is in distress and is living with uncertainty about his/her future, that’s often when a person is self-centered. This past week I was with a group that included a number of non-Christians. I have noticed before that such people often talk a lot about themselves. They describe their problems and how hard their lives are and they never ask other people about themselves. They are self-centered. That’s one of the things sin does to a person. Is the Psalmist merely expressing his sin?

Instead of answering the questions he has posed, the Psalmist tells a story. It is his story. It begins at night when he is trying to speak with God.

In the 19th century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called “The Voices of the Night”. Longfellow seems not to have known the existential harshness of the feeling of being deserted by God. “There is a quiet spirit,” he writes, “That dwells where’er the gentle south-wind blows.... That spirit... frequent on the everlasting hills, It’s feet go forth, when it doth wrap itself In all the dark embroidery of the storm.”

I grew up on Longfellow. He was my mother’s favorite poet, and I understand this Romantic vision and where it came from, Novalis and the Blue Flower movement and Wordsworth. But there is something false about the Romantic vision when one is struggling to make sense of desertion and pain. And if nothing else, the Psalms - indeed, the whole Bible - is a realistic book.

When the Psalmist has doubts about things, what he does is confess them to God, like in verses 7-9. Those are his questions. His fears, if you will. Now it’s good to be honest, but the Psalmist seems to lack faith in these verses.

Yet it is exactly when the Psalmist outlines his misgivings that he can see where he has been wrong. This is often true. A person may think he has an irrefutable argument for why he doesn’t believe in God, and when he writes his argument down, he finds it doesn’t hold up.

The Psalmist writes about God’s unfailing love in verse 8 and about His faithful promises, to which even when we are unfaithful, He is faithful; and then he asks, have God’s promises been annulled forever, verse 7, and for all time, verse 8? What possible answer can there be to the question of verse 9, has God forgotten? than, how could He? Verse 9 mentions God’s mercy and His anger and we know from the whole context of Scripture that only sin arouses God’s anger and only refusal to repent perpetuates it so the fault lies not in the stars - nor in God - but in us!

As he works his way toward a solution, the Psalmist does what we have seen in other Psalms. In verses 3 and 6 and 11 he remembers what God has done in the past. In verses 3 and 6 and 12 he meditates upon God’s past deeds. (The New International Version sometimes translates the word, “muse”.) The memories both add to his grief and snap him out of his despondency. The memories add to his grief because, by contrast with the rich past of Israel, the Psalmist senses that now God is absent and he can’t understand why. They snap him out of his muddledness because he knows that what has been repeated over and over in his life, how God delivered Israel out of Egypt, is true. Look, right now they are in Palestine. Look, right now they are not slaves in Egypt.

In verse 13 a change comes in the passage, the “I”s disappear and the Psalmist focuses on the mighty acts God has performed in the past. The Psalmist speaks to God. “Your ways, O God, are holy.” And then he speaks about God, “what god is so great as our God?” And then he relates some of the details of the story of the Exodus, that story of deliverance that every Jew knew since the story was often told in his family.

What stories do you have in your family or from your church about God? Let’s say you’re writing a memoir of your life. You think back to the time you were converted and you write down that experience. I remember that time in the Spring of my sophomore year in college. I can tell you what changed in my life. Maybe more important, I can tell you what I saw of God that I had never seen before, that made him real to me. It was what happened when Jesus died that proved such an effective remedy for my sins. Something changed in me when I realized that what Jesus did then, applied to me now, since I had the same problem people in Jesus’ day had. Jesus died for ME! I can write that story. But God did not stand right there before me. That is why the last words of verse 19 struck me so when I read this Psalm: “though your footprints were not seen.”

In verses 16-18 the Psalmist reflects on how God was seen in floods and rain and thunder and lightning - the arrows that flash back and forth in verse 17 - and in the earthquakes and the whirlwind. The Psalmist even calls it in verse 18, “Your thunder” and “your lightning.” But where was God in this? Do you remember Elijah fleeing God and coming to Mount Horeb and a wind tore the mountains apart and an earthquake shook the mountains and a fire burned on the mountains, but God was in none of that. And yet he caused it all. That’s what the psalmist is saying in verse 19, “though your footprints were unseen.”
Plagues fell on Egypt until the land was destroyed and Moses said that God brought them, but where was God seen? Israel marched across the Red Sea on dry land and when the Egyptians on their chariots tried to follow, they were drowned. It was God who parted the Red Sea, and just as important, brought the sea back on the Egyptians, preventing Egypt’s armies from following Israel into the wilderness. But where did anyone see God? What they saw was the effect of God’s power, and the Jews knew in the story passed down from generation to generation that God had done this thing. But where were the footprints of God?

What does that expression about the footprints of God mean?

One thing it means is that God does not repeat miracles. The scientific method fails in light of the way God works because all scientific experimenting is based upon the ability to repeat experiments. The assumption being that natural forces are regular and so experiments can be repeated and they should yield the same results - and they often do except in 10th and 11th grade chemistry and physics. But, and here is the Psalmist point, the supernatural forces of God do not repeat. This fact leads to all sorts of false religions and odd philosophical beliefs, but for the Psalmist it is connected to a real history and a true God.

Another of Longfellow’s poems, A Psalm of Life, contains the lines,
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

And Longfellow had a moral to these lines,
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Now maybe even Longfellow didn’t place all that much hope in the footprints for he writes about footprints in sand and we all know how soon the wind or waves erase them. But if he means that the example and the life of a person can encourage someone else, then he means what the psalmist means when the Psalmist recounts the story of the Exodus which occurred by God’s mighty acts. But an exodus is not repeated in every generation. It’s not scientific.

Bel and the Dragon is one of the books in the Old Testament Apocrypha, that part of Jewish history which is not in our canon. In that book there is an incident where the offering put on the altar in the temple keeps disappearing and it seems that God is not receiving the gifts that people give him. Then Daniel sprinkles ashes on the floor of the temple and the next day all could see the footprints of the priests and their families, who were taking the offerings for their own use.

But God does not leave footprints in that way. His footprints are in His Word and in the changed lives of people who believe in Him and in the unobserved care God takes of His own, and yet His own know that the care is from God.

Was God involved when the Sea was parted and when the Egyptians drowned? There are no footprints to prove it. Particularly during the time of Jeduthun, who according to 1 Chronicles 16:41-42 with his family, were on David’s musical staff - see the heading of this Psalm 77 - there were no footprints of God that they saw. There is only the oft repeated story that God led Israel out of Egypt - leading to the conclusion of verse 20, “you led your people like a flock.” What does this conclusion tell us? We are not to be dismayed when we do not see God’s power because we rest in the fact that we are the people of God’s flock.

Having miracles performed for us doesn’t necessarily do anything in our lives. Oh, we say it will make a difference, like we say, if only we had a million dollars we could be happy. Jesus refused to do a miracle for the Pharisees. It is, instead, when we know that we belong to God’s flock and when we believe what God promises, it is then we are satisfied. For example, in John 10 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” He says the good shepherd knows his sheep by name, and he goes ahead of them, leading them, and he says he lays down his life for his sheep. When we believe that, our lives are changed. We’re part of the flock.

What kind of a God would say we are his flock? Even in Jesus’ day there was a divided opinion. Some said He was mad. Others looked at the footprints of the miracles and asked, can a mad man open the eyes of the blind? What we do is tell the story of how Jesus is our shepherd.

There is one other thing here. It’s also in verse 20 which says that God leads his people like a flock, and then, “by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” Moses and Aaron were called by God to lead God’s people. When God spoke at Mt. Sinai, the people were afraid. They said to Moses, you go and speak to God. We don’t want to speak to him, he scares us. So Moses went.

God called me to the Grantham Church and you affirmed that call. I’m not a perfect leader, but I know God and I try to follow him in my life and I tell you about that. I make mistakes. Aaron led the people into idolatry and he died in the desert. Moses refused to honor God before the rock that gave water and he was never allowed to enter Canaan, the place to which for 40 years he had led the Israelites and put up with their grumbling and their complaints and he prayed for them that God wouldn’t destroy them. Neither Moses nor Aaron were prefect leaders.

Who knows what God has for this church in the future? God knows, and he will continue to lead you in the future but all you’ll see is people like Bob Ives and Steve Lane and MJ Davis and Lynda Gephart and Karen Durbin and Beth Huffnagle and other leaders in the church - the deacons, the Sunday School teachers, your parents, because God leaves no footprints and none of us is perfect. But we try, and from us you can learn many things about God and from the scriptures you can learn of the great acts of God among Israel and within the church, and be encouraged, even when things in your life are hard. God’s promise is, He will lead us like a flock.