April 5, 2020

Think it Through

Passage: Psalm 77
Service Type:

Bible Text: Psalm 77 | Pastor: Craig Wilson | In the past couple of months, new words and phrases that were rarely, if ever heard, have become commonplace. “Self-isolation”, “self-quarantining”, “social distancing” have all become important, and all too familiar words to us. Millions of people are in lockdown. Either they’re unable to, or apprehensive about, leaving their homes. Millions of people are living in fear. Millions more are wondering when and if this pandemic will come to an end. And when we as believers experience times of trouble, such as the one the world is currently suffering, it becomes so easy to turn inward and to begin to focus, to narrow our focus, so that all that we can see is our life and our problem. And whether we intend to, intentionally or not, we run the risk of excluding everyone and everything else. But when we narrow the focus of our thinking to such a degree, so that all that we see is ourselves and our situation, it’s easy to forget the goodness and the greatness of God. When we narrow our focus to such a degree, we lose sight of the only Source of our hope, which sets up a vicious cycle in which people who are already in isolation feel even more isolated and magnifies the problems that they have. So, in present times of trouble, we must not lose our perspective on the goodness and the greatness of God. The question is, how can you and I maintain a biblical perspective on life during times of trouble? How can we regain, if we have lost it, a biblical perspective on life? In order for you and I to maintain a biblical perspective, you and I must take the time, and we must make the effort to think through our circumstances and to remember that God is a very present help in our time of trouble. In fact, Psalm 46:1 says, “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.”
And we’re going to look at the psalm of Asaph this morning. And we’re going to see three things that he teaches us. And that is because God is our present help, we must remember to turn to God, we must remember to think about God, and we must remember to trust in God. So, first of all, Asaph teaches us, because God is our present help, we must remember to turn to him. As I mentioned, the writer of Psalm 77 is a man named Asaph, and he reveals through his words, that he is an unhappy man. As soon as he puts his pen to the paper, he reveals his feelings, not only about life but most importantly, about God. As he thinks about his current situation, and he compares his life now to the happy life that he used to have, his memories of the past drag him down. The memories of how life used to be have depressed him and are robbing him of any comfort that he could be experiencing in the present. It’s important for us to understand that Asaph has allowed the troubling circumstances of his life to distort his perspective about life and, more importantly, about God. And he’s certainly not alone in allowing this to happen.
Many of God’s children fail to see beyond the trouble they are experiencing, and therefore, they lose a biblical perspective about life and God. We would say that Asaph developed “tunnel vision.,” And all that he can see, all that he is focused on is himself and his trouble. Let me show you what I mean here. In the first six verses of Psalm 77, Asaph uses the words “I”, “me”, or “myself” 18 times, while only referring to God six times. So, what do we conclude from that? Well, in the opening section of this psalm, it’s all about him. Asaph is completely focused on himself. For instance, in verse three, look at verse three, “when I remember God, I moan; when I meditate,  my spirit faints.” Now at first reading of that, at first glance at that, it seems like Asaph is doing a good thing. It appears that what he’s saying is a good thing. He says, “when I remember God…” It’s good to remember God, isn’t it? It’s right to remember God. And normally remembering God is a good thing to do. But that’s not all that Asaph said. He said, “when I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. So his thoughts of God and his meditation on God are not bringing him any comfort or any joy.
So we have to ask ourselves, why is he moaning here? Why does he moan when he thinks about God? Here’s what’s going on. He’s having a pity party. He puts in writing what many of us as believers think during troubling times, it goes something like this. “If God loves me, why do I find myself suffering? If God loves me, why is God letting this take place? Or we would be tempted to say today? Why is God letting this pandemic drag on so long? Well, Asaph certainly is not alone. in expressing these sentiments. Many saints, down through the centuries have expressed these kinds of feelings, one of which was Charles Spurgeon, the greatly used Baptist preacher in 19th century England. And Spurgeon wrote about how he identified with Asaph. He wrote this, he said, “some of us know what it is both physically and spiritually, to be compelled to use those words. No respite has been afforded us by the silence of the night. Our bed has been a rack to us, our body has been in torment, and our spirit and anguish. Alas, my God, the writer of this exposition,” he’s referring to himself, “well knows what thy servant Asaph meant. For his soul is familiar with the way of grief. Deep glens and lonely caves of soul depressions, my spirits knows full well, your awful glooms.” And some of you can identify with Asaph and with Spurgeon. Your Spirit knows full well, the awful glooms. And Asaph was in such a state that he couldn’t even sleep.
But I want us to take note of something that’s critical to this text, even in the midst of his trouble, even though he was focused on himself, even though he couldn’t sleep, God was still in the picture. And even though he referred to himself 18 times in these first few verses, he did mention God six times. So when we reach verse five, during one of his sleepless nights, his mind turns to God. He turns his thinking back to God. Specifically, he begins to think about the ways of God. So as his mind turns to God, he begins to think about God. Here’s point two, because God is our present help, we must remember to think about God. Now notice what Asaph says here in verse five. I consider the days of old years long ago. Now, what is ASAP doing here? Well, notice that he says, I consider notice, this is in the present tense. This is not in the past tense. He’s not saying this is something I used to do. He’s not saying something I may do in the future. He says “no, right now, this is what I’m doing. I consider…” He is in the present, recalling to mind, he’s thinking about better times and he has a specific event in mind, something that actually took place centuries before. And so now, as he begins to think about God, as we come to verse six, he does begin to remember happier times. He says, “Let me remember my song in the night.” The inference is there is a song of joy. He’s not he’s no longer singing the blues at this point. It’s a song of joy. He then begins to meditate and search out what he knows to be true about God in the past, which in turn, leads him to ask six very important questions. He asked six rhetorical questions.
So let’s pay attention to what is happening here. In the middle of his trouble, he begins to think about God he begins to remember the powerful acts of God towards his people. Look at his questions in verses 7,8 and 9. “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?” Now, what’s the answer to each one of those questions. The answer’s no. God will not spurn him or us forever. God’s steadfast love has not ceased. No, God has not forgotten to be gracious and no God has not shut off the fountain of his compassion. Now, what Asaph is doing here is setting an example that we need to follow. He is engaging in some helpful self-talk, we all talk to ourselves at various times. The problem is many times when we talk to ourselves, it’s not very helpful. We normally talk to ourselves in negative ways. Something negative goes on in our lives and we reinforce that by saying something negative about ourselves. I’m guilty of this. But here Asaph’s self-talk is helpful. It’s positive. Because he’s reminding himself of the gracious, loving character of God. And by asking the right questions, he arrives at the right answers. By asking these questions, he begins to change the focus. As he asks these questions about God, His focus begins to change. The focus is no longer solely on himself. He takes the spotlight off of himself and places it where it should be back on God.
Do you remember when Peter wanted to walk on the water? And Jesus said, “Come on.” Peter stepped out of the boat. And as long as he kept his eyes focused on the Lord Jesus what happened? He was able to walk on the water. But the moment that he took his eyes off of Christ, the moment he lost his focus on Christ, he sank. Well, Asaph is turning his eyes, as it were, to God. And as his focus changes, so does his perspective. He asked these six important questions, which all had a positive answer. And those positive answers gave him a new, positive perspective on his life.
Now, hopefully, you see how this change in his thinking came about. While he was focused on himself, everything was negative. Remember what he said in verse three, “when I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints.” It’s all negative. But as he begins to think about God, what happens? His perspective changes. He talks, it’s gonna sound strange, but he talks his way through the problem. And then as he talks his way through the problem, he begins to act on what he knows to be true.
Let’s review his questions. He asked, “Will the Lord spurn forever? Will he never again be favorable?” And even as he is asking the questions, he knows the answers, he knows the answers are all going to be: No, that’s not true. How does he know that? Because he knows and he understands the character of God. He knows that based upon the character of God, that God won’t spurn him forever, and that he will indeed once again be favorable. He knows based upon the character of God, that God’s steadfast love can’t come to an end. He knows that it’s impossible for God to cease being gracious that would go against his very nature. He knows that his anger hasn’t done away with his compassion. He knows that the answer is the same to every one of those questions. The answer is no. And here’s what I really like about Asaph, as a pastor I would want Asaph as part of my congregation, you know why? He acted on what he knew. The heartbreak of the pastor is counseling people, teaching people, preaching to people, and they will never put into practice what he gives them from the very mouth of God. And they choose to wallow in their misery and yes, their sin. For the simple reason, they will not act on what they know to be true.
But Asaph wasn’t like that. He acted upon what he knew. He turns his knowledge into action. Again, let me say that he turns his knowledge into action. He thinks his way out of what he had thought his way into. His thinking led him to act. Now, what action did he take? Well, he encouraged himself. Look at verse 10. “Then I said, I, ‘I will appeal to this.'” Nothing I’ve done. But “‘ I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.'” Now we’ll see in a moment that Asaph has something specific in mind, but for now, notice that he appeals to the years, not the days, not the months, not the weeks, but the years of the right hand of the Most High. He’s talking about the power of God.
Listen, folks, God is not a one-hit-wonder. I was trying to think of a current one-hit-wonder but I don’t know popular music so I don’t know any. But God is not a one-hit-wonder. In other words, Asaph encourages himself, by reminding himself of the continuous demonstrations of the power of God on behalf of his people down through history. He says to himself ‘I find myself discouraged. I find myself depressed. I find myself unhappy. I find myself in trouble now. But I know that I’m not the first of God’s people to ever have experienced trouble. And I also know that God has repeatedly put his power to use on behalf of his people. And he has used the might of his right arm to use for the good of his people, and I am one of his own, and therefore he’s going to do the same for me.’ And likewise, you and I are not the first of God’s people to experience trouble. Yes, living in the midst of a pandemic is a first for all of us. And day after day brings ever-growing numbers of infections and tragically death. And many of us are doing our best to follow the guidelines. Guidelines which are given for our good but at the same time, those guidelines are isolating many people. And if we’re not careful, we will find ourselves like Asaph. We will use the zoom function of the thinking of our minds to focus on ourselves and our situation. And as we do that, we will turn inward and we will grow self-centered. And like Asaph if we’re not careful, we will begin to wonder if God loves me, why is this happening?
And when we have lost our perspective, and all that we can see is ourselves and our problems. Here’s what we need to do. We just simply need to stop it. We need to follow the example of Asaph here. We need to encourage ourselves by remembering, by calling to mind the years of the right hand of the Most High. Call to mind. Rehearse the activity of God throughout history on behalf of his people. Go back through your own life and see what God has done in your life. I go back to last November, laying in that MRI machine wondering if I would ever preach again. And God says ‘it’s going to be alright.’ See? His mighty right hand. Staying in the scriptures is the key to maintaining a biblical perspective on life. I say that again. Staying in the scriptures is the key to maintaining a biblical perspective on life.
Well, not only did Asaph turn to God and think about God, he also restored his trust in God. That’s point three: Because God is our present help we must remember to trust God. Now at the risk of sounding like a pragmatist, let me ask a question. Did this work for Asaph? Did his effort in thinking through the powerful acts of God work? Did thinking about the past provide any benefit in the present? The answer is yes. A clear, a distinct change takes place. And we see this in verse 13. In verse 13, his attitude completely changes. Remember, back in verse three is that, “when I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints.” But now in verse 13, it all changes. He says, “Your Way, oh God, is holy. What God is like our God. He goes from groaning to greatness. What has transpired here? What is taking place in his life that has brought this about?
Well, let’s, let’s just slow down for a moment. Let’s pause for a moment of reflection. As far as we know, have the circumstances of his life changed? No. As far as we know, has the problem that he was experiencing changed? No. As far as we know, has the trouble that he found himself in the midst of hasn’t gone away. Again, as far as we know, it hasn’t. What is the one thing that has changed? What is the one thing that has changed? His thinking. His thinking has changed. You say that’s it? Yep. His entire outlook changed when his thinking changed. His understanding of what he was experiencing changed when he stopped thinking about himself and began to think about, and to meditate on, the power of God and the works of God.
Here’s the key, Asaph changed the only thing that he could control. He couldn’t control his circumstances. He couldn’t control the source of his trouble. There was only one thing that he could control and that was his thinking. And when he changed his thinking, his mood changed, his outlook changed and his understanding changed. He stopped thinking about himself. He stopped thinking about his situation and he began to think about the works, the character and the power of God, which led him to make three important declarations about God.
The first one is God is holy. You say, “Well, how does that help? How is my knowledge of the holiness of God, how’s it helped me during times of trouble?” Here’s how it helps. Because God is holy, it is impossible for God to treat you wrong. There are many times in our lives when we can justifiably say to another person, you’ve done me wrong. But there can never be any action of God towards you that you can legitimately level the charge against him: “you’ve done me wrong.” It is impossible. Why? Because God is holy. The second declaration he makes his he declares the greatness of God. Again, the end of verse 13, “What God is great like our God?” Of course, the answer is what? no other God is like our God. Third, he declares, God is caring. In verse 15 Asaph says about God “You with your arm redeemed your people.”
So what Asaph has been doing here, he has been drawing, he has been remembering from one of the most significant events in the history of the nation of Israel, of the children of Israel. And that, of course, is the Exodus. It is them coming out of Egypt. You remember the story. Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt. He prospers there. He brings his family. They multiply there and over the next 400 years, they become a great nation. But they were enslaved by Pharaoh. They cry out to God. God hears their cry, and he sends them Moses to deliver them. Moses goes to Pharaoh and says, “you’ve got to let my people go.” And Pharaoh balks, he doesn’t want to give up his free cheap labor. He won’t let them go. So what does God do? God says the ten plagues. God defeats all the false gods of Egypt. And finally, finally, Pharaoh cries “uncle,” and says, “All right, you could go.” The children of Israel, they pack up and they go. God, if you go back and read Exodus 14 very carefully, you’ll see that God led them to the shores of the Red Sea. In the meantime, Pharaoh had a form of buyer’s remorse. And he wanted Israel back. So he goes to get him.
So here’s the picture. God has led his people to the shores of the Red Sea. At the same time, God has led the enemy of his people to the shores of the Red Sea. They’re pursuing the people of Israel. Asaph picks up the story here in verse 16. Look at verse 16,
“When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed, the deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook; Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters, yet your footprints were unseen. You lead your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”
Do you see what Asaph is doing here? He personifies the waters of the Red Sea. He’s says “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed, the deep trembled.” Water and seas many times in Scripture represent chaos. And who is controlling the waters of the sea? Who is in control of the chaos? God is. Who is in control of the pandemic? God is. God can, God is, God will control the pandemic. God controls the chaos, and God defeats the chaos. God cut right through the waters, God cut right through the chaos and led his people to safety. And again, I would encourage you to take a few moments this afternoon to go back and read from the book of Exodus and read the account of the crossing of the people of Israel as they went through the Red Sea. Now tell you what you won’t find you will not find any panic in their crossing. There’s no sense of that in the text. Instead, it’s a calm journey of a flock of sheep, being led by the great shepherd.
See Asaph looks to the past, to secure confidence for the present, and hope for the future. And so he says in verses 19 and 20, “your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You lead your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” Two observations. Number one, God’s way was then and continues to be to take people through the sea to take people through times of trouble. We see it in the children of Israel. We see it in Daniel. We see it in Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. We see it in the life of Job. We see it in the life of Paul. We see it in the life of Christ. God’s way is to take people through the sea.
Second, God is a God–I’ll add this phrase to it–God is a God who excels in saving his people, impossible situations. By any human standard of evaluation, when the children of Israel were on the shores, facing the deep waters, by any standard human evaluation, that was a hopeless situation. Pharaoh had to be thinking to himself, “what good fortune I’ve got.” What army wouldn’t want to have their prey captured? Pharaoh must have been thinking, “aha, I’ve got them right where I want them.” While God knew, yes, I’ve got my people right where I want them and I’ve got their enemies right where I want them.
God had them all right where he wanted them and I’ve referenced this song before and it’s a favorite of mine. Russ Taff has a song called “He came through.” The very first verse goes like this “picture Moses, by the red seashore. Pharaoh knows they can’t run no more. The water is way too deep and wide. They can’t swim and they can’t hide. But though he was just a man, Moses raised his hand and the Lord came through, he heard their cry. When hope was gone, he turned the tide. You can shake your head but you know it’s true when there was no other way the Lord came through.”
And so verse 20 Asaph says “You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” Now, after all the things that Asaph has described here, it almost seems like he’s run out of steam. “I don’t have much left to say. Let me just wrap it up this way.” It almost seems a little anticlimactic. “This is it Asaph? This is how you end this? ‘You lead your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron?'”. But don’t be deceived. This is the whole point of the Psalm. When the children of Israel arrived at the shores of the Red Sea, they were facing a situation they had never experienced before. They had deep water in front of them, and an angry army in pursuit of them. Their only option was to turn to God. Listen how Moses tells an exodus 14 beginning in verse 10. “When Pharaoh drew near the people of Israel lifted up their eyes and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, they feared greatly.” Now notice, who are they focused on? Pharaoh and the army.
“And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, they said to Moses, is it because there are no grace in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt? Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians, for it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians and then to di in the wilderness. Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians, who you see today, you shall never see again, the Lord will fight for you. And you only have to be silent.”
And for all of us living today it’s true of us, for the people of Israel, was for them. Like them, we have never been through a pandemic. We must trust our God. We must remember that just as their great Shepherd led them with unseen footprints so too is our Great Shepherd, leading us with unseen footprints. We have to understand that God excels in saving his people in impossible situations. Let that be a comfort to us. We, of all people, believers, of all people, should exhibit a calm and a confidence in this time of crisis. Yes. Be cautious. Yes, protect yourself. But do not live in fear. Do not be like the unsaved. Do not live in fear. Think back to the children of Israel. The waves of the sea lapping at their sandals, the dust of the army rising behind them and what was God’s counsel? “Stand firm. Fear not. See the salvation of the Lord. The Lord will fight for you.” Say, well that happened thousands of years ago, fine. The writer of Hebrews says Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. So, therefore, we must trust that our Great Shepherd will lead us safely through to the other side.