Prayer in Time of Need
I hope you are praying people. I hope you know what it is to regularly call upon God in prayer. I hope too that you know what it is to have your prayers heard and answered. I hope that your reaction when things go well is to thank God for his kindness and when they don’t go quite as you wanted them to that you praise him for knowing and doing what is the best. I hope when you encounter tough decisions to take, difficult circumstances to navigate and immense problems to overcome that your first reaction (and not your last) is to pray.
The Bible is a Book that contains many prayers and examples of men and women praying. The Book of Psalms has been called the Prayer Book of the Bible for we find there a wide range of prayers and praises.
This evening I want us to look together at Psalm 77. Some of us began to do so on Wednesday evening when we thought briefly about the first three verses but this evening I plan to consider the whole of the Psalm.
Being westerners our bias is to interpret and apply everything that we read and hear in a highly individualistic manner and the very way this psalm begins with its repetition of the words "I" and "me" seems to point us in this direction. And yet the Bible’s outlook contains a strong communitarian spirit which we overlook at our peril. The OT contains a record of God’s relationship with his chosen people and not just with a variety of isolated individuals and the NT when speaking about the church likes to highlight interrelationships and interdependence as, for example, with its body language:
1Cor.12:26 "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together."
So as we think about Psalm 77 we are not to treat it as though it were simply the prayer of an individual going through a tough patch – this is a member of God’s community who is suffering and in all likelihood other members of this community are caught up in the same sufferings as well.
There are in the text some signposts to help us on our way. There are three Selahs at the end of vv.3,9 and 15 and these serve to divide the text up into four basic sections. In addition to this there is a general shift from I to you as we move through the psalm. The psalmist himself is to the fore in the first two sections of the psalm vv.1-3 and vv.4-9 where "I" is prominent. In the final two sections vv.10-15 and vv.16-20 the focus has moved from the psalmist to God, represented by "you".
With this information we can study the psalm as a psalm in two parts each part containing two further parts.
PART I Section I
The psalmist is in trouble and reacts well by turning to the Lord in prayer. His prayer is not some quiet, unexpressed longing but he calls out loud. To do so he has to formulate what he wants so that he can put his request into words.
To pray in this way evidences the seriousness and the earnestness of the praying. Jesus himself, we are told in the NT, prayed in this manner:
Heb.5:7 "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence."
Praying in this way does help to focus the mind and the spirit as well as indicating just how important it is to us to be heard.
The psalmist prays in order to be heard. This doesn’t imply that God is hard of hearing but it does point to the fact that it is not that the mechanics of prayer alone that brings relief. Prayer by itself solves nothing but prayer is valuable in that it enables us to speak with the God who can do all things.
Here the psalmist expresses his confidence too that God will indeed hear his prayer and if he is heard he believes he will get the help he is looking for.
But the psalmist does not find an immediate solution as he prays. In fact his troubles persist and he has to pray through the hours of a sleepless night. He holds out his hands to God – that is, he adopts a physical attitude that corresponds with importunate prayer. His prayer goes on and on as he refuses to give in because of tiredness. The psalmist is earnestly looking for satisfaction from God and stubbornly refuses to be satisfied with anything less.
It all seems so commendable so right and yet the psalmist does not find what he wants. The more he thinks about God the worse things seem to become and he moans. As he reflects on the past instead of finding encouragement and comfort the psalmist finds only disappointment and weakness gnawing at him.
And he pauses to think about it all.
PART I Section II
Prayer is no panacea for the psalmist during this time of trouble – he prays but his situation remains the same and his feelings take a turn for the worse.
His sleeplessness he attributes to God and is so overwhelmed by his situation that he can’t find any words now to speak in prayer.
Sometimes prayer will be so for us too. We are too ready to believe that the moment we start to pray our situation will automatically improve or at least start to improve. How readily we turn to prayer as a means to improving our situation and our own self-interest. And we are not completely wrong in that either!
But in this particular instance the psalmist is too caught up with himself and his own experience. He has enjoyed good times in the past in his spiritual walk with the Lord and wants to relive these ‘golden day’ all over again.
But as Alec Motyer put it:
"Hankering after the past is no remedy for the present and no recipe for the future."
And how easy it is for us to adopt a similar outlook! We may think back to a time when the churches were full of people, when the singing was rousing and the fellowship warm and exuberant. We may remember times when we found Bible reading and prayer easy and rewarding. We may remember times when there was a regular flow of new people being converted. And we find ourselves longing relive such times.
And what happens when those longings remain unsatisfied? A sense of despair may come knocking at the door. Doubts, horrible doubts, may begin to trouble us as we begin to think the unthinkable. That was what was happening to the psalmist as he remembered "better days" and wasn’t able to recapture the spirit of them in his current experience. He began to ask himself a series of questions, painful questions:
v.7 "Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favourable?
v.8 "Has his steadfast love forever ceased?"
v.8 "Are his promises at an end for all time?"
v.9 "Has God forgotten to be gracious?"
v.10 "Has he in anger shut up his compassion?"
These questions all demand a negative answer but I don’t think the psalmist immediately does that – these come across as the seeds of doubt that are making their presence felt as the psalmist struggles to come to terms with the reality of his situation and the situation of the people of God.
We too may find the same questions arising in our own hearts and minds if the circumstances are right and what are we too do with them?
Sometimes we will simple try to stifle the questions as unthinkable and impossible but this psalm shows us a better way.
First, if such doubts do begin to press in upon us let us take encouragement from the fact that we are not the first believers to whom they have come. God in his compassion and wisdom has so planned the Bible that it contains this psalm with its dallying with doubt.
Second, let’s learn from the way in which the psalmist does in fact handle the whole situation.
The presence of a second selah does point us to some more serious reflection. And the tone of the psalm changes here as v.10 becomes the major hinge upon which the psalm turns.
The first part has seen the psalmist longing nostalgically for the blessings he had experienced in the past. (A bit like that desire to recapture the excitement and delight we perhaps enjoyed in Christmases of the past when we were children. But as we know all too well we never do recapture those nostalgic feelings.) The past, the good old days, will never come again! That does not mean however that there is no room for blessings in the future but rather we look for new, different and fresh blessings as our God is a God who delights to do new things!
Part II Section I
If the psalmist focused upon his enjoyment of the Lord in the first half of the psalm now in this second half it is the Lord himself and the deeds he performed that become the focus of attention for the psalmist.
Yes, he still looks to the past but he does so in a different way now. What will help him most is not a remembrance of how he enjoyed the Lord in the past but a remembrance of the Lord himself for this Lord remains the same regardless of the circumstances that prevail.
The psalmist turns and meditates upon God – who he is, what he has done and what he is like: over a long period of time God had proved his faithfulness to his people and had intervened for them on multiple occasions.
"I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. You with your arm redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah"
The last phrase is unusual only occurring here "the children of Jacob and Joseph". What are we to make of it?
Well the common factor that stands out between these two men was that they both died in Egypt but both issued instructions before their deaths that they wanted to be buried in the Promised Land:
Gen.49:29-30 "Then (Jacob) commanded (his sons) and said to them, "I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place."
Gen.50:24 "And Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob."
Both these men looked to the promise of God which had not yet been fulfilled but they trusted and believed the word given and set their heart upon it.
In the same way we should look to the Lord and his promises with faith. All the works he has carried out in the past give us added ground for confidence regarding the future. And we have far more and greater works to look back upon than the psalmist ever did. The psalmist’s backward look to the way in which the Lord delivered his people was to reflect upon the Exodus, the physical captivity that was known in Egypt. We have far, far greater things to take into account as we look to the Lord: we can look upon his faithfulness to his promises in sending, at the right moment in time, his son into the world. We can look back upon the miracles Jesus was enabled to perform, the teaching he was able to give and the sufferings he endured. In particular we look to his death, resurrection and subsequent ascension into heaven. We see how the Spirit was poured out upon the early church enabling them to begin the task of carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth. And we can look to the last 2.000 of church history as Jesus has been fulfilling his promise to build the church.
Our help really is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth and in living in fellowship with him. If we have good memories of past experiences with God by all means rejoice. Take it as an encouragement to go on seeking fellowship with this God who has not changed and to look to enjoy him in the new and changed circumstances in which we now live. But don’t mourn for the past in a backward looking manner use it rather as a springboard towards the future!
Part II Section II
The final section takes the psalmist into an almost eye witness account and description of just how the Lord intervened to deliver the Israelites from their Egyptian captivity.
The various forces of nature are all seen to be completely under his control and this is something from which we can draw great encouragement.
When we’re caught up in a great and mighty storm we really do have the feeling of our own smallness pressed home upon us. Being in the open and exposed to a great electrical storm with loud crashes of thunder can be quite a frightening experience. Just like being in a set of circumstances where everything seems to be beyond our control and where fear might try to dominate us.
But what comfort to know that the Lord is there and in control!
Faith is still called for! His footprints are not evident and clearly visible. They are there but accessible only to the eye of faith. Every set of circumstances we will meet with a variety of interpretations – and the godless will come up with what sometimes will sound so plausible and so many will believe them that we might be tempted to believe them too. Beware!
The psalm closes with a delightful change of emphasis in the very last verse. After a description of the powerful acts of nature the psalmist celebrates the wonderful truth that this God is compassionate and gentle and kind: he leads his people like a flock and he had done so through the men he had called to positions of leadership.
It is not that Moses and Aaron were perfect men, they most certainly weren’t, but God used them to do good to his people.
Let us, like the psalmist, learn to cry out to the Lord in our day of trouble and may we be marked by our desire for him in the present and the future.