Asaph spun his wheels in a ditch overflowing with discouragement, and the nauseating gasses of doubt filled his nostrils. Pain and anguish clouded his outlook, and his faith took a direct hit. In the swirl of my own adversity I smacked into his Psalm, #77. Can I learn anything from this man and the words he left?
Who was Asaph?
Asaph, a Levite, was the son of Berechiah and the grandson of Shimea (1 Chronicles 6:39). King David singled Asaph out for a special post as chief musician, and tasked him to lead the congregation of Israel in worship and giving of thanks (1 Chronicles 16:5,7). Scripture records that Asaph excelled at the loud-sounding cymbals. Who knew? And his role in congregational worship became a full-time job (1 Chronicles 16:37). His sons and their sons would follow him in this role. Twelve of the Psalms bear Asaph’s name as author although some scholars believe his descendants composed a few (such as Psalm 79) much later in history. By the time of Hezekiah Asaph was viewed as a seer, and his songs were esteemed on equal par with those of David (2 Chronicles 29:30).
In short, Asaph was a recognized spiritual leader in Israel who lived life in the front and center. He was a man of God who had to keep his act together as he regularly led others in worship. Yet, as his Psalm tells us, debilitating discouragement pummeled him.
What happened to Asaph?
Scripture is silent on the circumstances that prompted Asaph to pen Psalm 77. As his spirit flat-lined the worship leader poured out his innermost feelings in living color for all to see. That takes guts, purposeful vulnerability, and courage to become transparent before the ubiquitous critics in the spiritual realm. Someone discovers I’m wallowing in a spiritual funk and pulls a pithy Christian-ese motto to slap upside my head. Or they name the book I just have to read that will explain everything. Maybe just maybe that is why many believers keep pain inside and battle the fog alone.
My struggles may seem trivial and easily-addressed to another, but in personal analysis they dwell well-beyond a thirty-second fix. I find the action of worship and the heart attitude of thanksgiving extremely difficult to conjure up in those times just as Asaph did. Perhaps that is what urged me to dig deeper.
How serious was Asaph’s problem?
Some issues bring nagging unrest yet I easily push them to the backburner of my mind and continue plodding along. Other issues stop my progress completely, and that is where I find Asaph as he opens Psalm 77.
The man pours out his heart to God in prayer after prayer, but those prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling and tumble back onto Asaph’s head. Nothing is happening as far as Asaph can see, and the crush of the circumstances grows heavier with each prayer. He passes the night praying until he can pray no more. A few repeats of that measure with its physical toll and any one’s tune would sour.
Asaph’s soul (v2) refuses to be comforted. Words that once calmed his heart, perhaps a favorite passage of Scripture, now hold no power. He’s wavering on the cliff of “I don’t believe a word of it!” Many have plunged from that precipice to crash on the rocks of doubt below.
The trouble so overpowers him that he cannot express it in words (v4). He tosses and turns through the night hoping for a few minutes of blissful sleep but finds only mind-exhausting turmoil. How many days as he passed like this? How many long nights?
From Asaph’s perspective God is silent during this interval. The psalmist knows that he doesn’t deserve anything from God but he hopes that maybe God’s lovingkindness will move His hand. Asaph knows the Scriptures and the promises of God but now those promises mock him (v8). Asaph replayed the days leading to this trial looking for any way he might have offended God through sin.
Asaph remembers God and shakes his head. The psalmist sums up his emotions with jolting questions, “Where is God now? Has He forgotten me?”
Asaph’s conclusion is that God has changed (v10). Wrong ideas about God spring up from times of doubt and the crushing oppression of adversity. I must counter them with arguments from Scripture. With the truth. Can God change? Not according to His revealed Word.
God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? Numbers 23:19
For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed. Malachi 3:6
Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. James 1:17
But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, And the Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child And have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; Your walls are continually before Me. Isaiah 49:14–16
Where did Asaph find help?
Suddenly the gloom parted and the light of faith blazed again. What changed for this hymn writer? Scripture gives no indication that Asaph’s circumstances changed in any way. Whatever triggered his dismal chapter continued, but now Asaph’s point of reference shifts. He renews his focus on God.
Let me repeat that this by-faith shift of focus may not remove or resolve the adversity that drove me to despair. What does change is the intensity of my faith in God. Faith reignites. I find strength I never knew. My confidence steels that God has a plan, a plan which I may never understand but which is light-years beyond anything I could compile.
The recovery starts for Asaph in these lines:
I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; Surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will meditate on all Your work And muse on Your deeds. Psalm 77:11-12
Meditate is to rehearse over and over. Muse is to take a long loving look. Perhaps Asaph listed tangible ways God worked in the past. I’ve found comfort in looking back to the preceding months and acknowledging the ways God has guided, preserved, and aided. His provisions have been timely. He has brought the right people across my path at just the right moment. He’s given clarity in decisions that had to be made in haste. And He’s planted a confidence in me that in the unknown days ahead He will continue working.
As Asaph moves through his song the words turn to worship. One might expect that from a worship leader. He shares insight into the character of God.
- God always acts in righteousness and holiness
- I do not have to settle for a little “g” god when I can have the incomparable God
- God works wonders (marvelous things, miracles)
- God makes known His strength among ordinary people
- God desires a relationship with me
- God’s creation exists in subjection to His will
- God is a shepherd who loves His sheep
After a look at the past Asaph roars back ready to worship and give thanks.
Sometimes, though, a look at the past dredges up missed opportunities, hurts and failures. If the memories cause drag on my present or remove my zeal for the future it is time to cut the rope and leave those memories to settle into the sands of time.
Asaph looked behind and reviewed God’s wondrous works. The memories he found filled his sails with praise. Those memories abounded with an awareness of God’s power and His work on Asaph’s behalf.
Such positive memories will propel me forward no matter how dark or uncertain the future seems. Those memories direct my focus toward God in the present circumstances and give rise to a peace and hope.
Go ahead. Turn around and look behind. Make a point of gathering the evidence. Perhaps we will discover, as Asaph did, that our faithful God is always on the job.