Canticles: Psalm 77—History

This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.

In the Harry Potter book series, the History of Magic courses are taught by Professor Binns. Professor Binns is so old that, in fact, he is a ghost. Legend has it that Professor Binns woke up one day and went to class, but just left his body behind. His lectures are dry and his speaking voice is dull. He doesn’t know when to stop talking.

We laugh at J.K. Rowling’s depiction of Professor Binns because we recognize in it our preconceived notions about history. History is dry and dull. History is only about the dead. History is boring. History has nothing to do with living in the here and now.

We don’t just hope that God will perform a by-the-numbers repeat action of salvation. We hope that God will do a new and good thing. Our hope is not that God does the same thing again and again. Our hope comes from the fact that God has been, is, and will be faithful.

The author of Psalm 77 would beg to differ and I would, too. (Admittedly, I have a great relationship with history classes. That may be due to my high school history teachers, who were absolutely hilarious and really knew how to tell a story. They also dressed up as historical characters every year for their yearbook photos.)

The psalmist, as many of the psalmist are, is in distress. She cannot sleep. She has been praying for so long that her body is tired. Even thinking about God causes her to faint. She cannot help but ask: “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (77:7-9)

I’ve been there. I’ve been in a place spiritually and physically where I am worn out with praying. I’ve been an insomniac. I’ve wondered if God’s favor has abandoned me completely.

Sometimes all it takes to move me out of this spiritual rut is to remember what God has already done in my life. I remember the many gifts I’ve been given. I remember that I’m still alive and that I am surrounded by people who love me.

At first, it seems like this is what the psalmist is doing. She writes, “I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago. I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit.” (77:5-6) But soon we come to realize that she isn’t just calling to mind her own life. She goes much farther back. The poem ends with a lyrical remembrance of the Exodus, how God brought Moses, Aaron and the people of Israel through the sea on dry land.

In his groundbreaking book Theology of Hope, Jürgen Moltmann argues that, “An understanding of the promise [of God] must combine both the personalistic and the historic and substantial concepts of truth. Hope’s assurance springs from the credibility and faithfulness of the God of promise.1 Hope in God’s promises brings to bear both our personal experiences of God and God’s action throughout history. But it doesn’t end there. This hopeful knowledge “must be a knowledge that does not merely reflect past history — as a mental picture of completed facts of history — but it must be an interested knowledge, a practical knowledge, a knowledge that is upheld by confidence in the promised faithfulness of God…Knowledge of God is then an anticipatory knowledge of the future of God.”2 We don’t just hope that God will perform a by-the-numbers repeat action of salvation. We hope that God will do a new and good thing. Our hope is not that God does the same thing again and again. Our hope comes from the fact that God has been, is, and will be faithful. Our hope is not in a machine that blandly produces the same product every time we pull a lever. Our hope is in a living God, who knows each situation intimately and responds contextually.

To her own question, “Are [God’s] promises at an end for all time?” the psalmist replies not with a stark “No,” but with a reminder that God may seem to be absent (400 years of slavery in Egypt), but in reality is listening and will do a new, good thing (the Exodus). This does not mean that we cannot anticipate God’s action at all. God is who God has been. God has a character, and that character is love. God does not act capriciously, choosing on a whim what to do.

In fact, Moltmann argues, our expectations for what God will do are often based on the very negative experiences of God’s absence that prompt us to call upon God in the first place.3 If we had no vision of what the world should be like, then we would have no hunger for it to be that way. If we had no imagination for what it might be like to eat a satisfying meal, we would not long for good food. But we might be surprised by the fresh flavor of the local ingredients that the chef decides to whip together into a surprisingly new dishes.

I find comfort in the fact that, at the end of Psalm 77, the psalmist’s problem isn’t neatly resolved. The memory of God’s faithfulness closes out the poem. When I am in the midst of my own unresolved situations, as I look forward to God’s deliverance, sometimes it’s good to get a little historical perspective.

Song Recommendations:

Ryan Gikas, Psalm 77:13-14 – Gikas casts these verses in a haunting setting (no Harry Potter pun intended). The core of the psalm is here—God has worked wonders. The mournful tone carries the parts of the psalm that Gikas did not put to music.

Bifrost Arts, Our Song in the Night – Another beautifully haunting version of Psalm 77. This time, the whole of the psalm is adapted, even through to the remembrance of the Red Sea.

Albert A. Goodson, We’ve Come This Far by Faith, sung at West Angeles Church of God in Christ – This traditional gospel song reminds its singers that God has brought them through thus far. This congregation sings it in a medley, with a few other standards.

Sons of Korah, Psalm 77a-c – The sons of Korah split the psalm into three movements. I’ve been able to find the first two to share here and here. The music does fantastic work expressing the emotions and passion in Psalm 77. Notice how the guitar work livens up as 77b transitions into remembering God’s wonderful works.

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Footnotes:

1. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, trans. by James W. Leitch (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 119.
2. Ibid., 118.
3. Ibid., 131.

 


Hong

Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

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