“…to brood on sorrow is to be broken and disheartened, while to see God is to sing on the darkest day. Once we come to know that our years are of His right hand, there is light everywhere.” (Campbell Morgan)
The past few months have been painfully and emotionally draining for my family. One bit of bad news after another unveiled brokenness and suffering in the life of my family and friends. My younger sister and mother of four little ones was diagnosed with metastasized cancer just a couple of months ago. My friends lost their baby early in the pregnancy. When we thought we were catching a break, one of my closest friends passed away from breast cancer. Utter devastation began to settle into my soul. I began to slowly hunch over under the weight of such heavy news.
In my process of aching and drying tears after tears, I stumbled upon Psalm 77. The Psalm belongs to a Levite named Asaph, one of David’s three chief musicians and worship leaders at the court. A strikingly beautiful testimony of a suffering man, Psalm 77 struck me by its powerful counseling verses to hurting souls like mine. I’ve been amazed at its the literary richness. With a wisdom bestowed only from above, Asaph captures vividly the complexity of the human pain, raising it up, beyond the boundaries of self, unto the face of heaven.
From Pain to Silence
You were not in my living-room to see me. If you were, you would have probably either been frightened or deeply moved. Crawled into the fetal position, I laid silent on my floor. I reached for the phone to make some efforts to call for prayers and encouragement. My sister’s diagnosis of cancer awoke in my thoughts and emotions running marathons even as I laid still on the cold floor. Cancer. “How did we get here?” “What’s next?” “Why her?” The kids walked in on a mom who did not stand tall and in control, managing the home with sprints in her walks and sparks in her eyes. In my pain, I hid my face away from them and called on the only One I knew could read my thoughts and heart.
Asaph gets this as he takes us through some pretty uncensored emotional and physical responses to suffering. The Psalm never reveals what specifically troubles this man, but it explores in raw footage his detailed responses to the painful life circumstances.
I cry aloud to God, and he will hear me. 2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. 3 When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. 4 You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (vv.1-4).
The heaviness of his tragedy pulls Asaph on his knees, arms stretched out constantly in prayer, sleepless nights, weary mind, and troubled heart. He moans, faints, cries out to God. He’s tired, hurt, and caught in a painful cycle of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. Pained emotions on the inside become stronger than any spoken words. “I am so troubled that I cannot speak,” he utters. His spoken cries to God grow more and more silent until they drown out in muted whimpers under the heavy burden of the tragedy. Silence is where his strength brings him to.
As I was reading these first verses, I immediately connected with this man’s vivid descriptions. I am thankful the Scriptures record such realistic passages of living in pain. This man was not concerned with keeping a social image or trying to hide his brokenness behind some cultural platitudes or distorted social media updates. He wasn’t exaggerating his pain, nor playing it down. We find him simply there…openly and sincerely broken. And all I could think about was that I knew exactly how he felt. My physical body, too, voiced my emotional and spiritual pain in a very corporal language. Just like Asaph, I found myself on my knees, stretching out my arms and my prayers to my Lord, seeking His presence in this circumstance. My mind, too exhausted from searching for answers in the Scriptures, produced painful, unintelligible moanings of unanswered questions. Trying to reconcile God’s character to the present painful sufferings evoked tears of resignation and a collapse into silence. A long and exhaustive silence.
And yet, though Asaph is emotionally paralyzed by pain, what we witness in the next verses is a fascinating transition from an outward silencing pain to an inner, spiritual song—the highlight of this Psalm.
Moses’ Song in Asaph’s Mouth
With a grief-stricken body and a silenced throat, Asaph turns to remembering what he calls, “his song in the night.” Asaph’s song is his personal heritage of faith, a reminder of God’s faithfulness throughout history and in his own personal life up to this painful point. He resolves to “remember” the song, mind you, and not to compose one. He claimed this particular song in his heart years ago when he embraced God as his own Savior and Redeemer. Asaph turns his mind and soul to the Writer of his testimony as an anchor for his troublesome times. Much like Moses bursts into a universal worship song in Exodus 15 as a result of God’s mighty deliverance of the Jews from the hand of the Egyptian oppression and the bondage of slavery.
But why would Asaph—500 years later—sing of a Powerful God, the miracles of the Red Sea, Moses, a redeemed people, a defeated enemy, a chosen people, all while facing tribulations?
I believe Asaph is able to sing because the Lord reveals himself to us in the first place. The Lord allows us to know Him by inviting us into a relationship with Him. Perhaps as he begins to hum his song, Asaph couldn’t help but remember why he has a song in the first place. His train of painful thoughts must have taken him in the time of Moses, where it all started after all. Asaph would have been able to see past the miracles, plagues, and power struggles in Exodus, and glance at the real reason for why the bush burned, the sea split, and the Israelites were delivered. Asaph would have recognized these for what they were at that time, amazing props, preparing the way for something more intimate and relational, the beginning of a personable revelation and relationship with a Holy God. When the Lord spoke to Moses and the bush burned, it was not Moses’ self-image and stuttering that the Lord was concerned with. Rather, it was in this historically divine conversation that God chose to unveil His name—I AM WHO I AM—and character by making Himself personable and knowable to a sinful generation. Perhaps in his rendition of Moses’ song, Asaph claims the very heart of Moses’ words: that the Lord’s song is His very character, His promises, His miracles, His presence in the midst of troubles and life-threatening situations, His salvation.
Perhaps this was Asaph’s best way to show that the holiest way to suffer through devastating circumstances is to hold fast to the character of our God, his mighty power, miraculous deliverance, and adopting love for us. Asaph chooses to remember God’s personable presence in his night more than the cold pain of the trials. Asaph resolves to bring to mind the works of his God, resolved to walk not through his emotions but through God’s faithful work of redemption in his own life, as well as in the life of his people. His saving anchor is not his own tears and crushed body and soul; not even his asking the right questions. His steadfast anchor is his own relationship with God his Savior from time past until the present day.
Jesus’ Song in My Mouth
But what about my song? What am I to sing in my night?
When the Lord made Himself known to Moses and the Israelites, He also prepared the way for His ultimate gift to us—His salvific song in Christ, His one and only Son, who will save the people from sin by dying on the cross. It is to Jesus, this new song of salvation, that we owe our worship and gratitude because He saved us from the punishment of sin (Isaiah 42:10). Asaph remembered his song in the night—God’s personal revelation, salvation, and encouragement to sinners—beginning with Moses, all the way to David, Isaiah and the generations to come. As believers, we share in this new song because Christ is our communal story of redemption and heritage of faith, a seal of our adoption into God’s family. A resounding eternal hymn, praising Jesus as the Ultimate and Holy Sacrifice. A missional song, an international heavenly anthem for the kingdom of God (Revelation 5:12). This new song of Jesus our Savior incarnated, crucified, and resurrected is la pièce de résistance of the gospel story, no doubt!
What if pain is God’s way of tuning our hearts to singing Christ into our trials? What if the answer to our stages of grief is not asking the right questions, or even getting the right answers, but rather humming our song of salvation even when our vocal cords are muted by pain? What if by singing in our night, we grow stronger in Jesus as we recall our salvation and eternity in Him? What if painful seasons cement our hearts more intimately into the character and person of Jesus?
I am terribly broken and just as terrible of a singer—I simply can’t carry a tune. I could use a few choir lessons from Asaph. And who knows, perhaps Moses was just as bad at singing as he was at talking first! But truth is, heaven is not interested in the next talented and original American Idol to populate the eternity. The song and verses have already been provided for us in Christ. The music sheet was the cross, and the musical note is the life of our Christ. His Words are powerful verses of life-changing tunes. The Bible reassures me I’ll be singing a lot in heaven, joining heavenly choirs and talented angel singers. In fact, as a Christian, I am invited to sing through my life circumstances because I have been gifted my own salvation song in Christ. And while I would never stand up to lead a choir, or sing at America’s Got Talent, Asaph taught me that the best song is sung even when my chords are painful and my words are silenced—because it’s the gifted rendition of my salvific song in Jesus after all!