Sleeplessness and Forgetfulness in Psalm 77
In Psalm 77, Asaph cannot sleep. Feeling his eyes glued open in the dead of night (Ps. 77:4), he begins asking himself a series of intensely troubling questions.
Before looking at these questions, it is helpful to consider the context of this psalm. Psalm 77 is part of Book III (Pss. 73–89), which in the landscape of the Psalter can be seen as the “dark valley.” Israel is in exile, and the psalmist observes that the wicked (the Babylonians) prosper (Ps. 73:3), the Jerusalem temple is now rubble (Ps. 74:7), and there is no Davidic king reigning—the crown lies in the dust (Ps. 89:39). A heavy shadow has settled over the place that once basked in the brightness of the rule of Solomon and his kingdom, which once stretched from “sea to shining sea” (Ps. 72).
Asaph is the choirmaster who authored Psalms 73–83, and clearly he does not shy away from playing the blue note. The minor key is dominant for the psalms of Asaph. The minor key (at least in our cultural associations) is tied with feeling of tension and disorientation and need for resolution. He picks up his baton to conduct the choir to sing in and through its sorrows.
I am quite confident that Asaph could not make a living as a motivational speaker. Why? Because the assumptions of the motivational speaker are that whatever the problems you have and may face, they are not too much for you to surmount and overcome with the right approach and “go get ’em” spirit. But Asaph understands that his plight (shared with the chosen remnant) is too deep and severe for his own resources to be of any use in efforts at self-extrication.
This brings us to the questions of Psalm 77:7–9. To paraphrase: “How can God turn His back to us?” (instead of showing the shining face promised in the Aaronic benediction). And “Am I standing at the end of the road of the promises of God?” (the road that was first paved in the call of Abraham). Finally, “Has God failed to remember the bond He formed with us in mercy?” (through His name of “Compassion” revealed to Moses in the cleft of the rock). Asaph’s middle-of-the-night musings are profoundly upsetting, and his perception is akin to sensing an ominous cloud forming directly overhead. Similarly, Augustine in the Confessions recounts: “From a hidden depth a profound self-examination had dredged up a heap of all my misery and set it in the sight of my heart. That precipitated a vast storm bearing a massive downpour of tears.”
The grief exhibited in the earlier psalms in Book III is now even more acute, because it is more than Asaph’s perplexity at apparent injustice (Ps. 73) and the trauma of walking through the ruins of the city of God (Ps. 74). Now he fears that God has actively turned against him. “When I remember God, I moan” (Ps. 77:3). He fears that God has become his enemy. The first part of Psalm 77 echoes Job’s cry: “You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind; you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm” (Job 30:21–22).