Defeat of Despair
Here is a psalm by Asaph the Hebrew seer, dealing with the acute problem of diffidence. Diffidence means, briefly, a loss of confidence in oneself and in others, and eventually leads to despair. In our spiritual experience we have to climb mountains and descend valleys: this Psalm describes a valley through which most of us pass. It is a thorny road, a very serious trial. In one of his psalms, David confessed to the feeling of desertion that had once gripped him - “I said in my haste, I am cut off from before Thine eyes; nevertheless Thou heardest the voice of my supplications when I cried unto Thee” (Psalm 31:22). This is exactly the predicament of Asaph here. The Psalm is divided into three parts -- The conclusion is stated first, followed by a description of Asaph’s conflict, and the search that led to deliverance.
Summary, or Conclusion
Asaph begins by assuring us all that God did deliver him in his fierce conflict with diffidence. As far as he could tell, the lifeline between him and God had been well-nigh severed. But his happy testimony is, that God proved wholly faithful and did not leave him to perish in despair. He puts it at the forefront, to encourage the distressed and to steady them before going into details. “I cried unto God with my voice, even unto God with my voice; and he gave ear unto me. In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord.” God heard his cry: God did not desert him.
The Case Stated
Asaph had had resort in his trouble to the usual remedy of prayer: but prayer somehow failed to ease his complaint. The very promises of God appeared to mock him, and Heaven seemed to throw back his cries. Now he had little heart for prayer; conscience and Satan hotly accused him, and categorically denied him the right. “Was he not unworthy of being heard?” was the challenge. As a result he began to lose faith. He mourned in his destitution, as Jacob lamented for his beloved, lost son Joseph, saying: “I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning” (Genesis 37:35). In his grief Job said: “I went mourning without the sun” (Job 30:28). So did Asaph when the Lord, the Sun of Righteousness, hid His face -- “My sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered God, and was troubled: I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed.” He knew he should pray, but the accusing voice told him it was a waste of time. He felt bereft indeed!
However, in spite of all these doubts and fears, he was aware that God was displeased with his silence. God was stirring him up, leading and compelling him to pray; and the pressure on his spirit was too great to let him sleep or rest. In sheer exasperation he cried, “Thou holdest mine eyes waking: I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” God cared intensely for him, too much to allow him to wander away and perish. This was also the case with His people Israel, to whom He appealed through His prophet Jeremiah:
“They say, if a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the LORD” (Jeremiah 3:1). In another, similar passage His Word declares: “Do ye think that the Scripture saith in vain, The Spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” (James 4:5). Both these truths are to make us understand that God desires us for Himself with a holy jealousy -- including the faltering, hard-pressed Asaph!
We do not know what caused Asaph’ s distress. It might have been a besetting sin, an extended illness, or some failure in a prolonged trial. Whatever it was, it left him feeling a failure and a fraud, with no right to expect mercy from God. The people of Israel, in response to God’s appeal above, sighed: “We lie down in our shame, and our confusion covereth us: for we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day, and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God” (Jeremiah 3:25). Diffidence has claimed many good men for a while; Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale before he cried for mercy. David said, “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4). This was the conflict that Asaph was enduring; but as we shall see, God did not leave him until He had brought him through into victory.
The Search, and Reasoning
He was compelled to think, to reassert basic truths and to marshall the evidence. In any crisis a clear mind is absolutely necessary, but it is at just these moments that the heart takes over. This had been his problem up to this point; but when he began to think carefully, the balance was restored and the healing process began. “I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times. I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with my own heart: and my spirit made diligent search.” As he took stock of the situation he realized that he had really been questioning the character of God. He had forgotten that God had revealed Himself as: “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:6,7). He had also forgotten that he stood before God and was acceptable to Him, because he was clothed in no less than the righteousness of God. There was therefore no question of personal worth or merit -- it was altogether irrelevant. Of course he was unworthy in his own right to approach God! But he was entitled through the righteousness of God, bestowed by God Himself -- “This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of me, saith the LORD” (Isaiah 54:17). It was through the Atonement of his Messiah that his sin was fully cleansed and that he was pronounced righteous -- “By His knowledge shall My righteous Servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).
Asaph now asked himself whether his unspoken assumptions were correct; had God changed? “Will the LORD cast off for ever? and will He be favourable no more? Is His mercy clean gone for ever? doth His promise fail for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath He in anger shut up His tender mercies?” Selah. “And I said, This is my infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High. I will remember the works of the LORD: surely I will remember Thy wonders of old.” This was the only possible answer!
Obviously a weak memory had contributed to his downfall. Now he resolved to begin by attributing righteousness to God; to remember, to meditate and to talk. Whereas previously he had been too troubled to speak, now he began thinking correctly and showed it by addressing his God. He began by recounting the greatness of his Redeemer, made evident in the Exodus. In his account of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, which he enlarges upon in the remainder of the psalm, no mention is made of their merit or demerit. All the stress is on the fact that their Covenant God had kept His promise to deliver them. The Covenant itself had been entirely founded on Divine Grace (Genesis 15); and Grace cannot ever be earned. He relates how God provided deliverance when such a thing seemed hopeless and out of reach; and how He made a path through the waters of the Red Sea, so that what appeared the greatest hindrance to the fleeing Israelites proved to be their greatest help. He also recalled that at all times God led and guided His people safely, regardless of their deserving -- “Thou art the God that doest wonders. Thou hast with Thine arm redeemed Thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Thy way is in the sea, and Thy path in the great waters, and Thy footsteps are not known. Thou leddest Thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”
Here Asaph found the full answer to all his questions, and an eloquent rebuke for his false reasoning. The direct result was that his hope revived, and his cry of faith was literally heard -- “I cried unto God with my voice, even unto God with my voice; and He gave ear unto me.” Thus, despair was defeated! Like David, and like the people of Israel after the Exodus, Asaph was now able to sing a song of deliverance -- “All Thy waves and Thy billows are gone over me. Yet the LORD will command His loving kindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life” (Psalm 42:7-8). No doubt this severe trial taught him to be more circumspect in his walk with God; to believe God more; and to exercise himself more in the ways of godliness.
This Psalm now stands as a beacon to all those who are enduring the same conflict. As God delivered him, so He will deliver us: no doubt about it! In view of our need at all times, to learn to walk with God, let us heed the kind exhortation in Hebrews 12:1-2 “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith.”