Psalm 77
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This Psalm breathes the spirit of Habakkuk, and uses language closely resembling that of his ‘Prayer.’ As Habakkuk watched the advance of the Chaldeans, and foresaw that they were to be the executioners of God’s judgement upon Judah, his faith was tried to the uttermost. Could such an apparent triumph of pride and violence be consistent with the Divine government of the world? His questionings were answered with the assurance that pride and injustice must inevitably come to ruin, while righteousness endures; but the assurance was coupled with the warning that its realisation might be long delayed. And when the prophet prayed that God would hasten His work lest the delay should prove too great a strain for the faith of His waiting people, in place of a direct answer there rose before his mind the vision of God’s Advent to judge His enemies and redeem His people. That Advent he describes in language borrowed from the great deliverances and visitations of the past, conveying the same fundamental idea as that of this Psalm, that Israel’s past is the pledge for Israel’s future[41].

[41] For fuller explanation of Habakkuk’s magnificent ode I may refer to my Doctrine of the Prophets, pp. 281 ff.

When the Psalmist wrote, the blow had fallen. Israel was in exile. It is clearly no merely private and personal sorrow which overwhelms his spirit, but the apparent rejection of Israel by God. But in the light of Israel’s past history he is taught to believe that this rejection cannot be permanent. In the recollection of that marvellous past he finds the ground of hope for the future. The God who led His people out of the bondage of Egypt can bring them back from their Exile in Babylon.

The structure of the Psalm is regular. There are two main divisions, in each of which there are two stanzas, marked off by Selah. The second and third stanzas fall into equal subdivisions of three verses. In the fourth stanza the rhythm changes; instead of six distichs we have four tristichs; but the number of lines is the same. The last verse stands by itself as the conclusion.

i.  The problem.

1.  Introduction. The Psalmist relates how in the day of distress he strove, but in vain, to find comfort in prayer (Psalm 77:1-3).

2.  In the watches of the night he pondered on the past history of Israel (Psalm 77:4-6), and asked himself whether God could have irrevocably rejected His people (Psalm 77:7-9).

3.  The answer to such questionings must, he feels, be looked for in God’s revelation of Himself in history (Psalm 77:10-12), especially in His redemption of Israel out of Egypt (Psalm 77:13-15).

4.  On the grandeur of that manifestation he dwells at length (Psalm 77:16-19).

In conclusion he points to God’s guidance of His people through the wilderness (Psalm 77:20).

Some commentators regard Psalm 77:16-19 as a fragment of another Psalm, mainly on the ground of the change of rhythm, and a supposed want of connexion with what precedes and follows. But though the rhythm changes, tristichs taking the place of distichs, the length of the stanza is the same—twelve lines—as that of the two preceding ones. The first stanza contains a tristich (Psalm 77:2), and it should be noted that Psalm 77:1; Psalm 77:16 are both marked by the figure of ‘epanaphora’ or rhetorical repetition.

Attention has also been called to the abruptness of the close of the Psalm, and it has been suggested that it is either incomplete or mutilated. But this abruptness is a mark of the poet’s skill. He ends with the thought which he would leave impressed on the reader’s mind for his consolation—God’s providential guidance of His people. Any addition would weaken the effect. The reader is left to draw the inference that God’s guidance will continue, and that, as He redeemed Israel from the bondage of Egypt, He can redeem them from exile in Babylon. The parallel between the Exodus from Babylon and the Exodus from Egypt is constantly present to the minds of the prophets.

The resemblance of the Psalm to the Prayer of Habakkuk has already been referred to. It has been much disputed whether the Psalmist is imitating the Prophet, or the Prophet the Psalm. On literary grounds alone it would be difficult to decide, though the presumption is perhaps in favour of the originality of Habakkuk. But if (as I believe) the Prayer of Habakkuk is an integral part of his book, not a later addition, and if the Psalm belongs to the time of the Exile, the Psalmist must be the borrower.

Compare, besides Habakkuk 3, Exodus 15; and Psalm 142:1-3; Psalm 143:4-6.

On the title, For the chief Musician; after the manner of Jeduthun (R.V.), see Introd. to Psalms 62.

To the chief Musician, to Jeduthun, A Psalm of Asaph. I cried unto God with my voice, even unto God with my voice; and he gave ear unto me.
1. “Aloud unto God let me cry,

Yea, aloud unto God, and he will give ear to me.”

1–3. The Psalmist relates how, under the pressure of calamity, he could find no consolation even in prayer.

In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted.
2. (Thus) in the day of my distress I sought the Lord:

My hand was stretched out in the night, and slacked not;

My soul refused to be comforted.

I remembered God, and was troubled: I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Selah.
3. When I would fain remember God, I was disquieted:

When I would fain muse in prayer, my spirit fainted.

The precise force of the tenses of the original is difficult to determine. The perfects in Psalm 77:2, and again in Psalm 77:4-5, however, shew that the poet is relating a past experience. In Psalm 77:1 he quotes, as it were, the words in which, in that hour of sorrow, he resolved to betake himself to prayer, and in Psalm 77:3, in tenses which recall the emotion of the time, though their force can hardly be given in a translation, he describes his failure to find comfort.

In its rendering my sore ran, the A.V. follows Jewish authorities in taking hand in the sense of blow or wound (Job 23:2). ‘My wound was unstanched,’ is a metaphor for ‘my sorrow was unrelieved.’ But the rendering of R.V. given above is preferable. He sought God day and night, with hands unceasingly outstretched in the attitude of prayer (Psalm 28:2, note; Exodus 17:11-12). The text however is doubtful. The verb which means literally ‘was poured out,’ is not a natural one to apply to the hand; and the use of the same verb, and substantives derived from the root of the verb rendered ‘slacked,’ in Lamentations 2:18-19; Lamentations 3:49, with reference to tears, suggests that the original reading may have been, ‘Mine eye poured down in the night, and slacked not.’ So the Targ.

my soul &c.] Like Jacob, mourning for the loss of Joseph (Genesis 37:35); and Rachel, weeping for her children (Jeremiah 31:15).

3. For the word rendered ‘disquieted’ cp. Psalm 42:5; Psalm 42:11; Psalm 43:5. In Psalm 55:17 it is joined with that rendered ‘muse in prayer,’ which recurs in Psalm 77:6 b, 12 b, and denotes meditation, musing prayer, musing or plaintive speech.

my spirit &c.] Cp. Psalm 142:3; Psalm 143:4, in contexts full of parallels to this Psalm.

Thou holdest mine eyes waking: I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
4. Thou heldest open the lids of mine eyes:

I was perplexed, and could not speak.

4. The word rendered waking in A.V., watching in R.V., probably means the guards or lids of the eyes. The general sense is clear. In his agony of sorrow he was sleepless and speechless: it was God who withheld sleep from his eyes. He was ‘troubled,’ perplexed and agitated (Genesis 41:8; Daniel 2:3) by the riddle of Israel’s present rejection and humiliation, and in this perplexity he pondered (Psalm 77:5) on the glorious record of God’s mercies to His people in the days of old.

4–9. In the vigils of the night he pondered on the history of the past, and asked himself with earnest questionings whether it were possible that God could have utterly cast off His people, and changed His character as a gracious and merciful God.

I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times.
5. I considered the days of old,

The years of ages past, (saying),

5. “Not pathetic only but profound also and of the most solid substance was that reply made by an old Carthusian monk to the trifler who asked him how he had managed to get through his life:—Cogitavi dies antiquos, et annos aeternos in mente habui.”

I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search.
6. “Let me remember my song in the night:

Let me muse in my heart;”

And my spirit inquired, (saying),

6. In the first two lines he tells us how he bade himself recall the songs of thanksgiving which he had once been able to sing in the night, the quiet time of meditation and thanksgiving (Psalm 42:8; Psalm 92:2; Job 35:10), in contrast to his present cries of anguish or silence of despair.

Song means literally ‘song to the accompaniment of stringed instruments.’ P.B.V. ‘and search out my spirits,’ follows the reading of the LXX and some other Ancient Versions.

Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more?
7. “For age after age will the Lord cast off?

And will he not once again shew favour?”

7. The emphasis is on for ever; lit. for ages to come, which are compared with the ages past (Psalm 77:5); a different word from that in Psalm 77:8, and Psalm 74:1. Cp. Psalm 85:5.

For ‘shew favour,’ cp. Psalm 44:3; Psalms 18; Psalm 85:1; Psalm 106:4.

Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for evermore?
8. Is his lovingkindness at an end for ever?

Hath his promise failed for all generations?

Cp. Psalm 85:5; Psalm 105:8.

Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies? Selah.
9. Has He forgotten or deliberately abandoned those attributes which He once proclaimed as the essence of His Nature (Exodus 34:6)? Cp. Habakkuk 3:2, “In wrath wilt thou remember mercy.”

And I said, This is my infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High.
10. And I said introduces the argument by which the Psalmist thrusts aside the possibility of an affirmative answer to his questionings. But the rest of the verse is obscure, and has been very variously explained. The precise sense of the word rendered my infirmity is doubtful; and in the second line the word sh’nôth may mean years, or, changing. If the rendering years is adopted, the verb I will remember must be supplied from Psalm 77:11. Two explanations deserve consideration.

(i) This apparent desertion of Israel by God is my suffering, and I must bear it (cp. Jeremiah 10:19); but for my consolation I will recall the years of the right hand of the Most High, “the years of ages past” (Psalm 77:3), in which the sovereign power of the Ruler of the world was put forth on behalf of His people.

(ii) It is my weakness which prompts these questionings. To think that the right hand of the Most High doth change! that His power can ever grow feeble (Isaiah 50:2) or His will change (Malachi 3:6)!

The explanation, ‘This is what grieveth me, that the right hand of the Most High doth change,’ is untenable, for Psalm 77:10 clearly introduces the answer to his doubts.

The authority of the Ancient Versions is in favour of taking sh’nôth in the sense of change[42], but on the other hand the first explanation retains the sense in which the word has already occurred in Psalm 77:5.

[42] The Targ. however gives alternative renderings.

10–15. The Psalmist resolves to recall the exhibition of God’s character in the deliverance of His people from Egypt.

10–20. The history of the past is the most convincing answer to these questions, the best cordial for his fainting spirits. Cp. Isaiah 63:7 ff.

I will remember the works of the LORD: surely I will remember thy wonders of old.
11. I will make mention of the deeds of Jah;

Yea, I will remember thy wonders of old.

The A.V. remember follows the Qrç; the R.V. make mention is the reading of the Kthîbh. Cp. Isaiah 63:7.

The name Jah recalls the deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 15:2; cp. Psalm 68:4), the greatest of all God’s wonderful works.

I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings.
12. I will meditate also upon all thy work,

And muse on thy doings. (R.V.)

For work cp. Habakkuk 3:2.

Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary: who is so great a God as our God?
13. in the sanctuary] Better, in holiness. Cp. Exodus 15:11. All the plan and method of God’s dealings in the world moves in the sphere of holiness, separate from all sin and imperfection, in accord with the perfection of His Nature. Cp. Habakkuk’s appeal to God’s holiness (Habakkuk 1:12.)

who &c.] Who is a great god (El) like God (Elohim)? For Elohim no doubt originally stood Jehovah as in the passage of Moses’ song, which the Psalmist has in mind (Exodus 15:11).

Thou art the God that doest wonders: thou hast declared thy strength among the people.
14. Thou art the God &c.] The true El, the living, Almighty God (Psalm 5:4; Psalm 42:2). The epithet that doest wonders is borrowed from Exodus 15:11. Cp. Isaiah 25:1.

thou hast declared &c.] Render, Thou didst make known thy strength among the peoples. Cp. Exodus 15:13-14; Exodus 9:16.

Thou hast with thine arm redeemed thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Selah.
15. Thou hast &c.] With a (strong) arm didst thou redeem thy people. Cp. Exodus 15:13; Exodus 15:16; Exodus 6:6; Psalm 74:2.

the sons of Jacob and Joseph] According to the Targum, Joseph is named because, by preserving the lives of his brethren in Egypt, lie became as it were a second father of the nation. But more probably Joseph is named as the father of Ephraim and Manasseh, the ancestors of the most powerful tribes of the Northern Kingdom. Cp. Psalm 78:67; Psalm 80:1; Psalm 81:5. In Amos (Amos 5:6; Amos 5:15; Amos 6:6) Joseph denotes the Northern Kingdom. In Obadiah 1:18, the house of Jacob and the house of Joseph stands for the whole nation. Cp. Zechariah 10:6; Ezekiel 37:16; Ezekiel 37:19; Ezekiel 47:13; Ezekiel 48:32.

The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled.
16. The waters and depths of the Red Sea are personified, as though they were conscious of the presence of their Creator and Lord. Cp. Hebrews 3:10, “The mountains saw thee, they were afraid”: and Psalm 114:3; Exodus 15:5; Exodus 15:8. We miss in translation the pictorial force of the Heb. tenses: lit. they are afraid, the depths also tremble.

16–19. The manifestation of God’s sovereignty over nature in that supreme act of redemption.

The clouds poured out water: the skies sent out a sound: thine arrows also went abroad.
17. God came in storm and earthquake. So the poet develops the thought of Exodus 14:24-25. Cp. Psalm 18:7 ff; Psalm 97:3 ff.; and the parallel passage in Habakkuk 3:10-11, where tempest (R.V.) is the cognate substantive to the verb rendered poured out here.

sent out a sound] Better (cp. Hab.), uttered a voice, i.e. thundered. God’s arrows are the flashes of lightning.

The voice of thy thunder was in the heaven: the lightnings lightened the world: the earth trembled and shook.
18. in the heaven] The word galgal, derived from a root meaning to roll, was understood by the Jewish commentators to mean the vault or circuit of the heaven. More probably it should be rendered in the whirlwind (R.V.), or, with rumbling, the rolling of the thunder being conceived of as the rolling of God’s chariot-wheels. Cp. Habakkuk 3:8.

Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known.
19. Thy way was in the sea,

And thy paths in the great waters,

And thy footsteps were not known. (R.V.)

Cp. Habakkuk 3:15. The A.V. path follows the Qrî; R.V. paths the Kthîbh and the Ancient Versions. The sea flowed back where Israel passed, and no visible trace of God’s victorious march was left:—a parable of His method of working. Cp. Job 23:8 ff.

Thou leddest thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
20. Conclusion. The convulsions of nature were the heralds of deliverance (Luke 21:28), and the Shepherd of Israel led forth His flock under the guidance of His chosen servants. Cp. Exodus 15:13; Psalm 78:52 ff; Psalm 74:1, note. The words of the last line come from Numbers 33:1; cp. Micah 6:4; Isaiah 63:11 ff.

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