When God Doesn't Answer
A Sermon by Coty Pinckney on Psalm 77. Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 8/11/96
The night was dark and foggy. A man walked in the darkness from his house to the cobble-stone street, his step determined and relentless, but his face -- had anyone been able to see it in the dark -- was tear-stained and weary. As he reached the street, he peered both ways, looking for the tell-take lantern of a horse-drawn, London cab. The man muttered: "Nothing! Am I too late? But no! I must end all tonight! And the river it must be!" Then, in the distance, he espied a hazy light, slowly enlarging. Almost whispering, the man said bitterly: "God, you provided me no solace, but here you provide the cab to take me to my death!" "Where to?" asked the cabbie, when he stopped. "London Bridge," the man replied, curtly. "A cold night it is, sir -- what sort of business have you at the Bridge at this hour?" But the man said nothing
The cabbie ended his attempt at conversation, and set off toward that well-known destination. But the fog became thicker and thicker, so that the cabbie could not see even his horse's nose. What should have been a 20 minute ride lasted an hour, and still there was no sign of the river or the 600 year-old bridge. The cabbie peered into the fog, desperately looking for some familiar sign. Suddenly, the fog lifted. The passenger, startled from his morose stare, looked to his right and saw, to his amazement, his own home. The cab, lost in the fog, had circled back to the very place he began the journey.
"My God! You have answered me!" the passenger cried out. Later that night, by his own hearth, this man, William Cowper, one of the greatest of England's 18th century poets, meditated on Psalm 77. Let us read it now:
1. I cry aloud to God, I cry out to God to 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 I think of God, and I moan; I muse, and my spirit grows faint. Selah 4 You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago. 6 I remember my song in the night; my heart muses, and my spirit inquires:
7 "Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? 8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Is his word no longer valid for evermore? 9 Has God forgotten to show his favor? Has he in anger stopped the flow of his mercy? Selah
10 And I say, "This is my grief: the right hand of the Most High has changed."
11. I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old. 12 I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God? 14 You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples. 15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
16 When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. 17 The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. 18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. 19 Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. 20 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (slightly edited NRSV)
That same night, William Cowper penned this great poem, which we sang earlier today, more than two centuries later:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take!
The clouds ye so much dread;
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
Let us pray:
Dear Lord you do move in a mysterious way. We do not understand you very frequently. You are so far beyond us that we have no hope of being able to understand you, and yet we long to do so. Lord, help us this day to examine this Psalm, and come away with a better understanding of how we are to deal with the confusing and desperate aspects of our lives. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Some of you were here a few weeks ago when I preached on Psalm 107. You may recall that one of the major points was that one aspect of worship that we frequently don't consider as worship is calling out to God, trusting him when things are bad for us. Calling out to him in the midst of our trouble is worship. Remember, four times in Psalm 107 we find the recurring phrase, "Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them out of their distresses." And we emphasized that that Psalm is pointing out that God is a God who hears -- he can listen to all of his billions of children simultaneously, he listens, and he responds.
But at the beginning of today's Psalm, we find a man who has called out to the Lord, who has worshiped the Lord as we said -- and yet he doesn't hear any answer.
Have you been in that situation? Are you in that situation now? You have called out to the Lord, you have cried out, and you remember that, yes, in the past God has answered you, but now there seems to be no response. The skies seem to be solid, like brass, and God is silent, as far as you can hear.
If so, this Psalm is for you. Indeed, this Psalm is for every Christian, because I believe all of us do go through such times.
We will look at four parts of this Psalm this morning:
Look again at verses 1 through the first part of 6.
1. I cry aloud to God, I cry out to God to 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 I think of God, and I moan; I muse, and my spirit grows faint. Selah
4 You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.
6 I remember my song in the night; my heart muses, and my spirit inquires:
The Bible is a very honest book. It does not hide from us the troubles that are part of our lives in this world. This Psalm is telling us of a man who is in deep trouble. We don't know the source of his difficulty -- he just calls it "the day of my trouble." This is clearly a personal and not a national time of trouble. He is seeking the Lord in the middle of his trials. And yet, as he calls out to God and gets no answer, the Psalm says his soul refuses to be comforted. He is caught up in the middle of his trouble, and he expresses his belief in God through his crying out, but his soul is refusing to be comforted. And the thought of God brings no relief to him. He moans when thinking of God.
Many of you know that C.S. Lewis married late in life, and that his wife died only shortly thereafter. He wrote a book at that time, A Grief Observed, which he originally published under a pseudonym. In this book, he states this same feeling: in the middle of his grief, in the middle of this desperate time for him, he cried out to God, but heard nothing. The thought of God became difficult for him, providing no comfort.
We get some clue as to why this is by looking at verses 5 and 6. The Psalmist says that he considered the days of old, and remembered the past, recalling his "song in the night." This sounds as if in the past, when he called out to God, God had lifted the burden of his heart and had given him a song, a time of joy in the middle of his trial. But that remembrance now brings pain rather than comfort, because his burden is not lifted now; he is receiving no comfort from God.
So this leads to the Psalmist's second problem. His first problem is his day of trouble. But his second problem, and really his more important problem, is that he begins to question God's love and care. The day of trouble in itself perhaps is no worse than other days he has faced in the past. But this time, when he calls out to God he gets no sense of his presence and not calming of his spirit.
This then leads to:
Look at verse 6b-10:
my heart muses, and my spirit inquires:
7 "Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?
8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Is his word no longer valid for evermore?
9 Has God forgotten to show his favor? Has he in anger stopped the flow of his mercy? Selah
10 And I say, "This is my grief: the right hand of the Most High has changed."
He brings out these questions concerning God. These are logical questions given his circumstances. "In the past," he says, "God answered my cries. He gave me a song in the night. But today, what do I get? I hear nothing from him. Has God changed?"
The questions are interesting, because in a sense they answer themselves. Look at the beginning of verse 8: "Has His unfailing love vanished forever?" The phrase "unfailing love" in the Hebrew is just one word, the word that implies the whole covenant relationship between Israel and God. It is translated in different ways: lovingkindness, faithful love, steadfast love, mercy, but the idea behind it is that God has made a promise to these people. God has made a promise that he will always be there for them, indeed, that he will work out history to fulfill the promises he has made, that he will be faithful day after day, century after century. That is all included in this word, "unfailing love." And so the Psalmist is asking, "Has this covenant love come to an end? Has this unfailing love failed?" Is God's word no longer valid? Are God's promises no longer valid? Has the flow of his mercy stopped?
Note that for the Psalmist there is nothing in his present circumstances that gives evidence of God's love. And so the Psalmist is faced with a choice: He has believed God in the past, when God answered him. Now he has to ask himself, "Do I believe God when I don't hear an answer? In the past, have I believed God because of his blessings? Now, do I simply believe God regardless of whether he is blessing me or not?"
Recall the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego or, as we should call them, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael (these names honor God, while their other names honor Babylonian deities). These three young men -- probably not more than 20 years old -- did not bow down before the golden idol that Nebuchadnezzer set up. So the emperor calls them before him and asks them in part, "What God can deliver you out of my hand?" These three young men were faced with the same choice the Psalmist is faced with here. God had blessed them, presumably, as young men, had given them abilities and strengths - but they had been carried far away into exile in a foreign land. And while at first it seemed that they prospered in this land -- they had prayed to God with Daniel, and God had given to Daniel the interpretation of the king's dream, they had been exalted among their fellows, they were rising in the bureaucracy of the Babylonian empire -- now that all seems to have come to an end. And Nebuchadnezzar says, "What God can deliver you out of my hand?"
They were faced with a choice. Nothing in their present circumstances gave evidence of God's faithfulness and God's love. They had to decide, "Do we believe in God regardless of our circumstances, or did we believe in the past only because of his answers?"
How did they respond? They answer this most powerful man in the world with these words: "Our God is able to deliver us: but even if he does not, let it be known that we are not going to serve your Gods." They chose to believe God regardless of their circumstances. And that is what this Psalmist is being asked to do, that is what we are often asked to do in the midst of our troubles and trials. Do we believe God because of what he does for us, because of his blessings, or do we simply believe God because of who he is?
Well, the Psalmist has now come to this brink. In asking this question, "Has God's unfailing love failed?" there are only two possible ways to go. He either has to reject everything that he has believed in the past, to decide that God never had an unfailing love, that that was all just a myth, or he has to accept that, yes, God is God and he does not change. The Psalmist comes to the brink, he examines the logical implications of answering yes to these questions about the failure of God, and then he changes in verses 11 and 12. So this is the Psalmist's resolve:
11. I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
What do you notice that is different here? Remember back in verse 3 he was thinking of God, in verse 6 he was remembering, in verses 3 and 6 he was musing and his heart was musing. Here in verses 11 and 12, similarly he is remembering God and musing. But what is the difference between the first part of the Psalm and what is happening in verses 11 and 12? Look at the occurrences of the word "muse." (I've modified the translation a bit here so that the word "muse" appears whenever one particular Hebrew word is used in verses 3, 6, and 12.) In verses 3 and 6 the Psalmist is musing and his heart is musing with no object given in the verse. He is sighing, he is despairing in his circumstances, he is wallowing in his pain and emotion. But in verse 12 that is quite different. Here, he is musing on what? On the mighty deeds of the Lord. The first three phrases in verses 11 and 12 all begin with "I will." He is moving from having his emotions control him and being under the circumstances around him, to stepping back and allowing his will and his intellect to be engaged. He is forcing himself to move away from indulging in the feelings that he has -- as powerful as they are -- and saying, "What is it that I really know?"
Notice that part of his problem early on -- as he cries out to the Lord, as he stretches out his hand without wearying -- part of his problem early on was this constant prayer of supplication. He didn't start by reminding himself of God's mighty deeds, by reminding himself of who God is. Our prayers of supplication need to begin with a reminder to ourselves of the faithfulness of God, the might of God, the deeds of God. We need to begin with praise of God himself, instead of our cries. A prayer of supplication alone can be a dead end unless it is based on a firm belief in who God is, a firm confidence in the character of God.
His mind and will now have become engaged to overcome his powerful emotions. C.S. Lewis in another book made the point that truth does not depend on what we had for dinner. What we had for dinner can affect our feelings and emotions, and those feelings can have an impact on what we tend to believe at one time. But truth does not depend on what we have for dinner, truth does not depend on our feelings and emotions. What the Psalmist does here is to remind himself of the great truths that are shown in the history of his people, and his own personal history.
So the Psalmist in verses 11 and 12 resolves to change himself by reflecting on God, reflecting on the mighty deeds of God. So let's then look at this next section:
THE THUNDER OF GOD
First let's look at verses 13 to 15, where the Psalmist brings out 4 attributes of God. Try to pick these out while I read the verses:
13 Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
God is holy, he is other, he is set apart, he is pure, he is different. That explains part of the problem. But his being different is not something to fear, but something to trust in. God is great, he works wonders, he has displayed his might, he is of the strong arm. Whatever the trial might be, God is in control. The Psalmist reminds himself of this. Thirdly, he is a redeemer. Not only is he holy, set apart, other, not only is he powerful and mighty and thus able to effect his purposes, but also his purposes include the redemption of his people, the restoring of the relationship between men and himself. This very God who is holy and powerful is also the redeemer, the one who loves, the one who has come to seek and to save us. And, finally, God reveals himself in what he does. Although he is other and different and unfathomable to us, he reaches out and gives us his word.
With this confidence then in the character of God, the Psalmist reminds himself of an event in history which he knows to be true, which is as similar to his present circumstance as he can find. And so after he thinks in general about God -- his holiness, his might, his redemptive love, his revelation -- he now focuses on a specific action of God that will remind him of God's faithfulness as actualized in history. So he thinks of Israel at the Red Sea.
Let's remember a little about this circumstance. Remember the Psalmist had cried out to God and saw no hope for himself. He did not hear God answer. Remember Israel was up against the Red Sea with the Egyptian army behind them. There was no way by human effort that they could go forward; there was no way for them to go back. They called out to Moses, "Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?" They were desperate. Now like this man, they had seen God work in their past. The plagues had just come, showing God's power, holiness, and redemptive love for them. But instead they got caught up in their present circumstances and present emotions and didn't see God working to save them. Moses' response to the people was, "Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord which he will accomplish for you today!" This is Moses speaking to the people. But the very next verse in Exodus 14 is a very interesting one. For before God Moses evidently was crying out in a very similar way to this Psalmist. Moses was standing firm before the people and was encouraging them, but evidently before God he was displaying the same attitude as this Psalmist. God speaks to Moses, saying "Why are you crying out to me? Tell the sons of Israel, go forward!"
Let's read the way the Psalmist very poetically describes this. The waters are those of the Red Sea:
16 When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
What were the Israelites afraid of? They were afraid of the Egyptians, but they were also afraid of the sea. They couldn't walk into the sea -- that was death for them. And yet what does it say about the waters in verse 16. "When the waters saw you, O God, they were afraid." He anthropomorphizes the water to make an important point. The very things that we fear, fear God. Anything we face in this world that causes us to fear is under the control of a sovereign God. Whatever we may fear, fears God.
Notice also verse 17: "The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side." The lightning itself belongs to God! "The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind." God was in control of all of these power that were bringing fear to the people.
But look at verse 19. I am convinced that William Cowper meditated on this verse prior to writing "God Moves in a Mysterious Way:" "Your way was through the sea." The people didn't see this ahead of time. They saw a barrier. There was no way forward. But God's way for them was right through the sea. "Your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen." They could not tell that that was God's way. God was working in the circumstances that were causing them pain and sorrow. They couldn't see God's footprint in all this, yet he was going to lead them right through the middle of this turbulence, right through this difficulty, to a tremendous victory.
That is the thunder of God.
Let's step back and talk about ourselves. These emotions, these feelings of being abandoned by God, of God not answering our prayers, will come. If you haven't experienced them, I can promise you that you will at some point in your life, probably at multiple points in your life. God tells us in Isaiah 55, "My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts," and it is for that very reason that we cannot fathom, we cannot understand the way God works, the mysterious way in which God works in our lives. Because God is so far above us, so much greater than us, he is mysterious to us. Was God there for this Psalmist? Yes! All night long while he was crying out, God was there, God was there! But for his own sovereign purposes, God chose not to remove that sense of fear, that emotion from the Psalmist. Perhaps the Psalmist needed to learn to trust God when the circumstances didn't warrant that trust.
God's way is frequently through the sea, through the difficulties that refine us, that cause us to trust him. We see that in many Bible characters: in David, Jeremiah, Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, Paul, Elijah, in Jesus himself.
How will you respond the next time? The Christian who has learned to trust God in all circumstances will not be led astray by a promise of health, of wealth, and security once you go through some religious experience. Our relationship to God like our relationships to our husbands and wives, is not one of going through a ceremony and then living happily ever after. But like marriage our relationship to God will have its ups and downs, it will have its low points and its high points. God is always there, despite our feelings; that's what we can depend on. We need to hold onto his past deeds. But the emotions will come -- sometimes caused by what we ate for dinner, sometimes caused by the personal tragedies that accompany life in this world. The emotions will come. This Psalm is telling us that we need not be governed by those emotions. When we are faced with this, we need to recollect the solid rock of God's faithfulness, and to know that even when we don't sense his presence, even when we don't feel his love, he is there.
Let us pray:
God, great is your faithfulness. Help us to say that and believe it when we don't feel it. Thank you that we can trust you when the circumstances around us don't warrant that trust, at least to our eyes. Help us to know that you are the God who is in control of everything that we might fear. You will redeem our mistakes, you will redeem the mistakes of others that lead to our being hurt, you will redeem the circumstances that are caused by life in this broken world. Lord, help us to trust you even when we don't feel like it. Help us to have the courage to ask the tough questions, but always to remember your faithfulness as recorded in your word, as recorded in the history of your church, as recorded in our own lives. Help us, Lord, to remember your faithfulness, to bring it to mind, to depend upon that when our emotions begin to get the best of us. In Jesus' name, Amen.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 8/11/96. Ray Stedman's series of sermons on this Psalm influenced me greatly; see them at thePBC web site. I am heavily indebted to him both for his insights into this Psalm, and for all I learned about expository preaching from him.
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