Psalm 77: A Power Ballad of the Ancient World

Pastor Rudy Olivo

For the music leader. According to Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A psalm.

I cry out loud to God—out loud to God so that he can hear me! During the day when I’m in trouble I look for my Lord. At night my hands are still outstretched and don’t grow numb; my whole being refuses to be comforted. I remember God and I moan. I complain, and my spirit grows tired. You’ve kept my eyelids from closing. I’m so upset I can’t even speak. I think about days long past; I remember years that seem an eternity in the past. I meditate with my heart at night: I complain, and my spirit keeps searching: “Will my Lord reject me forever? Will he never be pleased again? Has his faithful love come to a complete end? Is his promise over for future generations? Has God forgotten how to be gracious? Has he angrily stopped up his compassion?” It’s my misfortune, I thought, that the strong hand of the Most High is different now. But I will remember the LORD’s deeds; yes, I will remember your wondrous acts from times long past. I will meditate on all your works; I will ponder your deeds. God, your way is holiness! Who is as great a god as you, God? You are the God who works wonders; you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people; redeemed the children of Jacob and Joseph. Psalms 77:1-15 CEB

Here we are the Sunday after Vacation Bible School joining together as a congregation to hear about all the amazing things that happened when young and old, English and Spanish speakers, gave themselves to learning about God by way of song and object lessons.  You do know that these two teaching aids are THE mechanisms by which amazing God-loving people, both paid staff and volunteers, teach kids the Good News about Jesus, right?

To be clear there is no doubt God is at work in the midst of all of this and it’s the Holy Spirit that enlivens kids’ hearts to His love for them, but the tools he most often uses are music and object lessons.

To walk us through this truth, let’s consider the words of Psalm 77 above. This Psalm may be biblical text to us, but to the first hearers in Hebrew its words were a power ballad of the ancient world. Now the first singer, Jeduthun, probably wasn’t wearing neon spandex like power ballad singers of the 80s, but in an era without barbers he probably would have looked like he belonged in a “hair band.”  

The words of this psalm would have elicited emotions three or so thousand years ago similar to when you were rocking out to Bon Jovi’s “Never Say Goodbye” or White Lion’s “When the Children Cry.”

Don’t believe me? Let’s walk through this song and see how it teaches us the same Bible lessons our kids learned at Vacation Bible School. The VBS theme was “Life is Wild, God is Good.” The children learned that God is good when life is unfair, when life is scary, when life changes, when life is sad, and when life is good.

Psalm 77, our biblical anthem, kicks off with an honest disclosure of emotion. The lyricist reveals what many of us have felt over the last few months: life is unfair. As you look at verse 1 you may say, Rudy, that doesn’t literally say “life is unfair.” True. Yet his actions – crying for help, crying to be heard – makes it clear he is feeling as though life is unfair.  

Scripture says God placed eternity in human’s hearts. The Fall was unfair. Broken marriages, hurricanes, medical diagnoses, work drama… all of these painful things we deal with are unfair. For more evidence, see Nahum 1:7 and John 16:33.

The LORD is good, a haven in a day of distress. He acknowledges those who take refuge in him. Nahum 1:7 CEB

“I’ve said these things to you so that you will have peace in me. In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world.” John 16:33 CEB

Our psalmist doesn’t end with the reality that life is unfair, he continues singing the blues in verses 2-4 as he points to the truth that life is scary. Scary looks different depending on age, but it’s always most prominent at night. For our kids scary may be what’s in the closet, under the bed, or outside their room. For adults, scary might be thinking about how we will pay our rent or meet our insurance deductible. It might be that we feel unloved or worthless. It might be the fear that we are messing up our kids.

In those scary moments the psalmist points us to what to do. He says he stretched out untiring hands in a gesture of petition/submission. His soul refuses to be comforted because it can’t be found without God.

Verse 4 is interesting here. It seems the initial presence of God elicits fear either because God is responsible or hasn’t done anything, OR because His presence prompts conviction to personal action. All of that could be true, but the point is that in wrestling with fear we find comfort (Psalm 23:4).

Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. Your rod and your staff— they protect me. Psalm 23:4 CEB

While fear is a driver that can either take us to God or far away from Him, there is an emotional brother of fear that does the same thing: sadness. In verse 5 our psalmist bellows out in distress all that he is sad about: good times past, love, happiness, promises, security – they are all gone. In this moment of loss he doesn’t know what to do but lament.

Humanity’s relationship with sorrow is a sordid one. God says blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. Yet there also seems to be some who worship sadness. When that happens, the emotion ceases to be a mechanism God uses to transition us to health, healing, wholeness. When it becomes our focus, it becomes our downfall.

Connected to both fear and sadness is our relationship with change. In verse 10 our psalmist asks if God is changing. While the whole of Scripture promises us that God will never change, our understanding of God and the world is always changing. Our psalmist tells us that even in this, God is good. It is this constant affirmation of God’s love for us that sees us through change.

That planting of the flag in who God was, is, and will be is how our songwriter brings his ballad to crescendo. He uses verses 11-15 to speak of God’s goodness. In this he overcomes unfair, scary, sad, and change and he sings the song of how God first made and now makes good things happen. He gives us hope for the future which we can enjoy in the present. The psalmist also preps himself (and us) for the next difficult time: always remember rightly God’s hand.

In this culminating moment our psalmist was doing VBS work thousands of years ago and the church has used this song as one of two teaching tools for all of our history. Coupled with the powerful object lesson of Holy Communion, we are reminded over and over again, every time we worship as a congregation, “Life is wild, God is good!”

Technical difficulties prevented us from being able to video broadcast this sermon, but we do have a clip from the service that reinforces Pastor Rudy’s message. Watch below as the children sing “Whole Lotta Change.”