This psalm is titled To the Chief Musician. To Jeduthun. A Psalm of Asaph.
The Chief Musician is thought by some to be the LORD God Himself, and others suppose him to be a leader of choirs or musicians in David’s time, such as Heman the singer or Asaph (1 Chronicles 6:33, 16:5-7, and 25:6). “The notation ‘For the director of music’ [Chief Musician] appears in fifty-five psalms (also in Habakkuk 3:19) and serves probably as a musical addition, marking the psalm to be a part of temple worship or to be recited by the leader of the choir.” (Willem VanGemeren)
Jeduthun (mentioned also in the titles of Psalm 39 and Psalm 62) was one of the musicians appointed by David to lead Israel’s public worship (1 Chronicles 16:41; 25:1-3). Charles Spurgeon wrote regarding Jeduthun: “The sons of Jeduthun were porters or doorkeepers, according to 1 Chronicles 16:42. Those who serve well make the best of singers, and those who occupy the highest posts in the choir must not be ashamed to wait at the posts of the doors of the Lord’s house.”
Asaph was the great singer and musician of David and Solomon’s era (1 Chronicles 15:17-19, 16:5-7; 2 Chronicles 29:13). 1 Chronicles 25:1 and 2 Chronicles 29:30 add that Asaph was a prophet in his musical compositions.
“The message of this psalm is that to brood on sorrow is to be broken and disheartened, while to see God is to sing on the darkest day. Once we come to know that our years are of His right hand, there is light everywhere.” (G. Campbell Morgan)
A. Comfort and anguish in remembering the works of God.
1. (1-3) Seeking God and remaining troubled.
I cried out to God with my voice—
To God with my voice;
And He gave ear to me.
In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord;
My hand was stretched out in the night without ceasing;
My soul refused to be comforted.
I remembered God, and was troubled;
I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Selah
a. I cried out to God with my voice: This psalm begins with a thought common in the psalms, with the psalmist describing his cry to God. He cried out unto God, and he knew that God heard him (He gave ear to me).
i. “Days of trouble must be days of prayer; in days of inward trouble, especially when God seems to have withdrawn from us, we must seek him, and seek till we find him. In the day of his trouble he did not seek for the diversions of business or recreation, to shake off his trouble that way, but he sought God, and his favour and grace. Those that are under trouble of mind, must not think to drink it away, or laugh it away, but pray it away.” (Henry, cited in Spurgeon)
b. In the day of trouble: His cry to God was urgent (in the day of trouble), active (stretched out), and persistent (without ceasing).
i. “In [Middle Eastern] fashion he ‘stretched out’ his hands in prayer (Psalm 143:6) and continued to lift up his hands ‘at night’.” (VanGemeren)
c. My soul refused to be comforted: Encouraging thoughts came to mind but were immediately put away. Friends spoke of God’s goodness in the present and brighter future, but the soul refused any comfort.
i. Sometimes comfort is refused because it is superficial. One may say to the person in despair, “Go to a movie and have some fun,” or some other advice that treats his despair lightly. Sometimes we are in such despair that seeking God and God alone can help, and nothing superficial.
ii. “He refused some comforts as too weak for his case, others as untrue, others as unhallowed; but chiefly because of distraction, he declined even those grounds of consolation which ought to have been effectual with him. As a sick man turns away even from the most nourishing food, so did he. It is impossible to comfort those who refuse to be comforted.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “There may be a further hint of this tenacity by an echo of Jacob’s refusal to be comforted over Joseph (Genesis 37:35).” (Kidner)
d. I remembered God, and was troubled: The psalmist earnestly and sincerely cried out to God and knew that God heard him – yet was troubled, and felt his spirit was overwhelmed. The sense is, “God, I know you are there – why won’t You help me the way I need to be helped?”
i. Most often when the believer cries out to God and senses he or she is heard, it brings the peaceful assurance of faith. This is not always the case. Sometimes – especially when we remain in our difficulty instead of being delivered from it – the sense that God has heard us yet our trouble remains brings more frustration and not less.
ii. Perhaps this was some of what Paul felt regarding his thorn in the flesh described in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. At first he felt the frustration of unanswered prayer; then he felt the challenge of prayer answered, but not according to previous expectation.
iii. This is the kind of struggle with God known by those somewhat further along in their relationship with God. The depth and complexity of this struggle is worthy of meditation – thus, Selah is here inserted.
2. (4-6) The diligent search.
You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I have considered the days of old,
The years of ancient times.
I call to remembrance my song in the night;
I meditate within my heart,
And my spirit makes diligent search.
a. You hold my eyelids open: Asaph considered the intensity of his cry to God. With weary eyes and a troubled heart, he sincerely sought God.
i. “Sorrow, like a beast of prey, devours at night; and every sad heart knows how eyelids, however wearied, refuse to close upon as wearied eyes, which gaze wide opened into the blackness and see dreadful things there. This man felt as if God’s finger was pushing up his lids and forcing him to stare out into the night.” (Maclaren)
ii. I cannot speak: “This shows an increase of sorrow and anguish. At first he felt his misery, and called aloud. He receives more light, sees and feels his deep wretchedness, and then his words are swallowed by excessive distress. His woes are too big for utterance.” (Clarke)
b. I have considered the days of old: Asaph considered the extent of his cry to God, considering what God had done even in ancient times. He wondered why God seemed to answer those in the past with more satisfaction than He does in the present.
c. I call to remembrance my song in the night: Asaph’s seeking after God remembered better times (song in the night), and it was deep (I meditate within my heart) and diligent.
3. (7-9) The searching questions.
Will the Lord cast off forever?
And will He be favorable no more?
Has His mercy ceased forever?
Has His promise failed forevermore?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies? Selah
a. Will the Lord cast off forever? With these questions Asaph spoke his fear that the season of dryness and frustration might last forever. He feared that never again would he see the favor of God, the mercy of God, and the fulfillment of God’s promise.
i. “Very wisely this good man argued with himself, and sought to cure his unbelief. He treated himself homeopathically, treating like with like. As he was attacked by the disease of questioning, he gave himself questions as a medicine. Observe how he kills one question with another, as men fight fire with fire. Here we have six questions, one after another, each one striking at the very heart of unbelief.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “Beloved, if we were sometimes thus to school ourselves and cross-question our own unbelief, the Holy Spirit would give us comfort.” (Spurgeon)
b. Has God forgotten to be gracious? With two more questions Asaph wondered if God’s grace and mercy were no longer available to him; that they were forgotten or blocked toward him.
i. Many a beloved saint has felt the agony of these questions; we could wish that each of them would ask these questions as boldly and honestly as Asaph did.
ii. “Spurgeon’s studies of the psalms were produced between 1865 and 1885, and during those twenty years he experienced much ill health, which continued to deteriorate until his death in 1892. He had neuralgia and gout, which left him with swollen, red, painful limbs, so that he frequently could not walk or even write. He had debilitating headaches, and with these physical ills came frightful bouts of depression, leading almost to despair.” (Boice)
iii. Therefore, Spurgeon would write of this psalm: “Alas, my God, the writer of this exposition well knows what thy servant Asaph meant, for his soul is familiar with the way of grief. Deep glens and lonely caves of soul depressions, my spirit knows full well your awful glooms!” (Spurgeon)
iv. Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies: “The tender mercies of God are the source whence all his kindness to the children of men flows. The metaphor here is taken from a spring, the mouth of which is closed, so that its waters can no longer run in the same channel.” (Clarke)
v. “If you are a child of God, yet never had to ask these questions, you ought to be very grateful; but if you have to ask them, be very thankful that Asaph asked them before you; and believe that, as he had a comfortable answer to them, so shall you. It is always a comfort when you can see the footprints of another man in the mire and the slough, for if that man passed through unharmed, so may you, for his God shall also be your Helper.” (Spurgeon)
c. Selah: Asaph spoke things that believers rarely feel safe to speak about. Many believers won’t risk this kind of honesty. Asaph’s honest anguish is worthy of contemplation.
B. The greatness of God.
1. (10-12) Anguish turns to remembering.
And I said, “This is my anguish;
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 Your wonders of old.
I will also meditate on all Your work,
And talk of Your deeds.
a. This is my anguish: We appreciate the honest anguish of Asaph in this psalm. For him, the apparent gap between what he believed and what he felt was painful.
b. But I will remember: In the midst of the painful anguish between what he believed and what he felt, Asaph spoke to himself and declared what he would do. He was determined to remember something, to keep it in mind.
i. “To the insinuations of distrust, faith now begins to reply.” (Horne)
ii. “Memory supplies the colours with which Hope paints her truest pictures.” (Maclaren)
iii. “Memory is a fit handmaid for faith. When faith has its seven years of famine, memory like Joseph in Egypt opens her granaries.” (Spurgeon)
c. But I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High: Asaph was determined to remember the better seasons when God’s power seemed unhindered, when His symbolic hand of strength and skill (the years of the right hand) were evident. In discouraging times he decided to remember better times and take firm hope for the future.
i. “If no good was in the present, memory ransacked the past to find consolation. She fain would borrow a light from the altars of yesterday to light the gloom of to-day. It is our duty to search for comfort, and not in sullen indolence yield to despair.” (Spurgeon)
d. I will remember…I will also meditate…and talk of Your deeds: Asaph presented a three-step process to encouragement and healing. It begins with remembering God’s great works, His wonders of old. Then we should meditate on those works, and what they may have to teach us today. The third step is to talk of these great things with others.
i. I will remember the works of the LORD: Kidner indicated that this was a public remembrance. “Strictly speaking, ‘I will make mention of’; i.e., it is a public recounting of these deeds.”
2. (13-15) The greatness of God in His sanctuary.
Your way, O God, is in the sanctuary;
Who is so great a God as our God?
You are the God who does wonders;
You have declared Your strength among the peoples.
You have with Your arm redeemed Your people,
The sons of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
a. Your way, O God, is in the sanctuary: In the first part of the psalm, Asaph explained the goodness of remembering, meditating, and speaking of God’s greatness. He begins the second part of the psalm by actually describing God’s good works, beginning in the sanctuary – either of the temple or tabernacle.
i. The way of God was in the sanctuary in the sense that the tabernacle or the temple and its rituals clearly spoke of the way to God through the blood of an innocent sacrifice, ultimately pointing to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
b. You are the God who does wonders; You have declared Your strength among the peoples: Asaph spoke of the miraculous works that displayed the strength of God, as He had done time and again in the history of Israel.
c. You have with Your arm redeemed Your people: Many times through their history, Israel saw God’s faithful strength rescue them from all kinds of trouble.
i. The sons of Jacob and Joseph: “The coupling of Jacob and Joseph as ancestors of the people redeemed from the Egyptians may be due to the insistence of both of them that the Promised Land, not Egypt, must be their final rest (Genesis 47:29ff; 50:24f).” (Kidner)
3. (16-20) The greatness of God at the Red Sea.
The waters saw You, O God;
The waters saw You, they were afraid;
The depths also trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
The skies sent out a sound;
Your arrows also flashed about.
The voice of Your thunder was in the whirlwind;
The lightnings lit up the world;
The earth trembled and shook.
Your way was in the sea,
Your path in the great waters,
And Your footsteps were not known.
You led Your people like a flock
By the hand of Moses and Aaron.
a. The waters saw You, O God: In this last portion of the psalm, Asaph most likely had in mind the parting and crossing of the Red Sea as an example of one of the great works of God that he would remember, meditate upon, and tell of. He began by poetically describing the waters of the Red Sea as afraid of Yahweh, and ready to flee at His presence.
i. “The waters of the Red Sea are here beautifully represented as endued with sensibility, as seeing, feeling, and being confounded, even to the lowest depths, at the presence and power of their great Creator.” (Horne)
b. The clouds poured out water: We are not told of a mighty thunderstorm that accompanied the parting of the Red Sea, but Asaph described the rain, thunder, and lightning (Your arrows also flashed about). It’s hard to know at this point if Asaph is describing something not included in Exodus 14 or simply describing the presence and power of God in poetic terms.
i. It seems more favorable to take this literally. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus did: “As soon as ever the whole Egyptian army was within it, the sea flowed to its own place, and came down with a torrent raised by storms of wind and encompassed the Egyptians. Showers of rain also came down from the sky, and dreadful thunders and lightning, with flashes of fire. Thunder-bolts also were darted upon them; nor was there anything which used to be sent by God upon men, as indications of his wrath, which did not happen at this time; for a dark and dismal night oppressed them. And thus did all these men perish, so that there was not one man left to be a messenger of this calamity to the rest of the Egyptians.” (Josephus, cited in Spurgeon)
ii. “Either these are details missing from the original account but preserved in the historical memory of the people or they are a poetic embellishment of the incident. Whatever the case, there is nothing improbable about these additional manifestations of God’s power on that great night of nights for Israel.” (Boice)
iii. Your arrows: “Either hail-stones, or rather lightnings or thunder-bolts, which are called God’s arrows, Psalms 18:14, 144:6.” (Poole)
c. The earth trembled and shook: Asaph described the presence of God as being so manifest at the parting of the Red Sea that the earth itself shook. Again, since this is not recorded in the Exodus 14 account, either he adds information or is simply giving a poetic description.
d. Your way was in the sea, Your path in the great waters: When God miraculously parted the waters of the Red Sea, it was as if He cleared a great road or path for Himself that He also gave to His people to use.
i. Your path in the great waters: “It is a true picture of God’s sway over nature. Even when He was incarnate, the winds and waves would obey Him and the sea provide a path for Him.” (Kidner)
ii. Your footsteps were not known: “God is described as wading through mighty oceans as a man might ford some tiny stream. The Atlantic with fathomless depths is no more to Him than a brook to us.” (Meyer)
e. You led Your people like a flock: As a final description of God’s mighty work at the Red Sea, Asaph noted that God led His people on the path through the sea, as well as by His servants Moses and Aaron.
i. We see that God works both in great wonders (as at the Red Sea) and in the normal leading of His people through human instruments (Moses and Aaron). One never excludes the other.
ii. “The smiter of Egypt was the shepherd of Israel. He drove his foes before him, but went before his people.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “The loving-kindness of God towards Israel did not stop at the Red Sea, but he conducted his chosen flock, by the guidance of faithful pastors, through all the perils of the wilderness, to the land of promise.” (Horne)
iv. “This mighty God has the tender heart of a shepherd. He leads His people like a flock; not overdriving, but carrying the lambs in His bosom, and gently leading those that are with young. Mightier than the mightiest, but meeker than the meekest!” (Meyer)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org