By J. Richard Middleton

“My hand at night has been stretched out without wearying; my soul refused to be comforted” (Psalm 77:2)

As we get older, we often accumulate “love handles” around the middle. We also accumulate regrets. There is so much that we have done that we wish we hadn’t. And there are many missed opportunities — things that we didn’t do that we wish we had done. We live with the consequences, the blowback, of these actions — done or undone.

We often wish we could go back and change the past. We would love a do-over. I know I would.

And in the darkness of night — often in the early hours of the morning — the regrets can come swarming in like a pestilence, accusing us of our flaws, reminding us of our failures. And we feel mired in a pit of self-recrimination, even despair. Perhaps you’ve seen the meme of a 3 a.m. brain: “I can see you’re trying to sleep, so I would like to offer you a selection of every memory, unresolved issue, or things you should have said or done today as well as in the past 40 years!”


“I believe God wants better for me.”


I have come to understand that as the work of the devil; I believe God wants better for me. So when regrets come swarming in, dragging me down in the middle of the night, my response is often: Get behind me, Satan!

But it doesn’t always work.

Then I found Psalm 77, written by someone who can’t sleep at night. God holds his eyelids open, he says (v. 4). Indeed, he is so choked up and incapacitated by his troubles that he can’t even speak (v. 4).

Now, I don’t know for sure that it was regrets that generated this psalm. But, like a person with regrets, the psalmist remembers how things were before (v. 5), when they were going well, when he seemed to be enfolded in God’s love (implied in v. 7–9).

But now things are different. He is in the darkness and can find no consolation.

Psalm 77 is applicable to many more situations than a person mired in regret. It is relevant to any situation we are in where the darkness of the present can’t match the joy of the past, where the memory of how things were contrasts sharply with how things are now.

Let’s look at the progression of Psalm 77. It moves through three stages. This article focuses on the first two stages; a follow-up article will address the third stage.

I. Remembering God in a Time of Distress (1–3)

The psalm starts with a vivid description of desperate prayer. Here is my literal translation of the Hebrew: “My voice to God — I shall cry out! / My voice to God — that he may give ear to me.” (v. 1). “I shall cry out!” is a special form of the verb known as the cohortative, which means it isn’t a statement of fact, a simple prediction that he is going to cry out. It is a passionate statement of intent: “I shall cry out!” (Nothing will stop me.) That’s why it needs an exclamation point. As the first verb in the psalm, it sets the tone of passionate pleading to come (there will be seven more cohortatives in this psalm).

We don’t have the actual words of the psalmist’s prayer at this point, just a statement of his intent to pray (actually, to continue praying; the next verse suggests this has been going on for a while). The psalmist is going to keep on raising his voice to God because he desperately wants to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be answered.

In his time of distress, he notes, he sought the Lord (the verbs in verse 2 indicate past action); he has been stretching out his hand to God in the night. But he has found no relief: “my soul refused to be comforted” (v. 2).

This first movement of the psalm concludes with an affirmation of the psalmist’s intent to “remember” God and to “meditate” (to think about or reflect). These two key verbs will show up twice more in the psalm; they will indicate the second and third movements of the psalm. Like the verb for “cry out” in verse 1, these two verbs are in the cohortative; they communicate the psalmist’s resolve: “I shall remember God!” And “I shall meditate!” (v. 3)


“He’s not going to give up.”


Here the intent to remember is immediately followed by another verb in the cohortative. It’s a strange verb, meaning to “groan” or even to “roar.” It’s usually translated as “I shall complain!” In other words, he is so desperate, he plans to make a lot of noise so God will pay attention to him. He’s not going to give up.

But verse 3 (and the first movement of the psalm) ends by acknowledging how tiring and difficult prayer can be: “I shall meditate,” the psalmist says, “though my spirit faints.”

II. Remembering the Past — The Good Old Days (4–10)

The second movement begins with the psalmist’s statement about being unable to sleep or talk. Here we find words of his prayer, addressed directly to God (the only direct address to God in the first eleven verses): “You grasped my eyelids; / I was troubled and could not speak” (v. 4). Then comes the psalmist’s memory of earlier times (v. 5), which leads to a new commitment to “remember” and “meditate,” also with cohortative verbs (v. 6). “I shall remember my song in the night! / With my heart I shall meditate and my spirit will search.”

It’s still night, and he can’t sleep, but he is going to focus on the good times in the past, perhaps when he went to the temple and participated in communal songs of praise. He has decided to search through his memory of the good old days in the hope of finding comfort.

But it doesn’t work.

His searching and meditation — his remembering — only plunges him deeper into distress, since the reflection on the past leads to greater awareness of the immense gulf — the yawning chasm — between then and now. Memory raises troubling questions.

In verses 7–9, the psalmist asks himself a series of six questions, focused around his experience of the ending of God’s mercy toward him. He begins with “Will the Lord reject forever?” (v. 7) and ends with “Has God forgotten to be gracious? / Has he in anger stifled his compassion?” (v. 9).

Then comes the statement of the core issue: “This is my pain: The right hand of the Most High has changed” (v. 10). His pain, his wound, his grief (all possible translations) is that it seems as if God has changed. God’s “right hand” (His power and favor) are no longer manifest in the psalmist’s life. There are many in the church today who have a similar experience. This is not an issue of theology — what we believe about God. It is about our experience of God, especially when our experience doesn’t match our belief.

What are we to do in these desperate situations? Some decide to leave the church or even to abandon God. Not so the psalmist. This isn’t the path he takes.

Psalm 77 falls into the category of psalms of lament, which make up about one-third of the Psalter. Laments are the most common category of psalm. These psalms are prayers, often quite abrasive prayers, which take the pain and hurt of life to the throne of the Most High, the One we confess cares about us in our pain. Why are these psalms included in Scripture? They are there to encourage us to take our grief to God, and they also provide models for our prayer — especially when we are at a loss for words.


“Even in the darkness, he reaches out to the One he hopes will listen to his cry.”


Psalm 77 has been particularly helpful for me. I believe that we can learn from this psalmist’s determination to keep on praying — to remember and meditate — despite his sense that God has abandoned him. Even in the darkness, he reaches out to the One he hopes will listen to his cry. But will God listen?

In part 2 of this article (coming Oct. 11), we will see whether the psalmist manages to move from despair to hope.

Psalm 77

(Literal translation by J. Richard Middleton)

For the leader; upon Jeduthun; for Asaph; a psalm.

1 My voice to God, I shall cry out!

— my voice to God, that He may listen to me!

2 In the day of my distress I sought the Lord;

my hand at night has been stretched out without wearying;

my soul refused to be comforted.

3 I shall remember God, and I shall complain;

I shall meditate, though my spirit faints. Selah.

4 You grasped my eyelids;

I was troubled and could not speak.

5 I considered the former days,

years of long ago.

6 I shall remember my song in the night;

with my heart I shall meditate and my spirit will search:

7 “Will the Lord reject forever,

and no longer show favor?

8 Has His steadfast love ceased forever?

Is His word permanently ended?

9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?

Has He in anger stifled His compassion?” Selah.

10 And I say, “This is my pain:

The right hand of the Most High has changed.”

11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD;

indeed, I shall remember Your wonders of old.

12 I will muse on all Your work,

and on Your mighty acts I shall meditate.

13 Your way, O God, is holy.

Who is a God as great as our God?

14 You are the God who does wonders;

you made known Your strength among the peoples.

15 With Your arm you redeemed Your people,

the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah.

16 The waters saw You, O God,

the waters saw You, they writhed;

indeed, the deeps quaked.

17 The dark clouds poured out water;

the clouds gave voice;

indeed, Your arrows traveled.

18 The voice of Your thunder was in the whirlwind;

lightnings lit up the world;

the earth quaked and trembled.

19 Your way was through the sea,

Your path through the mighty waters;

yet Your footprints were not known.

20 You led your people like a flock

by the hand of Moses and Aaron.