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J. Richard Middleton





Traumatized and Sleepless, the Psalmist Seeks Comfort in God’s Immanence



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J. Richard Middleton





Traumatized and Sleepless, the Psalmist Seeks Comfort in God’s Immanence






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Traumatized and Sleepless, the Psalmist Seeks Comfort in God’s Immanence

In an existential crisis, the author of Psalm 77 is so incapacitated by his troubles that he struggles to speak. He attempts to bring to mind past memories of God’s kindness, but God has changed and is no longer manifest in his life. In an unexpected turn, the psalmist focuses on Israel’s memory of the Sea crossing at the Exodus. How does this meditation help him move from despair to hope?


Traumatized and Sleepless, the Psalmist Seeks Comfort in God’s Immanence

The Psalmist in the style of Van Gogh, DALL·E 2

תהלים עז:א לַמְנַצֵּחַ עַל (יְדִיתוּן) [יְדוּתוּן] לְאָסָף מִזְמוֹר.
Ps 77:1 For the leader; on Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A psalm.[1]

Following this superscription, Psalm 77 moves through three stages:

1: Remembering God in a Time of Distress (vv. 2–4)
2: Remembering the Good Old Days (vv. 5–10)
Pivot: The Core Issue—God Has Changed (vv. 11)
3: Remembering God’s Mighty Deeds—The Sea Crossing (vv. 12–21)

These stages are marked by literary indicators, and it is possible to discern shifting emotional dynamics in each stage, leading to a (potential) resolution or climax.

Stage 1: Remembering God in a Time of Distress

The psalm starts with a verbless opening phrase “My voice to God,” which conveys an initial note of desperation in the psalmist’s prayer—especially because it is repeated in the second line.

תהלים עז:ב קוֹלִי אֶל אֱלֹהִים וְאֶצְעָקָה
קוֹלִי אֶל אֱלֹהִים וְהַאֲזִין אֵלָי.
Ps 77:2 My voice to God—I shall cry out! My voice to God—that he may give ear to me.[2]

The cohortative first verb וְאֶצְעָקָה (ʾetzaqah) is not a statement of fact or a simple prediction but an exclamation of intent: “Let me cry out!” Or “I shall cry out!”[3] Nothing will stop me. The verse sets the tone of passionate pleading to come. The psalmist uses seven more cohortatives.

The speaker continues with a declaration of his intent to pray—actually, to continue praying, since the next verse suggests that he has been praying 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.

תהלים עז:ג בְּיוֹם צָרָתִי אֲדֹנָי דָּרָשְׁתִּי
יָדִי לַיְלָה נִגְּרָה וְלֹא תָפוּג
מֵאֲנָה הִנָּחֵם נַפְשִׁי.
Ps 77:3 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.

The psalmist has been stretching out his hand to God in the night. Because the verb נִגְּרָה (niggirah), rendered as “stretched out,” refers to something “poured out” or “flowing,” Robert Alter emends יָדִי (yadi), “my hand,” to עֵינִי (eyni), “my eye,” presenting the psalmist as in tears all night.[4] This emendation finds support in a similar image of prolonged weeping in Lamentations:

איכה ג:דט עֵינִי נִגְּרָה וְלֹא תִדְמֶה מֵאֵין הֲפֻגוֹת.
Lam 3:49 My eyes shall flow without cease, without respite.[5]

The NJPS translation of Psalm 77:3 combines both readings (putting the implied words in italics): “with my hand uplifted; my eyes flow all night without respite.” Although the text and its translation are uncertain, the psalmist is clearly in deep distress in the night hours.

The first stage of the psalm concludes with an affirmation of the psalmist’s intent to “remember,” or call to mind, God and to “meditate,” to muse, think about, or reflect.

תהלים עז:ד אֶזְכְּרָה אֱלֹהִים וְאֶהֱמָיָה
אָשִׂיחָה וְתִתְעַטֵּף רוּחִי סֶלָה.
Ps 77:4 I shall remember God, and I shall complain; I shall meditate, though my spirit faints. Selah.

Like the verb for “cry out” in verse 2, the verbs זָכַר (zakar) and שִׂיחַ (siach) are in the cohortative; they communicate the psalmist’s resolve: “I shall remember God.” And “I shall meditate” (v. 4). These two verbs will also later signal the second and third movements of the psalm.

The intent to remember is immediately followed by another verb in the cohortative—אֶהֱמָיָה (ʾehemayah), possibly meaning to “groan” or even to “roar,” though it is often translated as “I shall complain.” In other words, the psalmist is so desperate, he plans to make a lot of noise so God will pay attention to him.

The verse ends by acknowledging how tiring and difficult prayer has been: “I shall meditate,” the psalmist says, וְתִתְעַטֵּף רוּחִי (ve-titʿatteph ruchi), “though my spirit faints.” Taking the second clause as contrasting with the first, and thus rendering the conjunction vav as “though,” makes the best sense of the psalm’s movement.

The word Selah occurs three times in the psalm.[6] It demarcates the ending of the two main sections at the end of verses 4 and 10. In verse 16, it signals the transition from the bicola (verses composed of two paired lines) of verses 2–16 to tricola (three-line verses) in the final section of the psalm (vv. 17–21).[7]

Stage 2: Remembering the Past—The Good Old Days

The second movement begins with the psalmist unable to sleep or talk. For the first time (and the only time in the first eleven verses), we find words of his prayer, addressed directly to God:[8]

תהלים עז:ה אָחַזְתָּ שְׁמֻרוֹת עֵינָי
נִפְעַמְתִּי וְלֹא אֲדַבֵּר.
Ps 77:5 You grasped my eyelids; I was troubled and could not speak.

Although the statement that God has grasped the שְׁמֻרוֹת (shemurot), “guards” (that is, lids), of his eyes may suggest that God is forcing the psalmist’s eyes shut (meaning that he is exhausted and can’t stay awake), it makes better sense to think that God is keeping his eyes open: He is finding sleep difficult and blames God for his insomnia. Indeed, he is so troubled or overwrought by his thoughts about God that he is unable to talk.

Then comes the psalmist’s memory of earlier times.

תהלים עז:ו חִשַּׁבְתִּי יָמִים מִקֶּדֶם
שְׁנוֹת עוֹלָמִים.
Ps 77:6 I considered the former days,
years of long ago.

This leads to a new commitment to “remember” and “meditate,” also with cohortative verbs.

תהלים עז:ז אֶזְכְּרָה נְגִינָתִי בַּלָּיְלָה
עִם לְבָבִי אָשִׂיחָה וַיְחַפֵּשׂ רוּחִי.
Ps 77:7 I shall remember my song in the night! With my heart I shall meditate and my spirit will search.

The psalmist intends to search through his memory of the good old days, perhaps when he went to the temple and participated in communal songs of praise,[9] in the hope of finding comfort. It doesn’t work, however, and instead only plunges him deeper into distress, since the reflection on the past leads to greater awareness of the immense gulf between then and now.[10]

The psalmist asks himself a series of rhetorical questions related to his sense that God’s mercy towards him has ended.[11]

תהלים עז:ח הַלְעוֹלָמִים יִזְנַח אֲדֹנָי
וְלֹא יֹסִיף לִרְצוֹת עוֹד.
עז:ט הֶאָפֵס לָנֶצַח חַסְדּוֹ
גָּמַר אֹמֶר לְדֹר וָדֹר.
עז:י הֲשָׁכַח חַנּוֹת אֵל
אִם קָפַץ בְּאַף רַחֲמָיו סֶלָה.
Ps 77:8 Will the Lord reject forever?
and no longer show favor?
77:9 Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Is his word permanently ended? 77:10 Has God forgotten to be gracious? If he has in anger stifled his compassion....[12] Selah

He uses multiple expressions for duration to focus the issue on whether any of God’s past goodness or favor will continue into the future: “forever” (ʿolamim) and “no longer” (loʾ yosiph ʿod) in verse 8, “forever” (netsach) and “permanently” (ledor vador) in verse 9.

The final line is usually also translated as a question: “Has he in anger stifled his compassion?” If, however, we read the line as beginning an if-then, conditional statement, then the sentence would have a protasis—“If he has in anger stifled his compassion...”—but would break off, as if the psalmist ran out of steam, because the apodosis is missing. I imagine one could add “then what shall I do?” Or, more abrasively, “then WTF.”[13]

Pivot: The Core Issue—God Has Changed

The statement of the core issue in the next verse is transitional between the second and third stages of the psalm.

תהלים עז:יא וָאֹמַר חַלּוֹתִי הִיא
שְׁנוֹת יְמִין עֶלְיוֹן.
Ps 77:11 And I said, “This is my pain:
The right hand of the Most High has changed.”

The NJPS renders חַלּוֹתִי הִיא (chaloti hiʾ) as “this is my fault,” and Robert Alter similarly has “it is my failing,” which casts blame on the psalmist.[14] But this does not make the best contextual sense: The psalmist’s point is that God’s “right hand”—God’s power and favor—are no longer manifest in his life.[15]

Stage 3: Remembering God’s Mighty Deeds—The Sea Crossing

Previously, the only time that the psalmist has spoken directly to God was in verse 5, but from here on, the rest of psalm is a prayer, addressed to the very One he feels has abandoned him. Clearly, the psalmist has not given up on God. This significant transition is signaled once more by the key verbs for remembering and meditating (zakar and siach), which the psalmist has used twice before (vv. 4 and 7).[16]

תהלים עז:יב (אַזְכִּיר) [אֶזְכּוֹר] מַעַלְלֵי יָהּ כִּי אֶזְכְּרָה מִקֶּדֶם פִּלְאֶךָ.
עז:יג וְהָגִיתִי בְכָל פָּעֳלֶךָ
וּבַעֲלִילוֹתֶיךָ אָשִׂיחָה.
Ps 77:12 I will remember the deeds of Yah;[17] Indeed, I shall remember your wonders of old! 77:13 I will muse on all your work, and on your mighty acts I shall meditate!

Instead of thinking back on his own personal story, the psalmist now decides to call to mind God’s “deeds,” “wonders,” “work,” and “mighty acts” in the communal story of God’s redemption of Israel.[18] When he says “I will remember the deeds of Yah (יָהּ),” he uses the short form of the tetragrammaton, one of several examples of shared language suggesting a connection with the Song of the Sea, which Moses and Miriam sang at the crossing of the Sea.[19]

שׁמות טו:ב עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ
וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה.
Exod 15:2 Yah is my strength and my might; He is become my deliverance.

Then the psalmist focuses on the distinctive character of Israel’s God.

God’s Character at the Sea

Israel’s God, who is holy—that is, unique and distinct from other gods—has manifested his strength among the nations.

תהלים עז:יד אֱלֹהִים בַּקֹּדֶשׁ דַּרְכֶּךָ
מִי אֵל גָּדוֹל כֵּאלֹהִים.
עז:טו אַתָּה הָאֵל עֹשֵׂה פֶלֶא
הוֹדַעְתָּ בָעַמִּים עֻזֶּךָ.
Ps 77:14 Your way, O God, is in holiness.
Who is a deity as great as God?[20] 77:15 You are the deity who does wonders;you made known your strength among the peoples.

The psalmist echoes the affirmation of YHWH’s incomparability celebrated in the Song at the Sea, using the language of בַּקֹּדֶשׁ (ba-qodesh; “in holiness”) and עֹשֵׂה פֶלֶא (ʿoseh peleʾ; doing/working wonders).

שׁמות טו:יא מִי כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם יְ־הוָה
מִי כָּמֹכָה נֶאְדָּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ
נוֹרָא תְהִלֹּת עֹשֵׂה פֶלֶא.
Exod 15:11 Who is like You, O YHWH, among the celestials; Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in splendor, working wonders!

Other biblical writers also focus on YHWH’s incomparability. Some make forthright assertions that Israel’s God is unique (1 Kgs 8:23; Jer 10:1–16; Ps 86:8), while others affirm God’s incomparability by asking rhetorical questions (like Psalm 77 and Exodus 15), either addressed directly to God (Exod 15:11; Ps 35:10; Ps 89:9; Mic 7:18) or phrased in the third person (Ps 77:14; 89:7; 113:5–8).[21]

In all these texts YHWH’s distinctive holiness consists in a synergy of God’s incomparable power and covenantal solidarity with his people, which results in the salvation of Israel.[22] This result is explicitly stated in both Psalm 77 and Exodus 15.

תהלים עז:טז גָּאַלְתָּ בִּזְרוֹעַ עַמֶּךָ בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב וְיוֹסֵף סֶלָה.
Ps 77:16 With your arm you redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph.[23]
שׁמות טו:יג נָחִיתָ בְחַסְדְּךָ עַם זוּ גָּאָלְתָּ נֵהַלְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ אֶל נְוֵה קָדְשֶׁךָ.
Exod 15:13 In Your love You lead the people You redeemed; In Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode.

The Waters’ Response at the Coming of God to Save Israel

Following the selah at the end of verse 16, the psalmist shifts from bicola to tricola, describing a vivid theophany, a dazzling poetic account of how God manifested his glory and power at the Sea.

תהלים עז:יז רָאוּךָ מַּיִם אֱלֹהִים
רָאוּךָ מַּיִם יָחִילוּ
אַף יִרְגְּזוּ תְהֹמוֹת.
Ps 77:17 The waters saw you, O God,
the waters saw you, they writhed;
indeed, the deeps quaked.

In the Song of the Sea, the waters function as God’s instrument of judgment against Pharaoh and his army.[24] In the psalmist’s version of the Sea crossing, the waters themselves writhe and tremble as if they are terrified of God. He even describes a violent storm with booms of thunder and flashes of lightning, described as God’s arrows:

תהלים עז:יח זֹרְמוּ מַיִם עָבוֹת
קוֹל נָתְנוּ שְׁחָקִים
אַף חֲצָצֶיךָ יִתְהַלָּכוּ.
Ps 77:18 The dark clouds poured out water; the clouds gave voice; indeed, your arrows flew about.

Accompanying the thunder and lightning is a whirlwind (galgal), literally a “wheel,” perhaps imagining a wheel on God’s chariot,[25] and the earth shakes at God’s coming to save his people.[26]

תהלים עז:יט קוֹל רַעַמְךָ בַּגַּלְגַּל
הֵאִירוּ בְרָקִים תֵּבֵל
רָגְזָה וַתִּרְעַשׁ הָאָרֶץ.
Ps 77:19 The voice of your thunder was in the whirlwind; lightnings lit up the world; the earth quaked and trembled.

This sort of poetic license in describing the Sea crossing echoes imagery found elsewhere (see Addendum below), but the question is: Why does the author of Psalm 77 remember the Sea crossing in this way? What is his particular angle of vision?

God Led Israel through the Waters of Chaos

It is likely that the psalmist is experiencing his own life as being submerged in an experience of chaos where he can’t find a way out, so he focuses not on God’s defeat of Pharaoh’s army (the focus of Exodus 15), but on God making a path through what seemed like an impenetrable dead end for Israel.

The next verse is key to the psalm:

תהלים עז:כ בַּיָּם דַּרְכֶּךָ
(וּשְׁבִילֶיךָ) [וּשְׁבִילְךָ] בְּמַיִם רַבִּים
וְעִקְּבוֹתֶיךָ לֹא נֹדָעוּ.
Ps 77:20 Your way was through the sea, your path through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were not known.

Notice the intersection of God’s power and solidarity with Israel. Twice the psalmist speaks of God’s “way”; it is not only “in holiness” (v. 14), which suggests transcendence; it is also “through the sea” (v. 20), which portrays God’s nearness to Israel, who were also in the midst of the sea. Indeed, some texts affirm that YHWH is distinctive from other deities precisely in his care for Israel (Ps 35:10; 113:5–8).

But that is not quite the end of the verse. The last phrase adds, “yet your footprints were not known.” Whereas the waters saw God (mentioned twice in v. 17), the divine presence was invisible to human beings. Even at the Sea crossing, God’s leading was mysterious. And this fits the psalmist’s experience as well; he can’t see where God can be found in his life.

Yet even if Israel couldn’t see God’s footprints at the Sea, the final verse of the psalm affirms God’s presence:

תהלים עז:טו אנָחִיתָ כַצֹּאן עַמֶּךָ
בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן.
Ps 77:21 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.[27]

An Unfinished Ending

These are the last words of the psalm, and it seems like an abrupt ending. Yes, God led his people through the Sea. But did this memory impact the psalmist in any way? I think that the psalmist was hoping that God would take him by the hand and lead him through his darkness and chaos to the other side. But he doesn’t tell us this in so many words. He doesn’t connect the big story to his own experience.

So the psalm feels unfinished to me. This isn’t just a matter of my perception. At the formal level of Hebrew poetry, the psalm is incomplete. Up to verse 16 (with one exception) the psalm consists in bicola, but starting with verse 17, we have tricola.[28] The last verse (v. 21) is different, however, with only two lines. Where is the third line?

I have come to think that Psalm 77 is unfinished so that we, the readers, can write our own final colon.[29]

My Ending to the Psalm

As I have wandered through this psalm I have wondered what sort of ending the psalmist would write. Of course, I can’t know this. But then I reflected on how I would conclude this open-ended psalm. My conclusion would be something like:

אולי אתי אל היבשה תנהל.
Perhaps you might lead even me to dry ground.

A genuine immersion in Psalm 77—remembering it and meditating on its significance—means slowing down and taking the time to savor the text’s meaning. It is too easy to do a quick drive by, admiring the biblical landscape from a distance. What happens when we get out of the car and walk slowly through the text, on pilgrimage through its amazing pathways?[30]

In my pilgrimage, I have come to love Psalm 77.[31]


Shared Poetic Imagery with Other Theophanies

Imagery similar to that of Psalm 77 is found also in Psalms 18 (with its parallel text in 2 Samuel 22) and 114 and in Habakkuk 3. The first twenty verses of Psalm 18 contain a vivid description of God coming from heaven in a theophany to save an individual from the pit or the waters. Compressing the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, Psalm 114 blends the crossing of the Sea and the Jordan and poetically asks the waters and the mountains why they fled from God. Habakkuk 3 describes God coming from Teman and Paran to deliver his people (v. 13).[32] In these theophanies, God coming to save his people (whether an individual or the nation) is portrayed in terms of rescuing them out of the waters of chaos, which are engulfing them. And the waters are personified.

Numerous thematic and even lexical links exist between Psalm 77 and these three theophanic texts. For example, Habakkuk 3:10 says that the mountains saw (רָאָה) God and writhed (חָלָה, from the root ח.י.ל), while Psalm 77:17 speaks of the waters looking at God and writhing (using the same verbs). The verb חָלָה is also used Psalm 114:7 for the trembling of the earth before God.[33]

Two of the verbs used Psalm 18:8 for the earth rocking (רָעַשׁ) and the mountains trembling (רָגַז) are found in Psalm 77:17 and 19 for the quaking or trembling of the deeps and the earth. Habakkuk 3:7 also uses רָגַז for the trembling of the tent-curtains of Midian and twice in verse 16 for the poet’s own trembling in response to the theophany.[34]

There are also similarities in the use of storm imagery—thunder, rain clouds, and lightning. God is said to thunder in Psalm 18:14 (using the verb רָעַם) and the voice of God’s thunder is mentioned in Psalm 77:19 (using the noun רַעַם). Both Psalm 18:12–13 and Psalm 77:18 use the same two words for clouds, שְׁחָקִים and עָב (or the plural עָבִים or עָבוֹת). And whereas the deep gives forth its voice in Habakkuk 3:10, the clouds give forth their voice in Psalm 77:18 (using the same words for “give” and “voice,” נָתַן and קוֹל).

God’s arrows travelling (referring to lightning) are described in Habakkuk 3:11 and Psalm 77:18, using the same words for arrows חֵץ (pl. חִצִּים) and travel הָלַךְ. And finally, the psalmist’s dire situation is depicted in Psalms 18:17 and 77:20 as מַיִם רַבִּים, “mighty waters,” which parallels the churning of the Sea.

These lexical links do not mean that the author of Psalm 77 drew on these particular texts (or vice versa, that any of these texts drew on Psalm 77). Rather, there was likely a shared stock of poetic imagery that the ancient Israelite poets used to describe theophanies.[35]


January 17, 2024


Last Updated

March 28, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. J. Richard Middleton is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan University in Rochester, NY. Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, he holds an M.A (philosophy) from the University of Guelph (Canada) and a Ph.D. from the Free University of Amsterdam. Middleton is the author of The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (2005); A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (2014); and Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (2021). He co-authored (with Brian J. Walsh) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (1984) and Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (1995). He co-edited (with Garnett Roper) A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology: Ecumenical Voices in Dialogue (2013). He has won writing awards for two of his books (A New Heaven and a New Earth and Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be) and two of his articles (“Why the ‘Greater Good’ Isn’t a Defense” and “Let’s Put Herod Back into Christmas”). Middleton is past president of the Canadian-American Theological Association (2011–2014) and the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies (2019–2021).