During his general audience on March 13 in Pope Paul VI Audience Hall Pope John Paul II continued his series of talks on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours. In his remarks to the 8,800 pilgrims in attendance, he focused his meditation on Psalm 77, where the psalmists asks why God often seems to be silent amid suffering in our personal lives.
Recognizing that these times of silence can lead to a crisis of faith, the Pope pointed out that the psalmist does not lose faith. He renews his hope by recalling God's saving work in the past, when he led his people through the Red Sea by the hand of Moses and Aaron. “The bitterness of the present is illuminated by this past experience of salvation,” the Pope noted.
“Professing faith in the mighty deeds of salvation history leads us to faith in what the Lord is, constantly, and therefore still is, even now,” he added. “God will return to lead us to salvation.”
By setting Psalm 77, which we have just proclaimed, in Morning Prayer, The Liturgy of the Hours intends to remind us that the beginning of the day is not always bright. Just as there are gloomy days when the sky is cloudy and a storm looms overhead, there are also days in our life that are filled with tears and fear. This is why — though it's only dawn — this prayer is already a lamentation, a plea, and a call for help.
This psalm is actually an insistent plea to God that is profoundly driven by trust in — or rather by the certainty of — divine intervention. So, the psalmist does not see the Lord as an impassive ruler who is confined to his luminous heaven and who is indifferent to what happens to us. Such an impression, which grips our heart at times, gives rise to some very painful questions that could lead to a crisis of faith: “Is God denying his love and his choice of his people? Has he forgotten the times when he sustained us and made us happy in the past?” As we will see, renewing our trust in God, our Redeemer and Savior, will sweep away such questions.
The Darkness of Trials
So, let us follow the development of this prayer, which begins dramatically on a note of distress, but then leads us little by little to peace of mind and hope. We have before us, first of all, a lamentation on the sadness of the present day and on God's silence (see verses 2-11). The psalmist lets out a cry for help to a seemingly silent heaven; his hands are raised in pleading and his heart is faint from distress. During a sleepless night, which is full of tears and prayers, he tells us in verse 7, “I meditate in my heart,” as a discouraging refrain resounds continually in the depths of his soul.
When the pain reaches the peak where he wants the cup of suffering to be taken away (see Matthew 26:39), he explodes into words that pose some penetrating questions, as we noted earlier (see Psalm 77:8-10). His cry calls into question the mystery of God and his silence.
The psalmist wonders why on earth the Lord is rejecting him, why he has changed his attitude and the way he acts toward him — forgetting his love, his promise of salvation and his merciful tenderness. “The right hand of the Most High,” which had performed wonders of salvation in the Exodus, now seems paralyzed (see verse 11). This is truly a “torment” in the full sense of the word, which causes a crisis of faith for the psalmist.
If this were the case, God would not be recognized; he would become a cruel being or a mere presence like that of the idols, which are unable to save anyone because they are incapable, indifferent and powerless. These verses in the first part of Psalm 77 are a dramatic portrait of faith during times of trial when God is silent.
Grounds for Hope
There are, however, grounds for hope. This is what emerges in the second part of the plea (see verses 12-21). It is like a hymn where he seeks to courageously confirm once again his own faith, even in the dark day of pain. He sings about past salvation, which had its shining epiphany in creation and in the deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The bitterness of the present is illuminated by this past experience of salvation, which is a seed planted in history: it is not dead, but only buried, so it can sprout later on (see John 12:24).
The psalmist is making use, therefore, of an important biblical concept, that of the “memorial,” which is not simply some vague, consoling memory, but the certainty of divine action that will not fail: “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, your wonders of old I will remember” (Psalm 77:12). Professing faith in the mighty deeds of salvation history leads us to faith in what the Lord is, constantly, and therefore still is, even now. “Your way, O God, is holy; … You alone are the God who did wonders” (verses 14-15). So the present, which seemed dark and with no way out, is illuminated by faith in God and opened up to hope.
Our Path to Salvation
In order to sustain his faith, the psalmist probably quotes an older hymn, which people might have sung in the liturgy at the Temple of Zion (see verses 17-20). It is a spectacular theophany where the Lord enters the stage of history and upsets nature, particularly the waters that symbolize chaos, evil and suffering. The image of God's path through the waters, a sign of his triumph over negative forces, is very beautiful: “Through the sea was your path; your way, through the mighty waters, though your footsteps were unseen” (verse 20). Our thoughts turn to Christ walking on the waters, an eloquent symbol of his victory over evil (see John 6:16-20).
Finally, recalling that God guided his people “like a flock under the care of Moses and Aaron” (Psalm 77:21), this psalm leads us implicitly to one certainty: God will return to lead us to salvation. His powerful and invisible hand will be with us through the visible hand of the shepherds and leaders chosen by him. This psalm, which opened with a cry of pain, evokes at the end feelings of faith and hope in the great Shepherd of our souls (see Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25).