Like Garth Brooks, I have friends in low places. I suspect that you do as well. We all know people who have health problems, relational struggles, are coping with personal tragedies… As a pastor, I have found that the questions that often come pouring out of people’s hearts and mouths when the difficulties set in are gathered around the central theme of “Why?” This is, of course, a very difficult question to answer beyond a few theological verities. We know that God is good. And we know that he is sovereign. We also know that he has a purpose and an intention to work all things for our good (Romans 8:28). But in my experience it is very rare for us to know exactly what good thing God is intending in a specific trial we are experiencing. And given our inability to move forward when we cannot find specific, clear answers to the question “Why?,” it is often the case that prolonged agonizing over this particular question leads only to more doubt, fear, and confusion. The secret things belong, after all, to God; but to us and to our children belong those things that are revealed (Deuteronomy 29:29).
In this series of devotional studies, I would like to aim more directly at the question “How?” than at the question “Why?” The question “How?” is, in my opinion, a far more critical question to find answers to. How can you persevere through your circumstances? How can you avoid the temptations that your challenges will present? How will you continue to grow in grace and godliness despite deep personal loss or pain? Perhaps most importantly, how can you worship God in Spirit and in truth when the background noise of your fear and grief, and sometimes of your anger and bitterness, make hallelujahs stick in your throat?
Enter Asaph and his choir (Psalms 50. 73-83). I have many times in my personal life given thanks to God for the bold and transparent witness of this ancient Israelite who was at once a priest, a composer and musician, and a prophet. He was a contemporary of King David’s whose psalms are specifically endorsed by King Hezekiah who ordered the Levites in his day to “praise the LORD with the words of David and of Asaph the Seer.” (2 Chronicles 29:30). Generations later, when Nehemiah leads the returned exiles in dedicating the newly completed wall around Jerusalem, the payment of Levites whose function would be to sing in worship was reestablished; “For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the singers and the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.” (Nehemiah 12:46).
Asaph was not only highly esteemed by later generations of God’s people for the psalms he composed, but he was also renowned in his own day for his personal ministry. Asaph was a Levite of some significance during King David’s reign. Together with Heman son of Joel and Ethan son of Kushaiah, Asaph was one of the three priests who were responsible for leading in worship when the ark of God was returned to Jerusalem after it had been captured by the Philistines. (1 Chronicles 15:16-17). After the ark was set in its place, we read that David “appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, to make petition, to give thanks, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel: Asaph was the chief.” (1 Chronicles 16:4-5).
But much like the apostle Paul who suffered from his thorn in the flesh, Asaph, too had a burden from which it appears he never experienced relief in this life. I am glad that we cannot know for certain just what conditions Paul and Asaph suffered from. That very uncertainty makes it easier for us to identify with them in our very particular struggles; struggles that we know all too well. It makes it that much easier for us to see in their experience something of our own lives. This is especially true of Asaph’s Psalms partly because he wrote more directly about his struggles, but partly too because he wrote songs.
The late American songwriter Norman Gimbel writes a song in which he brings out with beautiful clarity the power of a song in the life of a person. In the song made memorable by Roberta Flack, we hear a story that we can perhaps relate to:
I heard he sang a good song, I heard he had a style,
And so I came to see him, to listen for a while.
And there he was this young boy, a stranger to my eyes,
Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words.
Killing me softly with his song. Killing me softly with his song.
Telling my whole life with his words. Killing me softly with his song.
In every respect but one, this should be the experience of God’s people as often as we sing, read, or hear the Psalms. They are “our songs.” But rather than killing us, they should perform that divine function for which God sends his words: they will not return to him void but will accomplish their purpose – that we be led forth in peace and with great joy.
Asaph might be as yet “a stranger to your eyes.” But you will find, as I have found, that he sings our lives with his words. From within the context of intense, prolonged suffering, he gives expression to the darkest fears I have found expressed in all of scripture – the thoughts and fears that we spend tremendous amounts of energy suppressing and denying. Like many of us, he never learns “why” and he never gets healed. But through it all he shows us how to worship; how to sing with joy before the LORD Most High despite the pain. It is my hope and prayer that in considering these Psalms of Asaph with me you and I will together discover – or perhaps rediscover – something of the indescribable joy that can be ours as we sing to the Most High together. Even from the lowest of places.
I hope you will join me for a series of posts in which we listen to Asaph’s choir tell our stories. Perhaps you will find yourself singing along.
N.B. The image used as a header is the iconic Roberta Flack performing live.