DEALING WITH DEPRESSION
Spurgeon’s Commentary on Psalm 77
introduction by Pastor Errol Hale
A radio advertisement I heard began by asking, “Do you ever experience three or more of the following symptoms of depression?” The announcer proceeded to list seven “symptoms,” which were so general that virtually every person with normal human emotions would have to say ‘yes’—not to three, but all seven! Instead of recognizing these “symptoms” as moods, the announcer informed us in radioland, that we might be suffering from “clinical depression” (which makes it sound that much more serious), and that we need professional help.
What used to be considered normal human emotions, and in more serious cases “melancholy,” which people generally worked through in time, is now clinical depression, and of course, the modern answer to such a problem has become professional therapy of some sort.
Of course, we cannot deny that some people struggle with much deeper bouts of depression and counseling is often most helpful in such cases. But as Christians, the help we need is from God, and the counsel we need comes from His Word, the Bible.
King David was a man who had bouts of depression. Read the Psalms and you’ll see that many of the poet-king’s songs were as filled with depressed laments as they are of victorious praise. Asaph, another of the Bible’s most prolific Psalmists, was acquainted with grief as well. Psalm 77, penned by Asaph, is one of the most beautiful portions of scripture on the subject of depression. The Psalmist begins by crying out from the midst of a deep despondency. He concludes with words that point the depressed soul toward the solution, namely, the Lord. The Psalm offers no trite instant cure-all, but rather coaches the reader in the one and only true direction from which help is to be found.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) was undoubtedly the most gifted preacher who ever spoke the English language. Despite the great successes Spurgeon enjoyed as a pastor, preacher, and writer, he too was often beset by severe seasons of depression. There were times when depression took him out of the pulpit of the famed London Tabernacle and rendered him unable to minister. He, like David and Asaph before him, rose each time from the basement of human emotion to be used again for God’s glory. One of Spurgeon’s most famous works is his monumental commentary on the Psalms, entitled, The Treasury of David. It is nearly as great a gift to Christ’s Church as is the book of Psalms itself.
In his unique inimitable style, and drawing from the well of his own personal experience with depression, Mr. Spurgeon’s commentary on Psalm 77 is in a class by itself. It is, in my opinion, a must read for every Christian. Those who wrestle with depression will find comfort and encouragement in what they read. Those whose lives are more sorrow free will be blessed not only by being prepared for the day when depression may come calling; but they will find instruction about how to help their companions who do suffer from depression.
Please read the Psalm (in the King James Version, since that is what Mr. Spurgeon’s commentary is based upon) and the accompanying commentary, prayerfully. You may even benefit from reading it aloud. Ask the Lord to touch you as He has countless saints who have read these words before you.
Note: the [bracketed italicized text] has been added by me to assist modern readers with some antiquated words.
King James Version
with commentary by
Charles Haddon Spurgeon
from The Treasury of David
Title. - To the Chief Musician, to Jeduthun. It was meet that another leader of the psalmody should take his turn. No harp should be silent in the courts of the Lord's house. A Psalm of Asaph. Asaph was a man of exercised mind, and often touched the minor key; he was thoughtful, contemplative, believing, but withal there was a dash of sadness about him, and this imparted a tonic flavour to his songs. To follow him with understanding, it is needful to have done business on the great waters, and weathered many an Atlantic gale.
Divisions. - If we follow the poetical arrangement, and divide at the Selahs, we shall find the troubled man of God pleading in verses 1-3, and then we shall hear him lamenting and arguing within himself in verses 4-9. From verses 10-15, his meditations run Godward, and in the close he seems as in a vision to behold the wonders of the Red Sea and the wilderness. At this point, as if lost in an ecstasy, he hurriedly closes the Psalm with an abruptness, the effect of which is quite startling. The Spirit of God knows when to cease speaking, which is more than those do who, for the sake of making a methodical conclusion, prolong their words even to weariness. Perhaps this Psalm was meant to be a prelude to the next, and, if so, its sudden close is accounted for. The hymn now before us is for experienced saints only, but to them it will be of rare value as a transcript of their own inner conflicts.
1 I cried unto God with my voice, even unto God with my voice; and He gave ear unto me.
2 In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted.
3 I remembered God, and was troubled: I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Selah.
77:1 “I cried unto God with my voice.” This Psalm has much sadness in it, but we may be sure it will end well, for it begins with prayer, and prayer never has an ill issue. Asaph did not run to man but to the Lord, and to him he went, not with studied, stately, stilted words, but with a cry, the natural, unaffected, unfeigned expression of pain. He used his voice also, for though vocal utterance is not necessary to the life of prayer, it often seems forced upon us by the energy of our desires. Sometimes the soul feels compelled to use the voice, for thus it finds a freer vent for its agony. It is a comfort to hear the alarm-bell ringing when the house is invaded by thieves. “Even unto God with my voice.” He returned to his pleading. If once sufficed not, he cried again. He needed an answer, he expected one, he was eager to have it soon, therefore he cried again and again, and with his voice too, for the sound helped his earnestness. “And He gave ear unto me.” Importunity prevailed. The gate opened to the steady knock. It shall be so with us in our hour of trial, the God of grace will hear us in due season.
77:2 “In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord.” All day long his distress drove him to his God, so that when night came he continued still in the same search. God had hidden His face from His servant, therefore the first care of the troubled saint was to seek his Lord again. This was going to the root of the matter and removing the main impediment first. Diseases and tribulations are easily enough endured when God is found of us, but without Him they crush us to the earth. “My sore ran in the night, and ceased not.” As by day so by night his trouble was on him and his prayer continued. Some of us know what it is, both physically and spiritually, to be compelled to use these words: no respite has been afforded us by the silence of the night, our bed has been a rack to us, our body has been in torment, and our spirit in anguish. It appears that this sentence is wrongly translated, and should be, “my hand was stretched out all night;” this shows that his prayer ceased not, but with uplifted hand he continued to seek succour [help, comfort] of his God. “My soul refused to be comforted.” 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. You may bring them to the waters of the promise, but who shall make them drink if they will not do so? Many a daughter of despondency has pushed aside the cup of gladness, and many a son of sorrow has hugged his chains. There are times when we are suspicious of good news, and are not to be persuaded into peace, though the happy truth should be as plain before us as the King's highway.
77:3 “I remembered God, and was troubled.” He who is the wellspring of delight to faith became an object of dread to the Psalmist's distracted heart. The justice, holiness, power, and truth of God have all a dark side, and indeed all the attributes may be made to look black upon us if our eye be evil; even the brightness of divine love blinds us, and fills us with a horrible suspicion that we have neither part nor lot in it. He is wretched indeed whose memories of The Ever Blessed prove distressing to him; yet the best of men know the depth of this abyss. “I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed.” He mused and mused but only sank the deeper. His inward disquietudes did not fall asleep as soon as they were expressed, but rather they returned upon him, and leaped over him like raging billows of an angry sea. It was not his body alone which smarted, but his noblest nature writhed in pain, his life itself seemed crushed into the earth. It is in such a case that death is coveted as a relief, for life becomes an intolerable burden. With no spirit left in us to sustain our infirmity, our case becomes forlorn; like a man in a tangle of briars who is stripped of his clothes, every hook of the thorns becomes a lancet, and we bleed with ten thousand wounds. 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! “Selah.” Let the song go softly; this is no merry dance for the swift feet of the daughters of music, pause ye awhile, and let sorrow take breath between her sighs.
Psalm 77:4-9 -
4 Thou holdest mine eyes waking: I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times.
6 I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search.
7 Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will He be favourable no more?
8 Is His mercy clean gone for ever? doth His promise fail for evermore?
9 Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath He in anger shut up His tender mercies? Selah.
77:4 “Thou holdest mine eyes waking.” The fears which Thy strokes excite in me forbid my eyelids to fall, my eyes continue to watch as sentinels forbidden to rest. Sleep is a great comforter, but it forsakes the sorrowful, and then their sorrow deepens and eats into the soul. If God holds the eyes waking, what anodyne [pain reliever, sleep inducer] shall give us rest? How much we owe to him who giveth his beloved sleep! “I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” Great griefs are dumb. Deep streams brawl not among the pebbles like the shallow brooklets which live on passing showers. Words fail the man whose heart fails him. He had cried to God but he could not speak to man, what a mercy it is that if we can do the first, we need not despair though the second should be quite out of our power. Sleepless and speechless Asaph was reduced to great extremities, and yet he rallied, and even so shall we.
77:5 “I have considered the days old, the years of ancient times.” 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; in quiet contemplation topics may occur to us which will prove the means of raising our spirits, and there is scarcely any theme more likely to prove consolatory than that which deals with the days of yore, the years of the olden time, when the Lord's faithfulness was tried and proved by hosts of His people. Yet it seems that even this consideration created depression rather than delight in the good man's soul, for he contrasted his own mournful condition with all that was bright in the venerable experiences of ancient saints, and so complained the more. Ah, sad calamity of a jaundiced mind to see nothing as it should be seen, but everything as through a veil of mist.
77:6 “I call to remembrance my song in the night.” At other times his spirit had a song for the darkest hour, but now he could only recall the strain as a departed memory. Where is the harp which once thrilled sympathetically to the touch of these joyful fingers? My tongue, hast thou forgotten to praise? Hast thou no skill except in mournful ditties? Ah me, how sadly fallen am I! How lamentable that I who like the nightingale could charm the night, am now fit comrade for the hooting owl. “I commune with mine own heart.” He did not cease from introspection, for he was resolved to find the bottom of his sorrow, and trace it to its fountain head. He made sure work of it by talking not with his mind only, but his inmost heart; it was heart work with him. He was no idler, no melancholy trifler; he was up and at it, resolutely resolved that he would not tamely die of despair, but would fight for his hope to the last moment of life. “And my spirit made diligent search.” He ransacked his experience, his memory, his intellect, his whole nature, his entire self, either to find comfort or to discover the reason why it was denied him. That man will not die by the hand of the enemy who has enough force of soul remaining to struggle in this fashion.
77:7 “Will the Lord cast off for ever?” This was one of the matters he enquired into. He painfully knew that the Lord might leave His people for a season, but his fear was that the time might be prolonged and have no close; eagerly, therefore, he asked, will the Lord utterly and finally reject those who are his own, and suffer them to be the objects of His contemptuous reprobation, His everlasting cast-offs? This he was persuaded could not be. No instance in the years of ancient times led him to fear that such could be the case. “And will He be favourable no more?” Favourable He had been; would that goodwill never again show itself? Was the sun set never to rise again? Would spring never follow the long and dreary winter? The questions are suggested by fear, but they are also the cure of fear. It is a blessed thing to have grace enough to look such questions in the face, for their answer is self-evident and eminently fitted to cheer the heart.
77:8 “Is His mercy clean gone for ever?” If He has no love for His elect, has He not still his mercy left? Has that dried up? Has He no pity for the sorrowful? “Doth His promise Jail for evermore?” His word is pledged to those who plead with Him; is that become of none effect? Shall it be said that from one generation to another the Lord's word has fallen to the ground; whereas aforetime He kept his covenant to all generations of them that fear Him? It is a wise thing thus to put unbelief through the catechism. Each one of the questions is a dart aimed at the very heart of despair. Thus have we also in our days of darkness done battle for life itself.
77:9 “Hath God forgotten to be gracious?” Has El, the Mighty One, become great in everything but grace? Does He know how to afflict, but not how to uphold? Can He forget anything? Above all, can He forget to exercise that attribute which lies nearest to His essence, for He is love? “Hath He in anger shut up His tender mercies?” Are the pipes of goodness choked up so that love can no more flow through them? Do the bowels of Jehovah no longer yearn towards His own beloved children? Thus with cord after cord unbelief is smitten and driven out of the soul; it raises questions and we will meet it with questions: it makes us think and act ridiculously, and we will heap scorn upon it. The argument of this passage assumes very much the form of a reductio ad absurdum [Latin: taking an argument to its extreme]. Strip it naked, and mistrust is a monstrous piece of folly. “Selah.” Here rest awhile, for the battle of questions needs a lull.
Psalm 77:10-15 -
10 And I said, This is my infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High.
11 I will remember the works of the Lord: surely I will remember Thy wonders of old.
12 I will meditate also of all Thy work, and talk of Thy doings.
13 Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary: who is so great a God as our God?
14 Thou art the God that doest wonders: Thou hast declared Thy strength among the people.
15 Thou hast with Thine arm redeemed Thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Selah.
77:10 “And I said, This is my infirmity.” He has won the day, he talks reasonably now, and surveys the field with a cooler mind. He confesses that unbelief is an infirmity, a weakness, a folly, a sin. He may also be understood to mean, “this is my appointed sorrow,” I will bear it without complaint. When we perceive that our affliction is meted out by the Lord, and is the ordained portion of our cup, we become reconciled to it, and no longer rebel against the inevitable. Why should we not be content if it be the Lord's will? What He arranges it is not for us to cavil [raise objection] at. “But I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High.” Here a good deal is supplied by our translators, and they make the sense to be that the Psalmist would console himself by remembering the goodness of God to himself and others of His people in times gone by: but the original seems to consist only of the words, “the years of the right hand of the most High,” and to express the idea that his long continued affliction, reaching through several years, was allotted to him by the Sovereign Lord of all. 'Tis well when a consideration of the divine goodness and greatness silences all complaining, and creates a childlike acquiescence.
77:11 “I will remember the works of the Lord.” Fly back, my soul, away from present turmoils, to the grandeurs of history, the sublime deeds of Jehovah, the Lord of Hosts; for He is the same and is ready even now to defend His servants as in the days of yore. “Surely I will remember Thy wonders of old.” Whatever else may glide into oblivion, the marvelous works of the Lord in the ancient days must not be suffered to be forgotten. Memory is a fit handmaid for faith. When faith has its seven years of famine, memory like Joseph in Egypt opens her granaries.
77:12 “I will meditate also of all Thy work.” Sweet work to enter into Jehovah's work of grace, and there to lie down and ruminate, every thought being absorbed in the one precious subject. “And talk of Thy doings.” It is well that the overflow of the mouth should indicate the good matter which fills the heart. Meditation makes rich talking; it is to be lamented that so much of the conversation of professors [those who profess faith] is utterly barren, because they take no time for contemplation. A meditative man should be a talker, otherwise he is a mental miser, a mill which grinds corn only for the miller. The subject of our meditation should be choice, and then our talk will be edifying; if we meditate on folly and affect to speak wisdom, our double-mindedness will soon be known unto all men. Holy talk following upon meditation has a consoling power in it for ourselves as well as for those who listen, hence its value in the connection in which we find it in this passage.
77:13 “Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary,” or in holiness. In the holy place we understand our God, and rest assured that all His ways are just and right. When we cannot trace His way, because it is “in the sea,” it is a rich consolation that we can trust it, for it is in holiness. We must have fellowship with holiness if we would understand “the ways of God to man.” He who would be wise must worship. The pure in heart shall see God, and pure worship is the way to the philosophy of providence. “Who is so great a God as our God?” In Him the good and the great are blended, He surpasses in both. None can for a moment be compared with the mighty One of Israel.
77:14 “Thou art the God that doest wonders.” Thou alone art Almighty. The false gods are surrounded with the pretence of wonders, but Thou really workest them. It is Thy peculiar prerogative to work marvels: it is no new or strange thing with Thee, it is according to Thy wont and use. Herein is renewed reason for holy confidence. It would be a great wonder if we did not trust the wonder-working God. “Thou hast declared Thy strength among the people.” Not only Israel, but Egypt, Bashan, Edom, Philistia, and all the nations have seen Jehovah's power. It was no secret in the olden time and to this day it is published abroad. God's providence and grace are both full of displays of His power; He is in the latter peculiarly conspicuous as “mighty to save.” Who will not be strong in faith when there is so strong an arm to lean upon? Shall our trust be doubtful when His power is beyond all question? My soul see to it that these considerations banish thy mistrust.
77:15 “Thou hast with Thine arm redeemed thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph.” All Israel, the two tribes of Joseph as well as those which sprang from the other sons of Jacob, were brought out of Egypt by a display of divine power, which is here ascribed not to the hand but to the arm of the Lord, because it was the fullness of His might. Ancient believers were in the constant habit of referring to the wonders of the Red Sea, and we also can unite with them, taking care to add the song of the Lamb to that of Moses, the servant of God. The comfort derivable from such a meditation is obvious and abundant, for He who brought up His people from the house of bondage will continue to redeem and deliver till we come into the promised rest. “Selah.” Here we have another pause preparatory to a final burst of song.
Psalm 77:16-20 -
16 The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled.
17 The clouds poured out water: the skies sent out a sound: Thine arrows also went abroad.
18 The voice of Thy thunder was in the heaven: the lightnings lightened the world: the earth trembled and shook.
19 Thy way is in the sea, and Thy path in the great waters, and Thy footsteps are not known.
20 Thou leddest Thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
77:16 “The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee; they were afraid.” As if conscious of its Maker's presence, the sea was ready to flee from before His face. The conception is highly poetical, the Psalmist has the scene before his mind's eye, and describes it gloriously. The water saw its God, but man refuses to discern him; it was afraid, but proud sinners are rebellious and fear not the Lord. “The depths also were troubled.” To their heart the floods were made afraid. Quiet caves of the sea, far down in the abyss, were moved with affright; and the lowest channels were left bare, as the water rushed away from its place, in terror of the God of Israel.
77:17 “The clouds poured out water.” Obedient to the Lord, the lower region of the atmosphere yielded its aid to overthrow the Egyptian host. The cloudy chariots of heaven hurried forward to discharge their floods. “The skies sent out a sound.” From the loftier aerial regions thundered the dread artillery of the Lord of Hosts. Peal on peal the skies sounded over the heads of the routed enemies, confusing their minds and adding to their horror. “Thine arrows also went abroad.” Lightnings flew like bolts from the bow of God. Swiftly, hither and thither, went the red tongues of flame, on helm and shield they gleamed; anon with blue bale-fires revealing the innermost caverns of the hungry sea which waited to swallow up the pride of Mizraim. Behold, how all the creatures wait upon their God, and show themselves strong to overthrow His enemies.
77:18 “The voice of Thy thunder was in the heaven,” or “in the whirlwind.” Rushing on with terrific swiftness and bearing all before it, the storm was as a chariot driven furiously, and a voice was heard (even Thy voice, O Lord!) out of the fiery car, even as when a mighty man in battle urges forward his charger, and shouts to it aloud. All heaven resounded with the voice of the Lord. “The lightnings lightened the world.” The entire globe shone in the blaze of Jehovah's lightnings. No need for other light amid the battle of that terrible night, every wave gleamed in the fire-flashes, and the shore was lit up with the blaze. How pale were men's faces in that hour, when all around the fire leaped from sea to shore, from crag to hill, from mountain to star till the whole universe was illuminated in honour of Jehovah's triumph, “The earth trembled and shook.” It quaked and quaked again. Sympathetic with the sea, the solid shore forgot its quiescence and heaved in dread. How dreadful art thou, O God, when Thou comest forth in Thy majesty to humble Thine arrogant adversaries.
77:19 “Thy way is in the sea.” Far down in secret channels of the deep is Thy roadway; when Thou wilt Thou canst make a sea a highway for Thy glorious march. “And Thy path in the great waters.” There, where the billows surge and swell, Thou still dost walk; Lord of each crested wave. “And Thy footsteps are not known.” None can follow Thy tracks by foot or eye. Thou art alone in Thy glory, and Thy ways are hidden from mortal ken [view]. Thy purposes Thou wilt accomplish, but the means are often concealed, yea, they need no concealing, they are in themselves too vast and mysterious for human understanding. Glory be to Thee, O Jehovah.
77:20 “Thou leddest Thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” What a transition from tempest to peace, from wrath to love. Quietly as a flock Israel was guided on, by human agency which veiled the excessive glory of the divine presence. The Smiter of Egypt was the Shepherd of Israel. He drove His foes before Him, but went before His people. Heaven and earth fought on His side against the sons of Ham, but they were equally subservient to the interests of the sons of Jacob. Therefore, with devout joy and full of consolation, we close this Psalm; the song of one who forgot how to speak and yet learned to sing far more sweetly than his fellows.