There are a lot of biblical names for God, and each author of Scripture chooses the names they employ with purpose. It’s easy for me, however, to lose sight of that when reading English translations (as though I could really read any other…); when I write out Scripture devotionally (more on that another day), I have begun writing “YHWH” instead of “Lord” wherever the English translation uses the all uppercase version: “LORD.” This practice helps me see the author’s intent more clearly and obviously as he references God. YHWH (or Yahweh) is God’s personal, covenant name. In this morning’s reading time, this paid off for me in the context of Psalm 77.
The Psalm (full text at the bottom of this post, from the ESV) opens with him in a “day of trouble,” when his soul refuses to be comforted. He feels restless and troubled, and distant from God’s love (verses 1-5). He then speaks to himself with a series of rhetorical questions, to show himself how ridiculous his emotions and thoughts are in light of the truth he knows about God (verses 6-9): “Will the Lord [adonai] spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
He begins coming to reason after this self-addressed interrogation. His meditations, which at first made him faint (v. 3) now are spent on remembering “the deeds of the LORD [Yahweh]” — he ponders all his work, and remembers his “wonders of old” (verses 10-12). This line of reasoning leads him to sing a great song of praise for the might of our God, and to worship instead of dwell on his troubles (verses 13-20, the end of the psalm).
Here’s where the names come in: Asaph (the psalmist) uses two names of God from verses 1-10: God (Elohim) and Lord (Adonai). But in verse 11 he switches it up, and for the first time he uses God’s personal, covenantal name, Yahweh. When the name “Yahweh” is used, in the Israelites’ ears (as it should in ours), it would make them think immediately of Moses and the exodus, when God revealed himself by that name for the first time. And the exodus is, in the Old Testament, God’s mightiest and most archetypal “mighty work” or “wondrous deed.”
Thus, the prescriptive element of the psalm is this: that when we feel far from God, we would recall his covenant name, his relationship to us (“I will be your God, and you will be my people”) and his incredible, mighty deeds. As we read of God’s works in Scripture, the Spirit bears witness in our hearts of the truth, and causes us to respond in worship.
To the choirmaster: according to Jeduthun. A Psalm of Asaph.
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah
You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah
Then I said, “I will appeal to this,
to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is great like our God?
You are the God who works wonders;
you have made known your might among the peoples.
You with your arm redeemed your people,
the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
indeed, the deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies gave forth thunder;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.