>It’s tempting to simply skip Psalm 88 and go on to Psalm 89, which begins by extolling God’s love and covenant faithfulness. This morning that sounds infinitely preferable to Psalm 88’s lament.
Psalm 88 is a long lament, but—unlike most in the Psalter—it does not include an assertion of confidence or hope in God. This lack qualifies the Psalm as one of the more—if not the most—depressing in the Bible.
As I was seriously considering going on to the marvelous first verses of Psalm 89, the words of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 came to me: All scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
As a brief aside, let me say that I’ve never had a hangup about the word “man” in the Bible, understanding it in such contexts to serve as shorthand for a human being and to apply the teaching of such texts to women as well as men. Being convicted, therefore, that Timothy was speaking to me as well as to anyone (man or woman), I pray for God’s grace while wading into Psalm 88’s miserable morass.
The Psalm begins, like many of the Psalter’s laments, with a cry to God:
O LORD, God of my salvation;
I cry out day and night before you
Let my prayer come before ou;
incline your ear to my cry! (1-2)
Then the Psalmist relates the gravity of his terrible state:
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand (3-5).
Things look so bleak that life feels like death. There are times when we have been hurt so badly that we spend months, perhaps years, feeling as if we are the walking wounded. But this Psalm reflects such intense suffering that the writer feels more like the barely breathing dead.
This section of the Psalm concludes with these verses:
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves (6-7).
In the midst of his despair, the Psalmist acknowledges God’s sovereignty. The devil, the world, and our own flesh may attack us, but none of these attacks come apart from God’s sovereign will. Satan had to receive permission from God before inflicting any suffering upon Job (Job 1:6-12). The writer realizes that God is ultimately the one who put him in the darkness of this deep pit. He feels God’s anger pressing upon him as if he is being knocked down repeatedly by the heavy weight of unrelenting waves.
As Psalm 88 continues, the Psalmist also acknowledges God’s sovereignty in his suffering at the hands of others. He breifly restates his hopeless situation, reiterates his plea to God, and then poses a series of questions.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O LORD;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? (8-12)
These questions highlight anyone’s inability to serve and praise God from the grave. But they also provide hints of faith: the Psalmist prays every day (in verse one, it was “day and night”), he realizes that God is worthy of praise, full of steadfast love and faithfulness, the worker of wonders, and the source of righteousness.
Grace trumps the grave. By God’s grace, the Psalmist draws his next breath. He acknowledges God’s sovereignty in his suffering. And he is able to direct this prayer to God.
But I, O LORD, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness (13-18).
The Psalmist has not only been rejected by his companions, but also by his “friend” and his “beloved.” Since his youth, he has suffered a series of afflictions that have brought him repeatedly to the point of death. Even his very soul seems to have been cast away. No wonder God seems far from him!
This pretty much puts my petty problems into perspective. My current trivial struggles are nothing compared to this! But there have been times in my life when I have felt like this poor Psalmist.
Perhaps some people do not experience such debilitating depression or misery. But in this fallen world most people suffer severe struggles, some of which bring or seem to bring us to the point of death. In times of deep distress and dark depression, when we feel as if we have one foot in the grave and can barely draw our next breath, we can still cry out to our sovereign God.
Even if we are in a worse state than this suffering Psalmist and we are not able to utter a coherent prayer, we know that the Spirit intercedes for us:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).
God is sovereign. He is loving. He is faithful. He is with us in our deepest suffering. His Spirit takes our incoherent groans and reformulates them into articulate prayers; prayers that please God and accord with his will. In suffering and grief, God’s grace trumps the grave.
Unless otherwise stated all the scripture quotations are from the ESV.