Have you ever had to enter new “territory” (physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually) where you have never been before? Sometimes it is exciting (like for Miriam and I in our present travels), but other times it may be overwhelming, or even very uncomfortable and unwelcome.
Our psalm today reflects the latter situation – the feeling of being in unwelcome territory and being totally overwhelmed by the circumstances of life and not really knowing how to handle it.
The person who wrote Psalm 88 was certainly very sad. According to the title it was Heman the Ezrahite, of whom we know almost nothing (although it may possibly be the same Heman mentioned amongst Solomon’s wise men in 1 Kings 4:31). We also have little understanding of what his sadness and grief was all about, other than what he shares with us in this psalm of Lament (or disorientation).
If you have time right now, sit quietly and read this poem, considering the words he uses, and try and enter in to the psalmist’s feelings.
1 Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
2 May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.
3 I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
5 I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.
6 You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
7 Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
8 You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
9 my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, Lord, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
11 Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
13 But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken from me friend and neighbour—
darkness is my closest friend.
Have you ever felt that bad? Have there been times in your life when sadness seemed to overwhelm you? Maybe due to the circumstances of your life – e.g., illness, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one or close friend? Or maybe just a sadness with no known reason? You just woke up and everything seemed gloomy inside your head.
When I read my journal written over the last 40 years of my life, I can pick out such times in my story. Times of grief at the loss of parents, times of illness in Pakistan, times of separation from loved ones, sadness as I had to come to grips with the changing circumstances of my life. We all have these tough times, some more than others, so it seems.
So, what can we learn from this very dark psalm?
As bad as things were, he prayed! He knew that the only One who could help him in this dark hour was the Lord.
Note his confidence – Lord, you are the God who saves (verse 1),
and his persistence – day and night I cry out to you. (verse 1), I call to you, Lord, every day (verse 9) and in the morning my prayer comes before you (verse 13).
Despite the fact that he ends this psalm with the depressing words – darkness is my closest friend – the fact that he is praying so persistently, means he has hope that, in God’s good time, his prays will be answered. May you and I continue to have this hope no matter the circumstances of our life.
But there is also another lesson, as Wilcock puts it:
These tough times “can happen to a [any] believer…it can happen to someone who does not deserve it; it does not mean you have strayed. It can happen at any time, as long as this world lasts; only in the next [life] will such things be done away with. And it can happen without your knowing why. There are answers, there is a purpose, and one day you will know why.” (# 5)
Father, sometimes you lead us “through the valley of the shadow of death” and these times are not comfortable. Teach us to remain confident in you in those dark times and to “fear no evil, for you are with” us (Psalm 23:4). Amen.