Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)
It would have been easy for me to move on to the next psalm, rather than staying with Psalm 88 which Brueggemann suggests could seem to be “an embarrassment to conventional faith.” Of what value would it be to consider further such a sad dark poem? And yet, there is something about this psalm that is so real, so relevant, so down-to-earth, that it cries out for further attention. I guess, because of Brueggemann’s words and the fact that this psalm is (I imagine) so rarely read in church, that it seems worth the effort to understand why it is included in the Psalter and in the cannon of the Scriptures.
It does seem though that this Psalm of Lament (or Psalm of Disorientation) has actually been a source of comfort to some over the years who have been going through what some have called “the dark night of the soul.”
I have mentioned before the story of a senior pastor whose assistant pastor died of cancer and the grief and turmoil this caused in his life. He concludes that his “dark night of the soul” led him to finding comfort in this sad dark poem, feeling he could appreciate what the psalmist was talking about when he spoke of the fact that “darkness is my closest friend.” The pastor did slowly work his way through his grief, with God’s help, and this psalm.
Brueggemann also writes about a story written by William Styron, and says, “in Sophie’s Choice, [the author] has Stingo on his sad way by bus from Washington to New York to bury his two close friends who have committed suicide. As Stingo gets on the bus, he is visibly bereft, without any resource. On the bus a black woman next to him sees his need and offers her best gift to him. She [reads] out Psalm 88. The words comfort. They may be the only words that could comfort. Easy words could not have comforted. But this psalm could, because the words assert, against all the facts, a tenuous link between the darkness and the Lord of life.”
“Psalm 88 [actually] stands as a mark of realism for biblical faith. It has its pastoral use, because there are situations in which easy, cheap talk of resolution must be avoided. Here are words not to be used frequently, but for the limit[ed] experiences when words must be honest and not claim too much.” (# 2)
So, it seems that God has this psalm in the Psalter for a good reason – to bring comfort when easy words don’t help. Jesus promised this in his Sermon on the Mount when he said Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)
Fortunately, this psalm is only one of 150 and most come to a far more positive conclusion than does this one, and so gives us hope that in the midst of darkness and grief God is light and He is good and He is with us. For example, the very next psalm we will consider begins:
I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever;
With my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.
I will declare that your love stands firm for ever,
That you established your faithfulness in heaven itself. (Psalm 89;1-2)
May Psalm 88 no longer be seen as an “embarrassment”, but rather as a “mark of realism for biblical faith” and a source of much comfort to those of us who are bereaved and bereft, and the fact is that many in our chaotic world at the moment certainly need comfort. Amen.