A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According tomahalath leannoth (Possibly a tune: ‘The Suffering of Affliction’). A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.
I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
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.
You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, Lord, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbour—
darkness is my closest friend.
Last weekend I was away with some friends staying in Portrush. It was a last minute decision on my part but I’m glad I decided to go. The first evening was bittersweet, one of our friends, the one who had organised the whole weekend, was leaving the next day to travel to England for a new job. So after all the work she had put into planning a fun weekend she wasn’t able to enjoy it with us. But we got to enjoy Friday night together and give her a warm send off which culminated in a huge group hug.
After a night of virtually no sleep (I now know what being buried will be like) and a more active Saturday afternoon than I had anticipated, come Saturday evening, after eating too much, I was exhausted. We all were. But when you go away it feels wrong to waste time with unnecessary sleep so the plan was to go to the beach. At the last minute I decided to stay behind, I needed some time to recharge otherwise I’d be emotionally drained for the rest of the weekend, and trust me no one wants that. As I sat listening to music I decided I wanted to read but I’d only brought two books, one of which was my Bible and I felt I should read it first.
So after grabbing my Bible and my journal (in case there was something I wanted to write down) I sat down to rest and reflect. I opened Psalms to where my book mark rested, it was Psalm 88. As I read the psalm it wasn’t the kind I was hoping to read. Here was the prayer of someone obviously in the midst of prolonged depression, which honestly wasn’t what I wanted to be reading on a Saturday night while away with friends. Truthfully, I was hoping for something cheerful or inspiring. At that point I could have just moved on but for some reason, I’m not sure why, I stuck with it and wrestled with it. I read over the psalm again.
The psalmist begins by affirming his confidence in God because he is a God who saves and who hears the prayers of his suffering people. As he continues, desperation seems to enter his cries as he recounts how he calls to the Lord everyday with his hands spread out in supplication: he is desperate that God would rescue him. The psalmist then ends his prayer bittersweetly:
“But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?”
He feels as though God has rejected him, as though God has hidden himself from him, but he hasn’t given up hope that God will come to his rescue. As he brings his prayer for rescue to an end he concludes, hauntingly, “darkness is my closest friend.”
Dare We Pray This Way?
Culturally speaking, this is a difficult psalm for us. We read it and we’re not exactly sure what to do with it because it seems unacceptable for us to speak of feeling rejected by God, of feeling like God has loosed his wrath upon us because we are so familiar, perhaps too familiar, with God as a God of love who accepts us and works all things together for our good. And yet in the midst of suffering, especially prolonged suffering, this is exactly how we feel. We feel abandoned. We feel as if God’s wrath is sweeping us away. But we’d never admit it, to ourselves or to others or even to God himself. Certainly not in such stark terms as the psalmist employs here. And what we need to realise, from Psalm 88 and our own experience, is the truth and falsehood contained therein.
Like the psalmist we need to be honest, with ourselves, with others, and with God, about our feelings. The truth is that sometimes we do feel like God has rejected us, abandoning us to his wrath. That’s just how we feel and we shouldn’t deny the truth of our feelings, the psalmist didn’t. God can handle us telling him how we feel and ironically, if we take the Psalms as our example, he even seems to be inviting us to share our feelings of abandonment and rejection with him.
However, we also need to realise that our feelings don’t tell us the whole story. They tell us the truth about our subjective emotional responses to our circumstances but they don’t tell us the objective truth about God’s actual feelings toward us, and that is what changes suffering from meaningless and destructive to meaningful and transformative. The truth is that God has not abandoned or rejected us because Jesus experienced the rejection of God, abandonment to his wrath, so we won’t ever have to. Our lives are marked by faithlessness, even our feelings betray this because even though we know, at some level, that in Christ we are fully accepted by God and that his unfailing love rests eternally upon up we still feel abandoned and rejected by him. The psalmist knew some of this: he knew that God saves his people even in the midst of their darkness and suffering, and he still expressed trust and hope that God would rescue him. We don’t know what happened to the psalmist, maybe God did rescue him but maybe he didn’t because he wants us to know that our hope for rescue from our present darkness might be longer in coming that the length of this life. But we know what the psalmist didn’t, that in Christ rescue is coming – that it is already here, even if our present darkness clouds our vision so we can’t see it.
In light of this tension, I think it is poignant that the psalm which follows Psalm 88 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 forever,
that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant,
‘I will establish your line forever
and make your throne firm through all generations.’””
Because, in a sense, the psalmist in Psalm 89 answers the cries raised by the psalmist of Psalm 88 and anticipates the final resolution of his cries, and our cries, in Christ.
Praying Psalm 88 As Christians
Firstly, we pray as sufferers expressing our genuine anguish to our God who hears our prayers and loves us far more than we can know. He invites us to share our pain with him because he knows our frailty intimately. Jesus himself prayed this way before he was arrested (Luke 22:39-44).
Secondly, we pray as sufferers who have read Psalm 89. We pray as those who know that God really does care about us because he sent his Son to experience true abandonment and rejection in our place so we never have to. Jesus was swept away by God’s wrath, taking the punishment we deserve, so we can know, here and now, God’s acceptance and unfailing love towards us. The reality of his resurrection, the glorious hope of freedom through suffering, gives us a certainty of these things – because Jesus experienced the worst suffering possible and lived so too shall we who trust in him.
Thirdly, we pray as sufferers who accept the veracity and falsehood of our feelings but who simultaneously trust in our gracious God who has ill-deservedly and eternally set his unfailing love upon us in Christ and who eagerly anticipate the Day when God will cause our present suffering to come untrue when he returns as our victorious King having defeated all our enemies and established his shalom over all of creation:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”