Psalm 88 is one of the darkest psalms in the Bible. I know this because when I read it at the beginning of our staff meeting the other day, you could feel the mood of the room shift from lighthearted laughter to solemn silence. The room fell quiet as I read the anguish of Heman the Ezrahite. Even our jabs at the psalmist’s name were quickly forgotten as we listened to him pour out the depths of his soul.
The first section of his lament is representative of the entire psalm:
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.
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. (Psalm 88:3-7)
The psalm grows darker and darker. In many psalms of lament, there is a positive rise at the end where hope in God reigns supreme over all the sorrow that fills the psalmist’s heart. But Psalm 88 is different. There is no final declaration of hope in God. There is no victory song to sustain the soul in the waning hours of the night. Psalm 88 ends like this:
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. (Psalm 88:13-18)
The psalmist cries to the Lord, but there is no answer. There is no sign of the morning sun after the dark night. The man feels alone in his depression. He doesn’t even feel the Lord’s presence. In fact, according to the psalmist, it is the Lord himself who has been active in his suffering. At the end of the day, this man is left with nothing but darkness. And there is no prospect for seeing the light again.
I’ve never suffered from deep and dark depression. So, it is easy for me to carelessly and insensitively scoff at this man and his cries and confessions. There is great danger in interpreting the Bible through your current emotional state. But it is impossible to not filter the Bible through your current emotional state. That’s why when I approach Psalm 88, I’m a little impatient with the extended lament. However, if I were experiencing a season of seemingly endless suffering, my encounter of Psalm 88 would be much different. I can imagine that many people in the trenches of piercing affliction can perfectly identify with the poetic groaning of the psalmist in Psalm 88. We must be careful not to allow our emotions to determine our hermeneutic. But we must be sensitive to our emotions and allow the objective meaning of biblical texts to speak into our lives.
Whether you can identify with Psalm 88 or not, it seems problematic that a true believer could write such strong words that implicate the Lord. How do we deal with Psalm 88 and the lack of hopeful crescendo? What do we do when we are left in the pit to weep in the darkness of our depression? Here are three basic observations about Psalm 88 that help us see the godly nature of such a dark song.
1. It is helpful to see the vivid experiences of God’s people
This is one of the reasons I love biographies. Seeing how Christians throughout history have dealt with various issues and experiences is instructive and comforting for us as we journey through different seasons of life. Seeing a deeply afflicted brother pour out his heart gives language to our own afflictions and let’s us know we are not alone. In the words of William Plumer, “If we knew more of the religious experience of God’s people, we should be less apt to think our trials peculiar.”
2. Our suffering, though painful for us, may be healing for others
Much like Job and other psalmists, the pain they experienced was real and they may have never received an answer for their suffering. But millions of people have been comforted by their experiences. Plumer comments, “Some suffering on earth is designed to instruct and comfort others. That which to us is a dirge may be to others a song. How deeply afflicted Heman was, yet how consolatory is this Psalm to God’s people of successive generations.” So, if you’re feeling dirge-y, someone someday will be singing over the ashes of your suffering. Encouraging, right? Seriously, your suffering is not meaningless. It may blossom into a song of hope for others. There is beauty in your affliction.
3. Christians are not immune from suffering and are never hopeless in suffering
It’s an obvious point, but it is helpful to remember that being in Christ does not grant us immunity from suffering. Much like Job’s friends, we want to connect all of our suffering to sin in our lives. While some suffering definitely flows from the consequences of personal sin, the biblical witness is clear that not all suffering is the result of sin. Again, Plumer is helpful:
It is no new thing for good men to have many and great troubles. When floods of ungodly men, waves of sorrow and terrors roll in upon us, let us remember God has carried others through as sore trials. It is sad indeed when we have no respite from grief, when the clouds never break away, when refuge seems to fail. But no trials can come that will justify us in failing to make God the depository of our sad tale.
The one small gleam of light shining from Psalm 88 is less about the disposition of the psalmist’s cries and more about the direction. When you suffer, do you cry out to God or complain to your family and friends? Heman the Ezrahite, through searing pain, lays his soul bare in a desperate cry to God. Psalm 88 is drenched in humility and God-centered dependence. Even though he feels that God is infinitely distant, he still cries out to him for refuge. In the hopeless night of your deepest suffering, where do you turn?
The only one who can and will sustain you in the darkness is the Christ who is light bursting into the darkness of a sin-ridden world. And the Christ who sustains is the Christ who suffered. While I can hardly identify with the psalmist of Psalm 88 in this season of life, Christ can fully identify with Heman. If you read Psalm 88 with tears of identification, know that Christ looks into your situation and says, “I’ve been there.” The light hiding in the darkness of Psalm 88 is the beauty of affliction in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Everything said of Heman in Psalm 88 could be said of Christ on the cross. The floods of God’s wrath was released on Christ and they did not cease. But through his suffering we find salvation.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (Westbow Press, 2016). He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.