A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According to mahalath leannoth. 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;(Ps. 88:1-18 NIV)
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.
Faithful One, so unchanging
This is a very dark Psalm where the Psalmist finds no relief from the darkness of despair that he feels. The lesson here for us is that even in this dark despair the Psalmist comes to God to find deliverance. There is a brutal honesty in this Psalm that is almost frightening. The emotions and suffering expressed in the Psalm is similar to Psalm 22. The same dreadful mood is found in the five poems of Lamentations. The Psalm is repetitive, but that is only to be expected. Someone who is suffering either physically, emotionally or both will often repeat themselves in the course of a conversation.
The marvel of faith is that the Psalmist is praying. It is not second nature for us to pray when things go wrong. Often we just freeze, we feel too bad to come to God in prayer, the darkness in our soul is so dark that we don’t even know what the question is. He addresses the covenant LORD as the God who saves him. But yet he prays day and night, and feels that the prayer is not making it through to God. He prays that his prayer will come before God and that God will turn His ear towards him. We are familiar enough by now with the language the Psalmist uses. You can’t help feel that he has got his theology wrong, however he has captured how it feels. It feels like God holds court and that a number of angels carry petitions before the Lord; the Psalmist prays that his petition will be presented to the Lord and as a result God will incline His ear in the Psalmist’s direction. That may be how he feels, but it is not what happens. God always hears, prayer always reaches God. God is sovereign in His timing and method of His response.
His adversary has so constantly attacked him, that he is galled and life is ebbing from him. He is frail, dark marks under his eyes, a body that shows the skeletal shape of his body. He looks like a dead man walking and people identify him as one who is very close to death. He is a shadow of a man, without strength or vitality. He is like some unknown soldier, whose body lies buried in an unmarked mass grave far from home. The Psalmist feels the absence of God, like those who are dead whom God remembers no more. The Psalmist does not deny God’s remembrance and care, for him this is the way it feels. The OT has such a high view of life that death is such an unnatural thing.
The Psalmist attributes all this misery to what God has done to him. Remember Naomi said that God has made her life very bitter, but note that both Naomi and the Psalmist are there in the presence of God pouring out their hearts.
The Lord had brought the Psalmist down to the lowest pit, into the darkest depths. God has treated the Psalmist like the wicked. The Psalmist knows that the Lord is angry with him and he is overwhelmed with all the waves of emotional difficulty that come relentlessly one after the other. When we were in Canada, we decided to take a boat ride to ride the tidal bore. The tidal bore is when the tidal waves from the sea make their way upriver and clash with the waves of the river. We were told to wear old clothes and to take watches off and remove all jewellery. If you needed to wear glasses, they had to be tied on. We were in a large rubber dingy. The waves can reach 3-4m high and the waves crash over the side of the boat. Liz and I were sitting together on the side of the dingy and Liz’s brother was right at the front (worst place to be). He got the full slap of the waves as they crashed over the front of the boat, covering his head. During one lull he asked if anyone wanted to swop places with him and two young lads jumped at the chance. His life was never at risk, but the relentless pounding of the waves was hard to cope with. It made me think of the Psalmist speaking of the waves that engulfed him. The Lord has taken away his closest friends and they are repulsed by him. Suffering can be a lonely thing to endure. Many times, we don’t want anyone near us and we may drive our friends away. The Psalmist is trapped in his condition, in the state that the Lord has left him, and he cannot escape. The picture of Job comes to mind, where his friends did not understand him. He is forsaken by both God and man, and his eyes grow dim and full of grief.
The Psalmist will not let go. He keeps calling out to God every day, he spreads his empty hands out before the Lord. The Psalmist is like the dead, he hasn’t seen many wonders from the Lord. What is the point in being held in this deathlike existence? Will anyone rise up from a place like this to praise You? Will the Psalmist see any sign of God’s love down in the depths? Will there be a manifestation of God’s faithfulness down in death? Can anyone know Your wonders and Your righteous deeds down here in the darkness and oblivion?
However low he feels, he is not going to give up on prayer. Though there is no sign of God and even when faced with little hope, the Psalmist says, BUT I cry to You for help, covenant LORD. In the morning his prayer goes up and again he cries about his prayer being rejected and God’s face being hidden from him. The suffering that the Psalmist experiences has lasted a very long time. We can think of the many years that Joseph suffered. The Psalmist attributes all his suffering to God. God’s wrath, the terrors of the night, the torrents of suffering through the day, abandoned by friends and his family, and his closest friend is death.
We expected a happy ending to this Psalm, but it didn’t come. Some situations in life are so grave that there is no place for cheap talk of resolution. The lesson for us is to pray.
Lord God we thank You for this very honest expression of despair that You have left on record for us. It is hard for us to feel that we could pour out such words like this. Forgive us for staying away from prayer when things have not been in our favour. Lord sustain us so that in season and out of season we will still pray to you. Hear our prayer, for we pray in Jesus name. Amen.