Psalm 88: Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Psalm 88 is an embarrassment to conventional faith. It is the cry of a believer (who sounds like Job) whose life has gone awry, who desperately seeks contact with Yahweh, but who is unable to evoke a response from God. This is indeed “the dark night of the soul,” when the troubled person must be and must stay in the darkness of abandonment, utterly alone.
How Many of you have felt this way? Where the Dark Night of the soul is all there seems to be.
A song. A psalm of the sons of Korah. For the choir director: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite. Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out before you day and night. May my prayer reach your presence; listen to my cry. For I have had enough troubles, and my life is near Sheol. I am counted among those going down to the Pit. I am like a man without strength, abandoned among the dead. I am like the slain lying in the grave, whom you no longer remember, and who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest part of the Pit, in the darkest places, in the depths. Your wrath weighs heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. Selah You have distanced my friends from me; you have made me repulsive to them. I am shut in and cannot go out. My eyes are worn out from crying. Lord, I cry out to you all day long; I spread out my hands to you. Do you work wonders for the dead? Do departed spirits rise up to praise you? Selah Will your faithful love be declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Abaddon? Will your wonders be known in the darkness or your righteousness in the land of oblivion? But I call to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer meets you. Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you hide your face from me? From my youth, I have been suffering and near death. I suffer your horrors; I am desperate. Your wrath sweeps over me; your terrors destroy me. They surround me like water all day long; they close in on me from every side. You have distanced loved one and neighbor from me; darkness is my only friend.
The verses are dominated by this desperate speech: “I cry … my prayer … my cry.”
“I call upon thee … I spread out my hands.”
“I … cry to thee … my prayer comes before thee.”
This three-fold cry (vv. 1–2, 9b, 13) forms the structure of the psalm.
Normally, when Israel cries, Yahweh hears and answers (cf. Exod. 2:23–35; Ps. 107:6, 13, 19, 28).
It is anticipated that a time will come when the answer will precede the cry (Isa. 65:24). But not yet, not here. God will not answer here. This Psalm lives in a place where there are no answers. The Psalm may make us wonder why God is silent, but that is not the interest of this psalm. Only that He is.
As YHWH is silent it brings the author to a place of never-ending Prayer.
Perhaps the speaker is, in fact, speaking to the empty sky, but that does not deter the speaker. The faith of Israel is like that. The failure of God to respond does not lead to atheism or doubt in God or rejection of God. It leads to a more intense address. This psalm, like the faith of Israel, is utterly contained in the notion that Yahweh is there and must be addressed. Yahweh must be addressed, even if Yahweh never answers.
This is the faith of a true Jew or a True Christian. God’s silence does not mean God’s Absence.
The Holocaust stands a prime example of God’s apparent absence. Yet, Elie Wiesel has observed that it is not possible for a serious Jew not to believe in God, but it is possible to “believe against God.”
That is surely what is happening in this psalm. Such a faith, in light of the cross and in light of the Holocaust, makes the rejection of God because of God’s absence seem trite.
The idea that God doesn’t exist is far from the mind of the author but anger that is all too real.
Reference to “the Pit” and to “Sheol.” This is the voice of a dying one crying out to the only source of life. “The Pit” is not final judgment or fiery place of punishment. It is only beyond the range of communion. For this speaker, communion with God is clearly everything. The notion of “cutting off” is expressed in verse 5 with three metaphors and a fourth climactic line: “dead … grave … remember no more … cut off.”
And as his anger grows at God’s Silence he blames God for his troubles.
The speaker is utterly helpless. The fault is firmly fixed. In Job-like fashion, the speaker may hope that the urgency of the speech will drive God to speak but it doesn’t only silence ensues.
Each Selah an invitation to end the silence but none comes so the Psalm continues alone.
Darkness My Friend
Darkness My Friend
William Styron, in Sophie’s Choice, 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 lines 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 stands as a mark of realism for biblical faith. 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 experiences when words must be honest and not claim too much.
This is difficult for us as Christians we want cheap easy answers. We want simple solutions. We may know that it isn’t true but we like health and wealth. Because we know that God is with us always and we have this warped notion that if he loves me than nothing bad will ever happen to me. Why would a good God allow bad things to happen to Good people?
This warped reality which is contrary to what the Bible teaches as truth is easier for us to hang on too.
This isn’t what the cross shows us.
Psalm 88 shows us what the cross is about: faithfulness in scenes of complete abandonment. Walter Brueggemann
We know there is hope. God exists and He hears. That is a given throughout the Psalm but the silence gives us pause.
Are you in a time of Silence of God?
Time of depression when no words will help?
Offer no cheap platitudes (all guilty at times because we don’t know what to say). Only Hope is God is there.
Do you serve a god that is too small to be doubted or questioned?
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Brueggemann, Walter. “Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function,” JSOT 17 (1980):3–32.
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William Styron, Sophie’s Choice. New York: Random House, 1979.