Preserving Prayer Amidst Unending Sorrow
Pastor Rich Vincent
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There are times in life where all hope seems lost. Times when no amount of religious activity Bible reading, prayer, self-examination provides any consolation. Times when it is impossible to look at the brighter side because no brighter side exists. Times when the only light at the end of the tunnel is in the words of Metallica just a freight train coming your way.
Though times like this are (thankfully) relatively rare, they do occur even to the most devout and faithful saint. It is for this reason that Psalm 88 exists. It is the cry of a believer who has lost all hope. It begins with complaint, descends to confusion and despair, and concludes with the haunting words, darkness is my closest friend (Psalm 88:18). As the only psalm in the entire Bible that fails to end with at least some glimmer of hope, it is known as the darkest, gloomiest, saddest psalm in the Bible.
The book of Psalms is filled with sad songs. Over one-third of the Psalms are categorized as lament psalms psalms that express struggles, sufferings, and disappointments to God. Lament psalms follow the general pattern of complaint and petition followed by statements of confidence and trust. No matter how bad the situation, the psalmist always ends with a little comfort or hope. Only one lament psalm breaks from this pattern Psalm 88. It ends with misery, despair, terror, and loneliness. No light breaks through at the conclusion of the psalm. It simply fades into darkness!
Because of its uniqueness, Psalm 88 is an extraordinary expression of grief, sorrow, and pain. It literally shatters our categories by failing to follow the accepted structure of a lament psalm. Everything does not turn out well in this psalm. It provides us with no hopeful ending, much less a happy ending.
This kind of experience is comparatively rare, therefore this psalm stands alone. There is no other like it. However, this kind of experience is real, therefore this psalm is included in the sacred canon. Things do not always turn out right in the end. Life is clearly not this simple. Any Christian that denies this has to tear this page out of his or her Bible.
Acquaintance with this psalm is important regardless of whether we currently share its experience. Though this kind of intense suffering may elude us for the moment, there will most likely come a day should we live long enough that it will come upon us. Psalm 88 allows us to share the sorrow of those experiencing its darkness while preparing ourselves to perhaps someday experience the same. Believe it or not, there is great light to be gained by honestly peering into the darkest, saddest, gloomiest song in the entire Bible.
The Cry Begins
The title (or superscription) of Psalm 88 states that it is a maskil, that is, a psalm of instruction. The authorship is attributed to Heman. His identity is impossible to determine. Some suggest that he is the wise man alluded to in 1 Kings 4:31 and 1 Chronicles 2:6. Others argue that he participated in King Davids grand trio of chief musicians (1 Chronicles 15:19). Ultimately, his exact identity remains elusive. However, we do know, in light of this psalm, that Heman was a godly man. Not once in the psalm is there any mention of personal sin. Furthermore, throughout the psalm he presents himself as a man who relentlessly seeks God.
The psalm begins with a cry to God: O Lord, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry (88:1-2). The call to the Lord to hear the psalmists complaint is a standard feature of lament psalms. It is usually followed by complaints, petitions, and a statement of confident hope for the future. However, in this psalm, there will be no confident hope in the end. The psalm will end in darkness and despair. For this reason, the psalmists cry that God would hear his request becomes more poignant and pathetic on repeated readings, for the informed reader knows that this cry will apparently be in vain.
The movement of the psalm gives no indication that the psalmists prayer is ever heard. His cry goes unanswered and brings absolutely no relief from his pain. Its verses move from one expression of profound misery and despair to another. There is no discernible progress from the psalmists opening complaints and final embrace of the darkness. Our knowledge that there is no relief in sight adds pathos and intensity to each line.
Forgotten and Rejected by God
The psalmist cries out because of his desperate condition. His despair is so great that he blames God for his troubles. His soul is full of trouble (88:3a). His life overflows with tragedy. He cannot contain it. His physical affliction whatever it might be is not his worst problem; his soul affliction is! He is in mental anguish.
Our own inner turmoil in the presence of suffering is often worse than the actual experience of physical affliction. Though physical suffering is difficult to endure and it most certainly exacerbates mental and spiritual suffering it is its impact on the soul that brings the greatest hardship. In his own classic way, Baptist preacher C. H. Spurgeon states, The mind can descend far lower than the body, for there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour. The psalmists suffering is so great that he cries, my life draws near to the grave (88:3b). Others affirm his desperate situation and consider him to be as good as dead (88:4a). His perpetual suffering has completely sapped his strength (88:4b). He is overwhelmed, physically drained, completely spent.
He finds himself forsaken among the dead (88:5a). He feels utterly forgotten, like a carcass left to rot on a field of battle. And worst of all, he senses that God has completely forgotten him: like the slain who lie in the grace, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care (88:5b-6). For the faithful, this is the worst suffering possible. He feels completely abandoned by God.
And not only does God appear to have deserted him; it appears as if God has actively rejected him. This is expressed in a series of verses that speak directly to God. In verses 6-9a he accuses God of treating him like a wicked unbeliever rather than a faithful servant.
Sensing that God has completely rejected him, his expressions of utmost grief are emphatic and extreme. He feels confined to the lowest pit and the darkest depths (88:6). He experiences absolutely no comfort from God. To him, Gods presence is completely devoid of love and consists of only wrath wrath that bears down hard upon him (lies heavily upon me, 88:7) and overwhelms him with wave after wave of unending assault. The moment he recovers from one wave, another immediately arrives, thrashing him with all the rage, power, and fury of Gods wrath. Eugene Petersons Message paraphrases it well: Im battered senseless by your rage, relentlessly pounded by your waves of anger.
The psalmists state of intense spiritual anguish stems from his sense of abandonment and rejection by God. The word pictures he incorporates to describe his anguish are absolutely overwhelming. He likens himself to the living dead, forsaken on a battlefield, confined in a dungeon, plunging endlessly into a bottomless abyss, with Gods full weight of fury bearing down upon him, wave after wave of wrath endlessly crashing against and around him.
The psalmist is not only alienated from God; he is alienated from others. Perhaps if he knew the love and comfort of friends and family he could survive, but even this has vanished. The psalmist blames God for this: You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them (88:8). Alienation from his God and his loved ones causes him to feel trapped like a caged animal with no hope for escape. Peterson paraphrases, Im caught in a maze and cant find my way out. This brings immense sadness and unending grief. Night after night of painful loneliness, unrelieved despair, and endless tears causes him to confess, my eyes are dim with grief (88:9a).
An Appeal to Gods Glory
As a man of faith, the psalmist must wrestle with how God relates to his suffering. Not once does he consider his sufferings to be the result of blind chance or impersonal fate. He is convinced that they ultimately come from God. His faith in God forces him to experience a divine irony: the source of his comfort (the sovereignty of God) is also the source of his confusion. Gods sovereignty is both his strength and his straitjacket. His problem is not unbelief, but confusion that comes from belief. Amazingly, this confusion does not impede his prayers, but actually prompts him to pray further.
Because he ultimately seeks to relate his experience to God, he continues to pray: I call to you, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you (88:9b). In prayer, he pleads Gods glory. From an Old Covenant perspective, death is a great mystery. Under the New Covenant, the resurrection of Jesus sheds light on the reality of the afterlife and redefines our understanding of death. Prior to this, however, it was generally assumed that death completely disrupted a persons relationship to God. For this reason, the psalmist argues that if he dies he will be unable to declare Gods praise. God will lose a worshipper. In a complex weave of desperation and faith he pleads Gods glory by mentioning four aspects of God his awesomeness, love, faithfulness, and righteousness (88:10-12). He praises these attributes at the same time that they seem completely lost to him. It is obvious that he is not currently experiencing any one of these qualities. Yet, even though he does not experience these things, he recognizes them as divine attributes of God. He longs for God to relieve him from his troubles so that he can continue to faithfully declare Gods glory not simply by word but by experience.
With this hope, he continues to pray (88:13). It is at this point that we expect things to change. The pattern of lament songs is to express complaint followed by a renewed commitment to God. In other words, light always breaks through in some small way. That is not the case for Psalm 88. There is no divine reversal. Things do not get brighter; they get darker. The psalm ends with the psalmist experiencing only misery, despair, terror, and loneliness.
Fade to Black
His plea ends with a bewildered question: Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? (88:13) No answer is forthcoming. The psalmist is left with nothing other than his own fears, anxieties, and deep sense of alienation. The psalm concludes with his reflections on his bitter past, his experience of Gods anger, and his estrangement from all human comfort.
The remembrance of his past only brings frustration. His suffering has lasted so long that he can hardly remember when it started (88:15a). It colors his life so sharply that he can no longer recall any good times. For as long as I remember Ive been hurting; Ive taken the worst you can hand out, and Ive had it (The Message). Life is nothing but terror inflicted by God resulting in despair (88:15b). The Hebrew word translated as despair literally means distracted, perplexed, or overwhelmed. His mind is befuddled. He has been tossed around so violently that he can no longer think straight. Unable to collect his thoughts, the lengthening trial increases the weight of his unbearable burden. He is too tired to hope; too tired to look into the future and envision a bright tomorrow.
His experience of God is reduced to an overwhelming and unending sense of divine wrath. Like a sea of liquid fire Gods wrath sweeps over him (88:16). He knows only terror. He sees no possible escape from Gods unending flood of anger and wrath. He drowns in the abyss of divine displeasure, completely engulfed by adversity: Your wrath has swept over me surrounded me completely engulfed me (88:16-17).
Sensing nothing but angry rejection from God, his sorrows are increased by his complete alienation from other people: You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend (88:18).
Everything good has been ripped away from the psalmist. All human sympathy is totally withdrawn. All sense of divine consolation is removed. Nothing is left but darkness.
We are left with a pathetic picture of a child of God crying alone in the dark. All alone, with no human companions, he continues to pray for a deliverance that never arrives.
Light from a Dark Place
How would you go about counseling this man?
Would you encourage him to pray? He already is.
Would you challenge him to read his Bible? He knows his Bible.
Would you demand that he recapture a worshipping heart? He already wants to proclaim Gods wonders.
Would you challenge him to remember Gods awesomeness, faithfulness, and righteousness? He already embraces these things.
Would you tell him to walk closer to God? He already is seeking him.
Would you tell him to find the hidden sin in his life? He is already asking Why?
Furthermore, the psalm in no way hints that his problem stems from personal sin.
Would you pass on to him three or four helpful principles related to suffering? What would those be and how could you keep them from sounding heartless, cruel, and simplistic?
Would you tell him to look at the brighter side of life? What brighter side would that be?
No simple solutions can adequately address the deep pain of the psalmist. The psalmists intense and unrelieved suffering is inconsolable. If this is the case, what light does this psalm shed on suffering?
First, this psalm witnesses to the possibility of intense and unrelieved suffering as a legitimate experience of godly and faithful believers. Though this experience is comparatively rare, it is real. The fact that this psalm is included in the sacred canon of Israels worship songs and prayers proves that this experience is not without precedent among the faithful. In other words, it is not evidence of a lack of faith or the presence of sin. Life in a fallen world holds out the possibility of radical suffering for all people including people of deep and abiding faith.
Secondly, the psalm teaches us to pray in the dark. In spite of his deep suffering, the psalmist refuses to let go of God. Three times in the psalm we hear the psalmist speak of his commitment to pray to God (88:1, 9b, 13). He calls out in the morning (88:9b), day and night (88:1), every day (88:9b). His experiences of divine wrath, human rejection, and personal despair do not detract him from regularly and continually approaching God in prayer. As difficult as it may have been and it certainly could not have been enjoyable he persevered in prayer even in the midst of absolute darkness.
Where do you go in similar circumstances? Intense times of prolonged suffering and feelings of divine abandonment do not generally nurture deeper devotion to God. In similar situations, most people run from God. Some grow bitter. Others seek solace in sinful diversions. Few come into the Lords presence and refuse to leave without his blessing. Few follow the simple command in James 5:13: Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.
If we follow the psalmists example we will persist in prayer even when it goes unanswered for days, weeks, or even years. Though the psalmists prayers go totally unrewarded, he clings to Gods hand in the darkness. He believes that God is no less the God of salvation during the dark and difficult times. He considers that God is still worthy of his trust even though he possesses no obvious reason for this from his present experience.
If we follow the psalmists example we will pray honestly. He makes no excuses and hides none of his complaints. In his prayer, we hear an honest expression of sorrow as the psalmist genuinely pours out his heart before God. His prayer comes from the depths of his being and echoes throughout the whole of his body. According to Spurgeon, He prayed all over, his eyes wept, his voice cried, his hands were outstretched, and his heart broke. This was prayer indeed. If we follow the psalmists example we will take advantage of the dark times. Would the psalmist have prayed so fervently if his pain had not been so perpetual? We dont know the answer, but we can venture to guess that his desperate situation stirred him to greater measures of prayer than ever before. His faith muscles were stretched in every possible direction by circumstances beyond his control. Evil is overcome and transformed when it drives us to prayer. If an evil experience does nothing else than drive us to the Lord, it has been at least partially transformed. The evil, in spite of its dark designs, produces good when it results in prayerfully seeking God.
Thirdly, the gloomiest, darkest, saddest psalm in the Bible reveals the experience of Jesus during his passion.
A comparison of Jesus passion experience with Psalm 88 reveals remarkable parallels:
|Psalm 88||Jesus Passion|
|Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. (88:7)||I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! (Luke 12:50)|
|My soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. (88:3)||Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say, Father, save me from this hour? But for this purpose I came to this hour. (John 12:27)|
|O LORD, the God of my salvation, day and night I cry out before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry... (88:1-2, cf. 88:9, 13)||And being in agony he was praying very fervently. (Luke 22:44)|
|My eyes are dim with grief... I am in despair. (88:9, 15)||And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. (Matt. 26:37)|
|My life has drawn near to Sheol... (88:3-5, 10-12)||My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death. (Matt. 26:38)|
| I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man
without strength. Forsaken among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave.
You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them... You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend. (88:8, 18)
|They crucified him. (Luke 23:33)|
| Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? (88:14)
I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. (88:15b-16)
|My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. (Matt 27:46)|
|O Lord, the God of my salvation... (88:1)||Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. (Luke 23:46)|
Jesus fully experienced the sorrow, despair, and alienation of Psalm 88. If nothing else convinces us that this exceptional psalm of unrelieved suffering paints a real picture of the possible experience of the faithful, it is the cross of Christ. Like Heman before him, Jesus experienced the paradox that the source of his comfort (the sovereignty of God) was also the source of his confusion. Gods sovereignty was both his strength and his straitjacket. It brought him comfort and gave him endurance; it brought him great joy and overwhelming suffering.
The author of Psalm 88 was ignorant of two things New Testament believers know: (1) the reality and promise of resurrection, and (2) the power of transformed suffering in Christ. Though the psalmist was unaware of it, we know that when we suffer even to the extent and duration of Psalm 88 that we have one closer than a brother with us who shares our experience and sympathizes with us (see Hebrews 2:18; 4:15).
Even when darkness is our only friend, there is One with us in the darkness who has experienced the full weight of human suffering, the overwhelming grief of human alienation, and the unfathomable fullness of divine wrath. He has willingly done this for our sake and our salvation. We can trust him in spite of our circumstances. We can confidently cry to him even in the dark!
 A sampling of quotes from biblical scholars proves this to be true: There is no sadder prayer in the Psalter (Derek Kidner). It is the gloomiest psalm found in the Scriptures (Leupold). This is the darkest, saddest Psalm in all the Psalter. It is one wail of sorrow from beginning to end (J. J. Stewart Perowne).
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