A Psalm of Deepest Darkness
Psalm 88 is a terribly dark psalm, filled with despair. Near the opening, the psalmist moans, “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 like those who have no help, like those forsaken 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.” The psalm concludes with the complaint, “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me. You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.”
Do you wish I had chosen a happier psalm to share with you today? Do you wonder why such a gloomy psalm is included in the Bible which we look to for inspiration?
Noted Lutheran theology professor Martin Marty had a similar reaction to Psalm 88. Philip Yancey tells the story in his book on Prayer: “Martin Marty…began the practice of reading through Psalms with his wife during her long ordeal with terminal cancer. She had to wake up at midnight and take medication to combat the nausea caused by chemotherapy. It took a while for both of them to go back to sleep, and during that period her husband read the psalms aloud. One night she caught him skipping from Psalm 87 to 91. Marty had skimmed the words of 88 (‘…my life draws near the grave, I am counted among those who go down to the pit…’) and moved ahead to a more consoling image: ‘He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge’ (Psalm 91).
“‘Why did you skip those psalms?’ his wife demanded. Marty told her he wasn’t sure she could take Psalm 88 that night.
“‘Go back and read it,’ she said. ‘If I don’t deal with the darkness, the others won’t shine out.’
“Martin Marty later wrote a book about that difficult time (A Cry of Absence) in which he estimated that…half the psalms are wintry in tone, and only a third have the bright atmosphere of summer about them. They help to ‘domesticate terror and grief’ in circumstances such as his wife faced, he said. He latched on to the words of others when he found himself wordless.”
Gloomy psalms such as Psalm 88 are included in Holy Scripture not for the purpose of depressing us, but because God is not afraid or ashamed to meet us in the places of our deepest darkness. And when we realize that God is willing to meet us in the places of our deepest darkness, then we can be confident that prayer is always available to us. Thus we find verse 13 in the midst of this sorrow-filled psalm: “But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.”