“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.”
— Psalm 88:14-15 (NRSV)
What’s in range here is something that all people, and all Christians, know is a feature of life, but we so often pretend isn’t. No genuine Christian likes to consider that God doesn’t, occasionally, answer prayer. More importantly, the real world wants to learn that even the Bible—God’s Word—suggests that feeling estranged from God happens.
Of course it happens, and Psalm 88 attests to its happening. Additionally, the psalmist—Heman the Ezrahite—grapples with their own imminent death. This may be a depressing psalm for many, but it is an urgent voice speaking to those in the wilderness. It speaks to a world needing relevant and compassionate encouragement in the midst of silence from God.
The Purpose of ‘Dark’ Psalms
Psalms of the darkness, like this one, polarise the emotions.
We read them when life is swimmingly good and they really make no sense—the psalmist heaping bulbous nodules of self-pity, and blinded by same, all over themselves.
Then, life changes. Quickly we burrow into a hole centred upon our own oblivion. All around us is stark as fear entraps our hope. No one can empathise with us in the pit; truly, only God can help. And as we read God not helping, we are helped, because we don’t feel like we are be only ones left completely barren of response from God.
Psalm 88 is, perhaps, the darkest psalm; almost because it takes aim at God for not helping. The truth is, many journeys of matured faith involve such seasons where feelings of abandonment are normal. God never abandons us, but we genuinely feel that he has during these times. So wonderful it is that God’s Word speaks to us, here, in such darkness.
Relevant Nuances for the Spiritually Disenfranchised
Such dark psalms offer hope to the spiritually oppressed. The following are some nuances relevant to dark nights of the soul:
1. Often we might feel like we are occupying hell. This psalm mentions “the Pit,” “Sheol,” and “Abaddon” in verses 4, 6, 3, and 11. Such nouns are, in effect, adjectives of a weary soul, desolate, and without a companion—even God. When we reside here—in the hellishness of life—we actually want to read that others have experienced the same isolation. An answer is less important than the empathy we receive (from God, ironically) to consider others have also suffered.
2. Given a certain hypochondria, a matter for more of us than we would care to admit, we will often worry even despite biblical commands not to. We worry about death and disease; about an unpredictable and sudden demise; and not just from a health viewpoint; it occurs in the financial sense as well, among others.
3. It will be clear to every human being—at varying stages—that God does not wait with his ear fixed to the door of our prayer closets anxiously seeking to break through our challenges. God does listen. But part of the process of maturity is resolving our challenges in our own way with God as a non-interfering heavenly Sponsor. Such prayer is the medium for the psalmist’s communication with God in verses 2 and 13. The psalmist is not answered, and oftentimes we will not feel answered, either.
4. Loneliness comes for many reasons. Sometimes it is only circumstantial; not because of conflict or betrayal. We are just alone. At other times, however, loneliness comes because of our friendships. In verses 8 and 18 we get a glimpse of the psalmist in their shame. Again, this is an enormous encouragement. We, as a fact of being human, will all feel the king-hit of shame, as well as pangs of guilt for some of the things we’ve done. It’s important to be reminded, as we read a psalm like this one, that these are not unique emotions. Almost everyone has them.
There is a season for a psalm so dark. Its testimony enfolds over us in encouragement, for the darkness others too have experienced. God wants us to know, we are not alone in that darkness time. Others are there, and have been there. In this we are encouraged. God is with us, even in darkness.
© 2013 S. J. Wickham.
General Reference: Craig C. Broyles, Psalms: New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1999), pp. 352-54.