I invite you to turn in the Scriptures to Psalm 88. Our Lord has His different ways of encouraging us and perhaps there’s no way stranger than giving us this psalm. Psalm 88 is the most depressing psalm in the psalter. Martin Marty, a religious historian at the University of Chicago, called Psalm 88 a “wintry landscape of unrelieved bleakness.”
There are other psalms that begin with woes and ‘how longs?’ but by the time the poem is finished the psalmist is starting to feel better about things. Not here. Look at the final word of the psalm, both in the English and original Hebrew: darkness.
If you meet for coffee with someone and his last words to you as he leaves the coffee shop are ‘I’m in a dark place,’ you’re worried.
Still, I say, this psalm is given to us as encouragement and positive instruction. First, let’s read it and then we’ll look to God for His encouragement.
A Song. A psalm of the sons of Korah. To the choirmaster: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
O LORD, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry!
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 a man who has no strength,
like one set loose 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. Selah
You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.
- How is this psalm helpful to us? Misery appreciates the company.
Our Lord has given this psalm to remind us that we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and among those who have walked with God by faith, there’ve been plenty who have been full of trouble without and sadness within. We shouldn’t be surprised if some of that falls on us too.
We don’t open the Bible to see a world of people without pain just because they’ve found God. On the contrary, we enter a fellowship of suffering.
There have been those who loved God and trusted that God loved them who could say to their Heavenly Father: ‘You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.’ (v.6)
I hear there are plenty of caves and pits in Israel, and I’m guessing that if you grew up around there you’d spend some time exploring them. Perhaps a young Heman had gotten lost in one at some time and felt that peculiar terror of darkness, claustrophobia… abject loneliness. And now he brings the recollection of those “regions dark and deep” into his prayer.
Charles Spurgeon, the old British preacher, knew something about the psalms – he wrote a great commentary on them called “The Treasury of David.” But if you know his biography, you realize he also knew something about the depths of spiritual and psychological despair. Listen to him ruminating about Psalm 88:
“The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it 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.”
William Cowper, who wrote several of our hymns, also wrote a short poem called “The Castaway,” about a man aboard a boat who falls overboard in a storm, and because of the storm, there could be no rescue attempt. Eventually after an hour-long struggle, “he drank the stifling wave, and then he sank.”
Cowper doesn’t tell us until the last stanza why he chose this theme. “No voice divine the storm allayed, No light propitious shone; When, snatched from all effectual aid, We perished, each alone: But I beneath a rougher sea, And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.”
Heman and Pastor Spurgeon and William Cowper aren’t the only ones. Open your Bible and you’ll see people, God’s people, in pain. The same when you read church history. Sometimes the pain can be linked to some baleful circumstance. Sometimes it’s inexplicable: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?”
How is that helpful to reflect on? No matter what you are going through or will go through, God has shepherded a million others along similar dark pathways. You don’t need to be shocked or recoil when you come upon pain in yourself or others.
I think about Jesus, who was a tough man, not a wimp. Not one to express His feelings. And yet things got to the place where he says, my soul is very sorrowful, even to the point of death. Assuming He’s not being theatrical, that this isn’t hyperbole, what do we have here: so disconsolate that He’s on the brink of dying?
Brothers and sisters, if we’re to know this Man (and to know Him is life) it will be in a fellowship of suffering. Prepare yourself. Actually, Psalm 88 prepares us.
- In Psalm 88 we learn that the worst thing that could happen in our troubles is that we stop communicating with God.
I said that we would be concerned if someone left us with ‘I’m in a dark place.’ But you’ll notice that Heman isn’t dumping his woes on his friend in the coffee shop…or his wife or his brother or his drinking buddy or posting something to the world at large. Must be something like 20 times in his poem he says, “You.” He’s communicating with God
If someone keeps talking about his problems we think, well, there’s a complainer. If someone wants his wife to always remember how difficult his life is we say, what a wimp. If someone rehearses in detail how bad things are going – Drama Queen. Bore.
But if you keep coming to God in your distress, you’re not complaining; you’re logging a complaint. Sounds the same but it’s not. If you explain to God in hair-raising terms what is happening inside and outside of you, how you feel about what is happening, you’re acting in faith.
Old Mark Twain was perceptive. This is what he said: “Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”
And that’s true. There are parts of you that no one will ever get, not even those closest to you. The ancient proverb: The heart knows its own bitterness/ and no stranger shares it joy. (14:10). No one thoroughly understands you.
Well, except for God, who has searched and known you. So, we bring our complaint to Him in a way and to a degree that we don’t share with others.
For God alone my soul waits in silence/
From him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation…
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence/
For my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my fortress…
Trust in him at all times, O people/
Pour out your heart before him… (Psalm 62)
Heman says: “You overwhelm me with all your waves.” The God who created the seas and everything in it, is as relentless as the pounding waves. I go from this problem with my kid then look over at my finances and meantime I’m out of sorts with my spouse… God, I feel like You’re treating me like one of those shorelines: pummeling me. The Relentless One never giving me a rest. I just need some quiet and space to get ahead of the work and Youkeep sending trouble.
And yet this beaten-down-by-God-Heman keeps chirping away. He keeps talking to God. He never gets quiet.
Psalm 88 is full of complaining. It’s ugly. But it’s before God! And there is a great assurance in coming to God, no matter what your state: “He that comes to me I will never drive away.”
People get troubled and then tired and they feel like they don’t have energy to even talk to anyone. They’ve tried sharing with other people but for the most part it’s obvious people don’t know what to do with your suffering. Silence breeds a deeper silence and eventually people ‘go silent’ before God.
Can’t let that happen! Our God says through Psalm 88: Bring it to me. Sit down with your coffee before me. Open your arms in confusion and let loose before Me the vocabulary of frustration.
It’s what our Lord did the night of His arrest. Ready to die from despondency and He heads out to talk to God about it.
- It’s admittedly complicated, but Psalm 88 reminds us that God is behind our pain.
Because we’re simple or we’re lazy or have weak stomachs, we often imagine spheres and occasions where God has stopped being the Sovereign. The Democrats won; God lost. Or, the Republicans won; God has dropped His guard here.
But Heman, whose name means Faithful, isn’t so naïve. The God of his salvation, the God who he knows could end his troubles in a half of a second, He’s the One making his life difficult. “I suffer your terrors.” (15) “Your dreadful assaults destroy me.” (16)
In thinking through God’s relationship to problems and disaster there are a lot of false paths to take: God is the Author of Sin. God’s purposes for why he does what he does are always unsophisticated and obvious, so he must be, for example, punishing Heman for a wrong. God brings pain to the evil and pleasantness to the good. Because God is sovereign over all circumstances, including evil, people are not responsible for their actions. We are to join God in whatever we believe to be his endeavor, so if God is making someone’s life difficult, we should to. We should be passive, “whatever will be, will be.”
Or we confuse faith with positivity. I just know that this bad thing will eventually go away, because God.
But one other false way is to, in your mind, erase God from the situation because there’s so much wrong with it. To not ascribe responsibility to God for what is wrong might seem like you’re helping matters, somehow protecting God, but really you have entered a region of hopelessness.
We are continually assured that God is in control of our lives, the pleasant scenes and other.
• “In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (Ps 139:16)
• Our “days are determined, and the number of his months is with you [God], and you have appointed his bounds that he cannot pass.” (Job 14:5)
• “A man’s mind plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9)
• “The hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” –Naomi in Ruth 1:13
• Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!” – Job 19:21
• “Your arrows have sunk into me/ and your hand has come down upon me.” – Psalm 38:2
• “Remove your stroke from me; I am spent by the hostility of your hand. (Psalm 39: 10)
• See now that I, even I am he, and there I no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. (Deut 32:39)
• For you cast me into the deep/ into the heart of the seas/ and the flood surrounded me/ all your waves and your billows passed over me. – Jonah 2:3
• Who has spoken and it came to pass unless the LORD commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? – Lamentations 3:37-38
• And the LORD made his people very fruitful and made them stronger than their foes. He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants. (Psalm 105:25)
• The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD (Job 1:21
• “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it”? Amos 3
• I form light and create darkness. I make well-being and create calamity. I am the LORD, who does all these things. – Isaiah 45:7
• “In God we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
This morning I don’t want to get caught in the thickets of separating God’s actions from ours, free-will etc. Rather I want to point out the robust comfort of going through your life with God, setting Him at your right hand. God in every time and in every sphere, favorable and unfavorable. And God not just as a bystander but as an Actor.
In all your ways acknowledge Him. When you experience hardship – epic or mundane – you have a choice to either believe that God is, or to proceed along practically as if He’s not. And one manifestation that you are trusting in God is that you’re able to see, behind the pain, the maneuvers of God. I see You. You’re doing this. Your waves have wrecked my life.
And yet, and yet…you still are loyal to Him.
There is, as an author has put it, a “North Face of God” where you experience persistence hardship and silence. God has brought you here.
God has given me this cold. God has made our finances short. God has allowed bad decisions to catch up with us. God has brought us into this embarrassment. God has given me the stutter. God has assigned to me an unfair teacher or boss.
Become accustomed to seeing God behind the minor difficulties of life so that you’re prepared to detect him with the major blows.
Don’t enter the hopelessness of attributing to God only the pleasant things. If you understand that God has brought you to the North Face or in the place of overwhelm you realize He is the God who can also bring you out. If things are the way they are because He is hiding His face He can once again shine His face. Just as much as He is the Lord who holds the keys of Sheol He is the God of salvation.
When you know this God in Jesus Christ, perhaps you don’t like what He’s doing; and yet on the other hand you know even more deeply that He is the God of your salvation. And by the power that raised Christ from the darkness of death, He is able to make “all things work together for good.”
He who has wounded can bandage, and He will restore, we can say confidently, by the pledge of Jesus Christ. Yes, by the pledge of Jesus Christ. On the basis of His sufferings, His going down into the darkness of death, His continual trust in the Father, His hopeless ending, so we could have hope. Don’t turn away from God. Don’t give up hope! Keep complaining to Him. Shedding tears before Him. And someday, brothers and sisters: “You will be like men that dream; and your mouth shall be filled with laughter, and your tongue with singing, and you will say, ‘The Lord hath done great things for us.’” Psalm 126
We’ll take the Lord’s Supper now. Take time now to entrust yourself to Him again:
- I know that Jesus has reconciled world to God by His death. And that death was dark and full of despair and had long moments of hopelessness. And yet it was through those terrors God was reconciling the world and making a way for me to be justified before Him.
- I believe in God through Jesus Christ. I am a baptized disciple of Jesus Christ. And even though I don’t fully understand what God is doing, I have His word which is a lamp to my feet. I trust Him a little and I want to trust Him more.
- These are my people. In my seat I want to pray for these brothers and sisters who are experiencing hardship…some of them have pain that they’re not sharing with anyone and I lift them up to you.
- Thank you, God, for this faith, this salvation, this strange encouragement within the fellowship of suffering.