Do you sometimes feel as if God isn’t interested in you? Do you experience times in your life when you face a situation of hopelessness and despair? You pray, but God doesn’t answer; your circumstances stay the same; you feel that you have come to the end of your tether. Facing darkness and despair is part of our lives. The question before us is how do we continue to live the life of faith in the midst of darkness and despair? Let us look at Psalm 88 as an answer to this question.
Psalm 88 has been called “an embarrassment to conventional faith”. What we hear in the psalm is a voice of despair, fear, and hopelessness, crying out to a silent and absent God. It is little wonder that Psalm 88 is often regarded as one of the darkest corners of the Psalter. The psalm is the desperate cry of someone who seeks to connect with God, but the sound of God’s silence explodes in his ears. The psalmist finds himself in the deepest darkness of abandonment and despair. Yet, his unanswered cry does not silence the poet. God may stay quiet, but not the psalmist. He continues to hurl his cries into an empty sky, convinced that even in the face of God’s inattention, He must still be addressed. Even when confronted with the reality of death, the poet sticks to his protest, to be met yet again with more silence. God doesn’t speak, and He doesn’t act. The poet is ignored, snubbed, shunned, and rejected. The last word he speaks is darkness. His life of faith has ended in darkness. Nothing has changed, nothing has been resolved, and life has been denied.
What should one do about this complete silence and this bottomless darkness? What is this psalm doing in the Bible? What does this psalm say about the life of faith? What should one’s response be when facing this dark night of the soul? Should one abandon God in the face of his desertion? In this article I will analyse Psalm 88 and will argue that the psalm stands as a signpost for realism in the life of faith.
God of my salvation, I cry out to You; You are to blame for my troubles (Psalm 88:2-10a)
The first section of the psalm is introduced by the lament of verse 2. The poet cries to “God, the God of my salvation”. God is thus addressed as the God of the covenant, the God who had certain responsibilities as the covenant God. The psalmist personalizes his relationship with God by referring to Him as “God of my salvation”. This address declares the hope and faith of the poet that God is able to rescue him from his crisis. By addressing God thus, the psalmist also wishes to persuade Him to act as the God of his salvation. The rest of the psalm stands in great contrast to this claim; but the poet lays the foundation that despite everything, he will cling to this hope. This expectation that God will save him is “the deepest theological basis for this psalm”. The “Thou” address of God throughout the psalm further underlines this.
Walter Brueggemann commented on the address of God as “Thou” in his book The Psalms and the life of faith: “The psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You. This is the most stunning and decisive factor in the prayers of the Psalter. Prayer is direct address to, and conversation and communion with, an agent known from a shared, treasured past”. This means that there is no vagueness, no lack of focus, in Israel’s prayers. It also means that Israel is well aware that real Life never begins with “I” but always with “Thou”.
It is obvious that the poet finds himself in the midst of a terrible crisis: He cries out to God day and night, continuously, indicating that God has not answered. The Hebrew verb for “cry out” often indicates a cry of anguish or distress (cf Pss 107:6, 28). This is no polite, softly spoken prayer, but the heart wrenching cry of someone who has reached the end of his strength. The distress he experiences is most severe. He desires that his cries should catch the ear of God and that He should pay proper attention to him. There is a tone of helplessness in the cry of the psalmist; therefore he turns to God, hoping that He would prove Himself to be the God of his salvation. In the midst of his miseries, he clings to God with desperate hope.
After the initial lament, the psalmist provides a description of his suffering (verses 4-6) followed by an accusation against God (verses 7-10a). The crisis he finds himself in is severe: in the midst of life he has been delivered to the threatening and destructive power of Sheol. He vividly describes his situation: he is sated by distress. This depiction stands in sharp contrast with what usually satisfies: a fulfilled life (cf Gen 25:8; 35:29; 1 Chr 23:1; 29:28; 2 Chr 24:15; Jb 42:17) or a special relationship with God (cf Ps 16:11). Now he has to be satisfied with troubles and misery. He is standing face to face with the ultimate darkness; his life has drawn close to Sheol (verse 4). His strength and vitality have already left him (verse 5). The Hebrew here used for man refers to man in his machismo, a strong man. The portrayal here is however, of a man who has run out of strength.
The psalmist has been set loose amongst the dead. The word “set loose” carries the meaning “free”. It is used in Exodus 21:2 of a debt slave who was to receive his freedom after six years of service. It is also used in 2 Kings 15:5 of king Uzziah, whose leprosy has caused him to live in a “house of freedom”, exempted from royal duties. Its use here in Psalm 88:6 is therefore highly ironic, but also extremely tragic. He is “free” from everything that makes life meaningful and enjoyable; he is “free” to be as good as dead. He compares himself with those who are already in their graves, and worst of all, God doesn’t remember them anymore. He has been cut off from God’s hand, no longer in his presence or even in his memories.
The last two clauses (6c-d) serve as a bridge to the accusation levelled against God in verses 7-9. Here the poet accuses God for being responsible for his distress in the face of death. God is at fault; incomprehensibly, He is blameable for the horror of death and darkness facing the psalmist. The psalmist is separated from God, and everything is dark. Why has God done this? There is no confession of sin, which indicates that God is not punishing the psalmist in righteousness. Yet He has let loose his rage on the poet, crushing him underneath waves of inexplicable fury, leaving him utterly helpless. Socially the poet has become an outcast; people are so revolted at the sight of him that they avoid him at all cost. They are not the cause of his suffering; God is, but they are appalled at the sight of the poet. He is shut in, thrown into a dark pit from which there is no escape (verse 9). His sorrow is overwhelming, pressing so hard on him that his eyes are growing dim, indicating that he is passing over into the realm of death (cf Pss 6:8, 13:4, 19:9). Eye refers here to someone’s health or vitality (cf 1 Sm 14:27, 29; Dt 34:7; Ezrah 9:8). The eyes growing dim then refers to someone losing his life force.
Questions for God (Psalm 88:10b-13)
The second section also begins with a call to God. Interestingly though, is the fact that God is now the second word of the clause, not the first, as was the case in verse 1. The severity of his plight is again emphasized temporarily with the claim that he cries out “every day” with outstretched hands. With a series of rhetorical questions, all to be answered “no”, the poet reproaches God for his irrational attitude.
The questions contrast the world of the dead with God’s actions. These actions all illustrate God’s power over life. In the netherworld, existence is without God’s wonderful deeds. This does not mean that He is incapable of doing anything in Sheol; it does not mean that He has no power there. God is sovereign there and controls who goes there and who doesn’t. He knows what goes on there and can reach into Sheol (cf Ps 139:8; Am 9:2). Yet He chooses not to do anything in Sheol. It is a terrible land of forgetfulness where no voice is raised in praising God. The living praise God; death is praiseless (cf Pss 6:6; 30:10; 115:17; Is 38:18-19). Praise and life cannot be separated. To be truly alive, one must be able to offer praise to God. God’s faithfulness is not declared in the grave, God’s righteousness is unknown there. While the psalmist is still living, his experiences are the same as those who already are in Sheol.
Only darkness is left (Psalm 88:14-19)
Although finding himself in the depths of despair, the poet is not silenced. With the silence of God’s voice roaring in his ears, the poet renews his lament in verse 14, crying out to God, seeking Him in the morning. The morning was the time for new beginnings, and the time that God was expected to demonstrate anew his faithful love to his people (cf Pss 46:6; 90:14; 143:8). The Name of God is here the third word in the clause. This is significant and I think it indicates something of the fact that the poet is experiencing God as being further and further away from him. The distance between supplicant and God grows.
With renewed desperation the poet refuses to let go of God, even though He is ignoring him. The “why” questions of verse 15 are not a quest for information, but they indicate the anxiety and fear of the poet. He has reached the end of his tether, he cannot take anymore. He cannot understand why God stays silent and snubs him. The psalmist recommences his accusations against God with another sequence of vivid images and metaphors. His suffering has been going on since his youth, he has been close to death for a long time, he is helpless under the weight of the terrors God inflicts on him (verse 16).
The poet is drowning in dark waters (verse 18). There is no one left to support him. God has driven away all his loved ones and his companions; no one is there for him; he is completely and utterly alone. He has one “friend” left: darkness. This means the absence of life, he finds himself in the realm of evil and chaos. This means the absence of God. It should however not be understood as the stoic acceptance of God’s absence and the darkness, but as a challenge to God to put an end to his irrational out-of-character behaviour and to show Himself as the God He has promised to be: the God of my salvation.
Concluding remarks: Psalm 88 and the life of faith
First, the psalm provides a good dose of realism in the face of so called faith that is very unrealistic and romantic. Life is like that. Life is unpredictable; life can be extremely harsh and filled with suffering. The psalms address all aspects of life, not just the good parts. Here in Psalm 88 faith faces life as it is. The psalm shows that the experience of darkness also has its place in the life of faith. Psalm 88 reminds us that life does not always have happy endings. Suffering and loss are part and parcel of our human existence, even for people who are devoted to God.
Second, the poet affirms that sometimes the darkness is the result of God’s inattention, and therefore the psalmist accuses God and holds Him accountable. Even then, the psalmist continues to plead his case with no-holds barred honesty. He doesn’t shirk away from confronting God, even if God stays silent.
Third, the psalm is not a psalm of mute depression. Speech continues in the psalm, God is still addressed. Even when God is unfaithful as God of salvation, even in the face of total abandonment, Israel stays faithful in its speech. Prayer should continue, even when only darkness is left, it should continue, even when God is silent, and ignoring, and irrational, prayer should still be addressed to Him. Although his prayer provides no answer, but only led to more troubling questions, the psalmist kept on praying. This is faith; the pouring out of one’s pain and hurt and bitterness and experiences of darkness and abandonment, before God, even when He doesn’t answer; even when He seems responsible for all the pain and suffering. In the face of God’s silence, the psalmist does not stay silent. The psalmist prays and keeps praying even though everything in him screams that God doesn’t care, God isn’t interested.
Fourth, the psalmist has not abandoned belief. Although Psalm 88 may appear to indicate a loss of faith, it in fact does the opposite. When one continues to speak to God when He keeps silent is an expression of bold faith. Someone who has lost his or her faith would stop praying, choosing not to address a God stays silent. Here we find the psalmist reacting to God’s silence with intense prayer.
The poet provides us with fleeting glimpses of his faith. He still speaks to God, he affirms his relationship (God of my salvation), he believes praise is the norm and wishes to return to it, he acknowledges God’s attributes (faithful love, faithfulness, righteousness, wonderful works). Rhetorically the psalm shows that it is part of believers’ life experience that they will suffer and experience abandonment and despair. The psalm moves beyond a safe pattern of lament, where there is usually something positive – a vow to praise, a confession of trust, an affirmation of God. In Psalm 88 the picture of lament, darkness, distress, desolation and despair is much clearer than any other.
I want to conclude with the words of Walter Brueggemann (in The message of the Psalms): “One has two options: either to wait in silence, or to speak it again. What one may not do is to rush to an easier psalm, or to give up on Yahweh”.