Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Saddest Psalm (Psalm 88)

When we come to Psalm 88 we have reached the nadir of human sorrow and suffering. It seems that the psalmist here ransacks the vocabulary of gloom and bitterness to describe his hopeless plight. His is definitely a terminal case, he feels—as if he were on the critical list in the isolation ward of a hospital for incurables. The only thing left is the morgue, and it is only a matter of time before the sheet will be drawn over his face and he will be carted away.

Psalm 88:1-2 The only bright spot in the Psalm is the name of God with which it begins—“O LORD, God of my salvation.” Gaebelein calls it the one ray of light that struggles through the gloom, the star that pierces the thick midnight darkness.

But immediately the writer launches into a mournful description of his desperate predicament. Day and night he has been crying to the Lord, but still no relief. When will God break the impasse by hearing his prayer and doing something about it?

Psalm 88:3–7 His life is one seething mass of troubles, and he is moving irresistibly toward death and the grave. He has been given up for dead—already counted as a casualty. Any strength he had has ebbed away. Now he is adrift among the dead, like an unconscious soldier on a corpse-strewn battlefield, or like a war victim buried with others in a common grave. He feels that he is forgotten by God and thus cut off from any hope of divine help. Like a captive consigned to a dungeon, so he has been abandoned by God to the lowest pit, to the chamber of horrors, dark and ominous. There can be only one explanation, he feels: God is angry with him and he is being submerged by the mountainous waves of divine judgment.

Psalm 88:8-9 His acquaintances have forsaken him as if he were a leper. They treat him as if he were some hideous apparition or “as a thing accursed” (Knox). He is shut up in a cell from which there is no escape. His eyes, once bright and full of expression, have lost all their sparkle. And prayer seems unavailing. Daily he cries to the LORD with his hands raised in earnest entreaty, but nothing happens.

Psalm 88:10 Then in a series of questions he challenges God to tell what good would come to Him from the psalmist’s death. The questions reveal the imperfect knowledge which OT saints had concerning death and the hereafter, and make us unceasingly grateful for the assurance that to die is to be with Christ which is far better (Phil. 1:23). Here then are the questions:

Does God work wonders for those who have died? The implied answer is “No.” To a Jew living under law, death was a perplexing region of oblivion where nothing constructive ever happens.

Do the “shades” arise to praise Him? Those who have departed are regarded as ghost-like shadows that have no way of praising the Lord.

Psalm 88:11-12 Is God’s steadfast love declared in the grave or His faithfulness in Abaddon, the place of destruction?

Since it was believed that no action or speech was possible in the grey, grim, dusty halls of Sheol, it was surely in God’s own interests to keep alive as long as possible those whose earnest praises were always pleasing to Himself.

Psalm 88:13–18 As if with renewed intensity, the psalmist pleads with the LORD. As surely as he lives, every morning hears his passionate prayer. He expresses utter perplexity that God should so completely abandon him and hold back any look of pity or of favor. From his youth his life had been an uninterrupted story of suffering and dying. Now in the vortex of the divine terrors, he is distraught and helpless. God’s fierce wrath has overwhelmed him like a tidal wave, and His terrors have left him speechless. The furious flood is encircling and unremitting; the waves close in on him in one united assault. It is as if God has caused loved one and friend to forsake him. His only companion is darkness.

And so ends the saddest Psalm. If we wonder why it is in the Bible, we might listen to the testimony of J. N. Darby. He said that at one time this was the only Scripture that was any help to him because he saw that someone had been as low as that before him. Clarke quotes an unknown source: “There is only one Psalm like this in the Bible to intimate the rareness of the experience, but there is one to assure the most desperately afflicted that God will not forsake him.”

Psalm 88 contains grievous lamentations, poured forth by its inspired writer who is under severe affliction. He has been driven nearly to the point of despair. Some think he had leprosy and penned this psalm while in isolation. Others think he was a prisoner shut away in the darkness, or a slave in chains. Whatever the circumstance, it is clear the author was overwhelmed with fear and dread like never before in his life. Yet, while struggling with sorrow, he revealed the steadfastness of his faith, which he displayed in calling upon God to deliver him even when he was in the deep darkness of death.

John Calvin asked how the psalmist’s doubt agreed with true faith. He answered his own question, saying, “It is true that when the heart is in perplexity and doubt, or rather is tossed hither and thither, faith seems to be swallowed up. But experience teaches us, that faith, while it fluctuates amidst these agitations, continues to rise again from time to time, so as not to be overwhelmed; and if at any time it is at the point of being stifled, it is nevertheless sheltered and cherished, for though the tempests may become violent, it shields itself from them by reflecting that God continues faithful, and never disappoints or forsakes His own children.” When we have fears, Christ Himself strengthens our faith and gives us the ability to call out to Him for help and comfort.