Since first writing these words, I’ve also read the poem after which this site is named – “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”. I’ve wondered if, and if so, how much, this psalm informed Hopkins’ thinking when he wrote his poem.
Psalm 88 is a psalm utterly without hope. It’s been called a psalm of despair, a cry for help in a time of despondency. It is, without doubt, the saddest of the psalms. It’s probably even darker than The Book of the Lamentations; at least there we find glimpses of hope. And certainly, reading it, as I am, in a state of near despair and almost unbearable anxiety, it contains words that speak to me in a very real way.
It’s easy to see that the psalm is in three sections. And each of these sections follows a pattern. First, there is a cry for help. Then the psalmist, Heman, tells us something of his despair, the darkness that he faced. Finally, the psalmist also tells us, in each section, that his helplessness is so awful that he will die. That is, he will die unless God answers him.
As a whole, this psalm begins in despair and it ends, quite literally, in darkness. It is shocking. And if I’m honest, it’s scared me a little. Unlike all the other psalms, this has been written by a man who sounds like he is completely without hope.
One of the frightening things about the Christian experience is that we learn just how subtle our enemy the devil is. We ought to know better, of course. Scripture warns us that our adversary goes about as an angel of light, seeking those whom he might devour. But it’s easy to forget what that actually means. Satan can use even the Word of God to attack us and to destroy our confidence in God. And when our judgement is already impaired – as it is when we are depressed and anxious – then Satan has a field day. I have come to believe that depression is the Devil’s playground. And my struggles with this psalm – what it means, why God even inspired it to be written – have brought that home.
The psalmist tells us right at the beginning that He calls out to God by day and by night. Here’s a measure of his desperation – he never stops praying. In fact, his prayers are like a wailing, piercing cry. It’s an awful picture. If we think that the picture of Hannah praying before God, mumbling and rocking in her prayers as if she was drunk, seems pitiful, then the psalmist’s prayers, here, seems soul-destroying. Endless crying out to God for help. More than that, he’s so desperate that he’s even driven to cry out that his prayers will reach God, that God will hear them. It’s almost as if the psalmist was shouting into the void,
“Look, God, can’t you at least listen to me? Even if you won’t answer me, at least listen to me!”
It’s obvious that this man believes that the heavens are as brass, that God has closed his ears to his prayers and turned His face away from his distress.
This is such a frightening place to be! So caught up in the very real and painful experiences we suffer that we pray constantly, even though we think God isn’t listening any more!
On the one hand, the psalmist can call the Lord the God of his salvation, as he does in verse 1. But on the other, he’s so convinced that his death is imminent that he almost throws down a gauntlet to God, challenging him by telling him that if he waits much longer it will be too late. After all, can God work wonders when he’s dead? Is God going to leave it so long that he will be dead and buried before God speaks words of comfort to him? (v9-12)
We can’t take the man’s suffering lightly. He’s been ill – so ill that his life has always been in danger (v15). His strength has always been sapped (4b). His illness must have been awful because his friends had shunned him (v8); you wonder whether he may have even had leprosy or a similar disease. Whatever the cause, what’s clear is that here is a man alone with his suffering and that suffering is everywhere around him. It’s as though God has abandoned him and forgotten him (v5) and condemned him, utterly alone, to the grave (v6). And he can’t see beyond God’s wrath (v7). He’s completely overwhelmed by it all.
And perhaps the most soul-destroying part of this psalm is the fact that the psalmist doesn’t believe that these things have fallen out to him by chance. He sees God’s hand in it all. And it’s only a small step from there to blaming God.
Why is this psalm in the Psalter?
Why did God inspire his servant to write such an utterly hopeless testimony?
What does God want us to make of it?
I can’t answer any of these questions with absolute certainty. But I can give three reasons why I am glad that God wants us to learn from this psalm.
First, the psalm says so much about the reality of the Christian experience. It’s possible for believers – yes, believers who are called to rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy in the face of the most awful and protracted trials – it’s possible for believers to know seasons of utter despair. Sometimes, in the providence of God, we are led through the valley of the shadow of death and we do fear evil; we do want; we don’t see still waters but are only ever overwhelmed by stormy floods; we don’t experience the restoration of our souls; and we can only think of death as an end to our suffering, not a blessed rest until we are raised to take our place – the place that the Lord has prepared for us – at that joyous table. Heman the Ezrahite is us. Heman is me, now, today. His experience is my experience. And this is a man far wiser, far more gifted, far better used by God than me. If he can suffer in this way, so can I. I don’t mean that his suffering allows me to suffer – as if it is some kind of free pass to wallow in the mire. I mean that if a man called to Heman’s service in the Temple can know the reality of such awful and prolonged suffering, then so might I. if Heman wrestled with the doubt that, while God might be the Shepherd, He’s not his shepherd, then so might I. if Heman can count the blessings of the God of salvation but not count himself among the blessed, then so might I. If Heman can profess God to be the Light that lightens the darkness, but still believe that he lives only in the shadows, then so might I. And if Heman can still call God “O Lord, the God of my salvation!” after all this, then so might I.
And this is the second point. Heman doesn’t just give us an example of suffering but an example of perseverance in suffering. Here is patience, steadfastness. Heman cried by day and he cried by night. He cried that his prayers would come before God. He wailed in his prayers. So must I! He prayed to the Lord, the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of loyal-love, covenant love, steadfast love, the God who has promised to be our God and the God of our descendants after us. That God is my God and, like Heman, I must pray to Him precisely because He is my God. Heman prayed to the God of His salvation, the God who is not only able to save but who has saved. That God is my God and His arm is not so foreshortened that it cannot save me. I must pray to Him because He is able, He is willing, to hear and to answer my prayers – in His good time. To do anything but pray, day and night, is to rob God of the glory that is due to His Name. There was no-one, nothing to rescue Heman from the totality of his experience except God. Neither is there for me.
Finally, I think it’s instructive that God not only inspired the inscripturation of this psalm but that He inspired the final compiler of the psalter to place it between Psalm 87 and Psalm 89. Psalm 87, brief as it is, is as joyfully victorious as Psalm 88 is joyless and hopeless. “Glorious things of Thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God!” Psalm 87 redounds with the reality of election – God’s sovereign choice of His people. Psalm 89, of course, is the psalm that recalls the Davidic Covenant with its glorious promise of the coming Messiah and the restoration of all things what comes with Him. Sandwiched, as it is, between these two glorious psalms, Psalm 88 is a resounding reminder that
….this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.(II Corinthians 4:17)