Psalm 88: An Honest Psalm of Despair

Do me a favor and please read Psalm 88.

Psalm 88 is a gut-wrenching prayer of anguish. No wonder it’s considered the saddest psalm in all the psalms! The psalmist, Heman the Ezrahite, from the looks of it doesn’t offer up hope of God restoring him. It doesn’t appear that he will sing of God’s hand relenting from this pain and suffering. And never once does he find peace and comfort for in his eyes there IS no peace and comfort! His whole life has been full of suffering, terror, and the wrath of God. As you read this psalm you’re hit with just how sad this man is. They had friends, but feel God has taken them away and turned them against him. They call out to God all day long with outspread arms and hands…and nothing happens. And it is in this foresakenness, this depth of despair and grief, that they begin to wonder…

– God…is your love in the grave? (11)

– Is your faithfulness destruction? (11)

– Do you work in the darkness of evil? (12)

– What have I done to be rejected by you? (14)

– What have I done to deserve your wrath? (16)

Psalms like this are really hard to navigate through. On one hand we simply don’t know anything about Heman (we see his name mentioned in 1 Kings 4:31) except that he was “wise” and obviously in a lot of pain and anguish. We could try to assume things but that gets us nowhere really fast. All we “know” is that this psalm is personal and full of anguish and painful to read (at least it is for me). I have never felt abandoned or forsaken or so lonely and full of grief that I tossed it all at God and blamed him. I have never been in a dark place where all of my being cried out in lament to God for where I was and what was happening to me. And as we read this psalm we have a bit of a “Job-feeling” as both Job and Heman the Ezrahite are in the same place and space. They are afflicted, tormented, and blame God. Maybe God is to blame and maybe he isn’t. But is it fair or right for us to try to correct Heman?

There are two things I think we need to see when we read texts like this. First, and I’ve said it a few times, we need to allow the writer to be themselves. That is, if they are feeling like God has forsaken and abandoned them then we need to allow that to be. I am not “Heman the Ezrahite” so no matter how much I want to yell and shout that God doesn’t forsaken, God doesn’t abandon, God’s wonders are not in the darkness, he doesn’t declare the grave, and his faithfulness is not destruction – it’s not my place and space to say it. This is Heman’s psalm – not Kelly’s. So we must allow the writer to have their authentic lament to God.

This then leads into the second point: BECAUSE this is their lament we need to actually see what they say and pick up on their other queues. What I mean is, for all the despair and grief we read there is also hope here. We read in verse 1 that they call out to God as their “salvation” and their hope. He knows that God is his hope, that God is his salvation, that in his prayer it will come to God and be before him. So for all the pain and anguish, for all the despair and grief, for all the loneliness and questioning as to why this all is happening to them, they still declare that God can save. They still cry out TO God. God IS the one who saves him for verse 1 says, “God of my salvation…” This is an active hopeful word. Which means there is trust in what God is ultimately doing and hope for that salvation that will one day fall upon him.

Often times our present condition (afflictions included) weigh heavy upon our hearts as they consume every ounce of us. And this is especially so when physical, mental, and spiritual strains are placed upon our lives. We don’t know what’s going on or why. We don’t know what God is doing and all we can think about is this moment, this pain, these feelings. And what’s interesting is that we often times blame God or cry out to God in wonder of why he is allowing it to happen to us – and yet it is in that space that we know that God saves us as well. I’m not going to belittle what Heman was going through because I cannot empathize or sympathize with him. I’m sure there are people who are reading this who can understand his place and space of anger, grief, lament, pain, and suffering…but I can’t. But what I can do is wholeheartedly agree that these feelings are real (I’ve talked to enough people in this space to know that it is a reality for some) and I can wholeheartedly agree that it is God who saves. So while I cannot feel what he feels, I can agree with him.

The peace of our relationship with God is that while we know we can be as authentic in our relationship with him as we need, we also know that regardless of where we are our salvation is held firmly in his hands. “Saving” doesn’t happen because we deserve it, it happens because we need it. Saving doesn’t come upon us only when we say nice words or gaze dreamily to the heavens at God and always have a smile for him. We don’t have to painfully smile through our suffering, hold back our tears, or push aside our anguish and questions of God and his work. Our relationship with God, our prayers to God, can be all over the place and should be. We can be angry, we can be hopeful, we can be joyful, and we can question what he’s doing. And regardless of the place we are in or the season of our emotions – God still listens to our needs and responds.

Why God does what he does and why he allows what he allows, those questions will eventually be answered in their own time. But until then we take comfort in knowing that no matter where we are or what we are going through we can share those feelings with God – and he welcomes them.

Psalm 88 is a beautiful reminder for you and I to simply be authentic and honest with God in how we feel and what we need. It’s called a “relationship” for a reason.

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