There is a red herring amidst the Psalms. Though many of the prayers and songs in the Psalter echo with cries for deliverance, pleas for rescue, and requests for vindication, they all conclude on a relatively positive note. Each one, no matter what valleys of despair they take the reader through, seems to end with a note of hope . . . except for one. Psalm eighty-eight stands alone in the fact that it not only is marked by blushingly honest appeals to God, it also is the only Psalm that does not end on a positive note. Unlike any other Psalm, its curtains close with this final declaration: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness [or darkness has become my only companion]” (Ps. 88:18). Despite believing that all Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16), the Christian may struggle to understand and apply a text like Psalm 88. However, chapter’s heading and opening verse offer both direction and hope to the wary reader.
In the ESV, the heading tells us that this Psalm is “a song, a Psalm of the sons of Korah.” In short, this sad and plaintiff song was intended to be sung in God’s presence as a song of worship! We are immediately afforded hope since we see that the lamentations of soul that follow in the verses to come are intended to be brought before the Lord. Christians are not called to a life of stone-faced stoicism; they are called to a faith that has feelings. As we move into the text itself, we must bear these things in mind in order to relish this precious, passion-filled song of prayer. Have you, as a believer, been marked by suffering? Have you struggled to know how to express your feelings to your heavenly Father? Despite knowing that he is omniscient, have you tried to hide your true feelings of frustration, anger, and hopelessness? I pray that his Psalm would serve as a model of tearful yet tenacious prayer. To that end, there are four things we need to see in this unique text:
- Passionate, Persistent Prayer is Grounded Upon Your Experience of Grace (vv. 1-2) – The opening verse is critical: “O Lord, God of my salvation.” Before launching into requests and pleas, the psalmist grounds himself upon the reality of God’s saving mercy. This was a man who had experienced both the chastening of God’s law and the comfort of God’s pardon. When darkness falls on our lives, it is imperative that we ground ourselves on the reality that we have been saved by grace through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8-9). If there is no reality of grace in one’s life, there is no comfort to be had until the work of regeneration has been done in their soul. The psalmist, however, is sure of his state before a holy God. We too should think, ponder, and relish the reality of God’s grace in our own lives so that when we drop to our knees we can confidently say, “O Lord, God of my salvation.” So long as we plant our feet on the solid Rock of Christ’s cross, we are in a safe position to open our bottle of tears and begin pouring them at his feet. The Psalmist, clinging to the grace of God, goes on to describe his behavior: “I cry out day and night before you” (v. 2). As infants, we all bellowed in our cribs until our parents heeded our call. The hour of our need was of no consequence to us – we would not be satisfied in the light or the darkness until we received comfort. It is no different for the psalmist and should not be any different for those who are united to Christ by faith. The great London preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “Evil is transformed to good when it drives us to prayer” (Treasury of David Vol. II). Our Lord warmly calls his children to incessant prayer: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who as him!” (Lk. 11:13). We ask that our prayers would gain audience with God and that he would incline himself to them (Ps. 88:2) because we are looking to and trusting in the Person and work of his beloved Son. Despite suffering, Paul could say, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim. 1:12). Likewise, the God of our salvation can be trusted to keep us from utter despair and ruin of soul – even when our circumstances seem to dictate otherwise.
- Passionate, Persistent Prayer is a Faith-Filled Exercise of Expressing Pain – Knowing and trusting the promises of God, we are free to express our deepest emotions to our Father. The psalmist openly declares to the Lord, “My soul is full of troubles” (v. 3). He is brimming with turmoil to the point that he fears that he will die. Many of God’s beloved saints have felt this way through the centuries and he is not offended to hear that they wince at the pain. The psalmist, trusting in God’s ability and willingness to save his soul, describes what he feels like (even if his feelings do not correspond to a theological reality): “I am counted among [the dead] . . . like those whom you remember no more” (vv. 4-5). Knowing that God is his rescue, these are nonetheless the feelings that he has. He is not ashamed to tell the Lord how he perceives his circumstances even if he must employ a measure of exaggeration. In verses 6-8, the psalmist makes an astounding claim: it is God who has caused him to suffer! Note the pronouns used in the beginning of each verse: “You have . . . your wrath . . . you have caused.” With such a weighty indictment, it is helpful to hear again from brother Spurgeon: “Evil from so good a hand seems evil indeed, and yet if faith could but be allowed to speak she would remind the depressed spirit that it is better to fall into the hand of the Lord than into the hands of man, and moreover she would tell the despondent heart that God never placed a Joseph in a pit without drawing him up again to fill a throne” (Ibid.). It is an act of faith and a worship that pleases the Lord when, recognizing his sovereignty over suffering, we say, “Every day I call upon you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you” (v. 9). The psalmist is not afraid to lay the charges (so to speak) at his Father’s feet. However, those very feet still bear the scars from the nails that held him to the tree for our sins. Therefore, we have confidence to kneel before him knowing that he indeed knows our pain and will work our pain for good. In light of verses 3-9, let us say with Job, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face” (Job 13:15). It is Job’s last statement that will receive attention in Psalm 88:10-12).
- Passionate, Persistent Prayer is Fueled by the Desire for the Joy of Worship – In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul tells us the aim of God’s redemptive acts toward sinners: “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6). God sent his Son to live the perfect life of obedience that his elect could not live and die a substitutionary death in their stead as a propitiation, a satisfaction of divine wrath (Rom. 3:21-26). This was done so that his character would be vindicated, his grace would be displayed, and that his redeemed would be enabled and empowered to see, savor, and praise his glory. As the Westminster divines eloquently stated, the chief end of man is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism). The psalmist, having tasted God’s grace, knows that the praise and worship of his Savior is his lifeblood, his joy. Perhaps he knew that he would enjoy unfettered worship of God in the life to come, but the psalmist focuses on his present enjoyment of God. To this end, he boldly questions the Lord “Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up and praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon [place of destruction]? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” (vv. 10-12). Feeling like his life was over, he questioned the wisdom of God in silencing someone who longs to praise him. This is bold, but it is honest. Underneath his questions is the strong current that runs in the hearts of every true believer: he longs for the joy of worshiping the God of his salvation. In our distress, we may recognize God’s sovereign control of every circumstance. When our troubles, however, rob us of the joy of worshiping God and enjoying a sense of his presence, we can come to him and ask the obvious question, “Why?” The psalmist is essentially saying, “You know I love you and will make much of your name. Why have you overwhelmed me to such a degree that I Can barely speak? Why would you stifle praise? Why would you remove a member of your choir at a time when your name should be declared? I don’t understand!” When tragedy strikes the saint whose life is otherwise marked by the joyful pursuit of God, questions naturally arise in their hearts. Psalm 88, unlike any other, enables us to give voice to our questions knowing that such an exercise can be a faith-filled act of worship.
- Passionate, Persistent Prayer Draws Upon Tomorrow’s Grace When Today is Dark – “But I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you” (v. 13). The psalmist paints a picture of pleading with God for answers in the long hours of the night and awakening to fresh grace to take up his cause. Like the man of Lamentations chapter 3 who suffered under the rod of God’s correction and guidance, we can declare: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him'” (Lam. 3:21-24). When the puffy, tearful eyes of a grieving and confused believer creak open in the morning, they are kissed with the promises of the gospel. Perhaps even while staring at the ceiling, the sorrowful saint may recite the granite promises of Romans 8 or review the glory of their Great High Priest who knows their sorrows from the Book of Hebrews. Like the psalmist, it is good to draw down fresh grace for the day before swinging our feet over the side of the bed. Held firm by the blood-bought promises of Calvary, we can press further into our pleas with the Lord: “Why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? . . . I suffer your terrors . . . your wrath has swept over me . . . They surround me like a flood” (vv. 14-17). Knowing that the object of our faith is sure and steadfast, we can pour out our hearts and say, “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness” (v. 18). If there were anyone who knew what this final verse meant, it was the Lord Jesus himself: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). As Christians, we rest in the promise that our Lord experienced the darkest night of God’s wrath so that we do not have to. Likewise, we are assured of the blessings of inheriting his reward: “And if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). We do not awaken to the threat of wrath; we awaken to the promise of glory. Therefore, we draw upon fresh mercies even when it seems that our only companion is darkness since our true companion is the Light of the world.