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Dark Nights and Days: Psalm 88

By Thomas Schreiner–


[This is a series of posts in preparation for Christmas. Read Part 1 and Part 2.]

Our Christmas theme today is joy, and yet Psalm 88 is a psalm that is totally lacking in joy. Many struggle during Christmas with discouragement and depression, especially because they have lost loved ones. Certainly parents in Newtown, Connecticut are overwhelmed with sorrow this Christmas. The writer of this Psalm obviously didn’t read the Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. And we can be sure that Psalm 88 is not the favorite passage of the word of faith movement. Too many negative thoughts!

When I was in seminary, my wife, Diane, worked with a guy who insisted that we should never say anything negative, for the negative things we say will then come true. The writer of Psalm 88 would have nothing to do with such nonsense. Remember that this Psalm was written while Israel was in exile.

If you are just now jumping into this third post, I have been working my way through portions of the 3rd book of the Psalms this Christmas season. Like the 5 books of Moses the Psalms are arranged in 5 Books.  Psalms 1-41 are in Book 1; Psalms 42-72 are in Book 2; Psalms 73-89 are in Book 3; Psalms 90-106 are in Book 4; and Psalms 107-150 are in Book 5. I have suggested that the Psalms of Book 3 represent Israel in exile. They are longing for God’s promise to restore their land and their king.

It isn’t hard to believe that Psalm 88 reflects Israel in exile, though the Psalm focuses on the experience of an individual. It is the 2nd to last Psalm in the third book and definitely the bleakest Psalm in entire Psalter. Notice how the Psalm ends. Not with confidence or joy or hope. He concludes with the words, “my companions have become darkness.” The last word of the Psalm is telling: darkness! The writer is despondent, discouraged, and depressed. Let’s look at several things troubling the writer.

Divine Sovereignty and Human Suffering

First, he is near death. We see this clearly in vv 3-6.

“For my life is full of troubles and my life draws near to Sheol [Sheol here stands for the realm of the dead]. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.”

As he says in v. 3 he is full of troubles, and in particular death is at hand. His life is ebbing away, though we don’t know exactly what is afflicting him. The peril he faces is not due to fate or chance. He assigns to God what has happened to him. He says that God put him in the depths of the pit. We see this same theme elsewhere in the Psalm. His suffering is due to the wrath of God. We read in v. 7. “Your wrath lies heavy upon me.” Or as v. 16 says, “your wrath has swept over me.”

It is so popular, even among Christians, to say when bad times come: “God doesn’t have anything to do with what is happening to you.” “God wishes he could help but his hands are tied since he gave human beings free will.” “To intervene he would have to override the free will of human beings and he would never do that.” I don’t have time to go into these matters in detail here. I can only say that the Psalmist obviously doesn’t hold this view. He thinks everything that happens to him comes from God himself.

We read in v. 7, “You [God] overwhelm me with all your waves.” His suffering is compared to the waves of the sea which continue to roll over him. And these waves, the writer says to God are “your waves.” The storm breaking over him is God’s storm. He says in v. 16 “your dreadful assaults destroy me.” What remarkable language. The assaults, the DREADFUL assaults which are destroying him are from God. He says in v. 15 to God, “I suffer from your terrors.” Or look at v. 8, “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them.” Verse 19 says the same thing, “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me.” He doesn’t just say. “My friends hate me.” He says to God, “you made my friends despise me.”

I suppose someone could respond that the writer is wrong in saying these things about God. I only have time for quick responses here. Nowhere in Psalm 88 is there any indication that the writer is mistaken. Nothing in the Psalm corrects the notion that God himself brings suffering into this man’s life. Notice also that what he writes fits with what we find everywhere in the OT.

For instance, the book of Lamentations makes it very clear that God himself brings suffering upon his people. As Lam 3:38 says, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and bad come?” Or consider, Deut 32:39,  “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me. I kill and make alive. I wound and I heal.” Death and life, good and bad come from God’s hand.

When we look at biblical teaching, we must affirm both that he is good and merciful and also that he is sovereign over everything that happens. God is not morally responsible or blameworthy for evil, and he is sovereign over all that occurs. Clearly biblical writers don’t believe in the powerless god embraced by many modern people. God’s sovereignty also gives us a reason for hope. Since God stands behind our sufferings, he can also rescue and deliver us from our sufferings. The one who strikes us can also heal us. The one who kills can also give life. So far, we have seen that the writer is near death and that his troubles come from God.

The Dark Night of the Soul

Second, consider the agony of his experience. He says in v. 7 that he is overwhelmed. The pain and anguish are more than he can take. Sometimes when difficulties strike we feel overwhelmed. It feels like more than we can take, more than we can handle as human beings. We are reminded that we are dust: all of us can be broken. In the right circumstances every one of us would beg for mercy and cry like a baby.

Solzhenitsyn says that in the gulag one form of torture was to wake someone up whenever they fell asleep. What an effective form of torture. Imagine never being able to sleep. If you think you are tough, think again. We are dust and ashes. The terrors he faces according to v. 17 surround him like a flood. They close in upon him. The walls of death are claustrophobically closing in on him, growing nearer and nearer.

We also see that his friends have abandoned him. It is hard enough to be near death, but the suffering increases when our friends forsake us. We saw these verses before but notice them again. We see in v. 8 that his companions are shunning him. God “has made me a horror to them.” We don’t know the reason why his friends are abandoning him. Maybe his sickness makes him repulsive. Or, maybe they inwardly hated him and their true feelings reveal themselves since he is near death.

Verse 19 is even more painful: his beloved and his friend turn away from him. When suffering strikes at least we gain some comfort and strength from friends. But he doesn’t have any friends. He is utterly alone in his suffering. Maybe you have felt alone in your suffering as well. What a desolate feeling if you feel that no one cares, no one is there for you. Perhaps you have lost a spouse, and what a desolate feeling that is, to lose your best friend and your confidante.

The author is near death and absolutely friendless. He is alone and lonely. His anguish has another dimension, for he is also filled with grief. He says in v. 9, “my eye grows dim with sorrow.” He is deeply discouraged and depressed. We learn from this that Christians aren’t always joyful. There are dark days and dark nights. Every day with Jesus isn’t sweeter than the day before. The writer says in v. 6 that he is in the “depths of the pit.”

If you read the Life and Diary of David Brainerd by Jonathan Edwards it is evident that Brainerd suffered from depression. It can be depressing to read about Brainerd’s depression, which Edwards called melancholy. David Brainerd loved the Lord Jesus Christ. He gave his life to spreading the gospel among Native Americans. The Lord used him in remarkable ways. But he was prone to depression and discouragement. We must not simplistically say that those who are prone to depression are bad Christians. Many of the most godly believers have suffered from deep depression.

The psalmist also faced unrelenting suffering. Another way of putting it is that it lasted a long time. We see in v. 9 that he calls out to God “every day” but he gets no answer. It seems as if God is not answering prayer. He says in v. 1, “I cry out day and night before you.” In v. 17 he says God’s terrors surround him like a flood all day long. We see in v. 13 that he prays to God every morning, and yet he finds that God casts him away in v. 14. But God’s answer to his prayers is: No. God hides his face from him. Perhaps that is the hardest thing of all. He doesn’t feel God’s presence in his suffering.

Christians have called this the dark night of the soul. Spurgeon captures what it is like to suffer when he talks about God’s rod of discipline.

“Ah! beloved, we sometimes talk about the rod, but it is one thing to see the rod, and it is another thing to feel it; and many a time have we said within ourselves, ‘If I did not feel so low spirited as I now do, I should not mind this affliction;’ and what is that but saying, ‘If I did not feel the rod I should not mind it?’ It is just how you feel, that is, after all, the pith and marrow of your affliction.”

Notice that God seems absent even though the psalmist keeps praying every morning and day and night. He is seeking God, but God isn’t there. At least he doesn’t feel he is there.

He says in v. 15 that he was afflicted and close to death from his youth onwards. It is one thing to suffer for a week or a month. It is quite another thing to suffer for years and years. That kind of suffering is the hardest to bear. For it seems as if it will never end. The prolonged nature of the suffering may make us feel useless after a while. And when suffering is unrelenting it may also feel pointless. Many older saints are in pain and unable to do much and just want to die, and yet their life lingers. But what seems pointless is really not pointless. Others are watching and observing, including angels and demons.

The book of Job teaches us that there is always a reason for suffering, even if we can’t see the reason. God is getting glory even if we can’t see how or why. We glorify God by trusting him even when we can’t do anything practical. So, we trust that God has good purposes, even when we don’t see or feel what those purposes are. The psalmist also asks why he is suffering. Wouldn’t it be better if he lived? For then he could praise God among the living.

In vv. 10-12 the psalmist asks, “Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed spirits rise up to praise you?” From the psalmist’s perspective the answer is: no. He won’t be able to praise the Lord once he dies. He is saying, “Lord, save my life so I can give you thanks in the assembly of the saints, so other believers will be encouraged by answered prayer.”

Or, consider v. 11 “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?” Again, the answer for the psalmist is: no. No one who is dead talks about the faithful love of the Lord. He makes the same point in v. 12. “Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” The answer is: of course not. It is the land of forgetfulness after all, so God’s wonders aren’t declared there. Is there any hope in this Psalm? Is there any joy? Is this psalm actually contrary to the gospel and the rest of the scriptures? Well, joy isn’t actually expressed in the Psalm. And we have to read this Psalm in light of the rest of Scripture and the remainder of the Psalms.

There is Hope!

It is no accident that Psalm 88 is followed by Psalm 89: which is one of the greatest messianic psalms. The dilemma raised in Psalm 88 is answered by Psalm 89. But there is hope in Psalm 88. A glimmer of light shines through. For despite all the things that the writer is experiencing, he still reaches out to God. Notice how the Psalm begins. “O LORD, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you; incline your ear to my cry.” There is hope for joy, because the covenant God, Yahweh is his God. In his suffering, he still confesses that the Lord is his God. And he confesses that he is the God of my salvation. He hasn’t given in to utter hopelessness. This is the darkest Psalm in the Bible, but some light shines in. He still believes God can save him. And thus he doesn’t give up. He still seeks God every day. Even though he is depressed and despondent and suffering, he doesn’t let go of God. He hangs onto him and hopes in him as the anchor of his soul. As Spurgeon says,

“God uses our suffering to make us depend on him more. I dare say the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness … If some men, that I know of could only be favoured with a month of rheumatism, it would, by God’s grace mellow them marvelously.”

“I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable … Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library.”

In the dark night of the soul, whether we feel it or not, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is with us. He will never leave us or forsake us. He is accomplishing his good purposes in our suffering. We know this because he didn’t ultimately forsake his own Son, Jesus Christ. Psalm 88, after all, also points us to Jesus. Christmas is about God becoming man. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And he entered into our suffering and sorrows.

Let’s consider how this Psalm relates to Jesus. The psalmist drew near death, but Jesus didn’t just draw near death, he actually experienced death. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. We saw the psalmist was under the wrath of God, and Jesus experienced God’s wrath as well. Even though he always did what pleased the Father, even though he was without sin, for our sake and for our salvation, he endured God’s wrath. He exclaimed from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The psalmist felt forsaken by God, but Jesus was actually forsaken by the Lord. The one who always knew sweet fellowship with God was cut off from his gracious favor. Surely, Jesus felt a great horror and anguish at being cut off from God’s love. God’s wrath swept over him. Jesus was overwhelmed by God’s waves. God’s dreadful assaults destroyed him. As Isa 53:10 says it was the will of the Lord to crush him. Or, as Ps. 88:6 says God put him in the depths of the pit. God as v. 14 says hid his face from Jesus Christ at his death. The worst thing Jesus experienced was being abandoned by God. The fellowship he always enjoyed with God was severed. That was the most difficult aspect of Jesus’ sufferings.

But there is more. Jesus was also forsaken by his friends. Remember the psalmist was shunned by his friends. He was a horror to them. But Jesus was shunned by his friends as well. All his disciples forsook him and fled. His own brothers did not support him during his ministry. One of his closet friends and disciples betrayed him. There is no suffering we have experienced which Jesus hasn’t experienced. And actually his suffering was more intense and deeper than ours. Jesus is our brother who was tempted in all things as we are, but without sin. He knew what it was to be friendless in his hour of need. He knew what it was to be alone without a human friend.

But Jesus also answered the questions the psalmist posed in vv. 10-12. The psalmist asks in v. 10 if God works wonders for the dead, if the departed rise up to praise the Lord. The life of Jesus answers that question. We know from Jesus’ resurrection that he does work wonders for the dead, that the departed rise up to praise the Lord. Those who are saved, those who know Jesus as Savior and Lord, those who rely on him for salvation will be raised to new life.

So, we can confess when someone dies in the Lord that God’s faithful love is declared in the grave and his faithfulness in Abaddon. We see God’s wonders in the darkness and his righteousness in the land of forgetfulness. The final answer to the anguish of the psalmist is in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Jesus says, because I live you will live also. We may suffer remarkably in this life. And the suffering may be long. And we may battle depression and discouragement. But God is the God of our salvation. He will deliver us.

Like the Psalmist we are to keep knocking at God’s door and pursuing him, for Jesus Christ has borne the wrath we deserved, and he has conquered death and sin by virtue of his resurrection. Weeping may last for a night but joy comes in the morning.

Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are RomansPaul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.

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