Life is painful and stressful. To different degrees, we all have experienced anxiety and sorrow. But because these things can be difficult to engage with, we often avoid dealing with them. I know this is true not only because of my experience as a biblical counsellor but also because it is my own tendency! When life becomes too much, avoiding reality and escaping into distractions can become very tempting.
That is why I have found Psalm 88 so helpful. Psalm 88 teaches us how to keep going when life becomes too much. If we’ve ever felt mgowo, then Psalm 88 is a prayer that we must learn to pray. There is no sadder prayer in the Psalter, but there is wisdom for us here. It is a psalm about Jesus, and it is a psalm about our lives. The words of Psalm 88 are for us to know and use.
So take a look at the psalm (try to read it now in your Bible), and let’s think about how these words can be put to use in our lives.
In the first 9 verses Heman explains how he feels, and he tells us that his experience of life is that it is without light. His life is like a living death: his description is permeated with images of death and darkness; of social isolation, psychological anguish, and spiritual forsakenness. The picture I envisaged from meditating on this description was of a ship in a brutal storm. As the waves continually beat against the ship, it becomes overwhelmed and it slowly but inexorably goes down—down to the darkest depths of the ocean. Heman is saying, this is what is happening to me—I am drowning.
Because of our tendency to avoid dealing with pain, it is important for us to reflect on Heman’s description and see if it connects with us. We need to look at his fear, his despair, his confusion—and like him, we need to bring those things to God. We need to talk to God about our sorrows, our hopelessness, and our pain.
Can you do that? What does it sound like, for you?
Praying and Asking
Heman has become my hero because after cataloguing his pain to God, he continues to seek God! In verse 9b he says, “I call to you, Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to you.” Despite being in such pain and sorrow, Heman keeps praying. He models perseverance even in the midst of depression and suffering.
But things get even more intense. Because as we continue to read the psalm, we see that Heman’s cry for help in verse 13 becomes a cry for explanation in verse 14: “I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?”
Heman is honest. And his honesty encourages our honesty. So what does your praying and asking sound like?
Waiting on God
As we approach the end of the psalm, we realize that Heman is not going to get an answer. Even the final verse ends without resolution. The Hebrew poetry in verse 18 is fractured, so that we might render the verse: “You have taken from me friend and neighbour, those who know me; oh, darkness!” The final word is a despairing cry. The fractured poetry is probably meant to point to the fractured state the psalmist finds himself in. The poetry is shattered, and he is shattered too. He ends on a note of sorrow because, right now, he has no praise to offer. He stops, and he waits. He waits for the God of his salvation (verse 1) to arrive. And sometimes it is enough to wait. We often mouth platitudes that we don’t really mean. But it is better to wait, even as we live with the possibility of unrelieved suffering.
This psalm is difficult for us to process. Because I want a quick-fix, an easy solution. But this psalm slows me down, teaching me that there can be long seasons of waiting, and in those seasons of waiting, I will only persevere through the sorrow by continuing to pray.
Finally, it would be remiss of us to end our reflection on this psalm without thinking about the One who ultimately sang it. This song of pain was composed for Jesus; it is His song before it is ours. We know that Jesus took the ultimate darkness of God’s wrath, for us. In our pain and depression, we may feel that God has abandoned us—but he hasn’t. Because Jesus went into the deepest darkness for us, God the Father will now always be with us in whatever darkness we face. And so our Father is with us, even when we can’t feel him. He is with us in the difficulty, so we can talk to him, and we can wait for him—persevering through sorrow by continuing to pray.
Questions for Reflection
- How was Psalm 88 fulfilled in the life of Jesus?
- How can you apply Psalm 88 to your own life?
- How do you think Jesus can relate to you in the midst of your pain, anxiety, and suffering?