This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Psalms 88:1-18
Sermon prepared by Rev. Peter Slofstra, Courtice, ON
There are times when you should say nothing, when you should simply be a listening ear.
Just listening when someone is angry or upset is hard. The natural response is to become defensive, for yourself or for the person. Everything in you wants to reply in kind, to fight back somehow.
Just listening when someone is down and discouraged is also difficult. The natural response is to say something encouraging, to point out something positive. Everything in you wants to say something hopeful.
But there are times when we should stay with the feeling that is being expressed and simply be quiet and listen. Like God did when Heman the Ezrahite poured out his anguish to the Lord in Psalm 88.
The writer clearly identifies what kind of a prayer this psalm is: a cry. More accurately, it is a wail, a sob expressing a pain so deep and a despair so wide that it consumes him day and night. In his words: “Day and night I cry out before you. Turn your ear to my cry.” Ps. 88:1
As a cry of lament it is unique among the 150 psalms in the Bible “because of its gloom and unrelieved misery” (NBC, p. 507). Unlike other psalms of lament (i.e. 22 and 31), it does not resolve itself in trusting or praising God. That makes it hard to read and even harder to appreciate.
This kind of wailing cry, however, has always had a place in Israel as a legitimate expression of overwhelming pain, of deep, long-term suffering for which there is no quick fix. That’s why the Old City of Jerusalem has a wailing wall (show a picture of the Wailing Wall) where people still come not only to mourn the destruction of the Temple in the first century but also to grieve the disintegration of their national and personal dreams and hopes.
You may have been told that “big boys don’t cry.” You may have felt the need to apologize for shedding tears in church. But Psalm 88 invites us to lament, and encourages us to express our pain “when your soul is full of trouble.” (:3a) In other words, you can cry if you want to.
Why was his soul so full of trouble that he cried day and night? The psalmist grieved two losses.
First, the psalmist obviously believed that he was dying, that he was near death. Perhaps he was mortally wounded in a battle; perhaps he was deathly sick. In any case, he felt that his life was “drawing near the grave” and “set apart with the dead” (:3-5). On his deathbed, he felt “confined and unable to escape.” His “eyes were dim with grief” (:8,9). He was grieving the loss of his health.
If you have had a near death experience that put you into the Intensive Care Unit, you will know that it is a confining experience that shrinks your world to a hospital bed with rails that feel like prison bars. It’s a hard place to be; it’s an even harder place to visit. It is easy to understand that people want to stay away, afraid of the smell of a hospital and afraid of the sight of a patient in such crisis; afraid, most of all, to be reminded of their own mortality.
And that brings us to the second reason for his troubled soul: loneliness. Even his closest friends stayed away, unable or unwilling to spend time with him in his time of need. “You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them,” (Psalm 88:8), he wails in verse 8. In other words, not only was he dying; he was dying alone! He was grieving the loss of his friends.
These were his twin losses: health and friends. Imagine your life without health. Now imagine your life without your friends. Now imagine your life without both your health and your friends. How would you feel? Like the author of Psalm 88!
Loss equals grief, the grief that made his eyes dim (v.9). And grief involves stages that have been clearly and helpfully identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her famous book On Death and Dying. So well known are her insights that almost everyone now knows the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.
Three of these five stages of grief are clearly evident in Psalm 88.
Notice the anger in verses 6-9, aimed at God: “You have put me in the lowest pit” (v.6). “You have overwhelmed me with all your waves” (v.7). “You have taken from me my closest friends” (v.8). You, you, you! You put. You overwhelmed. You took. You can almost see his finger shaking angrily at the heavens; feel his body shaking with frustration at God?
Notice the desperate bargaining in verses 10-12: “Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the place of oblivion?” In other words: Come on, God. I’m ready to praise you, to declare your wonders. But I can’t do that when I’m dead. So let me live and I’ll show you what a life of worship looks like.
Finally, notice the deep depression in verses 13-18, the final six verses. It is all consuming – in the morning (v.13), all day long (v.17), in the darkness (v.18). It is constant suffering - rejection (v.14), affliction (v.15), terror (v.15), an engulfing flood (v.17). It is obsessively focused on one question: “Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (v.14) Isn’t that the most essential human cry? The question “Why?”
When you read this psalm at home you expect it to do what other psalms of laments do … shift to a note of praise; conclude on a note of hope. Take Psalm 22, for example. This psalm begins with the words Jesus quoted on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” Its lament is actually three verses longer than Psalm 88! But then, thankfully, it switches to praise. “I will declare your name to my brothers,” says Psalm 22:22. “Praise Him! God has not hidden his face but has listened to his cry for help,” say verses 23 and 24.
But Psalm 88 never lets up. Its eighteen bitter verses end with these sad, sad words: “The darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88:18).The writer of this psalm appeared to be light years away from the final stage: acceptance.
How are we to take such a consistently depressing psalm? What can we possibly take away from it that will help us in our own lives?
It helps to remember what James Schaap says about the psalms in his new book, Sixty at Sixty, (show a picture of the cover of Schaap’s book), a book of musings for aging baby boomers on sixty psalms and six decades of life. In it he writes, "What is so wonderful about the psalms is the kind of companionship they offer. There is a rainbow of human emotion in the psalms. The psalms help you realize that no matter what happens, other people have been through this. The psalms are an incredible benefit to the human soul."
For those of us who are depressed ourselves or chronically ill, who feel as if we’re dying physically, spiritually or emotionally, Psalm 88 can speak for us, and give us permission to tell God how we really feel. Even if we only feel this way occasionally, it helps to know that it’s okay, that it’s not wrong or sinful to lament. Sometimes life just sucks. Sometimes life just terrifies. Sometimes you just want to scream in anger or fear like Edvard Munch did in his famous painting, The Scream, (show a picture of The Scream) when he saw a sky turned red by a volcanic eruption and seemed to hear, and I quote, “an infinite scream passing through nature.” God won’t stop you from screaming or wailing if you need to. He invites you to express it as an important colour, albeit it dark, in the spectrum of human emotions
For those of us who have depressed and chronically afflicted people in our lives, this psalm reminds us that there are times when people need to vent and lament and just be heard. In fact, it is freeing for potential comforters to remember that if it’s good enough for God just to be quiet and listen, then it’s good for us to just be quiet and listen, too. And people who feel the way the psalmist felt will tell you that one of the best gifts you can give to fellow sufferers is a listening ear.
What do sad, grieving people not need? They don’t need explanations for what we think is wrong in their lives. They don’t need solutions for what we perceive to be their problems. They don’t need condescending advice based on what worked for us in a very different situation. They don’t need impatience with their slow progress or even backsliding. And they don’t need relentless optimism, which only makes their despair feel worse.
Psalm 88, properly understood, is very freeing for sufferers and comforters alike. The sufferer is reassured that it is okay to express these kinds of feelings, to others and to God. And the comforter is reassured that it is okay to just listen, without the pressure of having to fix something or say something profound. If we can remember that, we won’t be so afraid to visit someone in a hospital or to comfort someone in a funeral home or to run into a sad or depressed person and ask, “How are you? Really?”
Is there nothing hopeful in this long, relentless lament? Not at all! So then, where’s the hope?
First, the psalmist’s cry is a prayer seeking God’s help. The writer may have been extremely depressed by life, disappointed in people, despairing of God. But his faith is shown by the fact that he is still a man of prayer. The psalm may be full of crisis; but it is also full of faith. Heman and God are still talking. That’s very hopeful indeed.
The other hopeful thing is the ending that this psalm begs. Like a tragic play or a “film noir” that fails to deliver a happy ending, it pushes us to search for what is missing or to celebrate what we have. The darkness may be Heman’s closest friend, but it makes us want to find a friend who is all light, or celebrate the Friend who is The Light. The psalm’s dark ending begs a bright new beginning in Christ.
Therein lies this dismal psalm’s greatest power and ultimate reason for being in the Psalter. In showing us what it is like, as the apostle Paul says, “to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope,” it opens our hearts to finding hope, comfort, strength and joy in the belief that “Jesus died and rose again” (I Thess. 4:13,14).
In conclusion: Like the blues, expressing the singer’s personal woes in a melancholic minor key, Psalm 88 offers the reader a cathartic release that allows us to articulate our own pain or identify with someone else’s suffering and feel better in the process. Psalm 88 also reminds potential comforters that what hurting people need more than anything is exactly what God offers: a listening ear. Finally, Psalm 88 with its dark ending points us to a bright new beginning: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Colossians 1:27
For all of these reasons, this prayer of lament should not be skipped even though it is tough reading. As an authentic expression of suffering in our broken world, it has the power to drive us into God’s arms, into each other’s hearts, and into a living relationship with Jesus Christ.
If or when you can relate to the pain and grief verbalized in this biblical wail, let it drive YOU to the One who is all ears.
This message is meant for a service of lament. The songs should address pain while pointing us beyond our suffering to our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
1. From the psalter hymnal:
- There Is A Balm in Gilead (PH 494)
- Precious Lord, Take My Hand (PH 495)
- Blessed Assurance (PH 490)
- He Leadeth Me (PH 452)
- Lord, Listen To Your Children Praying (PH 625)
2. From contemporary Christian music
- Hungry, by Kathryn Scott
- Trading My Sorrows, Darrell Evans
- Blessed Be Your Name, Matt and Beth Redman