Descending to the Depths
A year ago, I was in a chapel at a Christian university and the president walked up to the podium to make an announcement at the beginning of the service. A recent alumnus of this school had gone missing in the community and the president presented the news that her body had been found in a nearby park, the victim of a self-inflicted wound. The president asked us all to stand for two minutes in silence to mourn her death and honour her memory, and then he ended the time with prayer. As the president departed, the campus worship team led us in praise songs to God. I was standing near our daughter, who is a musician, and I whispered into her ear that this was not right. The exiled psalmist in Psalm 137 asked the question, “How can we sing the songs of praise in a foreign land?” Translated into our context, this question could be loosely translated, “How can we sing the songs of praise after news like this?” To do so somehow amounts to a denial of reality. God never intended for us to be unreal people. When we are suffering torment in our hearts, and we express with our lips that everything is fine, we are lying to the One who knows our hearts.
God in His wisdom has provided a way for His people to express their grief in the book of Psalms, although the Old Testament remains a closed book for many in the church. The need for an outlet for our grief is an essential part of human nature. The failure to come to grips with this reality in the church partly explains the popularity of the controversial novel, The Shack, by William P. Young—not only in the church but in the wider culture (see note 1). The shack is a metaphor for where we keep the darkness in our lives, the garbage and the sin. Everyone has their shack; very few will admit it. But the amazing thing that Young communicates in his fiction story is that it is in the shack, the place of pain, grief, sin—the depths of human existence—that God often shows up. Indeed the psalmists often cry from the depths (see note 2) and David even believes that God is actually with him in the depths (see note 3).
The Psalms and the King of the Blues
The book of Psalms is a book of praises but ironically it contains many more laments than hymns. This means that the psalmists sing the blues more than they sing the praise songs. I went to a B. B. King concert about ten years ago with our son, Nathan, and there we heard the “King of the Blues.” One of his songs goes as follows:
The thrill is gone,
The thrill is gone away.
The thrill is gone baby,
The thrill is gone away.
You know you done me wrong baby,
And you’ll be sorry someday.
It does not take long to get the point of this song. King David might be called the “King of the Blues” in ancient Israel, as far as the Bible is concerned. The Blues deal with the griefs, the pains, the sorrows, the hurts—the depths of life. In fact one influential study of the psalms is entitled, Out of the Depths, based on Psalm 130, where the psalmist has sunk into the deep waters of sin and guilt and is drowning (see note 4). But he knows that he can call out to God because “with you is forgiveness in order that you may be held in awe”(see note 5).
The prominence of the lament genre in the Psalms shows that the psalmists often had troubles, and there was a frank recognition that believers were going to have many hardships and thus tools were provided to help them during these difficult times. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “I only pray when I’m in trouble but I’m in trouble all the time so I pray all the time”(see note 6). Like Singer—like us—David was often in a lot of trouble. He and his fellow psalmists had a specific repertoire, a particular language to use during the experience of suffering: it is the language of lament. But as I mentioned earlier, it is a language lost in the contemporary church. A Canadian theologian has recently written a book in which he laments the loss of a particular type of lament, Protest against God: The Eclipse of a Biblical Tradition (see note 7). Others have written about the unreality of faith (see note 8) when the lament has become obsolete in a syrupy faith where people are told that their best life is now (see note 9). Thus huge segments of our lives become irrelevant to our faith, and we even feel guilty about our lives when we experience difficulties, thinking that we should be insulated from these precisely because of our faith. As a result, we keep God from the shacks in our lives which are so very real. Secondly, we accept a distorted theology of triumphalism in which there is no place for suffering except as a result of our own personal moral failures. Thirdly we can accept a very passive relationship with God which becomes like the hyper-Calvinist who fell down the stairs and said, “I’m glad that’s over with!”
The laments in the psalter often have a definite structure (see note 10). They call out to God by naming Him (invocation), and they describe their complaint: drowning, or sickness, or guilt, or persecution by an enemy, or even God’s wrath. This often is done in generic language so that many others can identify with the psalmist. Then, there is a confidence in God, when the psalmist recalls God’s mighty acts. There also might be an assertion of innocence or admission of guilt, and sometimes there is a curse on enemies. The psalmist also petitions God to get him out of the mess in which he finds himself. And often by the end of the psalm there is a confession of praise, as the psalmist praises God from his black hole of suffering. Many scholars think that this confession of praise has been stimulated by a word that a priest had given to the psalmist during his complaint (see note 11).
The Language of Lament
The two most common words in the psalter are “help” and “hear”! The two most common questions are “how long?” and “why?”. These prayers are urgent! God needs to intervene fast because the psalmist is losing hope. This emergency situation explains the frequent use of the imperatives. Have you ever been drowning? Have you ever needed immediate help? What do you say? When the answers don’t come, then the questions begin to press. The first might be, “how long?” but then it often becomes “why?”. Frederick Nietszche once remarked that a person can handle any “what” if they have the answer to a “why. “ But consider the language of the laments: In the midst of lamenting the persecution of his son, David says,
How many are my enemies!
Many are rising up against me!
Many are saying, “even God cannot help him!”(see note 12)
You can actually feel the mounting threat of death as each sentence increases in length. For the most part the language of the laments is generic so that virtually everyone can identify with the situation:
O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long? I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; (see note 13)
For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me (see note 14).
This is clearly the language of suffering, but also it is the language which can help identification with the victim: Have you ever been drowning? Have you ever been cast into a deep pit without any way out? Have you ever been weighed down with a ton of sin and guilt that is crushing the life out of you? Have you ever felt as if there is absolutely no light at the end of the tunnel and that your closest friend is the darkness itself? All these descriptions of life are found in the psalms. With this variety of language, the hearer and worshipper are provided with a description of pain that can fit many situations. And since the book of psalms is about worship, this is nothing if not an invitation to bring your pain to the throne of God.
Why is this important? First, it is important to name a problem before it will ever be solved. The psalmists tell us to do that and if you lack a name for it, you can find it here! It is no wonder that Jean Calvin writes about the Psalms:
I have been accustomed to call this book, “An Anatomy of All Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short all the distracting emotions with which we are agitated…(see note 15)
Second, these descriptions make us very much aware of our need for God if we didn’t already realize it. Again, take to heart the words of Calvin:
Genuine and earnest prayer proceeds first from a sense of our own need and next from faith in the promises of God. It is by perusing these inspired compositions, that we will be most effectually awakened to a sense of our sicknesses and at the same time instructed in seeking remedies for our cure (see note 16).
Third, these psalms let us know that not only do we have a God with Whom we can be frankly honest, but a God who is also with us in the darkness. There is nothing that is hidden from Him, so why should we try to pretend that our situation is different than what it actually is? This language in a sense gives us the freedom to pray, not as we think we ought to pray, but as we actually are.
Psalm 88: The Lament of all Laments
Psalm 88 is an extreme form of the Lament as it contains only a few elements of the traditional genre: the invocation of God’s name, the description of the complaint and the cry to God for help. Moreover, the description of the complaint is so powerful that it seems to overwhelm the entire psalm. The psalm is divided into three stanzas: 1–9a; 9b–12; 13–18. Each stanza functions as a further descent into the darkness until the psalmist reaches rock bottom. We don’t know exactly what the psalmist’s problem was except that it had driven him into the pit of deep despair. Many in his community believed that he was already as good as dead, and he almost believed that too.
1. A Cry from the Depths (1:1–9a)
Each of the stanzas opens with a cry to God. The psalmist cries out to Yahweh, whom he calls “the God who saves me. “ This is the key word of the psalm—salvation, help, deliverance. It is the word from which we get the word Jesus: Yeshua. The psalmist has found God’s address—His name! But it seems as if no one is home! We notice immediately the desperate cry of the psalmist. He has been calling out day and night without an answer and he desperately needs one (1b). His life is satiated with troubles (v. 3). In the same way someone has gotten their fill of good food and is completely satisfied, the psalmist is satiated with pain. His life draws near to death and this becomes the key motif for the next three verses (vv. 3b–6), as the psalmist indicates that he is considered as dead already by his community (v. 5). The word “set apart,” actually means “free” but here it means “free from responsibilities” since he is considered dead. Moreover, the land of the dead is a place where people are cut off from God’s hand since there is no use praying for the dead (see note 17). There is then a description of his descent down to the deepest pit, the dark places and then the depths (v. 6). Then the psalmist simply speaks to God and tells Him that he is suffering because of divine wrath and that he has become a social leper as his friends even seem to avoid him because he is a persona non grata (7–9a).
2. Desperate Questions from the Depths (9b–12)
By implication, this stanza is almost a last resort type of plea for God to save the sufferer, a sort of “Hail Mary” pass in football. Here the psalmist addresses God with six rhetorical questions. If the psalmist is dying and almost dead, the worst form of death will be to be cut off from Yahweh’s reach. This is what death seems to mean (v. 10). The psalmist needs a miracle but he knows that God had better hurry before it is too late.
I have a friend who lives near a cemetery and a few months ago I finally asked him what it is like to live there. Without hesitating he said, “very quiet.” Corpses in the cemeteries do not sing the praises of Yahweh. The psalmist believes that if he is dead he will no longer be able to praise Yahweh, but that more gravely, he will be beyond the reach of God’s love—His ḥesed and His faithfulness—these are the two fundamental qualities that define God in the Old Testament (v. 11). God’s ḥesed is better than life itself (see note 18). This is a word that signifies the practical expression of help to someone who is in need. It is not a “feel-good” type of love which is here one minute and gone the next, but a loyal love that is around for the long haul and will help us particularly when we need it and can’t help ourselves. It is the key word which provides the “glue” for the covenant God made with Israel. Finally, the psalmist questions whether God’s power can reach beyond the world of the living to the world of the dead (v. 12).
These rhetorical questions are a way of arguing to get God to act now as a last resort! Why? It’s obvious. The psalmist is going to be soon cut off from this experience of God’s ḥesed and faithfulness and consequently, praising Him in response. One might think that the psalmist is bartering with God and in a sense it is true: “Lord help me because you are soon going to lose a member in your choir!” But also perhaps the psalmist—when he is absolutely desperate and dangling over the precipice—is finally able to see what the true purpose of life is, i. e. to praise and to live in relationship with God. Samuel Johnson once said, “The hangman’s noose wonderfully concentrates the mind!”
3. Alone in the Deep Darkness of the Wrath of God (vv. 13–18)
The final stanza plummets to the depths of the psalmist’s torment. He cries out again and we learn that his pain has not been the result of a momentary affliction, but he has been suffering for a long time (v. 15). But now come the “Why” questions: Why do You reject me? Why do You hide Your face from me? (v. 14). The psalmist cannot understand why God is treating him so harshly. Like Job, he is overwhelmed with agony, immersed in it, and can’t see any way out. He accuses God of doing this: I have borne Your terrors… Your wrath has swept over me… Your terrors have destroyed me… You have taken away friend and neighbour (vv. 15b–18a). The final words of the psalm picture the tragic plight of the psalmist as he is enveloped in the wrath of God: My closest friend is darkness (v. 18). The psalmist has hit rock bottom.
Learning from Psalm 88
A) Worship in Suffering: What can we learn from this psalm? Why is it here? Perhaps it is here to make us aware that there is a place for suffering like this in worship. A friend told me recently about a person he knows who is going through a marriage separation. He does not want to come to church even though he is in incredible pain. His reason: everyone there seems to have their life “together” and he would consequently feel out of place. Another person I know, suffering from cancer, came to church and was told by the leadership that she needed more faith to be healed from her disease. It makes me wonder if Psalm 88 has been ripped out of the Bible of many people. This psalm tells us that we can bring our darkness to church and offer it to God as an act of worship. Someone has already gone before us into the Israelite community of worship with such pain. This psalm is living proof!
B) Honesty: This psalm shows that it is all right to question God. Luther once said that God values the curses of the damned more than the platitudes of the pious. God is big enough to handle our complaints and accusations and woes. This is a relationship and God wants our honest feelings. When Frederich von Bodelschwingh lost four children in less than two weeks, he took his pain directly to God, not talking about God, but taking his darkness directly to God. In this he followed his Saviour who in the worst moment of His life, cried out “My God! My God, Why have you forsaken me?” (see note 19).
C) Endurance: This psalm shows the endurance of the psalmist’s faith—he sticks with God through the difficulties and through the horrors. He won’t let God off the hook: He comes to Him “day and night” in verse 1, “every day” in verse 9, “in the morning” in verse 13, and “from my youth” in verse 15. He never gives up and is a good example to us, even when there seems to be no answer. We need to keep knocking on heaven’s door. I have a friend who has been suffering with trigeminal neuralgia—the “suicide disease”—which exhibits incredible pain in the side of his face and it is a psalm like this one that helps him survive.
D) Empathy: I think it is helpful to pray this psalm even if we are not suffering. We may not be suffering but we are surrounded by people who are. All we have to do is read the newspapers: whether it is the hundreds of Korean parents who have lost their children to the capsizing of a ferry, or the hundreds of Nigerian parents who have had their children kidnapped by a terrorist sect, or the thousands of relatives of the victims of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, we are surrounded by suffering. Praying this psalm helps us to weep with those who weep and helps open our eyes to the suffering and pain all around us.
E) Hope: I mentioned that many scholars think that there is no confidence in
God and praise in this psalm as it differs from the structure of the lament. But I think that the name of God defines everything in this psalm. And what a name it is: “the God of my salvation” (v. 1). The psalmist has no idea at this point of what he is saying—only that salvation and help define this God: this is his confidence. Little does he know that this God who seems so far away from his darkness and situation has not left him. This psalm is now in the context of the psalter and it follows one of the greatest psalms of salvation in the psalter: Psalm 87, which speaks of Zion as the place where all the people of the nations will experience a new birth. But perhaps Psalm 88 is saying that before that salvation day arrives someone will also have to come who must experience terrible abandonment by God. Thus the suffering of the psalmist is an analogy or type of terrible suffering that will someday happen to someone who will bring about a great salvation for the world.
Such a Suffering Servant finally comes, the New Testament says, in Jesus Christ, when God Himself entered the darkness and suffered there, crying from the darkness of the cross, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” In Jesus Christ, God plummeted to the depth of which Psalm 88 is only a shadow, a depth no other could ever imagine. On the cross, Jesus bore the ultimate wrath of God and the deepest darkness so that we would never have to experience such an abandonment. Even the psalmist’s rhetorical questions now have a different answer: Will your ḥesed be declared in the grave? Your faithfulness in the pit? The empty tomb rings with affirmation, “yes indeed!”
F) Lament: A Love Song: In his book, Lament for a Son, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff writes about his own grief for the death of his son in a mountain climbing accident (see note 20). In the process of wrestling with God in the months and years that followed the tragic accident, Wolterstorff came to the realization that the practice of genuine lament has been lost in the Christian church. But, as he learned through a friend, this loss has been so tragic because every lament is really a love song, a type of gift that has been offered to God. To cry out in grief over the loss of his son to God is not only an act of love for his son, but also an act of love for God. It is an expression of genuine and deep worship, a willingness to take all our wounds to God, even when they are fresh and still bleeding. In a lament, we take seriously the life which we have been given and grieve for the hole which has been ripped through it and we bring it to God for repair.
A Light in a Dark Place
Near the end of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of his magisterial trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, there is a poignant scene. As the motley group of characters is about to leave on their fateful mission to save Middle Earth, the elven queen, Galadriel, appears and gives each member a parting gift. None is aware of the horrific dangers ahead. The protagonist, Frodo, who is carrying the burden of the Ring, is given the final gift suited to his particular task. The beautiful queen presents to him an extremely valuable crystal jar containing the Light of Eärendil. Unknown to Frodo himself, this light is directly descended from the light of Iluvatar, the name of God given by Tolkien in the foundational creation story of his entire mythology. “May it be to you a light in dark places,” Galadriel remarks, “when all other lights go out” (see note 21). It is this precious gift, one directly (and indirectly) given by God, that will help Frodo navigate his way among the dangers that lurk ahead in the darkest of nights on his momentous mission.
I like to think that Psalm 88 is a similar kind of gift to each believer, in particular because Jesus Christ made it His own for us: it is a light for a dark place when all other lights go out.
Stephen Dempster is Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University.
1 William P. Young, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity (Newbury Park: Windblown Media, 2007).
2 For example, Ps. 130.
3 Ps 139.
4 Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, Revised and Expanded (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983).
5 Psalm 130:4.
6 Eugene H. Peterson, First and Second Samuel (Nashville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 210.
7 William S. Morrow, Protest Against God: The Eclipse of a Biblical Tradition (Sheffield England: Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd, 2007).
8 W Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 1986 (1986): 57–71.
9 Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now, (New York: Word Alive, 2007).
10 Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 1988), 26–30.
11 For example, Ps 12:5, 60:8–10. The evidence for this is weak.
12 Ps 3:2–3.
13 Ps 6:2–6.
14 Ps 40:12.
15 Jean Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949) 1:xxxvii.
17 Note that when David hears that his son is dead he changes his demeanour completely. There’s no use praying anymore (2 Sam 12:15–23).
18 Ex 34:5–6; Ps 63:3.
19 Helmut Thielicke, Life Can Begin Again: Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1966), 97–98.
20 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 1st ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub Co, 1987).
21 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), 423.