When God Disappears: the darkness of Psalm 88

Into the hell holeSuffering is no stranger to humanity. Millions of people are trapped in human trafficking. Countless suffer from a physical, mental, or emotional disability that ostracizes them from society. The stress of losing a job, paying bills, natural disasters, broken relationships, unmet longings, or the loss of a loved one plague us on a daily basis.

Suffering’s complexity has been responded to with a complexity of answers. For some suffering is an illusion, a figment of our imagination. For others, it’s simply a way of life. It is what it is, therefore we should grit our teeth and bear it. Still others see suffering as punishment for past misdemeanors or current behavior (we get what we deserve), while others claim it is for our good to make us better people. Yet these answers tend to leave the sufferer tossed on a sea of pain, with no hope of anchor.

Into the tumult of our pain and responses to it, the voice of Psalm 88 rings loudly, yet is often ignored. It speaks into our suffering with what appears to be further discomfort, something the world seeks to avoid and those who believe in God find unsettling. Written by and for the people who believed in the one true God of love, it responds to the complexity of suffering with a difficult answer. Sometimes the faithful, covenant-keeping God seems to intentionally disappear with no hope of returning. Sometimes the reality of life is defined by darkness and isolation.

To apply Psalm 88 correctly we have to grasp its context, purpose of existence, and message. Specifically, we must look at its genre, who wrote the psalm and why, and pay attention to what the psalm actually says.

First, the literary context of Psalm 88 must be examined in light of the Psalter and extra-biblical material that has a similar relationship.[1] For the people of Israel and the Ancient Near East, songs were the means of religious worship.[2] Including elements of corporate and individual communion with God, the psalms were intended to be memorized, were used for oral learning, and passed on cultural beliefs and norms to the following generations.[3] Specifically for Israel, the Psalms were to be prayed for ethical living and were framed by the Law, which instructed them on living rightly before God and others.[4]

Psalm 88, referred to as “gloomy all the way through,”[5] falls under the literary genre of lament. The lament’s attempt to wrestle with God’s role in human suffering makes it a poetic theodicy.[6] Lament psalms typically have five elements: 1) a cry to God is made; 2) the complaint is described; 3) God is petitioned for deliverance; 4) confidence in God is stated; 5) and a vow of praise is made.[7] Notably, in Psalm 88 the author refrains from incorporating elements 4 and 5.

The significance of Psalm 88’s lament becomes greater when we look at who wrote this psalm, for whom, and its stated purpose. Written by Heman, a Levite and grandson to Samuel, he was appointed by David to minister with song before the Tabernacle and later the Temple. He was specifically chosen to give thanks to Yahweh for his steadfast love, to write sacred songs, and was one of the king’s seers, having been promised exaltation by God.[8]

It is crucial to note that this is also a song the sons of Korah would have sung. One of the chief Levitical families in the leadership of the Tabernacle and Temple worship, they were the gatekeepers of the Temple, which was designated as an office of trust. They were obligated to protect the Temple and all that was in it, guard its gates, and open them for people to enter.[9] Therefore this song was written and sung by the believing, faithful community of God. It was the song of a worshiper for worshipers. They knew the Law, the character of God, and His promises.

What is the message and meaning of this song? Augustine interpreted it as an allegory of Christ’s suffering.[10] Others have sought to lighten its meaning by suggesting it is a song of hope because God brings darkness to give us more of himself. “God darkens our awareness in order to keep us safe.”[11] While these elements have application, they do not accurately represent the song’s struggle with seeming divine and human abandonment.

The song has a three part lyric form,[12] structured around three statements of urgent petition to God (v. 1-9a, 9b-12, and 13-18).[13] It is unclear from the first cry what Heman’s affliction was, but it brought him to the brink of death in deep agony. Waltner suggests that he may have suffered from a debilitating illness.[14] Yet more than the fear of death, the theme here is that God is the one responsible for his suffering (v. 6) and for the abandonment by his friends (v.8). It’s as if God is treating him as an abomination, and therefore people are as well.[15]

In verses 9b-12, Heman again pleads to be heard by God and proceeds to ask a series of rhetorical questions related to the character of God in relation to death. Terrien interprets these questions as a sarcastic attempt to mock God.[16] However, this may reveal more of how Terrien read the song than how Heman wrote it. Considering the tone of desperation in this song, it is more likely that the questions demonstrated Heman’s anguish of felt separation from God, whom he knew to be full of steadfast love, faithfulness, and righteousness. Their rhetorical nature was an attempt to motivate God to move on his behalf.[17]

Verses 13-18 bring the song to a close in darkness with no apparent hope of relief. God remained silent to Heman’s cries and questions regarding why he had been abandoned by God and others. The weakness he had experienced for years continued to be aggravated by the consuming fire of God’s anger and the spurning of loved ones. “Afraid of death, he has come to death. [He] can only protest against being erased!”[18] And so the desperate cry of a man whose life was dedicated to singing of the steadfast love of the Lord ends with a focus on wrath and darkness.

Despite this song’s darkness, principles to be applied shine from its anguish. First, this song gives individuals permission to be honest with God in persistent prayer. It is an uncomfortable fact that feelings of divine and human abandonment are common among God’s people. Yet it is often the case that when individuals are at their lowest, others try to tell them they should “just believe,” thereby indicating that the struggle of and for faith is inappropriate. This song encourages us that in times of darkness we can have confidence to speak honestly to God, expressing our pain, anguish, confusion, and even anger.[19] The darkness is an opportunity to pursue more vigorous, urgent petition.[20] Even in the face of silence, like Heman we can continue to honestly cry out day and night before the Lord.

Second, this song reminds us that the Church needs to be Christ’s physical presence to those who feel abandoned by God and by others. Isolation and loneliness from human abandonment are realities for many who suffer from affliction, be it physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. Yet Jesus Christ has called his Body to be ambassadors for him and to carry the burdens of others, thereby demonstrating his love and presence.[21] Contrast this with the experience of Heman, who was shunned and abandoned by those who knew him. How might his response to God have been different if the community of faith had surrounded him with support and care? We will never know, but this principle reminds us that there are Hemans in the world today who need to experience the presence of Christ through the love of his people being physically present in their darkness.

A third principle to be drawn comes from the assurance that our experiences do not always align with reality. Specifically, while we may experience what feels like abandonment by God, the truth is that for those who have trusted in Christ, he is there even in the darkness when he cannot be perceived. Furthermore, Jesus Christ is the only one who truly experienced Psalm 88, legitimately and fully shunned by God and humanity. Is it any wonder that this song is included in the Book of Common Prayer for Good Friday,[22] or that its words are inscribed in many languages upon the walls of what is possibly the pit in which Christ was held on the night of his betrayal?[23] This Christ who experienced true abandonment has promised to always be with those who have trusted in him, and to never leave or forsake them.[24] For those who are his, their story does not end in the darkness of Psalm 88 but in the light of Revelation 21-22.

Each of these principles related to Psalm 88 raises a unique challenge for those who are suffering. They are bombarded with questions regarding God’s character, often face the agony of abandonment (whether intentional or unintentional), and experience the pain of isolation. Unfortunately the discomfort we, including myself, experience with this song reflects the discomfort we feel towards those who are deeply suffering. We are afraid of it. Therefore, we run from it, ignore it, or briefly acknowledge it and then casually pass on by. It takes the courage of the Holy Spirit and the love he imparts to encourage others to be persistently honest with God and to cling to the hope of Revelation 22. It takes Christ’s strength to be present with those who sit in darkness.

Psalm 88 is desperately dark. We need to allow it to communicate that message because the faithful community of God often experience the perception of divine abandonment and the reality of human abandonment. Yet while Psalm 88 ends in darkness, the story of God’s people ends in his presence where there will be no more darkness and every tear will be wiped away. Therefore, let us cling to him and never stop trusting him.

__________________________

[1] Hermann Gunkel, The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction, trans. Thomas M. Horner (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 1.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Gordon J. Wenham, Psalms as Torah (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 42.

[4] Ibid., 76, 78.

[5] Ibid., 154.

[6] Carleen Mandolfo, “Language of Lament in the Psalms” in The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, ed. William P. Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 125.

[7] Leland Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 2003), 240.

[8] 1 Chronicles 6:31-38; 16:41-42; 25:5-6.

[9] 1 Chronicles 9:19-34.

[10] Philip Schaff and Aurelius Augustinus, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church Vol. 8, Vol. 8 (New York: The Christian literature company, 1888), 423-429.

[11] Kristin M. Swenson, Living Through Pain (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2005), 152.

[12] This includes the theme’s statement, development, and concluding thoughts. Ryken, 198.

[13] Walter Brueggemann & William H. Bellinger, JR., Psalms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 379.

[14] James H. Waltner, Psalms (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2006), 429.

[15] John Goldingay, Psalms. ed. Temper Longman, III. Vo. 2 (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Publishing Group, 2007), 651.

[16] Samuel Terrien, The Psalms (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wlm. B. Eardmans, 2003), 628.

[17] Brueggemann & Bellinger, Jr., 379.

[18] Waltner, 430.

[19] Goldingay, 658.

[20] Brueggemann & Bellinger, Jr., 381.

[21] 1 Corinthians 5:20; Galatians 6:2.

[22] Waltner, 432.

[23] Ronald B. Allen, “Suffering in the Psalms and Wisdom Books” in Why, O God? eds. Larry J. Waters & Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2011), 143.

[24] Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5.

Advertisements

Thoughts or comments? I'd love to hear them!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s