Chapel Address on Psalm 88
This is the darkest psalm in the canon. The final words are a confession of a despair unlike any other, and rhetorically, it’s what you end with that has the emphasis. It’s what the reader or listener is most likely to remember. When the curtain closes after verse 18, the psalmist is huddled in the midst of a great void, his world having collapsed in on itself. The crushing blackness is all we are left with. This Psalm is so dark and so heavy, that it has always been a mystery to me. How can this fit with the rest of God’s revelation? It seems so out of place. Isn’t the Christian life a life of hope, a path of light? Is black despair one of the fruits of the Spirit, and is this the sort of reflection the Holy Spirit had in mind when He commanded us to think about goodness, nobility, truth, and all the other wonderful things we find in Philippians 4:8?
Further, what the Holy Spirit presents us with here is more than just a rough patch in a believer’s life. We may experience physical suffering, indeed we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But in that case we are walking, and there are peaks ahead. The suffering there is temporary. Even in Psalm 51, after David has been confronted by the prophet Nathan for his sin with Bathsheba, he acknowledges that there will be a time of restoration, a time when his heart is made clean and he may once again teach others to fear the Lord.
But we don’t see the same optimism here. Verse 15 says, “From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death.” And what’s the affliction he’s talking about? “I have suffered your terrors,” he writes, “and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me.” This has been the pattern of the psalmist’s life. We are confronted here with a brutal and continuous reality of suffering, one that simply does not lend itself to easy explanations.
One suggestion is that this is the song of a leper, someone who has been cast out of the community, someone who continually wrestles with death. There is good evidence for this in verse 8, for instance, where the psalmist writes that “You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape,” as well as the number of verses that speak of his proximity to death and his fear of the grave. We may assume that the psalmist is speaking here of a disease. But, although it’s a good assumption, it’s important to point out that nowhere in the psalm is “disease” or “illness” mentioned.
Further, this explanation does run into problems in the verses where the psalmist speaks of God’s wrath. In Scripture, God’s wrath is only ever poured out against sin. With sin in mind, then, the verses that speak of death could be speaking of spiritual death, of the judgment of God against the sinner. But this explanation, too, runs into problems. Nowhere in this Psalm is the word “sin” mentioned. Also, if the psalmist has committed such a grievous sin that the wrath of God has been a constant companion throughout his life, then we would expect to see an acknowledgement of guilt. But there is none. There is no repentance here, no sorrow on behalf of the psalmist for his sin. We don’t get the sense that he has done anything wrong.
So we’re left with a Psalm that seems to resist explanation, that seems to resist a direct application to our lives. If it isn’t really about being sick, and if it isn’t really about a struggle with sin, then what is it about? What significance does this Psalm have to the lives of Christians? Is there any instruction we can take from here? I’d suggest that the Psalm is less about the cause of the struggle, whether it’s brought about sin or sickness, and more about the relationship between the psalmist and his suffering. Whatever this suffering was that he’s speaking about, how did he go about living with it?
In the first place, we see that the psalmist is patient. Like we’ve seen, this suffering has been the pattern of his life, his daily experience since he was young. But day and night, he says, he cries out to God against the affliction and terror that brings him close to the grave. So while this suffering has been continuous and intense, so too has been the psalmist’s pleading before God. The psalmist, even after all these years, has not given up on receiving help from the Lord.
In the second place, he is intimate with his God. We don’t get the sense that the psalmist has held anything back, which is why the Psalm is uncomfortable to read. He knows his God, through and through, and the Psalm is punctuated throughout with the glimmers of the hope and comfort that he has, and that we can find here. Like I said at the beginning, with the emphasis on darkness at the end of the Psalm, that’s what we’re left remembering. But I’m convinced that there is comfort here, and to see it we need to go back to the first line: “O Lord, the God who saves me.” Perhaps we’ve developed a taste for happy endings, and I’d suggest that if we have, then we’ve read our Bibles properly. For the Bible contains the happy ending to which all other happy endings direct us. But in this psalm we have to make do with a happy beginning. It’s as if the Holy Spirit is fortifying us against what’s coming, securing us in a harness before we descend into the pit.
Yet even as we descend and the darkness fills our vision, the psalmist reminds us of the light. In verses 10 and 12 we read of the wonders of God, in verse 11, His love, and verse 12, His righteous deeds. The psalmist knows his Lord deeply. Here he lays out the frigid, expansive wastes of human suffering, because he knows that his God is a God of wonders, of love, of righteousness, a faithful God. He trusts that his Lord will hear. And when we look closely, we see that the psalm does not end with hopelessness at all, but with expectation. The psalmist asks in verse 14, “Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” I think that this is more than just a grief-stricken cry of despair. The psalmist actually wants to know. He wants to know why his wonderful, loving, and righteous God has forsaken him. He wants to know why his Lord has done the things in the verses that follow. He wants to know because he knows there’s an answer, because he knows that the LORD is the God who saves him.
It’s no secret that the world we live in resists suffering. All of the technology we develop in some way addresses this. Our civilization has largely overcome the basic needs of our existence, and seems mostly devoted now to providing one convenient luxury after another. We’ve gone from lighting oily rags with matches or flint to flicking a switch on the wall; to staying put and clapping in order to produce light. It seems that it won’t be long now before we can live our entire lives with nothing more than a series of tonal grunts. Any inconvenience is seen as abrasive, as something that we must overcome. And I recognize first that our world is full of blessings. We should be thankful for the luxuries and conveniences that the LORD has poured out in our time.
But has the mindset of our culture put us at odds with suffering? Do we make war on suffering, or do we see it as a necessary component of our sanctification? Romans 5:3 makes it clear that there are benefits to suffering, benefits that no Christian would want to miss out on. “We know that suffering produces perseverance,” Paul writes, and “perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Suffering produces hope. Have we ever asked someone who is feeling hopeless about their faith, if it’s because they haven’t suffered enough? Like I said earlier, I believe that this Psalm of suffering ends on a note of hope, that the psalmist took the time to lay out his complaint before the LORD because the LORD is where his hope is. So Christians need not fear suffering at all. There’s no need for us to feel, as our world does, that suffering must be pushed to the margins, into clinics, hospitals, and care homes; anywhere but where we can see it. The reason there’s no need for this is because it’s an illusion. Not only will suffering never be eradicated by any technology, it cannot be pushed from view, especially in the Christian life. How does God command us to work out our salvation? With the glossy moral uplift of contemporary Christian culture? No. We are to do it with fear and trembling. A sunburn chafes when you put a shirt on, and it chafes and irritates for as long as the two are in contact. In the same way, putting on the new man chafes against the old. It exists as a constant source of conflict and spiritual suffering in our lives. We ought to tremble. Living as a sacrifice before the Lord is living broken, vulnerable, and raw.
But as Christians we may walk with each other in this. This is why suffering shouldn’t be ignored and pushed aside. It is who we are, and it’s an expected and necessary part of our lives. We may read the accounts of saints from the past who have suffered in all sorts of different ways, who have grown richer in character and hope, and who today are experiencing the glory of the presence of God. We can draw strength and encouragement from these because they confirm the central message of Psalm 88: there is no suffering over which God is not sovereign.
To conclude, I’d like to offer a solution to the interpretive problems that I mentioned earlier. Is there anyone in the world, is there anyone who has ever lived, who has experienced the daily and life-long reality of God’s wrath, but with no need to repent, with no need to acknowledge guilt, to express sorrow over wrongdoing, or to seek reconciliation with God? The Incarnate Son of God, who carried our sin, did not need to repent of our sin. He was not guilty for a single wrongdoing, but simply experienced God’s judgment for ours. This Psalm longs for fulfilment, and indeed, from our vantage point in redemptive history, we find it plugged directly into the life of our Saviour. Who else but Christ can say that from his youth he has been afflicted by the flood of God’s wrath, destroyed by His divine terrors, every day? Who else but our Saviour, nailed to the cross, bloody and spit-ridden, knows what it is to be utterly forsaken, cut off from the love His own heavenly Father? Who else has befriended darkness in such a way that the sun stopped shining at the point of his death?
The early church fathers interpreted this Psalm to be describing Christ’s suffering on the cross, and this seems to me the interpretation that really fits. But even as a description of Christ’s suffering, it does offer us a way to understand our own suffering. A sincere Christian life, properly oriented along the lines of Scripture, will display both the suffering and the comfort of the already, but not yet, tension that’s part of these last days. Suffering with holiness is an art that enables us to sing Psalm 88 and Psalm 150 at the same time. When an unbelieving world sees that, and asks us how such a thing is possible, we can begin by pointing to the God of wonders, of love, and of righteous deeds that we read about in this psalm. We can show them that even terrible human despair is understood and accepted by God. For we can tell them that we root ourselves in a confession that has ever been the cry of the regenerated heart: “O Lord, the God who saves me!”