Psalm 88: Praying When Hoping is Hard

O LORD, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you. Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry! Psalm 88:1-2

 

You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness. Psalm 88:18

 

These verses bookend the cry of Heman the Ezrahite, the cry of the afflicted man. We expect, as the Psalms have trained us thus far, that at the end of this exasperated, barely-breathed lament that there will be some kind of conclusion, some denouement that gently replaces each fallen stone of this poor man’s life. But that’s not what we find. We find that he is forsaken – by his beloved, by his friends. The only companion he has left is the darkness in which he is drowning.

 

Psalm 88 ends without the sunrise. Heman’s watch in the night continues.

 

It recalls, or should recall, another long night. In a garden, upon the ground, a man in anguish cries out, blood dripping from his overworked sweat glands. “Take this cup from me.” But there is silence. The night is quiet; I doubt even the moonlit night-birds were singing at this poor man’s sobs of torment, and the wind through the trees – did it whisper? The friends who had accompanied the man this far, those who had pledged their lives to him – where were they? Asleep. He cried and bled and prayed and bled and strove through the night while all those he loved spoke no word of relief, sang no encouraging psalm. The rest of the way would be darkness for this man, while his beloved and his friends shunned him in the needing hours of the night.

 

The sun had set. For Heman. For Jesus. The night had come, and it seemed there would be no tomorrow.

 

Perhaps the sun has set for you. Perhaps for you it seems there will be no tomorrow, and if there is, how could it be happy? After all you’ve been through, how could anything be right again? Where is my beloved? Where are the friends who walked beside me? Where is the gentle voice reminding me that everything will be okay? They have gone. The sun has set. Night gathers about me like an army waiting to storm my walls, and the walls will crumble with the first blow. And, as the enemy waits to destroy me, he waits in silence, mocking me, hating me, delighting in what I’m going through. Darkness has become my only companion…

 

But still I pray.

 

Why? When I look around me, when I truly behold my situation, all the platitudes of well-meaning church folk drown in the darkness. Why would I cry out? “My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.” My soul is full, but not with songs of joy – I am commanded to express only joy, to sing and dance and smile and suppress and lie… and all to the glory of God! Why aren’t you happy, silly boy? Don’t you know that Jesus died for you? There are few worse sins committed by the well-meaning than the accusing encouragements that amount to little more than the silence of our friends in the night. And this is perhaps what makes Sunday worship so often tortuous and overwhelming for the depressed – that they are expected to join in celebration, when their brothers and sisters will not weep with them in their lamentation.

 

Don’t you know that Jesus died for you? Yes. That’s why a man deep in the throes of what seems to be an unending night can keep praying. “O LORD, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you.” Heman and Jesus were better theologians than we are. They didn’t deny the sovereignty of God in an apologetic attempt to somehow get God off the hook. They didn’t say, “God only lets good things happen to us. This can’t be from Him.” Jesus knew Whose hand held the cup. Heman knew that it was God Who had allowed him to fall into this pit. But, what they both realized, and what we must realize when we are in the midst of a darkness that does not seem to be going anywhere, is that we only have one place to turn. God is the God of salvation, even when He has brought us into the heart of darkness.

 

We turn to Him, we cry to Him, because He is the only One Who can help. And, often, it seems He is the only One Who will listen. But I cannot help but wonder at the apparent contradiction here. God has allowed me to wander into this dark wood. But, God is the One to Whom I cry? What does this say about Heman? What does this say about Jesus? What does this mean for how we are to approach God? It means that, despite the desolation of our situation, God is not our enemy. But, how can you bring someone to such depths, how can you allow someone to suffer this much, and not be their enemy? Because He is your salvation. He is your salvation. Nothing is meaningless in this, though we cannot understand the meaning. I don’t say this flippantly, or in a chipper tone that marks someone that hasn’t tasted the bitterness of barely holding on: God means even this for your good, even if it is meant only to drive you to His arms. He is still the God of your salvation.

 

Charles Spurgeon, a man who knew the darkness of a depressed soul, wrote this concerning the sometimes difficult relationship between the sufferer and his God: “The mind can descend far lower than the body, for there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour. It is grievous to the good man to see the Lord whom he loves laying him in the sepulchre of despondency; piling nightshade upon him putting out all his candles, and heaping over him solid masses of sorrow: evil from so good a hand seems evil indeed, and yet if faith could but be allowed to speak she would remind the depressed spirit that it is better to fall into the hand of the Lord than into the hands of man, and moreover she would tell the despondent heart that God never placed a Joseph in a pit without drawing him up again to fill a throne: that he never caused a horror of great darkness to fall upon an Abraham without revealing his covenant to him; and never cast even a Jonah into the depths without preparing the means to land him safely on dry land.”[1]

 

So, here we are. We know that God is sovereign. We know that our situation is dire and bleak. We are in the middle of the night watch and there seems to be no chance of sunrise. We have moved past the edge of the sea, into the depths, and the walls of the ocean are closing slowly about us. But, didn’t the sun rise once? Is God against us, or for us in Christ? Which is the truer truth? my situation or Jesus? Heart that is weighed down, I hope you can hear me: cry out, day and night, to the God of your salvation. He will hear you. He will hear you. And though the night is long and your soul is full of sorrows,

 

Did not the Son rise once?

[1] Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 2, part 2 (Mclean, VA: Macdonald), 3-4.

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