Psalm 88 records some of the darkest and most depressing words in all of Scripture. Not only does the word “darkness” appear three times in the psalm, it is also the last word in the Hebrew. Also, unlike other cries of lament there is never a point where the author changes his tune and remembers God’s goodness and faithfulness.
This Psalm is written by a man named Heman whom very little is known about. It seems that Heman’s problem is something external, such as a disease, and that this burden is something he has carried since his “youth” (v.15). Also, we notice that the weight of this burden over the course of time has become a crushing emotional and spiritual weight for Heman to carry. It is as if Heman is dying by being slowly crushed.
This psalm is a helpful place to turn when you, or a counselee, are experienced suffering that has gone on for a long time. What Psalm 88 reveals to us is how to relate to and minister to those living under this unique kind of pressure.
1) You can be a Christian and still experience long seasons of darkness.
I owe this observation to Tim Keller who preached a very helpful sermon on Psalm 88 (you can listen to here). Keller states that what this psalm teaches us is that, “[…] you can be trusting God for your salvation. You can be praying and doing what you think you should be doing and yet it doesn’t get any better for a long time.” We know that Heman has been suffering since his “youth” (v.15) and we know that Heman is a believer (v.1).
In seasons of endless suffering we tend to entertain a couple of unhelpful thoughts. Either we begin to conclude that our suffering is the result of some undiscovered sin in our life or we begin to consider that our suffering is proof that we have never been saved in the first place. Both of these lines of thinking result from the idea that suffering is always evidence that God is displeased or distant. This is not true.
One of the blessings of Psalm 88 is that it demonstrates for us that a believer, like Heman, can experience long seasons of suffering. This suffering is not a hidden message from God. Believers do not have to call into question the status of their relationship with God as a result of suffering. Psalm 88 breathes spiritual reassurance to the one who is suffering.
2) In seasons of darkness pray persistently to God (v.1-2; 13).
Heman doesn’t get everything right but he gets the most important thing right. Heman says, “I cry out to you day and night. Let my prayer come before you” (v.1-2) and then again, “in the morning my prayer comes before you” (v.13). Heman should be commended for the fact that he does not cut off communication with God.
Another one of the temptations we face in the midst of extended suffering is that when we initially cry out to God and He does not immediately answer we change our approach. Often we grow bitter towards God or indifferent and our prayers become non-existent.
God delights in persistent prayers because it reveals a heart that is continually dependent on Him. Persistent prayer also reveals that a believer understands that God has a good plan and that He delights in answering prayers.
3) Your prayers to God should be honest about how you feel (v.3-5; 8-9).
There is a thought that has crept into modern American Christianity and it is that in order to be spiritually mature one must hold back the tears before God and be strong before God. This is not biblical Christianity. This is a false sense of strength. In fact, this is spiritual immaturity. Biblical Christianity knows what it is to fully disclose to God what it feels like to suffer. We are not talking about venting to God, we are talking about raw and unrestrained disclosure to God what is going on inside of your head and life.
If you track what Heman is saying in 88:3-5 you see Heman recounting to God the downward spiral of his thoughts. He starts off rather innocent as he expresses that his “soul is full of trouble” (v.3) but then we read that Heman felt as though his life was “near” (v.3) to the grave and that he eventually felt as though he was “counted” (v.4) among the dead. Finally, we read Heman express that he feels God no longer even remembered him (v.5).
What we see in Psalm 88 is the practice of lament. These honest cries out to God reveal that part of God’s restoring work in Heman’s life involved Heman disclosing to God the depths of his pain. Psalm 88 teaches us how to speak to God in the midst of our pain in a way that is honest.
4) Your prayers to God should be driven by what you know to be true about God (v.6-12).
Heman’s prayer is theologically driven and this is a wonderful thing. There are a couple pieces of Heman’s theology which shine through the darkness of his prayer and guide us in our prayers to God.
As Heman cries out to God, he is not ignorant or misinformed as to who is in control of his suffering. Heman says to God, “you have put me in the depths of the pit” (v.6) and “you overwhelm me with all your waves” (v.7). He understands that his suffering is by within God’s control. Heman understands that God is either causing or allowing his suffering. Much like Job, Heman sees God in the chaos of his suffering.
Another aspect of Heman’s theology which shines through and guides us is his theology of God’s glory. Heman reasons with God in 88:10-12 as to why God should answer his prayer. His rationale is that if he were to die then he would no longer be able to praise God’s name. Heman, knowing that God desires to be glorified, appeals to God on behalf of this glory.
Like Heman our prayers should reflect that we understand God is in control over the details of our suffering and that God does all that He does for the sake of His glory.
5) Because darkness disorients, not everything you feel is true (v.7, 15, 16, 18).
While it is true that Heman’s prayer is theologically driven it should also be observed that Heman’s prayer is not always theologically accurate. In verse 7, 15, 16 he speaks of God’s wrath and terror being against him. These words show that Heman has made the assumption that God’s purpose in his suffering is to pour out wrath and to terrorize him. Theologically, we know that Heman is not experiencing God’s wrath. This is not how God treats His children. Wrath is reserved for the wicked.
One of the dangers we face in dealing with long seasons of darkness is that our thoughts begin to misfire and a false narrative can begin to corrode our thinking. When we counsel ourselves or others we have to be aware of this tendency and be willing to confront the lies we tell ourselves.
6) Yes, the dead do actually rise up to praise God because of Jesus’ resurrection (v.10).
Again, I owe this insight to Tim Keller (sermon found here). He accurately points out that Heman assumes the wrong answer to the question, “do the departed rise up to praise you?” (v.10) Heman thinks the answer to this question is ‘no’ and he is using this line of thinking to reason with God as to why God should protect his life.
The reality is that the dead actually do rise up to praise God if they are united to Jesus in His death and resurrection. Keller points out that Matthew 27:45-52 beautifully shows us that Jesus has defeated both darkness and death and neither is final for the believer. Regardless of whether or not God causes our darkness to cease in this life we look forward to the hope of life with Christ for eternity.
This beautiful Psalm was written 3,000 years ago by a man named Heman who was in a very dark place and didn’t know if he would ever experience joy again. Some of the most beautiful words I’ve read about Psalm 88 came from W.S. Plumer, who made this hope-filled observation, “for nearly three thousand years [Heman] has been singing a very different song before the throne of the Eternal; and his eternity is but just begun.”
The one you are counseling may feel like your darkness will never end but the day is coming when he/she will also have been singing a very different song for 3,000 years because of what Jesus did on the cross. We cling to and wait for eternity!
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Tim Keller. How to deal with dark times (a sermon on Psalm 88). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulmaUtbayGY
W.S. Plumer. Geneva Series of Commentaries: Psalms (2016) Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust. 823.