For the longest time, I didn’t understand Psalm 88. In fact, even now I’m not sure I understand it, at least not completely.
On its own, Psalm 88 is the cry of one who feels utterly abandoned by God and yet acknowledges two seemingly contradictory things: God alone provides salvation (88:1) and God placed him in a pit of despair (88:6-8). Such polarities would for some, I assume, cause a desire to abandon God entirely and start searching elsewhere for answers to life’s greatest questions. And being completely honest, I’ve found myself in that place more often than I would like to admit.
Maybe you feel the same way too, I don’t know.
I don’t mean to say that I’ve given up my belief in God’s existence and his sovereignty, but there are times it seems like he doesn’t have my best interests in mind: there are times when it feels as though I have been, and am being, punished for things I’ve not done: there are times when it all seems so arbitrary. And when I find myself in those times, I wonder if God is really as good as he says he is. But then I realize there’s another side to things: there is my side. Most of the time I am an idiot: I make poor choices, I have a hard time keeping my tongue, I struggle with reigning in my emotional responses, and I sin. Yes, I sin. And not just every once in a while, but pretty much all the time, I mean, if I’m awake there is a good chance I’m sinning.
I’m sure I shouldn’t be able to say such a thing being as old as I am and as “mature” of a Christian as I’m supposed to be, but it’s a fact: for me, to be alive is to sin. When I think of my side of the coin, I understand that when Heman, the author of Psalm 88, says “You have put me in the depths of the pit,” he probably isn’t saying that God arbitrarily placed him in the pit, he is saying that God’s holiness and justice has been served and he finally got what he deserved. And in all probability, the pit of despair in which we often find ourselves is one of our own making. When I am honest with myself, (and I really have to be if I am to make sense of life) I know the pits I frequent are ones I have dug for myself, one hand at a time over the past 50 years, leaving me filthy, isolated, and despondent.
But even in the depths of my pits, there shines a slice of optimistic irony: I know that God is still in control and he is still my salvation: no one or nothing else can help. When Heman says, “I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you,” I think he means that there is no one else to whom he can go. I also think everyone really knows this truth. Let me explain. Have you ever noticed when the worst things happen to anyone, people always pray? For instance, last night during a professional basketball game a player landed poorly on his ankle and broke his tibia. It was certainly a gruesome sight, but that paled in interest to what happened next. The full crowd of 20,000 people as well as both team’s players went immediately silent and bowed their heads in prayer. Now, I’m not so naive as to think that all 20,000 people were Christians, but it did illustrate that when bad stuff happens people cry out in hope to a power greater than themselves.
This is the response we find in Psalm 88, but with a twist. Heman does not describe prayer to some disembodied force of goodness in the universe but he prays to the God of the universe, the one who holds salvation in his hands. In his despair, he reaches for the meager sliver of glory he can find piercing the darkness of the pit.
Yet, while this all makes sense, there is still something about Psalm 88 I have yet to understand: why is Psalm 88 placed in Book III? Book III seems to be about Israel falling away, their desire to return to the city of Zion, and their longing to be back in the presence of God in his temple. If so, why does Book three nearly end with such a deeply personal psalm?
I think it’s possible that the answer is two-fold. Psalm 88 could actually serve two different purposes. First, as stated above, it helps us understand that God is our only salvation when we find ourselves in deep pits of despair. But secondly, it tells us what the exiled Israelites must have felt. They were surrounded by abuses all day long. They called out to God on a daily basis, but he did nothing to return them to their home and the temple where they worshiped God. They most likely wondered if they would ever be heard as they lived decades in exile.
But, I think both readings of Psalm 88 tell us it is our sin that has brought us to a place of exile. We, as individuals, and they, as a nation, both wonder why God seems to have abandoned us at times. But there is hope. As we sit staring at the walls of our own dark pit of despair, there is a sliver of light piercing the darkness, and it is God’s steadfast love that will someday reach down to save us.