Psalm 88 may have been my least favorite Psalm. It’s one of the most depressing psalms in the book, it’s difficult to pray it, and it’s even difficult for me to find a way to relate to it. But reading it this morning, I finally found a place for it in the Christian life.
Much of this Psalm has the speaker considering himself dead or almost dead:
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
5 like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
That wasn’t quite so hard for me to understand before, because Christians walk the line of life and death, recognizing both our internal sinfulness and Christ’s righteousness accounted to us. But what was really challenging was what comes after these verses:
8 You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
Seriously, who are my companions who shun me? I’ve got plenty of non-christian friends, and a few of them are openly hostile towards the faith (or against religions in general), but they’ve never taken to persecuting me directly. And what’s worse, these verses reveal a lack of hope regarding death, which seems distinctly unchristian. Of course the dead will be raised; that’s a basic central tenet of the faith!
What I finally realized this morning was that, as today is Holy Saturday, the words of this psalm beautiful befit our crucified Lord. Jesus was dead in the tomb this day, a couple thousand years ago, and although he was obviously unable to pray anything with his lips, these words describe his condition. I suppose for this psalm’s original composition, there were other seemingly-hopeless situations either taking place or being imagined, but like many psalms there is always room for prophetic models of events in Christ’s life.
Now that end of this psalm makes so much more sense to me. I always was uncomfortable with how it ended, particularly the last verse:
13 But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
darkness has become my only companion.
Darkness is my only companion? Is not God always there with us? Yes, yes he is, now. One of the major themes in the Old Testament is the dynamic struggle by God to remain with his people. They had to remain holy, so he had to keep purifying them somehow in order to dwell effectually among them. And there were times of real abandonment when he had to step away, vacate their Temple, and make them wait 70 years before starting again. But now, Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to indwell all God’s people permanently, so the problem of ensuring God’s presence has been solved almost completely. Previously, death was a frightening thing, but it is no longer, because we know that Jesus has been there, and returned. So when we, too, descend to the depths of the earth our only companion will not be darkness, as it was before, as it was for Jesus, even, but we will there see God.
So when we read and pray this psalm, we identify with ancient Israel and we identify with Jesus Christ, and we recognize that such would be our fate without him. But there is an unspoken joy in the knowledge that such a dismal fate is no longer ours. We have been set free from the fear and loneliness of death!
Liturgically speaking, today is very similar. Those of us who observe the liturgical calendar observed:
- Jesus’ triumphal entry, suffering, and death on Palm Sunday,
- Jesus’ betrayal and abandonment by his disciples (on Wednesday in my case),
- Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet & institution of the Eucharist, on Maundy Thursday,
- Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and death yesterday, on Good Friday,
- and Jesus’ repose in the tomb today, on Holy Saturday.
These have all been very dark and dismal observances – God got killed! And it was our fault! But even as we focus on these terrible events, we do also know that it has a happy ending. We know that tonight/tomorrow, Easter Sunday comes, and we will celebrate his resurrection. So in the moment, we reflect on horrible realities – Jesus died, his only companion was darkness, we too shall die. But over all, we know that evil does not win, but Jesus triumphs over the grave.