Observe: This psalm is a lament, a desperate prayer for healing, by someone who has been close to death for a long time.
The lament, in the form of a complaint lodged against God, is also a plea for God to show himself. The psalmist does not seem sure that God is listening. Verses 13 & 14 read, “I cry to you for help, in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why Lord do you reject me and hide your face from me?”
The psalm describes the depression and isolation that comes with severe chronic illness. Pain, not people, is a daily companion. God is distant, yet the prayer speaks to God.
The illness may be physical, mental, or spiritual, but appears to be chronic, even lifelong. Verse 15, “Wretched and close to death from my youth up…” Several phrases amount to, “I am as good as dead, I have one foot in the grave.” Whatever the malady, God has done this to the psalmist, and so the psalmist’s plea is for God to intervene. No answer is given.
Interpret: A prayer of desperation is directed to God. Most psalms that have a complaint or plea for help have a turning point, after which some answer comes from God. Psalm 88 contains no such turning point. God is experienced not as presence but as absence.
Is God listening? Great faith believes that God is listening, even when no sign is given. The sign that the psalmist believes this is in the simple words, in verse 13, “BUT, I cry to you…” This is the “nevertheless” of faith when the face of God is hidden.
Application: “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” So sang Simon and Garfunkel in The Sound of Silence in 1964, in a song about feeling isolated and alone in a world indifferent. St. John of the Cross wrote about “the dark night of the soul,” a spiritual crisis in the journey towards being united with God. Psalm 23 speaks of walking through the valley of the shadow of death. And finally, there is Christ dead in the tomb from Friday afternoon to dawn on Sunday. All is darkness.
Can we hope for anything when all seems hopeless? If we have the final crumb of faith that God is real, we will say to God, “Where are you when I need you?” That is an act of faith, which clings not to the good things of life, the blessings and the consolations, but clings to God alone.
“If I could just touch the hem of his robe, I will be healed.” Psalm 88 is the desperately chronically ill woman weaving through the crowd towards, seeking one thing only, to touch Jesus.
Can we dare to talk about God in this way to the person contemplating a medically assisted suicide? Are they so absolutely sure that God has abandoned them, so that they have no choice but to make God’s decision for themselves about when they die? Psalm 88 is a sign that God is there, even in the darkness, and we can tell God what it is like to be in pain.
Pray: “Into your hands I commit my spirit. Deliver me, O Lord, thou God of truth.” (Psalm 31:6)
Song: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.”
In 2023, each week's blog is a follow-up reflection written by the preceding Sunday’s preacher to dig deeper into the sermon topic and explore engaging discussion questions.