Day 13: May 15, 2018: My Soul is Full of Troubles
Psalm 88:1-7: O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you. 2 Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry! 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.
Laments are the honest and anguished prayers of sufferings souls. More than one-third of the psalms are laments. Biblical scholar R.W.L. Moberly says that “the predominance of laments at the very heart of Israel’s prayers means that the problems that give rise to lament are not something marginal or unusual but rather are central to the life of faith.”
Of all the laments in the psalter, Psalm 88 is the bleakest. While the other laments end with, or at least include, direct expressions of confidence in God and/or thanksgiving for deliverance, this prayer lacks those elements all together. Two features of this psalm display hope which is struggling to persevere in the midst of great trouble. First, the psalmist addressed the Lord as “God of my salvation.” Despite the fact that no answer at all seemed forthcoming, the psalmist knew that his help – if there was to be any help – came from the Lord (Psalm 121). Second, the psalmist persisted in appealing to God for help: day and night his cry went up to God (v. 1); daily he called upon God (v. 9); and every morning he sought deliverance (v. 13). Despite his great suffering, the psalmist did not give up on his prayers to Lord.
The deep value of this psalm lies in its raw honesty. The expressions of suffering in this text are intense and dark:
- “My soul is full of troubles” (v. 3)
- “Like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more” (v. 5)
- “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 (v. 8)
- “Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me” (v. 15-16)
- “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness” (v. 18)
The psalmist felt not only forgotten by God but also assaulted by Him. He felt trapped and utterly alone. He felt like a corpse rotting in a grave. These are the expressions of despair. They are the words of someone whose story has become cemented in pain. Yet, they are also biblical words, biblical expressions, and this means that they have a place in the life of God’s people.
Their place is to give witness to the reality that sometimes God’s people experience unrelenting suffering. Sometimes God’s people experience God more as mysterious Absence or even as dangerous Enemy than as loving Father. The Bible does not diminish, deny, or negate this kind of suffering. Neither does it allow easy answers to soul-crushing problems. Instead, the Bible, through a text like Psalm 88, teaches us that there are words for prayer even in the most brutal circumstances. This lament initiates us in prayer that comes from darkness. It opens the door for us to speak the full depth of our pain and feelings to God, no matter how raw and broken they might be. Unwrapping our confusion, fear, anger, and despair in prayer is part of what it means to have faith in the Creator and Redeemer God of Israel.
Further, even if we are not in such a state of suffering ourselves, Psalm 88 teaches us to genuinely acknowledge the terrifying pain which some people go through. In a world of war, rape, genocide, slavery, and debilitating mental and physical illness, we have brothers and sisters who feel very much the same as the author of Psalm 88 did. Our task as followers of Jesus is not to ignore their pain because it makes us uncomfortable. It is not to callously blame them for their own problems. Rather, our calling is to – as far as we able – come alongside them and with compassion acknowledge and care about their plight. We can, as one author has said, pray Psalm 88 with and on behalf of those who feel that darkness is their only companion. By being with them and for them in this way, we can point to the larger biblical story of which Psalm 88 is a part: our Creator and Redeemer God does not forget or abandon his people. In the unspeakable suffering of Jesus Christ, he has shared our brokenness to the utmost to secure for us a future redemption in which even the worst of sufferings will – in the light of that glory – seem like “light and momentary afflictions” (Romans 8:18). Such hope cannot be offered glibly or tritely, but it can be offered steadfastly through the ministry of prayer and faithful presence to the one whose “soul is full of troubles.”
Take time now to seek God. This brief prayer will help you get started. “Heavenly Father, I thank you that you hear our cries of despair. Sometimes it seems that you are absent and far away. Sometimes your wrath feels overwhelming. Help me to remember the truth that you never leave or forsake us. Help me to find comfort and hope in the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ. Lord, I pray for those who may be experiencing the darkness of unrelenting suffering. I offer the words of Psalm 88 on their behalf, but I also ask you to have mercy and deliver them, O Lord, according to your steadfast love. In the name of Jesus, Amen.”