What a difference one number can make! There’s a big difference between Psalm 88 (from which the title of this post comes) and Psalm 89.
During Lent, we’re having morning prayer at the church each day at 7am. This is something new this year, and I wasn’t sure if anyone would show up or if I would be alone each morning. As a non-morning person, I wasn’t even sure if I would get up and get there on time each day. But we’ve had 7-10 folks faithfully gather each morning for Scripture and prayer. It takes only about 20 minutes, but it has been a wonderful way to start each day during this season of turning back to God.
According to the daily lectionary I used to select readings, this morning’s first reading should have been Psalm 89, a beautiful hymn of praise that begins, “I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever.” That would have been a positive start to the week.
But I mistyped and we read Psalm 88 instead. There is nothing positive about Psalm 88. Here is an excerpt:
For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave . . . I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken me from my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape (verses 3, 5-8 NIV).
And “Good Morning” to you too!
Now, there are lots of Psalms that are laments, crying out to God in times of trouble. But Psalm 88 is unique in that there is no hint that God hears the lament, no sign of hope that God is going to come through for the lamenter. It doesn’t get any brighter than the excerpt. If anything, it gets worse.
This is how the Psalm ends in the Message translation:
You made lover and neighbor alike dump me; the only friend I have left is darkness (verse 18).
What is Psalm 88 doing in the Bible? Where’s the love? Where’s the hope?
Psalm 88 is actually a great example and expression of faith. Being a Christian is not all happiness and “yay God!” I’ll speak for myself here, but bad stuff happens in my life just like it did when I was an atheist. There are times when God feels very far away, very hard to see through the haze of my own weaknesses and limitations, through the sometimes dim realities of life in an imperfect, fallen world.
But I cry to you for hope, O Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, O Lord do you reject me and hide your face from me? (verses 13-14, NIV).
The Psalmist is lamenting what Luther called “The Hidden God” or “God in a Mask.” But the writer of Psalm 88 never stops crying out to God. Although he (or she) can’t hear or see God’s response, even if it feels like just shouting at the air, the Psalmist keeps on emptying his/her heart in prayer.
Sometimes it does seem like God has wandered out of cell phone coverage and we can’t get an answer. (Or God didn’t recharge the holy smartphone. Pick your strained 21st century metaphor.) But Psalm 88 reminds us to keep on calling, to stay on our knees not because we’re sure God will answer and give us just what we want, but because the very act of crying out is cathartic. It’s faith in action. It’s a gift.
Psalm 88 lets us know that doubt and difficulty are not signs of a lack of faith. “I’ve been there,” the psalmist assures us. “It’s part of the journey.”
So maybe Psalm 88 wasn’t a bad way to start the week, after all.