A Meditation on Psalm 88

Depression cry? A sad psalm written by someone who is depressed? If I am feeling like that myself, why would I want to study it and read about it?

In response, there are a couple of reasons why. First, because you will find here someone with whom you can truly identify. Renowned Brethren Bible teacher J. N. Darby said that at one time Psalm 88 was the only Scripture that had any help for him, because he saw there that someone else had been as low as that before him. The second reason we should consider this psalm is because, although this passage of the Bible is filled with dark shadows, it points the way to the light. It is a message from the Lord for all who have suffered such times.

This is the only psalm attributed to Heman, the Ezrahite (see the inspired heading). Elsewhere we learn that Heman was a singer from the Levitical family of Kohath (I Chron. 6:33; II Chron. 5:12). (First Chronicles 6:16-30 lists Samuel among the Kohathites too.)

Heman has given us, in his psalm, an unbroken wail of distress. It is the saddest and most mournful of all the psalms. Unlike a number of other laments, the gloom is not relieved by any clear expression of hope for the future. Nowhere does it move on to a "But God..." but continues its negative tone to the end. The last word in English translation is "darkness." The spirit of the psalm, if not the details, surely parallel the agony of the Son of God in the garden of Gethsemane (cf. Matt. 26:37; Mk. 14:33-34; Lk. 22:44).

A list of common words found in the psalm is revealing. There we see forms of the following words: cut off (vs. 5), troubles (vs. 3), afflicted (vs. 7, 9, 15), wrath (vs. 7, 16), dead (vs. 5, 10, 15), darkness (vs. 6, 12, 18), depths (vs. 6), grave (vs. 3, 5, 11), and pit (vs. 4, 6).

Yet this is not a cry of faithless rebellion. The psalmist begins by calling God the "Lord [Jehovah] God of my salvation" (vs. 1). And there is some reference or appeal to God in nearly every verse–either by name, or with the pronouns You and Your (vs. 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18). In his extreme distress, Heman continues to seek after God, as the One who can explain his pain and bring relief. In his agony he clings to one main thing: that the Lord is the one who saves and delivers.

The psalmist pours out his heart to the Lord. He knows Him, and has a personal relationship with Him. But just now, unbroken trials perplex and dismay him. He is suffering miseries of an undetermined origin and unknown purpose (as Job did). And perhaps an awareness of the inability of the Law of Israel to deliver him from them further troubles him. He had sought to do all that the Law required, yet cannot find peace and comfort. The "Why?" of vs. 14 suggests his frustration.

Nevertheless, this psalm constitutes a remarkable statement of faith. Here is one who has experienced life-threatening illness (vs. 3-4), or some debilitating condition from his youth (vs. 15). Perhaps vs. 1 indicates a problem with insomnia as well. His malady has made him a shut-in many times over the years, also driving those he knows from him (vs. 8, 18). The latter problem could be due to the repellant nature of the condition itself, or to the perception of it as a judgment from God that others are concerned to avoid. Job experienced that kind of abandonment too.

Heman has shed many tears over his condition (vs. 9). Yet he continues to pray to the God of his salvation (vs. 1-2, 9, 13). How many of us would have turned our backs on God in bitterness, long since? Here is a man, like Job, who has remarkable faith, but who appears to be suffering from deep despondency and depression. His unrelenting misery, and his thoughts of death, certainly fit our modern understanding of that painful emotional condition. Because of the unique nature of this psalm, Heman has some things to say to sufferers experiencing that malady.

"Thus greatly may good men be afflicted, and such dismal thoughts may they have about their afflictions, and such dark conclusions may they make about their end, through the power of melancholy and the weakness of faith. He complained most of God's displeasure. Even the children of God's love may sometimes think themselves children of wrath, and no outward trouble can be so hard upon them as that" (Matthew Henry).

Now, let us consider the text of the psalm.

Vs. 1-5. O LORD, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before You. Let my prayer come before You; incline Your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to the grave. I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength, adrift among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more, and who are cut off from Your hand.

You are "the God who saves me" (NIV)–the God of my deliverance, the One to whom, therefore, I keep on praying. If there is any hope in the darkness, it is here. And we may be sure that when our hold on God seems to be slipping, He never loses His loving grip on us (cf. Jn. 10:28-29). But even after our lives are anchored in Him, after we have put our faith in Christ and been born again into the family of God, there may well be times when we do not feel the truth of this.

Sometimes, that is caused by unconfessed sin hindering our fellowship with the Lord. But despondency and depression can have many other causes as well–illness, fatigue, conflicted relationships, and so on. It is not necessarily due to a moral or spiritual problem.

Again and again the psalmist identifies himself with death and dying. He is "adrift among the dead." That is a classic symptom of emotional depression. But it is important, in such a case, to keep before us the fact that God's relationship with the believer does not fluctuate moment by moment according to how we feel about it! "If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things" (I Jn. 3:20). There are times when we must try to declare it to be true (because it is true) that He is the "God of my salvation," even when we cannot feel that it is so. Feelings will follow eventually. And the Lord, in His wisdom and compassion, understands that.

Writing about a century ago, Bible expositor F. B. Meyer said something about Psalm 103:13-14 that is relevant here. The passage itself tells us, "As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust." Meyer comments, "We chastise ourselves bitterly if we do not understand or reach our ideals. We are ever fearful that He will not give us credit for the motives which underlie our sad and fitful experience. We try to make ourselves more fit for His love. And all the time He is tenderly regarding us, and knows so well how much of our failure accrues from temperament, and disposition, and overstrain." That is well said, and worth pondering.

Vs. 6-12. You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah. You have put away my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an abomination to them; I am shut up, and I cannot get out. My eye wastes away because of affliction. LORD, I have called daily upon You; I have stretched out my hands to You. Will You work wonders for the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise You? Selah. Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

Those he knew before, "loved one and friend" (vs. 18), have now deserted him. As noted earlier, this, and indeed much of the psalm, reflects a very Job-like experience (cf. Job 2:7-8; 19:13-19). Severe trials have their own special loneliness. Even apart from the spiritual dimension, "friends" that flock around a winner to bask in his glory, and enjoy the material benefits of his achievements, are often quick to desert him, or turn against him, when good fortune seems to depart.

But more than that, where is God? When trials seem to have no end, no explanation, and no remedy, when the godly one prays and the Lord seems unresponsive, that brings the ultimate loneliness. There is a temptation to see God as uncaring or impotent (vs. 4-5, 14). Times when God is silent, and seems so distant are surely, for His child, the worst thing of all. Compare the experience of the Lord Jesus (Jn. 6:66; Matt. 26:56; 27:46). That Christ in the days of His earthly life experienced these things is a great reassurance to us. When we pray, He represents us before the throne of God as our great High Priest, fully able to sympathize with us in our weakness (Heb. 4:14-16).

The hymn writer reminds us, "What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! / What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! / O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, / All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer. / Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? / Precious Saviour, still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer. / Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer! / In His arms He'll take and shield you; you will find a solace there" ("What a Friend We Have in Jesus," by Joseph Medlicott Scriven, 1885).

There are strong negative statements in the psalm about death. Heman speaks of, "the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more, and who are cut off from Your hand [i.e. from God's blessing and help]" (vs. 5). "Will You do wonders for the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise You? Selah [a word possibly meaning, Think of that!]." Heman goes on, "Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?" (vs. 10-12). The implied answer to each of these questions is "No." At least, that is how he felt about it at the time.

This view of death seems at odds with what the Bible has to say about eternal life, and the blessings believers have in store in the future, in the presence of God. But there is no contradiction once we understand the temporal viewpoint of much of the Old Testament.

As an Israelite, Heman looks upon death as the end of earthly blessing for God's earthly people Israel. It was also the end of their opportunity to praise the Lord as His earthly witnesses. This view does not negate the Bible's teaching on life after death. It is simply speaking of the blessing of God in terms of that which the living can see and experience.

Though there is not, in the Old Testament, a full revelation of the subject of heaven and hell, nonetheless these concepts were not entirely ignored (cf. Ps. 16:9-11; 23:6; 49:15). It is just that the afterlife was not seen as the main venue in which God's great covenants with Israel (to Abraham and David, for example) were expected to work themselves out.

Vs. 13-18. But to You I have cried out, O LORD, and in the morning my prayer comes before You. LORD, why do You cast off my soul? Why do You hide Your face from me? I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught. Your fierce wrath has gone over me; Your terrors have cut me off. They came around me all day long like water; they engulfed me altogether. Loved one and friend You have put far from me, and my acquaintances into darkness.

Darkness. It runs through the psalm like a moaning refrain (cf. vs. 6, 12). If you have never been as low as this man, praise the Lord for that! But realize that many, many great saints of God have struggled with emotional depression. Charles Haddon Spurgeon did. The "Prince of Preachers," author of dozens of books, suffered periods of great anxiety and black despair. He admitted, "The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy." And he wasn't.

It is unfortunate that some have sold an unrealistic picture of the gospel (i.e. "Come to Jesus and your troubles will be over.") In truth, the Christian life is not going to be one long unbroken path of happiness and good cheer. There will be times of great sorrow and sadness, and of trial and painful struggle. And some, though not all, suffer from a severe emotional depression the cause of which may not be immediately apparent. Being positive and upbeat when we feel otherwise inside is hypocrisy. Rather than putting on an empty smile before others and playing "let's pretend," we need to be real, and authentic.

Certainly, not everyone will be ready to listen to our catalogue of woes, but it is wonderful to find at least one friend who will. If this psalm rings true to your own experience, take heart. The Lord has put it in the Bible so you will know He understands, even when no one else does. But He put only one psalm like it in the Scriptures to remind us that there is light beyond the clouds. The sun continues to shine, even though it is hidden from view.

This psalm is, in fact, surrounded by joyful singing (cf. Ps. 87:7; 89:1). But in our weakness, we may have times when no song seems to come, and the singing of others grates upon us painfully. The psalm is a reminder in such times that we are not alone. While many do not understand, and may feed us trite platitudes, or condemn our weak faith, there are people who know by experience what we are going through. And the God of our salvation will not forsake us. Again, "if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart" (I Jn. 3:20). Whatever our trial, however dark the way, "God is greater."

Sometimes within the span of this earthly life, but certainly in eternity, we will have a far better understanding of the ways of God, and the reasons He has allowed suffering in our lives. As Jesus said to His disciples one day, "What I am doing you do not understand now; but you will know after this" (Jn. 13:7; cf. Jas. 5:11). And the Apostle Paul understood that. He says, "Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as also I am known" (I Cor. 13:12).

To those who know someone going through this kind of darkness, let me say a few words. Do not be too quick to think you understand all about it, and the reasons for it. The answer to the "Why?" question (vs. 14) may not be as simple as you think. And do not be quick to condemn the words of the desperate (cf. Job 6:26). Sometimes words are not a reasoned creed, but simply a cry of pain and an appeal for help. Those suffering from depression cry out for understanding. Pious as it sounds, "Just read your Bible and pray" may not be the immediate need. And "all things work together for good," while it is true theologically, may not be a comfort in that moment.

Stand by the sufferer, and be a good listener. Avoid preaching at him or her. Do you know the old saying, "When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on"? Well, it could be the depressed person is in a state where it is very difficult to hang on. That person needs a faithful friend who will hang on for him or her! Will you be such a friend?

There we see what the heading calls Depression Cry. For more ideas on the related problem of discouragement, see Dealing with Discouragement.