This week we’re tackling a fairly heavy Psalm, one that probably isn’t read all that much in Church Services, however it is an important psalm for us to grapple/wrestle with.
Be encouraged, be challenged as you journey with/to Jesus our King.
This messages focuses on Psalm 88
As christians we’re not very good at coping with the dark valleys of life. Our victory in Christ means that life is meant to get better not worse, and so dark valleys aren’t meant to be a part of the Christian life.
But if you’ve been a Christian for more than two minutes you will realize that the dark valleys are just as much a part of our Christian life as they were a part of our life before. In fact for some of us, the dark valleys become more frequent after we give our lives to Christ.
That has certainly been the story of the Church.Think back to 1st century. For all of the disciples life was probably pretty rosy before they began following Jesus. For most early Christians, because of their faith in Jesus, they entered the dark valley and never got out of it. All bar one disciple (John) were executed because of their faith. Many Christians throughout the centuries has suffered great loss and hardships because of their faith in Jesus. And this suffering because of faith, isn’t going away any time soon. In fact it is believed more Christians are being persecuted now than any other time throughout the Church’s history.
And even though we don’t face persecution here in Australia, that doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook. Take a look around, take a look at our own lives, I doubt any of us could put up our hand and say that we’ve got off scott-free, unmarked.
Let’s face it, while there are some great high points, and great periods of absolute blessing, these most of the time, if not always, transition into low points and dark valleys. And the reality for some is that these low points and valleys might last for years, or even until the day we die.
We may enter the dark valley when a loved one dies, or when there is tension between family members. We may enter the valley when we have a terminal disease that can’t be cured, or when we loose our only source of income.
The reality of it is, every one of us, has or, will face dark times. In jest, a friend’s mum always used to say to him when he hurt himself that, “worse thing will happen to you before you die.” Even though it was a funny throw away line there is a cold reality to it.
So what do we do with this, if these dark valleys are going to continue to be a part of the human experience, how can we journey through them better as opposed to living in complete denial, or burying our heads in the sand hoping that it’ll all just go away.
Now I mentioned before that as Christians we struggle to deal, make sense of, or come to terms with the dark valleys of life, and one of the proofs of this is that in our worship together we only really focus on uplifting and encouraging songs of praise.
Further more there are 150 psalms in the book of Psalms. Now let me ask you how many of those do you think you’ve herd in Church that have a positive praise aspect to them compared to psalms of lament and crying out to God?
At a guess, I reckon all the psalms read in Church are psalms of praise with a positive tone. But the reality is that only about 30% of the 150 psalms are positive/praise psalms, the rest of them are all lament psalms.
Now I’ve got a few ideas about why we only ever read out the 30% and not the 70% worth of lament psalms. I reckon the reason we only focus on the 30% is that if we were to read aloud one psalm from the 70% we would be doing something naughty or ungrateful.
To even mention a word of complaint to God makes us somewhat of a little toddler chucking a tantrum, and we’re better than that. We could even go as far to say that reading a lament psalm may suggest that we haven’t got it all together. And doesn’t that go against the notion that we’re actually the ones that are meant to have it all together?
But do you know what? The fact that 70% of the psalms are psalms of lament tells us something about how we are to relate to God. And so really today is not necessarily about dealing with the dark valleys of life but rather about how we are to relate and communicate with God through these valleys.
So now we turn to Psalm 88. This Psalm has been called the “the saddest Psalm in the whole Psalter”; “unrelieved by a single ray of comfort or hope”; and “stark and lonely and pain-riddled”.
One writer has even said “Whoever devises from the Scriptures a philosophy in which everything turns out right has to begin by tearing out this page of the [Bible].”
Despite the gloomy nature of this psalm it is in the Bible for a reason, it is in the Bible to be prayed to God. The fact that this psalm is even in the psalter is testament to that.
The feelings, the pain, the anguish, are to be let out, all these emotions are to be communicated to God. This psalm is not a psalm of mute depression though, the psalmist has not thrown in the towel, the psalmist prays to God. As we read in verse 1 these words of lament are addressed and directed to, “the God who saves me.”
And with that the request goes out, “May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry…” In a sense the psalmist has already suggested what is needed and expected in the initial address, “God of my salvation…”
But here God is silent and unresponsive. Perhaps God is silent because the sinfulness of the psalmist has driven him away.
Or maybe the silence is a statement of God’s transcendent freedom; God can answer who he wants when he wants, he is not always on call. But these are not the given reasons.
In fact there are no reasons given to explain God’s silence, and you get the impression that even if this psalmist would have no interest in them, nor would they help. The situation is too dire for any reasonable conversation.
Now in this psalm God doesn’t answer the psalmist, but what is interesting is that God’s silence doesn’t stop the psalmist from calling out to him. And not only that it doesn’t lead to the psalmist denying the existence of God, nor does it lead to doubt in God or rejection of God.
In fact it leads to more intense crying out to God. This psalm, like Israel’s faith, like our faith, is contained in the fact that God is there and must be addressed.
For us, like the Israelites, God is not a concept that we can adopt in the easy times, and do away with in the tough times. God is there both in the Good times and in the bad times. And so our only hope is to call out to him even if he doesn’t respond.
As I just mentioned the lack of response leads to further crying out to God. And in verses 3-5 this crying out turns into an angry barrage of statements. There is no playing up to God, no sweet talk, no gently put together play on words to provoke God to act.
What you see is what you get, If you wanted to tease or persuade God to answer this is not the way to do it. And at the end of the day God should not need persuasion, he should just answer.
Verses 6-9 and 13 the heat is turned up, Charges are brought against God and God is the one who needs to answer them, in fact in this psalm it appears as if all this suffering has been brought on by God: in verses 6-9 and 13 it’s important to note how many times the psalmist points the finger and begins with, “you or your…”
You have put me in the lowest pit…Your wrath lies heavily on me… You have overwhelmed me… You have taken from me my closest friends…Your wrath has swept over me…Your terrors have destroyed me.
What audacity and yet what else can the psalmist do. The psalmist is utterly helpless. In Job-like fashion the psalmist hopes that such an assault may evoke a response, and yet in this case it doesn’t, only more silence.
Finally in verse 14 the psalmist finally cries, Why?!? Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? Here at this point moves to direct, unambiguous accusation, Why have you done this…Why has this happened…
Finally we come to verse 18, “You have taken from me friend and neighbor-darkness is my closest friend.” The psalmist is shunned and in darkness. As one writer says, “The last word in the psalm is darkness. The last word is darkness. The last theological word here is darkness. Nothing works, nothing is changed, nothing is resolved.”
And so what are we to do about it? And to that all we can answer is wait. And as we wait for God to act we can either wait in silence or speak the words again. But what we can’t do is rush to an easier psalm in the hope that we can bury our heads in the sand or give up on God.
So what are we meant to do with this? Well what we take away from this psalm is that we need to cry out to God, and keep crying out to him. He is our only hope. In these dark valleys crying out to God is us doing our bit, so to speak, all we can do is wait for God to do his bit.
Now as Christians we don’t pray this psalm alone. In fact the God that we are addressing has prayed this psalm with us. The God of our salvation entered the dark valley to bring our salvation about.
The night before Jesus, God in the flesh, would ultimately pass through the valley he was betrayed and all his friends deserted him, his only friend was darkness. And like the psalmist, when he was on the cross, cried out to his father, My God, My God why have you forsaken my? Why Lord do you reject me and hide your face from me?
No wonder this psalm with psalm 22 are read out together on Good Friday. They remind us also that while the cross was a dark pit it also brought about salvation and turned into glorious hope with the resurrection.
Jesus, God in the flesh, has been there, and he goes there with us. And it is he who we cry out to, the one who has walked in our shoes. The one who died for us, the one who loves us. It is him who we cry out to and it is he who has put his spirit within us.
Now in closing there is one last point that I want to make. This psalm is in the book of psalms. The book of psalms was the prayer book of the Israelites, is still the prayer book of Jews around the world, and is also the prayer book of many Christians around the world too. And the thing with this prayer book, is that it is a prayer book meant to assist the Church in their corporate times of prayer.
The psalter is a public book as much as it is a private one, and that means that when we pray through the psalms we pray them together as one body, in solidarity with each other.
And so when one of us passes through the valley we all pass through together. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:26 “If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it.” At the end of the day we as the body are in it together. And as we pray this psalm together we partition God on our brother or sisters behalf.
And so as we close let’s remember when we enter the valley we are to Cry out to God. But we don’t cry out to a distant unloving God. We cry out to God the father, and God the Son who came to this earth and went through the valley with us to bring about our ultimate salvation, what hope. But not only that when we enter the valley we enter it together, and we all pray it together, with God’s spirit within us and in our midst.
And so with that in mind let’s close in prayer, praying this psalm of lament together.