Theme: A Psalm for the Hopeless
From this psalm, we see that life does not always have happy endings. Nevertheless, we can trust God in the midst of great sorrow and suffering because of what he tells us about himself in his Word, and that he promises to work in the lives of those whom he loves.
Scripture: Psalm 88:1-18
The powerful, descriptive phrase “dark night of the soul” is not much used today, but it was in the Middle Ages where it is found in the writings of the European mystics. It is a translation of the title of a book by the Spanish monk St. John of the Cross, known in English as The Ascent of Mount Carmel (1578-1580). What is the dark night of the soul? It is a state of intense spiritual anguish in which the struggling, despairing believer feels he is abandoned by God.
This is what Psalm 88 describes. It is not totally unlike other psalms in which the writers complain of their wretched circumstances and lament their misery. But these others all move toward some state of resolution—maturing faith or hope—by the end of the psalm. This is not the case with Psalm 88. It begins with God, but it ends with the words “darkness is my closest friend,” and there seems to be no hope anywhere. Derek Kidner says, “This is the saddest prayer in the Psalter.”1 H. C. Leupold wrote, “It is the gloomiest psalm found in the Scriptures,” adding, “The psalmist is as deeply in trouble when he has concluded his prayer as he was when he began it.”2 J. J. Stewart Perowne remarks, “This is the darkest, saddest Psalm in all the Psalter. It is one wail of sorrow from beginning to end.”3
It is good that we have a psalm like this, but it is also good that we have just one. It is good to have it, because it reminds us that life is filled with trouble, even to the point of despair, and even for mature believers. Psalm 88 is by an inspired writer, after all. He is identified as Heman the Ezrahite, one of the “sons of Korah.”4
Once when I was discussing Christian contributions to modern literature a friend and I asked why there is so little outstanding Christian fiction today. The answer is that we are not true enough to life. Christians in our day feel that in order for it to be Christian, a Christian composition has to work out right in the end, and there has to be a clear lesson or moral. Psalm 88 is a reminder that life is not always like that. There may be a perfectly good moral from God’s point of view; I believe that all life does have a divine purpose. But that does not mean that we can see it or that it will ever become clear in our lifetimes necessarily.
Marvin Tate says, “Psalm 88 stands as a witness to the intent of the psalms to speak to all of life, to remind us that life does not always have happy endings.”5 Historian and Christian social critic Martin Marty wrote, “The psalm is a scandal to anyone who isolates it from the biblical canon, a pain to anyone who must hear it apart from more lively words. Whoever devises from the Scriptures a philosophy in which everything turns out right has to begin by tearing out this page of the volume.”6
Commentators on the psalms propose many different outlines for this psalm, which suggests that no one outline is necessarily to be preferred. In fact, not much of an outline is needed because the verses simply move along from one expression of profound misery and despair to another. The best plan is merely to take these ideas in sequence, following (for convenience) the stanzas laid out by the New International Version.
1Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975), p. 316.
2H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), pp. 626, 627.
3J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 2, p. 140. Original edition 1878, 1879.
4For other references to Heman, presumably but not necessarily the same individual, see: 1 Chronicles 2:6; 6:23; 15:17-19; 16:41, 42; 25:1-6; 2 Chronicles 5:12; 29:14; 35:15.
5Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word, 1990), p. 405.
6Martin Marty in A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 68; quoted by Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, Psalms 51-100, p. 404.
What is the dark night of the soul?
How does Psalm 88 differ from some of the other laments in the Psalter?
Why is it important to have a psalm of despair without resolution?
Reflection: Do you struggle with how the reality of life does not measure up to the Christian expectation? How does this affect your Christian witness to others?
For Further Study: One of the reasons the Psalms have been so treasured down through the centuries is because they address every human response to God, from the greatest joy to the deepest despair. James Boice’s careful and practical studies can strengthen and encourage you when you are called to go through hard times that are beyond our understanding. Order your copy of the three-volume paperback set, and take 25% off.