When believers enter “the dark night of the soul,” those times when God’s mysterious will, worked out through difficult providence, makes the Lord appear veiled and unapproachable, what should they do? As we look at Scripture, one conclusion is apparent. They should sing. For the biblical testimony is that God provides “songs in the night”—lyrics to bring to Him in times of great heart distress.
We would not, at first thought, naturally reason that a time of struggle, suffering, or pain is also a time for singing, especially when God seems absent and hidden. It can almost seem cruel to suggest that a hurting, disillusioned soul should sing. Crying, wondering, and groaning seem more fitting. But singing? Is not lifting our voice in song for happy times? Certainly, but singing is also for trying times. Indeed, perhaps especially so.
Christian songwriter Michael Card has noted that in the book of Psalms, sixty-five of the 150 songs found there, or more than 40 percent, contain lamentations. As His people live in this sin-cursed world, God knew that they would need help pouring out their souls to Him in distress. So, He provided them with songs to sing at those times—songs in the night.
Job’s younger friend Elihu testifies to this truth when he acknowledges that God “gives songs in the night” to those in distress (Job 35:10). Likewise, the psalmist, so troubled in soul that he says he moans when he remembers God, stirs himself with the words, “Let me remember my song in the night” (Ps. 77:3, 6). He then goes on to sing five agonizing lines of a song that, stated in questions, describe how spiritual midnight truly feels. “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (vv. 7–9).
One such song in the night is Psalm 42. The psalmist, far from God and His people, taunted by his foes, says he longs for God like a hunted deer pants for water (v. 1). He describes his experience as having the breaking waves of God’s sea washing over him (v. 7). He gives expression to dismay, as seen in the twice-repeated question of the psalm: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (vv. 5, 11).
However, this song also provides proper heart redirection. For in the midst of his despair, the psalmist also recalls these truths: “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (v. 8). He answers his repeated question with the same refrain each time. “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” As Martyn Lloyd-Jones reminds us in his work Spiritual Depression, psalms like this one encourage us to “preach to ourselves” instead of just “listening to ourselves.” We can counter our feelings of defeat and discouragement by preaching to our souls sermons provided by God in His Word.
One excruciating yet precious family memory I have involves this particular psalm. As we were having family worship, one of our children asked us to sing Psalm 42. As we did, the words brought out the sense of loss and futility we were all feeling over a painful family matter. Many years later, I can still see the tear-streaked cheeks and hear the sobs of my wife, my teenage children, and even my youngest child who was of preschool age at the time. But I also have in my soul the mark and memory of God’s strong presence coming to us and comforting us. For as the words of the psalm helped us express ourselves to God and to one another, we were also strengthened to hope in God and trust Him for this situation. Knowing the Lord cares so much for us that He provides words and hope for our deepest of sorrows shows His tender mercy and care for His people. Truly He puts our tears in a bottle (56:8).
When Jesus entered the dark night of His soul on Calvary’s cross, He had these same songs on His heart. He quoted from the psalms, expressing both His despair in the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1), and His hope when He finally said, “Into your hand I commit my spirit” (Ps. 31:5). Friend, if your Lord needed these words at His blackest hour, so do you. When you do not know what to say or pray, when you have groaning too deep for words, when the darkness falls, then turn to the songs in the night the Lord Himself used, and that He still provides for you.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Tabletalk web magazine.