Psalm 88 is the darkest Psalm in the Book of Psalms. The LORD is only mentioned in three different places; once in a prayer of belief: “LORD, God of my salvation … incline Your ear to my cry” (vs. 1-2), and twice in an urgent plea for rescue which has gone unheard: “LORD, I have called daily upon You … LORD, why do You cast off my soul?” (vs. 9, 14). Perhaps you are experiencing a dark time of grief right now. As the darkness and sorrow threaten to overwhelm you, look to Psalm 88 as a guide for your thoughts and prayers and a beacon of hope in the midst of a confusing, threatening, or unchanging providence.
Although we do not know the circumstances that inspired Psalm 88, verses 1-9 contain many words that paint a picture of real, deep, raw, and personal grief. The Psalmist complains that his life draws near to the grave; he is adrift; he is cast into the lowest pit. Darkness is his constant companion. Four verses of Psalm 88 use the imagery of water to create a picture of complete and hopeless despair. The Psalmist has been laid in the depths; God has afflicted him with all His waves; he is shut up and cannot get out; terrors cut him off like water, and have engulfed him. The water experience in this Psalm is not a family-friendly outing to the beach. Rather, it is the terror of drowning with no one nearby to deliver. There is no escape.
Images of Raw Grief
Psalm 88 brings to mind one of the greatest sorrows that can befall us: a parent experiencing the death of their child. Almost two years later, the images remain engraved in my memory. Grown men weeping shamelessly. A mother, weak and wounded in every way – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – being helped to the graveside of her child. The finality of the dirt being thrown onto the casket. The awful feeling that everything about this scene is wrong.
Sometimes the enemy of death seems to come as a relief – after a full life well-lived, an ailing grandparent is taken home to glory. At other times, the enemy of death comes as an unexpected shock, a nighttime horror, a sorrow that will be carried with us to our own graves.
Grief Remembered: Naomi
The Bible doesn’t sugar-coat grief and despair. In fact, many of our favorite characters are surrounded with sorrow, which doesn’t go away just because there’s a happy ending. A good example of this sorrow is Naomi, whose story is told in the book of Ruth.
We are told of Naomi’s loss in cryptic, non-descriptive terms. After departing her hometown to live in a foreign – and pagan – country, we are told, “Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons” (Ruth 1:4). We aren’t told the nature of the calamity that took Naomi’s husband away; we don’t know how old he was; we don’t know what kind of marriage they had. We only know that his sons were not yet married, and that, after Elimelech’s death, both of the sons married women from their new country and lived there for about ten years. We are told, again in terse, unemotional language: “Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband” (Ruth 1:5).
How did the death of her husband and two sons impact Naomi? We know that she grieved deeply. In fact, her grief was so great that she asked for her name to be changed. In Hebrew culture, names were of great importance: your name told a story and had important significance. “To the Hebrew way of thinking, to know a person’s name is to know his character, to know him. The name is the person.”When Naomi finally returned to her home country with her daughter-in-law in tow, the women of the town came out to greet her, calling, “Is this Naomi?” We are told the full distress of Naomi’s sorrow when she responds: “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” (Ruth 1:20-21).
The name “Naomi” means “pleasant, lovely, delightful” – and we can safely assume that Naomi was previously known to be a pleasant woman. However, the pain and sorrow of losing her husband and children has been such that she has an identity change. Instead of being pleasant, she now asks to be called “Mara”, which means “bitter”. Naomi does not deny her faith in God; rather, she still acknowledges that He is Almighty. Yet even that knowledge brings about its own grief, for the Almighty hand of God has not spared her this affliction. Naomi believes that the LORD is responsible for her sorrow: “The LORD has brought me home again empty … the Almighty has afflicted me.”
If you have buried a child, you have experienced the deep bitterness that comes with that loss. The feeling of empty hands. The emptiness of your heart even as you have other children to hold and care for. The empty space in the family picture that should have been filled by a living, growing person. The sorrow that causes you to cry decades later as you remember your child. Naomi experienced all of those things. Her involvement in the story of Ruth didn’t lessen her sorrow. Holding her grandson Obed in her arms later may have been an extremely sad moment, as she remembered her own sons and thought of how she would never get to hold their children.
Shall the Dead Rise and Praise You? Christ at the Center
Does Psalm 88 offer us any hope in the face of sorrow like Naomi’s? Let’s examine it. The latter half of verse 9 begins with: “Lord, I have called daily upon You;I have stretched out my hands to You.” Then, beginning in verse 10, there are six rhetorical questions, all of which have the obvious answer of No.
“Will You work wonders for the dead?” No.
“Shall the dead arise and praise You?” No.
“Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave?” No.
“Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction?” No.
“Shall Your wonders be known in the dark?” No.
“And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” No.
However, the second question, “Shall the dead arise and praise You?” has an interesting interlude: Selah. If we follow the line of reasoning that Selah is really a marker to point us to Christ, then we can see how Christ turns each of these rhetorical “No’s” into a resounding “Yes!” Think of each of those questions again in the light of the completed work of Christ:
“Will You work wonders for the dead?” Yes!
“Shall the dead arise and praise You?” Yes!
“Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave?” Yes!
“Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction?” Yes!
“Shall Your wonders be known in the dark?” Yes!
“And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” Yes!
As I participated in the funeral of my friend’s baby girl, I realized that Jesus Christ is the only answer to the question that every person must wrestle with: the question of what happens when I die. Our belief in Jesus’ resurrection is what sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world. How do I know that I will inherit eternal life? The Heidelberg Catechism asks in Question 49: “How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us? Answer: … we have our own flesh in heaven – a guarantee that Christ our head will take us, his members, to himself in heaven.” Jesus Christ was the first Man to arise from the dead and praise God, and because of Him, God’s lovingkindness, faithfulness, wonders, and righteousness will not cease to be proclaimed by us after we die.
Words for the Wordless
In the midst of extreme sorrow, it is extremely difficult to express what we are thinking and feeling. Psalm 88 gives words to the wordless. Perhaps the answer to our questions is sometimes not an answer at all. John Calvin says: “[The Psalms] will principally teach and train us to bear the cross; and the bearing of the cross is a genuine proof of our obedience, since by doing this, we renounce the guidance of our own affections, and submit ourselves entirely to God, leaving Him to govern us and to dispose of our life according to His will, so that the afflictions which are the bitterest and most severe to our nature become sweet to us because they proceed from Him.”
We often desire to understand why a certain trial has befallen us. If only I could see the good that has come out of it, we think. Yet the less we see, the more pure our faith must be; for if we can see, then it is not walking by faith, but by sight. Thinking back to the story of Naomi, David Atkinson says: “Are we not introduced here to the dark side of God’s providence – that some of our pains seem unbearable; some of our circumstances so unjust; some of our questions stay without answers? Faith, we are to learn from Naomi, sometimes means a willingness to leave such questions in the mystery of God, in the confidence that in the brighter days he has shown himself trustworthy.”
My Only Friend is Darkness
Psalm 88 does not end in triumph. God does not answer with an amazing salvation. The trial does not end. Whatever was afflicting the Psalmist does not get resolved. The last words of the Psalm are perhaps the saddest ending in the whole book of Psalms: “Loved one and friend You have put far from me, and my acquaintances into darkness.” Yet, there is comfort even in the sorrow. As Dr. W. Robert Godfrey says, “Psalm 88 expresses our feelings when the cross is especially heavy and the struggle at its most difficult. By giving expression to our most bleak feelings, Psalm 88 comforts us in a curious way. It shows us that we are not alone in our doubts, confusions, and complaints. Not only have other believers felt the same things, but God has inscripturated those sentiments to assure us that it is legitimate to feel such things and to pour them out in prayer.” Psalm 88 may well have comforted our Savior during His sufferings.
When the pain is unceasing and the waves keep engulfing you, turn to Psalm 88. It will provide you with words to speak as it does not downplay your pain. It will remind you how Christ turns your death into resurrection and newness of life. The Word of God will be your friend when your only friend is darkness.
This article was previously published in the May/June 2022 issue of The Outlook, a Reformed Fellowship publication dedicated to the exposition and defense of the Reformed faith.
David Atkinson, The Message of Ruth(Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL: 1983), 34.
John Calvin, “Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms,” in John Calvin: Writings on Personal Piety, ed. Elsie McKie (New York:Paulist, 2001), 58. As quoted in Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners by Dane C. Ortlund, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 155.
Atkinson, The Message of Ruth, 38-39.
W. Robert Godfrey, Learning to Love the Psalms (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2017), 154.