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The Off Color series provides valuable insight to help us master our emotions and not allow emotions to master us. Pastor Philip calls believers to engage their emotions properly and to enjoy God’s goodness in all circumstances of life.
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Well, let’s take our Bibles and turn to Psalm 88. We’re in our series Off Color. If you remember, we have color-coded issues of unwelcome emotions: white with fear, red with anger, green with envy, black with guilt, gray within decision, and, this morning, blue with depression.
We looked at white with fear, and now we’re coming to look at blue with depression. The text I have selected is Psalm 88. My Bible says it’s a prayer for help in despondency. This is a psalm on depression and despondency. So, take your Bible or turn your phone on, stand, and follow along as we read God’s Word together. I want to speak this morning on “Escape the Darkness.”
Psalm 88, from the New King James translation of Holy Scripture:
“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 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? 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.”
So reads God’s Word. You may be seated.
For those who love Reformed theology, the name Robert Dabney is a familiar one. He was a man of spiritual depth, a man of fantastic theological breadth. We still read him today. He was a man who knew his Bible. But, to read something of his life, he was a theologian who knew sorrow and suffering in great measure. He was born in 1820. He lost his father at the age 13. He was the chief of staff for Stonewall Jackson on the Confederate side. He had a ringside seat to the carnage of the Civil War. Physically, he was troubled by illness and sickness most of his life, and he lost his sight to blindness towards the end.
He had six sons, three of which died before they were old enough to leave the home, two of which died four weeks apart. Listen as he describes that awful month. Speaking about the death of his son, Jimmy, he says this: “When my Jimmy died, the grief was painfully sharp, but the actings of faith, the embracing of consolation, and all the cheering truths which ministered comfort to me were just as vivid.” We like to hear that, don’t we? Here he is in sorrow moving towards joy. Here he is in tragedy moving towards triumph. But, four weeks later, Bobby dies. And here’s what he says about that second death: “But when the stroke was repeated, and thereby doubled, I seem to be paralyzed and stunned. I know that my loss is doubled, and I know also that the same cheering truths apply to the second [death] as to the first, but I remain numb, downcast, almost without hope and interest.”
With the second loss heaped on top of the first loss, this world-class theologian, this good man of God, this disciple of Jesus Christ struggled to regain spiritual altitude. With the death of Jimmy and Bobby, his life was spiraling down into darkness. The same great gospel truths that had worked the first time didn’t work the second time. For a time, he was numb, depressed, hopeless, and lacking an interest in life. Now, the good news is that he would survive the furnace. The good news is he would escape the funk. He would live to prove Psalm 34:19: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”
But before he got there, he had a bite of depression. He had a time of great soul darkness. He lived the reality spoken of by Charles Spurgeon: “Sometimes God puts His children to bed in the dark.” Have you ever gone to bed in the dark? I’m not talking about what’s happening in the room; I’m talking about what’s happening in your heart. Robert Dabney experienced that.
In fact, Spurgeon, in a famous sermon, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” said this: “Fits of depression come over the most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy.”
That’s true. Fits of depression will come over the best of us and the most of us. There will be a time in your life and mine when our “get up and go” will have got up and gone. There will be times when we have to fight hard for our joy in the Lord Jesus. There will be times when God will seem distant and disinterested; and, as a result, you’ll feel numb, hurt, tired, and even terrified. There will be times in your life when you will feel that you’re more the object of God’s wrath than the recipient of God’s grace. There will be times in your life when death will seem more inviting than life. Dark times, dreadful times, depressing times.
Depression has been called the common cold of the emotions, and many people suffer from it. I think, at some point in life, we’ll all wrestle with it. That’s why I want to turn you to Psalm 88, a prayer for help and despondency.
In fact, someone has described this psalm this way: “It’s a wintery landscape of unrelieved bleakness.” Because if you read Psalm 88—unlike some of the other psalms that begin in tragedy and move towards triumph, begin in unbelief and move towards faith, begin in sorrow and move towards joy—there is no resolution in Psalm 88. In fact, the last word in the Hebrew text is “darkness.” “I have become an acquaintance with darkness.” That’s what the psalmist says. There is unrelieved bleakness. His prayers go unanswered. God seems distant. He seems to be more an object of God’s wrath than a recipient of God’s love.
In fact, trouble fills his days. Look at verse 15: “I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth.” Most commentators believe that this is a reference to some congenital or lifelong struggle with illness or physical weakness. Some even argue this man was a leper from when he was a young man. But whatever the case may be, you can see troubles filled his days. Secondly, terror filled his heart. “I have been afflicted,” verse 15 says, “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.” And then tears filled his eyes. Look at verse 9: “My eye wastes away because of affliction. Lord, I have called daily upon You; I have stretched out my hands to You.” This guy’s all cried out. There’s not a tear left to drop from his face. Troubles fill his days, terror fills his heart, and tears fill his eyes. He has become an acquaintance of darkness (vs. 18).
Now, let me pause and just say something here. There’s not much to be encouraged by in Psalm 88, but that, actually, ironically, is its encouragement. This is a very dark psalm. It’s the darkest psalm in all of the Psalter. James Montgomery Boice said that he’s glad that this psalm is in the Psalms, but he’s glad there’s only one of them. It’s dark. There’s no resolution. This man is wrestling with God, wrestling with his circumstances, and none of that has been reconciled yet. But that’s the encouragement. The very fact that God put this in the canon of Scripture and the corpus of His Word is the encouragement. Because, you see, it tells us that God understands, and it tells us that grace undertakes. And that’s the encouragement. The psalms speak to us, the psalms speak for us, and the psalms give us something to speak.
Now, before we actually do an exposition, I step back, realizing this is a prayer for help and despondency. This is a psalm that deals with depression and discouragement and despondency. I want to spend a few minutes answering a question that I know surfaces in messages like this: “Pastor, is depression a sin?” I need to answer that question. Is depression a sin? Now, I thought about it, and I’ve come up with a few angles of attack that I hope will be helpful. This isn’t the last thing to say. I may scare up more rabbits than I can shoot, which is always the danger. But here’s what I wrote to myself in all my reading and reflecting, my pastoral experience. I think this is balanced. I think this is helpful. I hope this answers or goes a long way to answering the question. Is depression a sin?
Number one: Depression is a result of Adam’s sin, not necessarily yours. Depression is a result of Adam’s sin. What do I mean by that? Romans 8 addresses the world in which we live, the in-between time between the glories of our justification and the wonder of our future glorification. We live in a broken world. We live in a world that never meets our expectations or our dreams. It’s a world subject to futility because of God’s judgment on Adam’s sin, a world marked by despondency and disease and death.
And so, when you read Romans 8:18–27, what do you read? That Christians groan in themselves, and they groan in bodies that wait for redemption in a world that groans. Groaning Christians in groaning bodies in a groaning creation. A lot of groaning going on in Romans 8. A lot of travail, a lot of heartache. I think it’s a reminder that you and I live in a world subject to futility and depression. Low spirits, sadness, brokenness is just part and parcel of life. It’s there. It’s generated by Adam’s sin and God’s judgment.
Sadness, low spirits, brokenness, a sense of falling short is part and parcel of life, and there’s no getting away from it. It just is. If you’re going to live in this world, you’re going to wrestle with depression because it’s a result of Adam’s sin and a result of God’s judgment. Depression, then, broadly and generally speaking, is a result of Adam’s sin, not yours. We will be tired. We will feel discouraged. We will moan and groan as we await a better day and a new world. Depression just is. You will groan because it’s part of the human experience. It’s what we will face in the in-between time. There’s no escaping it. It’s a bit like inclement weather. It just is, and it comes in its season.
Number two: Depression is not necessarily a result of personal sin. I think there’s an argument to be made that depression, in its many manifestations, is often a matter of physical illness and biological weakness. It’s not necessarily a moral issue. It can often be a medical issue. Matthew 26:41 would remind us that the spirit is willing—the spirit’s okay—but the flesh is weak. The body is weak and broken, which has an impact on the spiritual. Just as there are broken bodies, there are broken brains. Just as there are weak legs, there are weak minds that make depression a struggle.
The prophet Elijah got depressed. Read about it in 1 Kings 19. And at least one of the factors was physical, biological—so much so that God puts him to sleep and then wakens him and gives him something to eat and puts him to sleep. He gets bed in breakfast for two days, and then he’s told to arise and go on the strength of that. Part of the solution to his downcast spirit and his depressed heart was physical in its remedy, because it was physical in its source. God played doctor with Elijah.
Sometimes depression is an issue that is situational. Sometimes it’s satanic. Sometimes it’s spiritual. But sometimes it’s systemic. It’s part of physical weakness and biological weakness in a person’s life. As I said, just as we have broken bodies, we can have broken brains. Someone that helped me with this was David Murray, who wrote a wonderful little book I’d recommend called Christians Get Depressed Too.
David Murray’s from Scotland; now he ministers alongside Joel Beeke in Michigan. This is a long quote, but I want us to hear it. It’s helpful. It strikes a balance. He says this:
“As the brain is the most complex organ in our body, it is liable to be the most affected of all our organs by the Fall and the divine curse on our bodies. And as processing our thoughts is the main activity of the brain, we can expect this area at times to fail and break, through no fault of our own, with subsequent emotional and behavioral problems. That isn’t to deny that a person is responsible for how he responds to mechanical, chemical, or electrical failures and faults in any part of his body.
“In these cases, medication is not merely alleviating symptoms, but addressing the causes of depression—its physical causes. Treating a depressed person with medication is often no different from giving my eight-year-old daughter one of her many daily injections of insulin for diabetes. I am not merely alleviating symptoms, but addressing the cause—depleted insulin due to dying or dead cells in her pancreas. And if she is lethargic, weepy, or irrational due to low sugar levels, I do not ask her what commandment she has broken or what ‘issues of meaning and relationship’ she has in her life. I pity her, weep for her, and thank God for His gracious provision of medicine for her.”
That’s good, isn’t it? That’s helpful. He goes on to say something I find very challenging, and every biblical counselor needs to hear this:
“If we come to the point that our default position in dealing with the causes of depression is that it is sin until proven otherwise, we are getting painfully close to the disciples’ position: ‘Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents?’ (John 9:2). It is also a position that is somewhat akin to the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel, in which the diagnosis for trials is personal sin . . .”
Right? If you’ve met someone from the health and wealth movement, and you’re not healthy and you’re not wealthy, their first question is, “What’s wrong with your faith? What commandment have you broken? What sin have you done?” That’s the default position, and David Murray is warning us not to make that our default position. He’s not ruling out spiritual components and aspects of the spiritual life in the experience of depression, but he is reminding us that it often is physical and certainly can have a physical cause that is remedied by medicine.
In fact, if you read William Perkins, one of the Puritans, he gets into the issue of melancholy. He said that there’s some melancholy that’s fixed by medicine, and there’s some melancholy that requires the blood of Jesus . We must strike that balance.
Is depression a sin? Well, let me say this. Depression is the result of Adam’s sin. Depression is not necessarily the result of personal sin. And thirdly, depression can be the result of sinful actions and reactions. We have to avoid the extremes: it’s all physical, or it’s all spiritual. We need to be careful about jumping to conclusions about a person’s spiritual state should they be depressed. But, having given you that caution, having struck that balance, I do want to remind you that we cannot rule out a spiritual or moral cause or factor to a person’s depression.
Because, on the one hand, I’ve talked about Elijah and how his depression was an issue of biology. He needed to sleep. He was stressed, overworked, and depleted, and God said, “No, you don’t need to pray. You don’t need to have another Bible study. Just go to sleep. I’ll wake you up in about six or seven hours, I’ll give you something to eat, and then I want you to go back to sleep again.” And it helped. But if you go back to 1 Kings 19, you can’t rule out the fact that there was a spiritual component, too. Elijah was proud. “Only I am left.” A little bit of arrogance there, right? Because that wasn’t true. There were several hundred that hadn’t bowed the knee to Baal. And then he gets into this kind of pity party. “You know what? Take my life, Lord. I’m no better than my fathers.” Now, give me a break, Elijah. Come on. Elijah had pride as an issue in 1 Kings 19.
Now, let’s look at Jonah’s depression. He’s under the tree, pouting, depressed, not in a good mood. What was his issue? Anger. He didn’t like the fact that God in His sovereign mercy had saved the Ninevites, Israel’s natural enemies. He was pouting, and his issue was anger and a lack of submission to God.
Now, David’s depression in Psalm 32. We’re going to actually deal with Psalm 32 when we come to look at the issue of guilt. But in Psalm 32, David is dealing with the aftermath of his adultery. He hasn’t repented. He hasn’t sought the covering and forgiveness of God. And he says, “You know what? My body aches, my bones grow old, and I’m depressed in heart.” Well, David, you know your problem? Your problem is unconfessed sin. He says, “You know what? You’re right?” He sorts that out, and that psalm begins with, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Happy is that man.
Guilt can be resolved, but I think you get the point. Hopefully that helps. Little mini sermon before we get to the text here quickly. But is depression a sin? We don’t want to have a quick and easy answer to that, but I think we want to throw this into the mix. Depression is a result of Adam’s sin. Sometimes depression is not the result of personal sin; it’s more of an issue of biology than theology. And sometimes it is the result of sinful actions and reactions.
Pastor Freddie McLaughlin in Belfast, who trained me, used to say, “Philip, blessed are the balanced,” and I think there’s a balance there. C. S. Lewis, also from Belfast, used to talk about the need for balance; he talked about the drunk man who fell off his horse and got back on it and fell off the other side. And we can do that. When it comes to depression, we can fall off one side and think, “It’s all physical. It’s just an issue of drug treatment.” That’s one extreme. And then over here: “It’s all spiritual. What commandment have you broken? What sin have you committed?” There’s a balance, and I hope that helps a little bit.
Okay, for the time that remains, we’ve got to preach our way through Psalm 88. Three thoughts. I’m going to hop, skip, and jump; I’m going to edit it as I go along for the sake of time. Here’s your three thoughts: the man, his misery, its message. We’ll look at the man, then his misery, and the message that comes out of his psalm.
Look at the man. We’re told who he is in the superscription before verse 1: Heman the Ezrahite. He was of the family of Ezra (1 Chron. 2:6). He was a temple musician, from what we can tell, under King David (1 Chron. 25:1–5). That’s why we find him in the Psalter. He was a worship leader. He was a skilled musician. And, according to 1 Kings 4:31, if it’s the same guy, Heman the Ezrahite was one of the top five wisest men in Israel. So he was a worshipping man and a wise man. He was a man after God’s own heart. He was a servant among the people of God. He was no spiritual midget. This guy had depth. He stood tall and straight for God. And yet, for all of that, this worshipping wise man was depressed, and he prays a prayer for help and despondency. He’s bent low. He pens the saddest psalm in the Psalter. He believes, he bows, but he battles with depression.
That can happen, by the way. You can believe in God, and you can worship God and battle with depression. Heman did. He’s not the first, and he wouldn’t be the last, seen to struggle with depression. We’ve got the psalmist in Psalm 42 and 43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?” (Psalm 42:5; 43:5). Moses was struggling with despondency in Numbers 11, Hannah in 1 Samuel 1, Jeremiah in Jeremiah 20. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones argues from biblical evidence that Timothy probably suffered from some near-paralyzing anxiety. What about Elijah (1 Kings 19) and Job (Job 6)?
Some years ago, we talked about the moral majority. Well, if I read my Bible, I can find a miserable majority—a lot of God’s people miserable, sad, sullen, depressed. I’m going to say to you, as we look at this man quickly, that there’s more than cold comfort knowing that he’s depressed—because it reminds me that the best and the brightest can become depressed and bowed low.
Psalm 88 is not the journal of a cynic. It’s the journal of a wise and worshipping believer. I mean, this man addresses God, “O Lord, God of my salvation.” He believes, he cries, and he prays day and night (vs. 1). This is a man who believes God. This is a man who prays. This is a man who worships and serves, but he’s depressed in spirit.
You and I need to just take a simple little thought from that: the best and the brightest can become depressed. You see, depression has a way of isolating us, cordoning us off, making us believe we’re in a category by ourselves. “No one feels like this. No one would think like this.” And you start to descend into darkness and discouragement. But many and better saints than you have struggled with this, and that’s more than cold comfort.
I have a book in my study, Walking with the Giants by Warren Wiersbe. He’s got a chapter in this book called “Ministers on Discouragement .” He kind of takes you down history’s lane and reminds you of some of the great men of God who struggled.
Who said this? “I am the subject of depressions of spirits so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.” That was C. H. Spurgeon in a sermon in 1866 in front of his own congregation.
Alexander Whyte was a great Scottish pastor in Edinburgh. Many pastors have his book on biblical characters. His biographer, G. F. Barbour, said this: “Resolute as was Dr. Whyte’s character, he had seasons of deep depression regarding the results of his work in the pulpit or among his people.”
You probably don’t know John Henry Jowett, but he was a great English Congregationalist. Most British pastors are aware of him. In 1920, he said this: “You seem to imagine that I have no ups and downs, but just a level and lofty stretch of spiritual attainment with unbroken joy and equanimity. By no means! I am often perfectly wretched and everything appears most murky.”
One final quote. On July 4, 1857, Andrew Bonar, a Scottish Presbyterian, said to his friend Robert Murray McCheyne, “I was very melancholy, I may say, on Saturday evening. The old scenes reminded me of my ministry, and this was accompanied with such regret for past failures.” He wrote to a friend one day and closed the letter, “Your affectionate, aged, frail, poor, unworthy, feeble, stupid brother, and fellow-servant of a glorious Master.” It’s more than cold comfort to know that the best and the brightest have struggled.
Someone said, “Life is a roller coaster. It has its ups and downs. And being a holy man doesn’t make any difference. It just makes you a holy roller.” I like that. God’s people go through what everybody else goes through. We’re just holy rollers. We kick the same roller coaster. Christianity doesn’t inject us and immunize us against the world’s troubles. In fact, can I remind you, if you’re a Christian,then double jeopardy, double trouble. Because you’ve got all the troubles that every other human being goes through, and then you have the suffering that comes to the disciples of Jesus in a christless world.
The man. The misery. This guy is down in the dumps for sure. He’s in the cellar of affliction, weighed down. As we’ve said, this is a wintery landscape of unremitting bleakness. This man’s miserable. There are several things that play into that, and I’m glad that we have this here because it stays away from the cheery Christianity, the positive Christianity that marks so much of church life today. I like what Paul Tripp says: “We need a Christianity that gets beneath sugary greetings and theological platitudes and boldly takes the richness of redemption to the realities of daily life.” We need a faith that stands in the middle of Psalm 88—unshocked, unafraid—and we need to confess how far we are from a Christianity that is just that sturdy.
Just quickly, here’s a few things that play into his misery. Do you see that he is dying? Now, he may be physically dying. Remember, he said in verse 15, “I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth.” He’s basically saying, “I’m surprised I’ve lived this long. From when I was a young man, I was one step from the grave. I’ve been afflicted physically my whole life.” I think he could have been dying on the outside, but I think more than likely he’s dying on the inside. He’s depressed. He’s low in spirit. He’s sullen. He’s sad. He’s depressed, and he uses the language of the graveyard and of dying in the grave to speak of the fact that he’s dying within.
Verses 6 and 7: “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.” Verse 11: “Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction?” He says in verse 17 that God’s waves have engulfed him, swallowed him up. Verse 4: “I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength, adrift among the dead . . .” He’s drained. He’s exhausted. He’s exasperated. And, according to verse 9, he’s all out of tears. He’s just a shriveled soul. He’s dying.
Secondly, he’s disconnected. If that’s not enough, and it is, he also feels alone, cut off and abandoned, used and abused. Look at verse 8: “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.” Verse 18: “Loved one and friend You have put far from me . . .” There was a deep loneliness that felt like he was experiencing a living death.
He was not only dying and disconnected, but he was disowned. He felt that God had turned His back on him, which is a terrible feeling, isn’t it? That God had hid from him. That God wasn’t listening. That God wasn’t caring. That God wasn’t watching. Verse 14: “Lord, why do You cast off my soul? Why do You hide your face from me?”
In fact, he believes he’s the object of God’s wrath. I think he’s over exaggerating here. It may have felt that way, but it certainly wouldn’t have been the case. But to him, it felt like God was against him and not for him. He was an object of God’s wrath rather than the recipient of God’s love. Verse 7: “Your wrath lies heavy upon me . . .” Verse 16: “Your fierce wrath has gone over me; Your terrors have cut me off.” He felt abandoned. He’s miserable.
Someone wrote a letter to John Newton, and in the letter they said that they were more disposed to cry misery than shout hallelujah. John Newton wrote back and said, “Why not both together? When the treble is praise, and heart humiliation for the bass, the melody is pleasant, and the harmony good.” When you feel miserable, you need to struggle to shout hallelujah. And I think you can, and I think there’s ways in which you can get there, which brings us to its message.
If you look at this psalm, there’s several things that jump out in terms of its message. Number one: Keep talking. Keep talking. What do I mean by that? Keep praying. Keep talking to God. Keep crying out. Don’t roll up in a ball. Don’t stew in the darkness. Talk to God about your struggles, your fears, your questions. Share a lament of the heart. Share a complaint about the way God is dealing with you.
He can handle it. That’s why we have Psalm 88. Remember, I said there’s not much encouragement in this psalm, but the encouragement is that this is in the Psalms. God has recorded for us in the canon of Scripture a saint that’s struggling, a saint that’s questioning—but the saint is talking. That’s the wonderful thing about this, by the way. This man is not running from God. He feels like God’s running from him, but he’s chasing God. “O Lord, God of my salvation. I cry to you day and night. Why have you abandoned me?”
That’s heroic, by the way, isn’t it? He hasn’t walked away from his faith. Although his faith is being challenged, he hasn’t walked away from it. I think this guy’s heroic. And I think people like this are heroic—people who are in a dark spot, who are walking in the shadows of life with all of its sorrows and sadness, and who are still crying out to God. Don’t stop crying out to God. Keep talking. Your talking doesn’t need to be pretty, and your prayers don’t need to be formulaic. Don’t get lost in your own thoughts.
This man addressed God in verse 1, and then he argued with God. In fact, if you look at verse 8, 9, and 10—we can’t go into it—but he’s kind of looking at death from a human point of view, kind of void of the gospel. But he’s basically arguing this: “Lord, I want to live for your glory, but I can’t do that if I’m dead. So keep me alive.” He persuades God, and he pleads with God. This man doesn’t stew in the darkness. He doesn’t take a journey inward. He talks to God in heaven. He takes a journey upward because he understands that prayer exists because life isn’t all it should be. It wasn’t polite, and it wasn’t pretty. In fact, in verse 1, the word “cry” is a Hebrew term that almost means to scream, to shout. He was loud. He was real. His prayers were raw.
“There’s a tendency to feel,” says one writer, “that we have to address God in fine-sounding language or with calmness. But this is not true. Indeed, such prayer can sometimes be formal and formulaic. Real prayer is prayer from the heart.” It is still reverent, but it is searingly honest. God knows what’s in the depths of our heart before we open our mouths and attempt to articulate our thoughts. Our words might be incoherent, but God knows what we want to say. Even if our prayer escapes as jumbled, confused language, as a desperate cry for help, as an articulate wordless sigh, God still hears.
Psalm 88 encourages us to pray uncensored prayers, prayers from the heart. Keep talking. In fact, I was reading an article the other day on the Christian Post website. It comes out of North Carolina, about Duke Memorial United Methodist Church. Just recently, they invited their congregation to a scream night. Now, this won’t be happening at Kindred anytime soon, but in this church there was a scream night. They invited people coming out of the pandemic and coming with all their emotions bottled up and stuffed down to come to church and scream. This was led by a psychologist. Go figure.
Basically, according to this article, the sessions consisted of five different screams. There was the regular scream, followed by one in which participants could curse. Then there was another level of screaming and shouting, where words like, “My partner’s driving me crazy,” or, “I hate COVID,” could come out. If I was there, I’d be shouting, “The United Methodists are driving me crazy,” but that’s another story for another day. Then, finally, I think the last final session of screaming was a competition to see who could scream the loudest. Well, the women are going to win that any day of the week. But here’s the issue: Is that biblical?
Now, don’t be taking from Psalm 88:1 that, you know what, the psalmist screamed, so I’m going to hightail it to North Carolina and go to their next scream night. No. There’s no theology in that; that’s psychology. This man doesn’t forget his theology. In fact, his theology forms his words and adds bitterness to his pain. This man addresses God. While it’s raw and real, there are elements of reverence here. He keeps talking, and so should we. O what peace we often forfeit, and O what needless pain we bear, all because we don’t carry everything to God in prayer.
Number two: Keep trusting. Keep talking; keep trusting. You see, this is not the journal of a cynic. This is the diary of a believer. This is a man who believes in God. Now, he has questions that trouble his faith. “Lord, why have you cast me off? Why do you remain at a distance? I cry to you night and day, and you don’t answer. My friends are far off. My loved ones have abandoned me. I’m in the darkness. I’m walking among the graves. I’m dying on the outside, and I’m dying on the inside.”
But, his faith, although shaken, still stands. That’s the beauty of this psalm. He addresses God as Lord. Verse 1: “O Lord, God of my salvation . . .” Look at verse 9: “My eye wastes away because of affliction. Lord, I have called daily upon You.” Look at verses 13 and 14: “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?”
Have you noticed in those last three verses that the word Lord is capitalized? That’s “Yahweh.” That’s the covenant name of God. That’s the I Am that I Am. That’s the God who keeps His promises because He doesn’t change. That’s amazing. In all of his hurt, in the middle of the darkness, he still is holding on to the covenant-keeping God. He’s still trusting. Although his faith is being challenged, and it’s confused, it hasn’t been canceled.
He’s kind of where the disciples were in John 6, when people leave the Lord Jesus. Jesus says, “Disciples, are you going to go?” And they basically say, “Well, where would we go? You alone have the words of eternal life. There’s nothing better out there. I’d rather struggle with my faith than abandon it.” Psalm 88 is kind of saying that; he maintains and seeks to mature his faith in the dark.
And here’s the ironic thing, by the way. His complaint acknowledges a trust in the sovereignty of God, or at least a belief in the sovereignty of God. Did you notice verses 6, 7, and 8, just as an example: “You have laid me in the lowest pit. . . . Your wrath lies heavy upon me . . .” Verse 8: “You have put away my acquaintances . . .” Lord, You did this. He hasn’t abandoned his faith. In fact, his faith is complicating his life, in a sense. “Lord, I believe you, and I trust You. You’re the covenant-keeping God. I believe in Your mercy and Your love. It’s hard for me to see it right now given my circumstances.” But he does acknowledge it. It’s almost a backhanded compliment: “You are the sovereign God because You’ve got me where I am.”
In some ways it’s an acknowledgement that God has caused his afflictions and that if God put him in jail, God can spring him from jail, right? “Lord, your hand’s heavy upon me, and any moment you can lift it. Lord, you have me here, and any moment you can move me on from here.” So, he wrestles with God’s dark providence in his life, and yet at the same time, he trusts the sovereign God to come to his rescue. In the silence and in the suffering, he believes that God is still working. He’d like to see God work more for him than against him, but he acknowledges God is working.
You and I need to embrace that thought in the darkness. God may be silent, but God is not still. You and I need to lean and live in trusting God who alone knows where you are going and what He is doing. God may be silent, but He’s not still, ever. Do I need to take you to a Friday afternoon on a hill called Calvary and a darkness that came down? In the middle of the darkness, the Son of God, abandoned as He carries our sin, cries, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” God was silent but not still. God was doing His greatest work in the darkness. You and I have got to embrace that.
G. Campbell Morgan, at the beginning of the First World War, was struggling with all the darkness that was descending over Europe, at the colossal loss of life that was coming on the German and the British side. In the middle of all of that, he said this: “I am not sure of anything except that God is reigning.”
I think that’s where the psalmist is. “I’m not sure of anything, but I know this God is reigning, and I trust Him.”
Let’s finish here. Keep talking. Keep trusting. Keep teaching. See, I find the preservation of this psalm very interesting. This psalm is in the canon of Scripture. It’s the darkest psalm of the Psalter. There’s no resolution, but it’s here as a testimony. It’s here as a teaching tool. God did hear his prayer. “O Lord . . . I have cried out day and night before You. Let my prayer come before You; incline Your ear to my cry.” God did hear. God did see. God told his story in the Psalter. He was not cast off. He was being used by God to bless generations to come when they’re in the darkness.
In fact, Psalm 88 doesn’t answer the question “why,” right? There’s no resolution to verse 14: “Lord, why do You cast off my soul?” It ends in darkness. But it does answer the question “how.” “Lord, why am I in the dark?” Psalm 88 doesn’t help. “What am I to do in the dark? How can I negotiate the darkness?” Psalm 88 will help. And that’s the beauty of this.
Listen to Ligon Duncan as the team comes up and we close: “The Lord not only heard these words, he inspired them so that other Christians might sing them in the coming ages to express their own sorrow to God. Heman would also recognize that other followers of the Lord share the same troubles and carry the same burdens. Consider just how many believers since Heman’s time have sung these words, sharing their grief with his. Friend, your life may be filled with far more suffering than my own, but Scripture teaches that your troubles don’t belong to you alone.”
Woo. That statement jumped off the page. This is Ligon Duncan in a sermon on Palm 88. Scripture teaches that our troubles don’t belong to us alone. My friend, there are treasures you can gather in the darkness that will enrich other people’s lives. Show some heroic faith. Keep struggling so that you might throw a lifeline to others who are struggling. Help them think through their pain; help them to try and keep persevering in the midst of their pain.
Second Corinthians 1, right? The comfort with which God has comforted you, can’t you take that and comfort others? David says in Psalm 51:12–13, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation . . . then I will teach transgressors Your ways . . .” Whatever God is putting you through, as horrible as it is, it doesn’t just belong to you; it’s for the sake of others. Jesus is praying that your faith doesn’t fail and that, when you come out the other side of it, you’ll strengthen the brethren.
The man that preceded me here at Kindred was a man called Chuck Obremski. He died of cancer in the middle of this ministry. He was a fairly young man, a chaplain to the Angels, to the Rams—go Rams—and to the Ducks. He had a growing ministry, a broad ministry, a new church. Then he got a lump in his leg, and months later, he died from cancer. He died a week after preaching in this pulpit.
He was once interviewed on TBN by Paul Crouch, of all people. Given their propensity to health and wealth and healing ministry, they were surprised at how content he was, how at peace he was given the fact that the diagnosis wasn’t good. So, Paul Crouch looked at Chuck Obremski—I think you can Google it and find it on YouTube—and said, “Do you ever ask God ‘why?’” To which Chuck Obremski says, “Not really, because I’m not sure God answers the ‘why.’ I’m not sure my mind can handle the reasons why.” He says, “Paul, I don’t ask the question ‘why.’ I ask the question ‘what.’ ‘Lord, what do you want to do through my sickness and sadness and sorrow?’”
God used and still uses that time in Chuck Obremski’s life to bless many. He did a famous message here at the church called “The Cancer Coaster,” and he took that coaster the whole way to the end and lived victoriously in the gospel. That’s been given out in tens of thousands of copies. You see, his trouble didn’t just belong to him. He used it as a teaching tool and as a platform for the glory of God and the sufficiency of his grace.
My friend, today, if darkness is your only acquaintance, keep talking, keep trusting, keep teaching.
Let’s pray, and then we’ll be dismissed.
Father, as we close the service this morning, we thank you for Psalm 88. How ironic that the saddest, darkest, bleakest song in all of the psalms can be a comfort to us. There’s no resolution. There’s open-ended questions. There’s hurt feelings. There’s a heavy heart. There’s a sadness of soul. And this is a good man. This is a godly man who’s experiencing it all. Lord, I thank You that You slotted this sad song into the Bible. That’s an encouragement, ironically, because it tells me that You understand. You’re not offended by our complaints and our laments when honestly shared. And it’s a reminder that grace undertakes. Although darkness had the last word in Psalm 88, we know from the gospel that darkness will never have the last word. We will endure weeping for a night, but joy will come in the morning. Answers will come. Death will give way to life. Earth will give way to heaven. Grief will give way to joy, and Satan will give way to Jesus. And the nations will give way to the people of God. Darkness will not have the last word. And so, in the in-between time, help us to trust, help us to talk, help us to teach. For we pray and ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.