We live in an age of emotions or feelings. Many questions in life are centered around our emotions. How does your job make you feel? How do you feel about family time? What makes you feel happy? How can you stop having bad feelings? We often pursue ways of worldly pleasure and power to feel good. We change laws in the land because it feels right. We can even change our very identity by trusting our feelings over our chromosomes. Our feelings become the authority we turn to and trust in, and yet these feelings have a very weak foundation…ourselves! As we are warned in Proverbs 12:15: “Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to others.” We are called to look to other resources, rather than trusting in how something makes us feel.
Yet, an opening warning against our feelings should not leave us thinking that all feelings are bad. We should not be left thinking that feelings or emotions are inherently wicked and deceptive. Rather, we should look externally to the living Word of God and not to our own subjective emotions to understand feelings properly. Examining the inner self gives no clear understanding of emotions, but opening the Word of God tells us what feelings should look like. Consider the words of wisdom from Proverbs 3:7–8: “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.8 It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” Rather than looking upon our own lows and highs of emotions, we need to consult the heights and depths of Scripture.
In the poetic beauty of the psalms we are given superb example of emotions. For this treasury of songs has emotion that is surrounded with truth. The psalms of joy do not depend upon our own achievements but look to the Lord’s provision of Joy (Ps 30). The psalms of anger do not merely rant about all the wrongdoings against the Psalmist, but how the Lord is being mocked (Ps 2). Even the words of despair in Psalm 88 are not internal moping, they are a cry to the Lord for help. As Christians, we can be assured that feelings are certainly wonderful—when they are built upon the Word of the Lord. The psalms serve as a breathtaking paradigm of emotion in these one hundred and fifty songs. We are immersed with words of joy in the Lord and His creation, cries of sadness in persecution, shouts of victory over the enemy, screams of defeat, roars of righteous anger, and sobbing from sin. We are called to embrace this full range of emotion that the Lord has given to us in His inspired word.
When we reflect on the big picture of the Psalter, we are led to embrace even a sad song like Psalm 88. At first glance, we may understandably want to pass over a heavy psalm like this. As Derek Kidner noted, “There is no sadder prayer in the Psalter.”1 If, however, we want to skip a Psalm of sadness, we will be skipping much more than Psalm 88. Sadness is seen all throughout the book of Psalms (See Pss 22, 42, 77, and 137, just to name a few).2 So why not just skip all the Psalms of lamentation? Beloved, if we want to understand the greatness of salvation’s light, we need to be willing to reflect upon the darkness of sin and death.
We are not pursuing darkness or depression to pause and reflect on Psalm 88. Rather, unpacking this depth of darkness helps to show us how bright the light of the gospel truly is. When we, as believers, take our sorrow to the Lord, His light ultimately shines even more. As a counter example, we should pause and consider a humorous song from the LEGO Movie. The title gives it all away: “Everything is Awesome.” The song lyrics state, “Stepped in mud, got new brown shoes, it’s awesome to win and it’s awesome to lose.” The upbeat song makes the sarcastic point that we can make anything awesome, even a loss, and so we should be happy all the time. When these types of lyrics invade Christian music, the truth of the of the gospel is quickly downgraded. Rather than seeing light after darkness or even amid darkness, we can be tempted to see light and only light. Rather than facing the darkness, we deny the darkness. An examination of the most popular Christian songs today often shows this danger. We sing of worshipping in joy, victory, power, healing, life, rivers flowing, life everlasting, and light shining. However, the themes of sadness, defeat, weakness, sickness, death, drought, despair, and darkness are seldom given more than a brief verse here and there.
The loss of the Psalter’s darkness should leave us with a number of questions. Why have we ignored the darkness of the Psalter, when God so clearly gave us these songs to prepare us for our dark pilgrimage on this side of glory? When did we become wiser than God and decide that His inspired, inerrant, and infallible songs were too dismal and outdated, and that we needed to write cheerier ones? How did we convince ourselves that the songs which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ sang are no longer fitting for our needs? There may be no easy answer to these questions, but one truth is clear—the Psalms have been lost in the church today, and they need to be reclaimed. The hope, therefore, in turning to Psalm 88 is to remind us all that even in the darkest psalm we are pointed to the light of Jesus Christ.
Thus, we should take a deep breath and be willing to plunge into the darkness of Psalm 88. Facing this darkness goes against the wisdom of the world. We cannot look to deny, evade, or ignore the darkness that we face. The darkness of sin, sadness, enemies, isolation, and Satan himself are still attacking us, and we must be prepared to cling to the light of Jesus Christ even in the very midst of darkness. If we do not face the darkness, our only other option is to plug our ears, close our eyes, and sing to ourselves that everything is awesome. So, read through the Psalms. Open the book of Lamentations. Reflect on the cries from Job. Hear the words of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Be willing to turn to the words of darkness that the light of Jesus Christ might shine even brighter.
When we are willing to delve into the darkness of Scripture, we are prepared to face times of tumult and darkness in our own lives. If a beloved spouse suddenly dies and we are left alone, the words of Psalm 88 have prepared us. If a best friend at work suddenly turns their back on you to climb the corporate chain, Psalm 88 says, “I told you this could happen.” If a lifelong physical ailment makes you wake up each morning with shooting pain, Psalm 88 says, “I am here with you.” There are many practical reasons that we should cling to these psalms of darkness. They remind us that even when we are facing tremendous difficulties and feel as if we are utterly alone, the Lord and His Word are always with us.
So let us go into the darkness together, as these words are for all of us. As Derek Kidner beautifully stated in his commentary, “The reader’s part need not be that of a spectator, whatever his current mood, but a companion in prayer to the depressed or outcast people whose state of mind the Psalmist puts into words; words which are for use.”3 Therefore, in closing, consider the following prayer as an attempt to capture all the sorrow that we find throughout book three of the Psalter. Be willing to approach the Lord expressing all the darkness that we face and be confident that He hears our cries for the sake of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ our Lord.
A Prayer from Psalms 73–89: A Prayer of Darkness and Emptiness4
O Lord the God of our salvation; Day and night we cry out before You.
To You we cry aloud, O God. Our voices rise to You; hear us we pray. O God do not keep silence; do not withhold Your peace, and be not still, O God. O Lord God of hosts, hear our prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob. You are truly good, but as for us, our feet nearly stumble. Our steps nearly slip. We are envious of those who boast when we see the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; and their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. Your enemies roar in the midst of Your congregations; they set up their own banners. They are like those who swing axes in a forest of trees. Behold, Your enemies make a tumult; And those who hate You have exalted themselves. Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever; let them perish in disgrace.
For our souls are full of troubles and our lives draw near the grave.
We are counted with those who go down to the pit; we are like those who have no strength. Like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom You remember no more, for they are cut off from Your hand. You have put us in the depths of the pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavy upon us, and we drown in all Your waves. You have caused our companions to shun us. You have made us as horrors to them. We feel shut in so that we cannot escape. Our eyes grow dim through sorrow. Every day we call upon You, O Lord; we spread our hands before You. Afflicted and close to death from our youths up, we suffer our terrors; we feel helpless. Your wrath has swept over us; Your terrors have destroyed us. They surround us like water all day long. We feel engulfed, Lord. We are covered in shame.
Why do You cast us off?
Cast us off no longer for the sake of Your Son, the Light of the world, in whose name we pray, Amen.
©Robert Godfrey. All Rights Reserved.
1. Derek Kidner, Psalms:An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), 316.
2. In Bernhard W Anderson’s Out of the Depths, he cites the different types of Psalms in Appendix A. The longest category listed, by far, is the Psalms of Lamentation, where he cites 60 Psalms!
3. Derek Kidner, Psalms:An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), 316–317.
4. Based on Pss 88:1; 77:1; 83:1; 84:8; 73:1-5, 8; 74:4,5; 83:2, 17; 88:3–9, 15,16; 89:45; 74:1,10; 77:7–9; 79:5; 80:4; 82:2; 85:5–6; 88:8–12,14; 89:46; 88:18; 77:13; 81:13; 74:12; 78:35; 75:10; 79:9; 86:1; 80:3, 14; 74:2; 73:28; 88:2; 89:52.
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I enjoyed reading this. It certainly puts things in a different perspective. I look forward to more
This was very good and I enjoyed it. I try to read a Psalm a day as part of my devotion, they are a wonderful resource.
Could we please label this fine young minister as Robert Godfrey the Younger to prevent confusion with WSC President W Robert Godfrey.