In the next three articles considering Psalm 88, we will focus on three different ways that the Psalmist reacts to the darkness. In this article, we will consider how darkness descends both physically and spiritually upon us. In part four, we will focus more specifically on the darkness in isolation, as the Psalmist considers his woes of solitude. In part five, we will reflect on the Lord’s sovereignty, even in the times of darkness. These following three articles will overlap with the theme of darkness, so be prepared to wade through the melancholy abyss in the weeks ahead! Yet, rest assured that there is still more light to come, in medio tenebras lux.
The pervading theme of lamentation in Psalm 88 might make us wonder why this Psalmist in such a time of difficulty? Has he done something to deserve this, or is he being tested like the faithful figure Job? Questions of confused curiosity come when we look at a passage like Psalm 88. Clear answers, however, are not always given. While we know that the Psalmist is suffering, the origin of his suffering is not clearly revealed. He may be facing the effects of his own sins, or perhaps his lamentation comes as a test of his faith. The reason for this Psalmist’s grief is a mystery, but his words of lamentation are still instructive. When we approach the Lord in sorrow, we should know how to approach Him. As a “prayer of one afflicted” states in Psalm 102:17, “He regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer.” We can learn how to approach the Lord in sorrow from Psalm 88, for the Psalmist’s words of weeping instruct us regarding both the physical and spiritual effects of sin.
The Physical Effects of Sin
The Psalmist’s physical suffering is the first effect of sin to consider (vv.3–6, 10–12, 15–18). His bodily torment points us to the wages of sin: death (Rom 6:23). As he reflects upon his pain and the approaching grave, the Psalmist exhibits how sin has physical effects. His cries remind us that both original sin and actual sins come with physical consequences.
Whenever we face death, we are taken back to Adam’s fall. As Louis Berkhof observed, “The guilt of Adam’s sin, committed by him as the federal head of the human race, is imputed to all his descendants. This is evident from the fact that, as the Bible teaches, death as the punishment of sin passes on from Adam to all his descendants.”1 Therefore, when death appears in Scripture, we are always called back to original sin, the fall of Adam, and the penalty of death.
The seriousness of Adam’s penalty must not be forgotten. Too often, we seek to deny that we are mortal. We ignore Adam’s fall and the curse of death. We refute our humanity and invent our own forms of divinity. Self-made immortality is pursued in diverse ways (karma, cosmetics, or security systems). Yet, this pursuit of false immortality seeks either to deny or downplay the deadly consequence of original sin. Michael Horton reflects on these faulty approaches. He explains how we “just deny death, embracing the notion that in the cycle of life, nothing ever really dies. You just enter a different body or your cells form some other thing—a tree or a crackling fire.” He then goes on to consider the temptation to downplay death:
We no longer have drab funerals but celebrations of life. Our loved ones are not really gone but live on in our memories and show up at Thanksgiving and Christmas in some vague New-Agey way. We talk about an “afterlife,” which is quite different from the “everlasting life” that Christ promises. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, introduced the phrase “passing on” or “passing away,” which now seems ubiquitous even in the most conservative Christian circles. But this minimizing of death is a very unchristian idea.2
We must not diminish the curse of death pronounced in the Garden of Eden. So too when we hear the abysmal words of Psalm 88, we must not block them out and think, “Get over it! Cherish the good times! Viva la vida! You only live once! Just skip this psalm!” Rather, we need to hear the Psalmist, remember the fall of mankind, and acknowledge the curse of death that fell upon us all.
In addition to the physical effect of original sin, we should also consider the physical effects of actual sins. Psalm 88 gives no reasons to conclude that the Psalmist is paying a penalty for gross actual sins. We are not given enough details to put such accusations upon this Psalmist. We should, however, still reflect upon the ways that actual sins can lead to physical difficulties as well. Physical effects often come from sins of addiction, drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling (just to name a few). A body may be broken by drugs and alcohol. A person may die with diseases from immoral intercourse. An impoverished gambler may starve with no funds for food or drink. While we should certainly be cautious of accusing this Psalmist of such specific sins, his words of lament still give a good reminder that actual sins can bring about physical repercussions. Consider the physical suffering presented by David in Psalm 31. In verses 9 and 10, David describes his suffering as a curse of original sin, with the accompanying consequences of actual sins:
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye is wasted from grief;
my soul and my body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my iniquity,
and my bones waste away.
David calls attention to the consequences of original sin by noting how it ages and decays the body. He also acknowledges how actual sins can have physical effects, as he speaks of his failing strength “because of [his] iniquity.” Sin’s physical effects appear throughout Psalm 88. Furthermore, we see the Psalmist’s spiritual sorrow throughout the psalm.
The Spiritual Effects of Sin
Spiritual sorrow weighs heavily on the Psalmist. He cries out as one who feels forgotten and cut off (v.5), all alone in darkness (vv.8, 14, 18), consumed with sorrow (v.9), and suffering in a helpless state (v.15). The Psalmist addresses the spiritual issues of anxiety, anger, isolation, grief, and fear. He reminds us that both original sin and actual sins come with spiritual consequences.
When Adam fell into sin, the penalty of death had spiritual effects. The Belgic Confession gives a helpful description of Adam’s fall saying that, “He transgressed the commandment of life, which he had received, and by his sin he separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his entire nature. So he made himself guilty and subject to physical and spiritual death, having become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways.”3 A spiritual death came to Adam in his separation from God, as he was cast out of the Garden. Therefore, when the Psalmist cries out in spiritual darkness, we are reminded of original sin’s starting point. All spiritual attacks of sin bring us back to Adam’s exile from Eden. Adam’s consequences of grief, fear, and isolation appear all throughout Psalm 88.
Furthermore, the Psalmist’s cries call us to reflect on the spiritual consequences of our actual sins. Again, there is not enough evidence in the Psalm to accuse this son of Korah of any particular sin lurking behind his spiritual woes. We do, however, need to realize how often actual sins can be behind such spiritual afflictions. When an idol is pursued, it produces weeds rather than fruit, and a number of these weeds are presented throughout Psalm 88. An idol of alcohol yields the weeds of anger and sadness; pornography propagates the weeds of isolation and lies; drug abuse feeds the weeds of anxiety and fear.
Psalm 88 is dealing with immense darkness that we must neither deny nor downplay. When we reflect on the immensity of both original sin and our actual sins, we see the need for a greater light. When we acknowledge how sin effects our bodies and souls, we see the need for a full transformation. If we tone down the darkness of sin, then we also tone down the light of the gospel in Psalm 88:1. Therefore, do not be afraid to acknowledge sin and misery. As James S. Stewart pointed out, “It is a great thing to be brought right down to the depths, if so be that there at least we strike that bedrock which is the Rock of ages; a great thing that life itself should break up even violently the hard core of our proud self-reliance, if so be that the human spirit may be ready then to cast itself upon its ultimate resource in Jesus Christ.”4 Therefore, let us continue to approach our Heavenly Father in prayer, confessing our sins and acknowledging our fallen nature. When we come to God confessing our darkness, he continues to comfort us with the light of the gospel (Matt 11:28–30).
©Robert Godfrey. All Rights Reserved.
You can find the whole series on Psalm 88 here.
1. Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology, https://ccel.org/ccel/berkhof/systematictheology/systematictheology.iv.ii.iv.html (Italics added).
2. Horton, Michael Scott. Recovering Our Sanity: How the Fear of God Conquers the Fears That Divide Us, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2022), 102.
3. Belgic Confession Article 14 (Italics Added).
4. Stewart, James S. Heralds of God: A Practical Book on Preaching, (Vancouver: Regent College Pub., 2001), 25.
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