Saturday Psalm Series: Psalm 88 (Part 4): Light in the Midst of Darkness

The Fog of Darkness

Fog is such a perplexing form of weather. When miniscule droplets of water become suspended in the air, they suddenly surround us like blinding clouds of smoke. A thick fog can quickly cause panic when we drive on the road. When a cloud of fog descends upon our neighborhood, we can easily forget that we have neighbors and suddenly feel like we are on an island, all alone. A sunny day can seem quite dark when we are surrounded by a dense fog.

Therefore, fog is a helpful illustration to keep in mind, as we consider the Psalmist’s cries throughout Psalm 88. From the opening we hear the Psalmist’s lone voice: “Day and night I cry to you.” He speaks in solitude throughout the psalm, and as his solo voice continues, he finds himself lost in a fog of isolation. Solitary sadness is a theme that is by no means unique to Psalm 88. In Psalm 42, the very first Psalm of the Sons of Korah, the Psalmist similarly cries out to the Lord in solitude: “I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?’ As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:9–10)

From the beginning of the Sons of Korah to their end, we find the theme of solitude as a form of attack against the Psalmist. And by the end of Book Three of the Psalter (Psalms 73–89), we come to the full fog of isolation. After Psalm 88 begins with a brief verse of comfort, the agony of isolation takes over. Furthermore, after corporate promises are cited at the start of Psalm 89, the fog of isolation covers all God’s people and concludes Book Three with sadness.

So, considering the height of the individual isolation of the Psalmist in Psalm 88, we can ask, what are we to learn from his solitude? His cries instruct us in the nature of isolation—it can attack and consume us both externally and internally.

The Fog’s External Attack

The Psalmist cries out in a fog of isolation, but he certainly is not the lone party in the psalm. We are introduced to another group throughout the Psalm—his former friends. Twice he mentions friends who have turned away from him (vv.8, 18). He calls out to the Lord in isolation as his friends have begun to view him as an enemy. The woe of enemies is a common theme throughout the Psalter. Leading up to this psalm, we often hear about different ways that enemies assault God’s people.1 In some psalms we are reminded that there are literal enemies attacking God’s people (Psalm 27:2–3); sometimes these enemies are one’s own family (Psalm 27:10). Throughout a string of David’s psalms in Book Two, we see the immensity of enemies who stand against their king with their wickedness on full display (Psalms 53–57). In Psalm 55 we find a similar scenario to Psalm 88 as David laments over a friend who is now acting as a foe:

For it is not an enemy who taunts me—then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked in the throng. (Psalm 55:12–14)

Throughout Psalm 88, the Psalmist references his friends only to confirm his melancholy state. He may have had friends, but now is desolate. Here we see a great fog descend upon the Psalmist in his solitude. John Chrysostom described the difficulty of solitude when he said, “take the Sun…rather than take my friends for it would be better for us were the sun to be extinguished, than that we should be deprived of friends, better to live in darkness, than to be without friends.”2 Here the Psalmist has certainly lost his friends, as they are “far away” (v.8) and “shun him” (v.18). Furthermore, they have turned into enemies, as they view the Psalmist as “an abomination” (v.8).

Psalm 88 offers one of many responses to enemies that we find throughout the Psalter. We hear cries of sorrow because of enemy attacks.3 We hear shouts of righteous anger when a Psalmist calls for judgement upon his enemies in the imprecatory psalms.4 We also find words of confidence when a Psalmist trusts in the Lord even in the face of his enemies.5 The number of times that enemies are referenced in the Psalter is striking. The concept of addressing our foes in songs of praise may seem odd, but how valuable to address our external enemies when we call out to the Lord. He has a purpose for the enemies that stand against us in our Christian lives. Some enemies may return from opposition to be brothers and sisters in Christ. Some enemies may help to strengthen our faith, even though they seek persecution and frustration. Furthermore, all these enemies remind us that our Lord is greater than them all. Even though the Psalmist is immensely weighed down by the friends that have seemed to turn against him, the God of his salvation is still listening to his cries. The Lord will never abandon His beloved—no matter how great our external enemies may be—and the Psalmist is not only surrounded by a cloud of external enemies, but also internal enemies which make the fog of darkness all the thicker.

The Fog’s Internal Attack

The Psalmist’s cries also show us the internal enemies that isolation produces. Throughout the Psalm we are pointed to the realities of depression, anxiety, anger, and even the potential lies of isolation. The Psalmist certainly struggles with thoughts of depression (vv.4–6, 16, 17). He also shows a great deal of anxiety (vv.3, 7, 8b). He even expresses anger in his cries to the Lord (v.14). Certainly, these are real struggles. We should, however, also ask how the Psalmist’s isolation affected these difficulties. Depression, anxiety, and anger are real enemies that can attack us, but their assault is much worse when we are alone.

Solitude can quickly deceive us into giving traction to these internal attacks. For some proof, just try watching the Netflix show “Alone,” where people go out for weeks on their own in the wilderness, and many begin to struggle with sadness and fear, as they have only a camera for conversation. Another example comes from many studies that have been done on the mental impact that solitary confinement can have within the prison systems.6 Furthermore, we can see difficulties of solitude that some of the elderly face when they are living all alone or bed-bound in assisted living. When we are all isolated, we can be quick to let a fog of internal attacks block everything else out.

We must also realize how this kind of fog can simply be a lie. The previous examples are situations where people really are alone (in the wilderness, prison, or hospice care). We can often convince ourselves that we are alone when solitude itself is really the lie. By no means should we accuse the Psalmist of lying about his solitude—we can say this servant of the Lord has truly been abandoned. But in applying the text to our own lives, we can ask ourselves, “Am I really facing the dark isolation of Psalm 88, or have I just convinced myself that I am?” Too often this fog of isolation can be self-inflicted. We may have times where we are anxious with a “soul full of troubles” (v.3), we might feel depressed as though we are “in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths” (v.6), and at times we may cry out in anger asking why the Lord is hiding his face from us (v.14). Yet how are we reacting to these struggles? Do we go to others for help or willingly take on the fog of isolation? The latter option is a genuine problem that we need to be willing to acknowledge. The greatest test for this picture of self-invoked isolation can come with one simple question: Are you going to church?

The Lord has given us the fellowship of believers, the family of worship, the communion of saints. Sinclair Ferguson describes it beautifully when he asks about worship, “What is this? It is family time. This is our joy. We have expressed our love to our Father for our Savior. By the Spirit we have sung, prayed, and heard God’s voice in his Word. We have glorified God, and we are enjoying him together. There is nothing like it in all the world.”7 When we think of situations where we are inescapably alone we can still call out to the Lord as the Psalmist does in Psalm 88, but when we merely feel alone, we should resist the lie, assemble with the flock, and stop wandering in the wilderness of isolation. For the Lord and God of our salvation is with us day and night. He hears our prayers and calls us to gather together with Him.

You can find the whole series on Psalm 88 here.

NOTES

1. See Psalms 14, 17, 25, 27, 35, 41, 53–59, 64, 68, 69, 71, and 73.

2. John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Thessalonians” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. by Philip Schaff, Cosimo Classics, New York, NY, 2007, 331.

3. Psalm 88 gives these cries on the individual level. Psalm 89 is a good example of the corporate cry.

4. The imprecatory Psalms best capture this concept. Two good examples are found in Psalms 69 and 109.

5. One good example comes in the closing words of Psalm 136, a Psalm of thanksgiving. See 136:24–26.

6. For an example see https://www.vera.org/publications/the-impacts-of-solitary-confinement.

7. Sinclair B. Ferguson, Devoted to God’s Church: Core Values for Christian Fellowship, The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA, 2020, 55–56.

©Robert M. Godfrey. All Rights Reserved.

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