Saturday Psalm Series: Psalm 88 (Part 7): Light in the Midst of Darkness

The Light that Reverses the Darkness

Throughout the Psalter many questions are posed in a melancholy manner. In book three of the Psalter (Psalms 73–89), we find a plethora of laments in the interrogative form. Imagine approaching the Lord with the following questions:

Why do You cast us off forever? Why does Your anger smoke against us as we are the sheep of Your pasture? How long, O God will the adversary revile? Will the enemy blaspheme Your name forever? Have You rejected us forever? Will You, O Lord, never again be kind to us? Has Your steadfast love ceased? Are Your promises at an end for all time? Have You forgotten to be gracious? Have You in anger slammed the door on Your compassion? How long, O Lord? Will You be angry forever? Will Your jealousy burn like fire? O Lord God of hosts, how long will You be angry with Your people’s prayers? Will You be angry with us forever? Will You prolong Your anger to all generations? Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You? Do You work wonders for the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise You? Is Your steadfast love declared in the grave, or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness, and Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? Why do You cast my soul away? Why do You hide Your face from us? How long, O Lord? Will You hide Yourself forever? Will Your wrath burn like fire? Where is Your former lovingkindness, O Lord, which You swore to David in faithfulness?1

How can we approach the Lord in this manner? How has He inspired and revealed to us such accusatory and pain-filled questions? More specifically, how are we to consider these dark words at the very heart of Psalm 88? In verses 10–12 we find six such questions:

Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you?

Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

All six questions are clearly rhetorical—the Psalmist asks these questions expecting to hear, “no,” six times over. Each question serves to capture the sadness the Psalmist is suffering.

We must, however, resist the temptation to conclude with the sentiments of the author. We must also consider how these six questions fit into the whole of Scripture. To quote Andrew Bonar’s approach to the Psalter, “We cannot err far, therefore, if…we keep our left eye on David, while we have our right eye full of Christ.”2 While Psalm 88 is not a Psalm of David, the same principle applies. We must resist locking both eyes on the Sons of Korah and remember to keep one fixed upon our Savior. Then, with one eye we truly see the darkness of the Psalmist, but with the other we may see the light of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Son of God was not solely sent to endure the suffering in these questions (though He certainly did). He also came to transform the answers to these questions. Through our risen Savior these six questions transform to questions of wonder, worship, and love.

Questions of Wonders (vv.10a, 12a)

Two similar questions open both verses 10 and 12. The Psalmist asks if the Lord works “wonders for the dead,” and if His “wonders are known in the darkness.” As both requests ask about wonders, we should consider what these wonders are and how they can be given to the dead? The use of “wonders” in Scripture is often attached to the idea of life. When Sarah laughed as the promise of Isaac was given to her, the Lord responded to Abraham saying, “Is anything [too wonderous] for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). Also, in the Song of Moses we hear the Lord’s deliverance from Egypt described as wonders, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” As the Lord promises life to Sarah and delivers Israel through the Red Sea to life, we see the same term for “wonder” that we find in Psalm 88:10, 12. Yet here, the Psalmist uses the word to heighten his despair. How can wonders be given to those who have departed? The questions reveal the dark undercurrent flowing throughout the whole of Psalm 88.

While the Psalmist’s usage of these two questions emphasizes his own hopelessness, our Lord Jesus Christ would come to answer these questions with hope. Right from the start of John’s gospel, Christ is introduced as “the light of men,” and we are told that “in him was life.” (John 1:4) The light and life of Christ would conquer death and darkness for all who belong to Him. Christ arose from the tomb at the start of a new day, for darkness had not won the battle. The stone rolled away because death had been defeated once and for all. When Peter came to the empty tomb and saw the linen cloths lying by themselves, he then “went home marveling [or in wonder] at what had happened.” (Luke 24:12) Does He work wonders for the dead? Are His wonders known in the darkness? Yes, and yes! The Psalmist’s questions of grief are joyously answered when we look to the wonders of Christ our Savior. Furthermore, we must consider the Psalmist’s questions of worship.

Questions of Worship (vv.10b, 12b)

Two similar questions close both verses 10 and 12. The Psalmist asks, “Do the departed rise up to praise you?” and “Is your righteousness (known) in the land of forgetfulness?” A common theme of worship is addressed in these two questions. The Psalmist is asking how the Lord can be acknowledged and praised by the dead. After all, the Lord’s separation from the dead was a visible concept for ancient Israel. The graves were outside the city’s gates. Death was unclean, so the dead were to be put away from the people, the temple, and the throne room. Where the Lord symbolically dwelled, the dead were not to dwell. Therefore, we should not be surprised that the Psalmist immediately follows these questions by returning to sorrow in verses 13–18.

The Psalmist’s questions point to the isolation of death, but in Christ the answer of isolation is reversed. In Christ these questions paint a picture of glory. Paul proclaims that the dead certainly shall rise up to praise our Lord in I Thessalonians 4:16–17: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”

Death will not win, and we shall worship our Lord forevermore. Additionally, we who are alive in Christ shall never be forgotten. The King of Kings triumphantly defeated death so that all His people will be remembered. As Christ would proclaim in Luke 12:6–8, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God.”

Our Savior’s righteousness cannot be forgotten. Furthermore, His righteousness has been imputed to all those who belong to Him. Therefore, we cannot be forgotten. Do the departed rise up to praise Him? Is His righteousness known in the land of forgetfulness? Certainly, and certainly! The Psalmist’s questions of solitude are answered when we worship Christ our Savior. Furthermore, we must consider the Psalmist’s questions regarding love.

Questions of Love (v.11)

In verse 11 we come across two questions that fall in the center of the Psalm. The Psalmist asks, “Is your lovingkindness declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?” These two questions are united by the theme of God’s love. In these questions the Psalmist uses two powerful and similar terms. The first term (most often translated lovingkindness) has a broad meaning of steadfast love, loyalty, faithfulness, kindness, and grace. The second term (most often translated faithfulness) also has a broad meaning of steadiness, reliability, honesty, and security. These two terms frequently appear together in describing the greatness of our God. In fact, the central questions of Psalm 88 prepare us for a theme that flows throughout the following psalm.3At the conclusion of Psalm 89 the Psalmist calls out in verse 49, “Lord, where is your lovingkindness of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” Both at the center of Psalm 88 and at the end of Psalm 89 the Psalmists ask these questions out of fear. Both Psalmists fear that the Lord is abandoning His people, individually (Psalm 88) and corporately (Psalm 89). Through Christ, however, the questions of abandonment are reversed, both individually and corporately.

Notice how the Psalmist asks if the Lord’s lovingkindness would be “declared” in the grave. The Psalmist is asking if a message or announcement of God’s lovingkindness can reach the tomb. Praise be to God that His royal proclamation of steadfast love did reach the grave. In Matthew 28:5–7 we are told,

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”

This announcement immediately follows the guards trembling in verse 4 at the angel’s appearance. A royal decree had reached the grave. In fact, a royal announcement was coming from the grave, where the king of kings had won the victory.

Then, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Savior would make a promise to His disciples. In the final words of Matthew 28 we are told, “I am with you always to the end of the age.” Beloved, nothing can destroy the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing can separate us from Him, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.” (Romans 8:38–39) As the communion of saints and in our individual lives, He is always with us. Is God’s lovingkindness declared in the grave? Is His faithfulness in Abaddon? Amen and Amen!

The next time we attend a funeral, we should be encouraged to remember these six questions at the center of the Psalm 88:

Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you?

Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

Without Christ our mediator, these questions hold only sorrow and misery for us. The correct answer is a resounding “no,” six times over, as an echoing refrain of darkness. After all, the wages of sin is death. Yet, for all who are alive in Christ our Savior, death does not win. Rather, we may receive these questions and answer each one: “Yes and yes, certainly and certainly, amen and amen, for He has risen…He has risen indeed!”

You can find the whole series on Psalm 88 here.

ENDNOTES

1. Taken from Psalms 74, 77, 79, 85, 88, and Psalm 89

2. See Andrew A. Bonar, Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms (James Nisbet: London), 1859.

3. The same combination of “lovingkindness” and “faithfulness” appear in Psalm 89:1, 2, 24, 33, 49.

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Posted by Robert Godfrey | Saturday, January 28, 2023 | Categorized Psalms, Saturday Psalm Series | Tagged Bookmark the permalink.

About Robert Godfrey

Reverend Robert M. Godfrey is a pastor serving Zeltenreich Reformed Church (URCNA) in New Holland, PA since April of 2016. He received a Master of Divinity in 2007 from Westminster Seminary California and a Doctor of Ministry from Ligonier Academy in 2017. Robert met his wife Catherine in California where they were married in 2008, and they have been blessed with three little girls.