It was already after Sunday worship before I heard word of the mass shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX. On Tuesday, at a Bible study, we talked about wounds that may not be healed in this life, perhaps like wounds in that ravaged community. This morning I listened to the latest episode of the Replacing Church Podcast, “#81 Soong-Chan Rah on the Prophetic Act of Lament,” in which he speaks about the need for prophetic lament in our worship. This afternoon, I continued reading in Walter Brueggeman’s seminal The Message of the Psalms, and he arrived at one of the most difficult psalms, the lament that goes down and down and down, but never comes back up: Psalm 88.
Here is almost every word he wrote about it in this book:
Psalm 88 is an embarrassment to conventional faith. It is the cry of a believer (who sounds like Job) whose life has gone awry, who desperately seeks contact with Yahweh, but who is unable to evoke a response from God. This is indeed “the dark night of the soul,” when the troubled person must be and must stay in the darkness of abandonment, utterly alone.
1. The psalm opens with an urgent appeal to Yahweh (vv. 1-2). The initial address is one of intimacy, already suggesting what is needed and expected. The verses are dominated by this desperate speech: “I cry…my prayer…my cry.” The appeal is reiterated in verse 9b, “I call upon thee…I spread out my hands.” And again in verse 13: “I…cry to thee…my prayer comes before thee.” This three fold cry (vv.1-2, 9b, 13) forms the structure of the psalm. Characteristically when Israel cries, Yahweh hears and answers (cf. Exod. 2:23-35; Ps. 107:6, 13, 19, 28). Indeed it is anticipated that a time will come when the answer will precede the cry (Isa. 65:24). But not yet, not here. Psalm 88 is adamant in its insistence, and it is harsh on Yahweh’s unresponsiveness. The truth of this psalm is that Israel lives in a world where there is no answer. We are not offered any speculative answer. Perhaps God is silent because the guilt of the speaker has driven Yahweh away, but we are not told that. Or one might take it to be a statement of God’s transcendent freedom, so that God is not always on call (cf. Jer. 23:23). But that is not suggested either. The psalm is not interested in any theological reason Yahweh may have. The psalm is from Israel’s side. It engages in no speculation. It asks no theological question. It simply reports on how it is to be a partner of Yahweh in Yahweh’s inexplicable absence. We may imagine that the situation is so desperate that even if a reason could be offered, the speaker would have no interest in it, nor would it help, because the needfulness of the moment supersedes any reasonable conversation.
2. The unanswered plea does not silence the speaker. Perhaps the speaker is in fact speaking to the empty sky, but that does not deter the speaker. The faith of Israel is like that. The failure of God to respond does not lead to atheism or doubt in God or rejection of God. It leads to more intense address. This psalm, like the faith of Israel, is utterly contained in the notion that Yahweh is there and must be addressed. Yahweh must be addressed, even if Yahweh never answers.
In verses 3-9a, the speaker addresses a barrage at Yahweh. The speaker is not very cunning or calculating. The speech is not deliberately presented in order to evoke an answer. There is no playing up to God. There is only anger. If one wanted to tease or persuade Yahweh to answer, this is not the way to go about it, but this speaker has no leisure for such niceties. Yahweh should not need persuasion, for he is expected to answer.
Verses 3-4 are a standard complaint with reference to “the Pit” and to “Sheol.” This is the voice of a dying one crying out to the only source of life. “The Pit” is not final judgment or fiery place of punishment. It is only beyond the range of communion. For this speaker, communion with God is clearly everything. The notion of “cutting off” is expressed in verse 5 with three metaphors and a fourth climactic line: “dead…grave…remember no more…cut off.”
But then in verses 6-9a, the stakes are upped. This is an incredibly audacious speaker. Not only does death come, but Yahweh causes it:
Thou has put me…
Thy wrath lies heavy…
Thou dost overwhelm…
Thou hast caused…
Thou has made me…
The speaker is utterly helpless. The fault is firmly fixed. In Job-like fashion, the speaker may hope that such an assault will evoke a response. But it does not—only more silence.
3. After the second cry in verse 9b, verses 10-12 offer a series of six rhetorical questions, or at least four questions, two of which have two parts. But the dramatic effect is six questions. All of them ask about Yahweh’s capacity to work his sovereign way in death. We have “dead/shades/grave/abandon/darkness/land of forgetfulness.” That is the situation into which the speaker has fallen. The speaker will surely fall further if Yahweh does not act soon. And we are given six corresponding words that characterize Yahweh’s usual action: “wonders…praise…steadfast love…faithfulness…wonders…saving help.”
The pattern of two sets of words shows the incongruity between where the speaker is and what Yahweh does. The obvious response to the rhetorical question is “no.” Yahweh does not do his typical action in death, so, if it is to make any difference, what Yahweh does will have to be done prior to death (which is very near). The urgency of the speech is that at this moment Yahweh can still do his life-giving work, but not for long. If Yahweh does not act soon, the chance will be lost, preempted by the power of death. The speaker will be utterly lost, because the power of Yahweh has failed. But this is still no answer—only waiting. We may imagine a long dramatic, not very patient pause after verse 12. But there is no answer, and so the cry is resumed.
4. The final assault in verses 14-18 comes after the third appeal of verse 13. Now the poet moves to direct, unambiguous accusation. In verse 14, two questions place the blame frontally. Verse 15 describes the situation one more time, in case Yahweh did not hear it in verses 3-8, 10-12. And then the poem culminates in its harshest statement: “thy wrath has swept…thy dread assaults…thou hast caused.”
Finally, the speaker is shunned and in darkness. The last word in the psalm is darkness. The last word is darkness. The last theological word here is darkness. Nothing works. Nothing is changed. Nothing is resolved. All things deny life. And worst of all is the “shunning.” It is twice articulated…so that the blame is fixed on Yahweh.
So what is one to do about that? Wait. That is what Israel has been doing for a very long time. I suspect that practically and dramatically, what one must do is say it over again, until the speech and the speaker have genuinely reached the bottom. One has two options: either to wait in silence, or to speak it again. What one may not do is to rush to an easier psalm, or to give up on Yahweh.
What is a psalm like that doing in our Bible? Two things suggest themselves. First, life is like that, and these poems intend to speak of all of life, not just the good parts. Here, more than anywhere else, faith faces life as it is. Second, we observe that this psalm is not a psalm of mute depression. It is still speech. It is still addressed. In the bottom of the Pit, Israel still knows it has to do with Yahweh. It cannot be otherwise. Yahweh may not have to do with Israel. That is a problem for Yahweh, not for Israel or Israel’s theologians. Israel has no option but to deal with Yahweh. That belongs to Israel’s identity and character in the world. Israel must deal with Yahweh in his life-giving speech and answer. But Israel must also deal with Yahweh in the silence, in God’s blank absence as in the saving presence. Israel has no choice but to speak to this one, or to cease to be Israel. To be Israel means to address God, even in God’s unresponsive absence.
This psalm accords well with Luther’s theology of the cross. It certainly militates against every theology of glory, against every theology that imagines that things can be resolved, that there are answers, and that we go from “strength to strength.” Psalm 88 shows us what the cross is about: faithfulness in scenes of complete abandonment…
One might wish the assertion were from on high. Then it would be less tenuous. But when that voice from on high is silent, Israel must decide if a feeble line can be established from this side. We never know. The speaker does not know. But it is speech against the darkness. It is not cowed, but insistent, determined that if the Holy One chooses to answer, that answer must not be weak or trivial. When God next speaks, God must answer this charge. No doubt that is why God is not yet prepared to answer by the end of this psalm.
Psalm 88 stands as a mark of realism for biblical faith. It has its pastoral use, because there are situations in which easy, cheap talk of resolution must be avoided. Here are words not to be used frequently, but for the limited experiences when words must be honest and not claim too much.