Hope in the Darkest Place
Reading: Psalm 88
Hope is often the subject of motivational posters. One such poster has a night scene with the stars still visible against the dark sky while the light of the sun is peaking over the horizon, with this quote from Desmond Tutu: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” This is a good way to understand hope, but it raises an important question: Is hope all about seeing light in the midst of darkness, or is there actually a light to be seen in the midst of darkness? In other words: Is there actually a reason for hope, or is hope simply a naïve view of the world that will inevitably be crushed? Psalm 88 presents no naïve view of the world and still points us to a real, solid basis for our hope.
Hope allows us to endure difficulties. Most people have enough hope to endure the run-of-the-mill difficulties such as getting a bad grade on a test, passed over for a job promotion, or fired. What if much more difficult happen? A spouse or child dies; the love of your life serves you with divorce papers; you cannot have children; or, maybe you’re alone – always. These things can lead to despair. Psalms of lament were written for times like these. These psalms show us how to pray in times of real despair with surprisingly honest language. Psalm 88 is a psalm of lament.
Not a Naive View of the World
Most lament psalms have a resolution, a closing in which the sun rises again and all is better. Psalm 88 breaks the pattern and has no resolution, no coming back to hope. The psalmist is not merely walking through the valley of the shadow of death, he is in a deep pit and the dirt is piling on. This is a psalm for those times when all hope is gone. Here we learn to hope against hope. The psalmist describes his condition:
3 my life draws near to death, 4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit, 5 I am set apart with the dead… like the slain in the grave… 6 in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.
15 From my youth I have been… close to death, 16 Your terrors have destroyed me, 17 completely engulfed me… 18 darkness is my closest friend.”
Allender and Longman, in The Cry of the Soul, call this “the blackest of all the laments in the Psalter.”
“The composer’s agonizing scream can be heard from beginning to end, because his pain has lasted from his youth until now.…The final line…indicates that the psalmist is on the edge of emotional obliteration. Friends have abandoned him, and he blames God for this.…He feels completely isolated, set apart from others.…Most horrifying of all, as he approaches the grave he feels utterly abandoned by God — not just ignored by Him, but rejected.”1
Not Letting God Off the Hook
The psalms teach us that we can express our deepest emotions to God. Sometimes this involves risky language. “Will God get angry at me if I talk like this?” Psalm 88 uses risky language. The Psalmist was not concerned with trying to justify God by explaining that God wasn’t doing these things, either blaming the devil or saying that God was allowing this, but not causing it. In 6-8 he says, “You have put me… Your wrath… You have taken…and have made…” In 16-18, “Your wrath has swept over me, your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken from me friend and neighbor…”
Biblical writers are quite comfortable with God’s sovereignty, meaning God was ultimately in charge and therefore responsible for what was happening, regardless of who or what else was involved. I don’t mean to say they were “okay” with it; they just accepted it as fact. Sometimes they took issue with it (like Job). They sometimes called God to account for how He managed the world. They asked God to explain Himself, or fix things. Many parts of the Bible are taken up with the justification of God, the vindication of God in light of the evil in the world.2 This was not done by blame-shifting (“It’s someone else’s fault!”).
I believe this Psalm points us to the Gospel’s message of God’s righteousness, His justice – how He is vindicated despite His seeming silence in our most desperate hour. Two things in this psalm point us to the ultimate and sure basis of all hope.
The Psalmist Refuses to Quit Praying
How do we see hope in Psalm 88? I see it in the Psalmist’s refusal to quit praying to God despite the apparent ineffectiveness of his prayers. In verses 1, 9, and 13, he continues to cry out day and night, every day, and even first thing in the morning. He won’t quit anticipating God’s deliverance… even as he approaches the grave.
Notice to Whom he cries: “the God who saves me.” (v1) On what basis does he say this? Certainly not on the basis of past deliverance. The psalmist still believes in God’s salvation despite the evidence to the contrary. He must believe in the God who raises the dead. How else could he know God as the God Who saves? Commenting on this psalm, John Goldingay writes:
“It is extraordinary that this person keeps praying at all, and the psalm is an expression of extraordinary faith. …as he sinks away, the dying person clings to God. That is the hidden miracle of this prayer song which is overshadowed by the darkness of death.”3
The Psalmist’s Questions Reveal Hope
The second place we see hope in Psalm 88 is in the rhetorical questions. The Psalmist asks,
“Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? 11 Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? 12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?” (Psalm 88:10-12)
These questions expect a “No” answer. So why ask? The psalmist is reminding God what God has to lose. God is all about making Himself known. He loves to reveal Himself. The psalmist is pointing out to God that once he crosses the line into death, God cannot be made known… even if He were to do wonders in the place of darkness, who would see them? His righteous deeds, who would know about them?
The Gospel gives a different answer to these questions. The Gospel answers “yes” in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He did show His wonders to the dead; His love was declared in the grave; His faithfulness in the place of destruction; His righteousness in the land of oblivion. In Jesus’ resurrection, God is vindicated. His answer to prayer goes beyond anything the psalmist might have expected. God raises the dead.
We Have Hope
No matter how dark the darkness gets, because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we have a sure foundation for hope. It is never too late for the God Who raises the dead. The resurrection of Jesus guarantees life for those who trust in Him. The sufferings and crucifixion of our Lord were a dark, dark day for Him, yet He trusted in the Father. And the Father saved Him. We now have hope that goes beyond the grave. We serve the God Who saves even when we die without receiving the promise. We have received the promise in the resurrection of Jesus.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1Allender, Dan; Longman, Tremper. The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God (p. 139-140). NavPress.
2By “God’s justification,” I mean His vindication in the face of all suffering, or unanswered prayers; in the face of injustices, in the face of all who have followed Him by faith but were left to die and not be delivered. See Hebrews 11:36-39.
3Goldingay, John. Psalms : Volume 2 (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms): Psalms 42-89 (Kindle Locations 13547-13550). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.