Undeterred Clinging to God: Reflections on Psalm 88

tunnel“For I am filled with afflictions,
and my life is near the kingdom of death.
… Do you perform miracles on the dead,
or do the shades rise up to praise you? Selah.
… But I cried, O Yahweh, to you;
may my prayer reach you in the morning.” -Ps. 88.3, 10, 13

Psalm 88 is a prayer song of despair, and the cry for help in what seems like a maze of despicably dead-ends. The scholars tell us that it may have been a song written for the extremely ill, perhaps even the lepers of Judah during David’s time, who were required to live outside of the city gates as outcasts, and were not permitted to come into the house of God.

Hear Hans-Joachim Kraus on this:

In all its assertions the prayer song is filled with an impenetrable darkness. The breath of approaching death drifts through every line.
… Very likely the petitioner is afflicted with a serious illness from his youth. It is possible that he lives outside the gate as an outcast.
… The distress of the petitioner is clearly apparent in v. 10. God would have to perform a miracle. He would have to raise a dead person to life. Will he do it? With this question a petitioner reaches the extreme limit of the OT.
… Can Yahweh overcome and avert this worst distress?

(PSALMS 60-150: A Continental Commentary, Kraus, Fortress Press, pp. 192, 194)

This Psalm is one of the few which seems to end on the note of despair and bewilderment. Almost always, we see the Psalmists breaking into rejoicing in their songs, even if they begin in sorrow. This Psalm is an exception to the common rule. The last verse reads:

“You have estranged from me
friend and neighbor;
my intimate friends- darkness.” (v. 18, Kraus’ translation)

Imagine your own body, racked with leprosy, required by the Law to die a slow death outside of the city gates. One can only imagine the pain and grief of hearing only a faint echo of the rejoicing and fellowship which is taking place inside the gates; the pain of longing for interaction with friends, longing to sit in the house of the Lord and to hear from the Scriptures, longing to join in with the songs of praise or to enjoy a meal with family and neighbors. Then there is the ever-present reminder that the body is fast decaying, along with the constantly hounding pain of infection and disease. Could the author of this Psalm have been a former-musician of the Tabernacle who came down with a horrific illness? We do not know for certain.

But we do know that an unprecedented darkness has taken over his soul. Indeed, Kraus calls this song “the darkest of all OT psalms.”

Have you come to a place of darkness, where you feel as if you could say “my life is near the kingdom of death?” Have you reached pits of despair, been imprisoned in cells of hopelessness, or felt as if you were drowning in waters of inward anguish?

Though this Psalm seems to end on as drab and lackluster of a note as it begins, there is a subtle glory hidden within it. It is what Kraus calls “the unremitting, undeterred clinging to the God of Israel” which shows us that, even in the darkest place where the “kingdom of death” seems to press in on every side, the Psalmist “lets us recognize an unshakeable trust. The darkest of all OT Psalms is governed by the certainty: You are the God of my salvation.” Though the circumstances did not shift, the Psalmist continued to cling to the God of Israel, and this is the key to life eternal.

When everything in life is shot through with mystery; when death seems to surround your soul; when, because of some unforeseen circumstance, you find yourself outside of the “city gate”; when you can only hear faded and gray sounds of rejoicing off in the distance, may you find the grace to say with the Psalmist:

“O Lord, the God of my salvation…” (v. 1)

Dear saint, be assured that no one whose hope is in the Lord will ever be put to shame.

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