“My only friend is darkness” (Psalm 88:18).
Psalm 88 may be the gloomiest of all of the prayers in the book of Psalms. The psalmist begins his prayer with an expression of faith because he prays to the “God of my salvation” (Psalm 88:1). But this is the only positive word of affirmation, an indication that his faith in God had not vanished.
The remainder of the psalmist’s prayer are words of anguish. The psalmist’s prayer is an outpouring of deep lamentation. His prayer is an agonizing cry to God for help, it is a prayer to a God who is silent to his cry, to a God who is slow to help, and to a God whom the psalmist believed was the cause of his problems. In the end, his prayer remains unanswered.
The psalmist never said what his problem was, but he had suffered with his illness for many years, “I have been sick and close to death since my youth” (Psalm 88:15 NLT). He believed that God was the cause of his suffering, “I stand helpless and desperate before your terrors” (Psalm 88:15 NLT).
In his desperation, the psalmist turned to God asking for help. He prayed to God day and night. In his prayer, the psalmist asked God to hear his prayer and to listen to his cry for help. The psalmist’s appeal to God in his hour of gloom and darkness is evidence that he had not abandoned God and that his faith was strong, even though he was suffering, and even though he could not understand the reason God was silent to his prayer.
The agonizing prayer of the psalmist reflects what was afflicting him, his troubles, his misfortunes, his misery and his belief that he was about to die, “my life draws near to the grave” (Psalm 88:3). This anticipation of death is the reason for his agonizing cry. The desperation of the psalmist is that even though he prayed day and night, it seemed to him that God was not listening to his prayer.
Because the psalmist believed that God was the cause of his problem, he cried in agony, “I am a helpless man” (Psalm 88:5 TNK). The psalmist was a person from whom physical strength and the vitality of life had departed; he felt himself to be only a shadow of what he was, a man for whom there was no help.
The psalmist felt like a person who had been abandoned by society and by God and left alone among the dead with no one to care for him, not even God, “I am like the slain lying in the grave, whom you no longer remember, and who are cut off from your care” (Psalm 88:5).
These words express the painful agony of the psalmist. In the midst of suffering, he felt abandoned by God. His words described his distress, a distress so great that his prayer was addressed to God at the time his life was near to its end, at the time when hope that God would listen to his cry for help was fading away.
The psalmist believed that his death was imminent and that God was bringing about the end of his life, “You have plunged me to the bottom of the grave, in the dark places, and in the shadow of death” (Psalm 88:6). The psalmist counted himself among the dead and in the grave there was only darkness. “Here God appears to cast this one into the darkest places on earth and then turn away. These verses are an expression of what it means to lose all hope and to believe that God has turned against you” (Tanner 2014:399).
But the psalmist does not want to die, not yet, for the dead, the psalmist believed, are people whom God no longer remembers; they are people cut off from God’s care. The psalmist does not want to die because the dead cannot praise God, only the living.
When King Hezekiah was sick and facing death, he prayed to God, “In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years? . . . I shall not see the LORD in the land of the living . . . death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. . . . The living, only the living can give you praise as I do today” (Isaiah 38:9–22).
Because of his illness, the psalmist felt lonely. His friends had abandoned him, and he blamed God for it, “You have taken from me my closest friends” (Psalm 88:8). Lonely and abandoned by his friends and by God, the psalmist felt like a prisoner of his misery, a prison where no one comes to visit him, and a place “from which he cannot get out” (Delitzsch 1888:501).
The psalmist’s desperation grows stronger because God does not answer his prayers, “My eyes are worn out from crying. LORD, I cry out to you all day long; I spread out my hands to you” (Psalm 88:9). The psalmist’s life was wasting away because of suffering. He cried and cried to the Lord and spread his hands to heaven to protect himself from God’s wrath which lies heavily on him and from God’s waves which, like a mighty flood, overwhelmed him (Psalm 88:7). And yet, despite all his cries and supplications, his prayers remained unanswered.
In desperation, the psalmist asked God several questions related to his coming death. These questions have to do with what happens after a person dies. He asked God:
“Is your love declared in the grave?”
“Is your faithfulness proclaimed in the tomb?”
“Are your wonders known in the place of darkness?”
“Are your righteous deeds known in the land of oblivion?”
These questions seek to ascertain what happens to a person after death. These questions “are unusual, for the Hebrew Scriptures rarely ask about the afterlife. These questions are meant to get a rise out of the silent God, to challenge God’s power over death, and to stress that with death, the relationship will be broken” (Tanner 2014:399).
The dead do not seek God because the dead are in their graves, in a land of oblivion, in a place of darkness. But the psalmist was alive and every day he confronted God with his prayers, “As for me, I cry out to you, O LORD; in the morning my prayer confronts you” (Psalm 88:13 NET). The psalmist contrasted himself with the dead who are separated from the faithfulness and love of God. He was not satisfied with the silence of God. He confronted God’s silence with a prayer “that is trying to get God to act,” a prayer that “demands attention” (Tanner 2014:400).
The psalmist reminded God that the suffering which had been slowly taking his life had been a reality in his life for a long time, since the days of his youth, “Ever since I was young, I have been suffering and near death.” In his desperation, he said that God was the cause of his despair, “I have endured your terrors, and now I am in despair” (Psalm 88:15). “The Psalmist is so far gone that he resolves to give himself over to despair” (Hengstenberg 1860:96).
The psalmist complained that the fire of God’s wrath had gone over him as if God had set him apart for a display of his burning anger. The dread that assaulted the psalmist was consuming him “I am broken by your cruel punishments” (Psalm 88:16).
The psalmist also accused God of causing his friends and family to abandon him because of his desperate situation, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me.” The psalmist saw little hope for his recovery because God had not answered his prayer. In his suffering, he believed that God had abandoned him.
The psalmist suffers alone. All his friends and neighbors have abandoned him. In his loneliness, his only friend is darkness (Psalm 88:18).
In his explanation of the darkness the psalmist was facing, Hengstenberg writes, “The Psalm ends with an energetic expression of its main thought-the immediate vicinity of death. The darkness is thickest at the end, just as it is in the morning before the rising of the sun” (Hengstenberg 1860:97).
But for the psalmist, the sun does not rise at the end of his prayer.
What must Christians do when they are facing times of anguish, despair, and suffering? Like the psalmist, one must go to God in prayer. But what happens when prayers are not answered?
There is no denial that many people lose their faith in God because they are unable to understand how problems, sickness, and even the death of a loved one fit into the faith they had come to embrace, a faith which declared that God is good and that God is their protector and the one who delivers them from harm. Many people are unable to reconcile the problems they face with their view that God is good in a way that could preserve their faith.
As hard as it is for many people to understand, it is in the midst of the paroxysms of hopelessness that people’s faith matures, as they learn to accept the affliction they suffer at the sovereign hand of their God. The problems of life reveal the tenacity of the believer’s faith.
One great example is found in the words of the psalmist. When faced with pain and suffering, the psalmist cried to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). The anguish of the psalmist in his prayer to God is presented in the form of a song. The hymn was sung “according to The Deer of the Dawn,” a popular tune that was probably used in the worship conducted at the temple.
Although the psalmist expressed his lament in a hymn, his hymn ends with thanksgiving and praise. The psalmist declares that even though he is suffering now, God will give him the victory in the end, when he delivers his soul from the sword, and his life from the power of the dog (Psalm 22:20).
Many people see Psalm 22 in a negative light because Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is not a cry of dereliction, it is the song of one who was confident that in the suffering of the cross, he would eventually attain victory. The victory came three days later.
When confronted with trials and tribulations, people of faith express their confidence in God through song. Although people of faith may not have answers to the problems they face, their faith in God expresses the confidence that in the end they will obtain victory.
The following is a twentieth-century version of Psalm 22:
I trust in God wherever I may be,
Upon the land or on the rolling sea,
For, come what may, from day to day,
My heav’nly Father watches over me.
I trust in God, I know He cares for me,
On mountain bleak or on the stormy sea;
Tho’ billows roll, He keeps my soul,
My heavn’ly Father watches over me.
I trust in God, for in the lion’s den,
On battlefield, or in the prison pen,
Thru praise or blame, thru flood or flame,
My heav’nly Father watches over me.
Even the psalmist, who was in pain and who had suffered for many years, the person who believed that God was silent and far from him, prayed to the God of his salvation, “O LORD, God of my salvation” (Psalm 88:1).
Although the psalmist had no explanation for his suffering, his faith was not dead.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
deClaisse-Walford, Nancy L., Rolf A. Jacobson, Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.
Delitzsch, Franz. Commentary of the Psalms. London: Hoddet and Stoughton, 1888.
Hengstenberg, E. W. Commentary on the Psalms. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1860.