The Dancing Puritan

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Declaration of Faith From the Depths of Despair

"Hello, darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence."
Paul Simon

Some people seem to have a view of life that leaves little room for sorrow, depression, and agony. There is a tendency, even in Christian culture, to  tie a nice ribbon around really bad things and "think the best." And, many of us are prone to just want to fix things, sweep away the pain, or at least numb it. And though all things work out for our good and God's glory (Romans 8:28), not all things work out "happily ever after" on this earth. Some problems remain unresolved.

"Some Problems remain unresolved"

Enter Psalm 88 and its concluding sentence: You have taken from me friend and neighbor, darkness is my closest friend. What is striking about this Psalm is that a devoted follower of God writes it. The poetry of Psalm 88 is not the defiant declaration of an arrogant atheist. This Song was written by one described as "HEMAN THE EZRAHITE.  You will note the inscription refers to this Psalm as "A SONG" and that it is  "TO THE CHOIRMASTER." The inscription is an instructive reminder that the song was designed for congregational worship. Can you imagine singing such a song at your church? The perspective often offered by some worship leaders is one of all smiles, all joy, and all happiness. And, if a lament were chosen for a congregational worship service, it certainly would not end by declaring, darkness is my closest friend. 

But, what if the worshipper feels as if their closest companion is darkness? What if some worshippers on a given Lord's Day are experiencing, to borrow the words of the Spanish Mystic St. John of the Cross, a Dark Night of the Soul. Perhaps the "Dark Night" has been going on for months, or even years? What then?

"This dark Psalm is also a bold declaration of faith."

Make no mistake; Psalm 88 is dark, very dark. However, it is also a bold declaration of faith in God. Note Heman's faith in the following ways:

1. His Strong Declaration of Faith. 
For a man living in "the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep" you may imagine that he is faithless. Just the opposite is true. Read his opening words: "O LORD, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you." He cries out to Yahweh, the eternal, uncreated, self-sustaining, omnipotent God. Not only is he praying to God, he calls him the "God of my salvation." He knows God intimately.

2. The Situation is Dark but Heman is Praying. 
This strikes me as a description, not of a faithless man, but of a man of great faith. Though he is "overwhelmed," "shunned," "full of troubles," and like a dead man, he keeps praying. Note: "I cry out day and night before you." (1) "Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you." (9) "But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you." (13)  If this isn't faith, I don't know what faith is. He is suffering unspeakable terrors and he is isolated from friends and family, but he keeps knocking on heaven's door, seeking the God of his salvation.

In the midst of great darkness, he prays!

3.  His Painful Honesty Before God. 
He cries out to God and tells him of the depths of his troubles, of his physical weakness, of his afflictions. He believes that he is near death (5). The picture is graphic and painful. He says that he is "Like those whom you [God] remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand." (5) The word "like" is a word of hope. He is not cut off from God, but he feels like he is. He knows the truth but he feels forsaken. "Like" is a word of comfort, if you are a suffering follower of God. You may feel as if you are "like the slain that lie in the grave" but you are not in reality for you, as a Christian, are not abandoned. Heman's painful honesty is a reminder to us to believe the truth, regardless of what we may feel at the moment. We can and should be honest with God about our feelings. He is our loving Father, and we can trust our darkest thoughts to him. However, our feelings must not dictate the reality of our faith.

4. He Recognizes that His Troubles Are From God.
This also is a bold statement of faith. He declares: "You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep" (6, see also 7,8, 14,16,18).  Though theologians have often debated about what God actually causes verses what he allows, the point in Psalm 88 is that God is in control of everything that happens to us. Since he is omnipotent and impeccable, he can cause trouble to come into our lives while maintaining his integrity. And since he is omnipotent he could certainly stop trouble from assailing us, if he so willed. Heman saw his troubles as coming from the hand of God. Such truth is actually very comforting based on what the Bible teaches us concerning the Father's love for His children. Psalm 23 is an encouraging reminder that he will not forsake his people, even in the "valley of the shadow of death." If God were not sovereign over our troubles, then we would have every reason to fall into ultimate despair.

"If God were not sovereign over our troubles, then we would have every reason to fall into despair."

5. He has a Passionate Desire for God's Glory.
Heman rightly accesses that he has one life to live and, therefore, one opportunity, on earth, to declare the love and greatness of God (9-12). He wants to live so that he can praise, declare, and make known the power, love, and faithfulness of God. Yes, Heman is in a dark and difficult place, but he has a right perspective. He knows of the preciousness, brevity, and the purpose of life. For a Christian, "to die is gain" and yet Christians should desire to live, while they do live, for God's glory. The here-and-now is where we dwell and we should not seek a way out of our troubles via suicide, nor should we seek to "check-out" on life through drugs, alcohol, or some other escape mechanism. For now, we must fight through hard times with a desire to live for God's glory.

Knowing the five points above, we have every reason to be hopeful when we come to verse 18: You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness. Heman lands on verse 18 having declared his faith, via constant prayer to the God of his salvation, and with painful honesty (indicating trust) before God. He lands on vs. 18 after recognizing that all of his troubles are inseparably connected to the sovereignty of God, and with a desire for God's glory.

And yet, he still concludes his song with "darkness is my closest friend." (NIV)  He doesn't paint a rosy picture. His song is honest. His song is raw. His song reeks with the aroma of deep pain and brokenness. However, it is a song that is a declaration of faith from the depths of despair.

"His song is raw. His song reeks with the aroma of deep pain and brokenness. However, it is a song that is a declaration of faith from the depths of despair."

Do you see yourself in Psalm 88? If so, don't give up. Declare your faith. Keep seeking God in prayer. Be honest with God about how you feel. Though you feel like you are "like those" whom God has "cut off" you must remember the truth. Though God may remove a sense of his presence, He will never abandon you. Learn all that you can about God' sovereignty and find comfort in his absolute control over your life. And, whatever your situation, make it your aim to live! But not just live. Make it your aim to live for his glory.

A word for the reader: Don't read this Psalm is isolation from the rest of the Psalms. The Psalms do not typically end as Psalm 88 does. Though, every sadness, every emotion, every positive and negative experience is characterized in the Psalms, most of them conclude with a message of hope. I have argued that Psalm 88 is also a psalm, not only of lament, but also of faith.

A word for pastors: Don't be dismissive of your hurting people. Don't imagine that if they express such sentiments as those found in Psalm 88 that they are not really Christians, or they are certainly not very spiritual. Though there is a time for all professors of faith to examine the reality of their faith, this Psalm argues that true believers, of deep faith, can also suffer dark and despairing times. 

A word for music leaders. Do you have a place, on occasion, for a Psalm of Lament in your music selection? If not, why not?

Ray Rhodes, Jr. is President of Nourished in the Word Ministries. Ray leads conferences, retreats, and other events in churches across the nation. To schedule Ray for your next event, contact him HERE.