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Psalm 88: A Prayer from the Pit Print E-mail
Sunday, 26 August 2012

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My parents were divorced when I was seven.  A few years later I was told that I had a disease that might be cured in my lifetime (not yet).  When I was a senior in high school I totaled two cars in one week.  I got to be a groomsman several times before I got to be the groom (which seems fairly silly now, but was difficult at the time).  My wife and I were told that we might not ever conceive a child.  I broke my arm playing basketball without even falling down (oh and I am still too short to really play basketball all that much).

So then, that’s my partial list of hardships this morning.  Needless to say some of those are worse than others and none of them are as bad as what many have to face.  Yet, we all have those lists don’t we?  We have all had those moments in life when things just did not add up.  We can sit around and compare lists, but that’s really not the issue is it?  It does not really matter whose life is the hardest when we are in the middle of our own dark days.  Maybe you are there even now.  Maybe right now you are doing all that you can to see the light at the end of this tunnel.

What are we supposed to do in those times?  The good news is that the Bible is not silent on this particular topic.  In fact, suffering is repeatedly addressed in the text.  It is a common topic in the psalms.  The psalmist normally talks about his struggles and hardships and then concludes by speaking of his trust in God.  These are what we call the ‘lament’ psalms.  Psalm 88 is a lament psalm with one important difference: it does not really resolve.  One of my commentator’s says of it: “There is no sadder prayer in the Psalter.” 1  This is a psalm from the pit.  Our temptation might be to try and make it more positive.  Yet, when we think about our own lives and the lives of those around us, we know that sometimes positive is not always real.  Sometimes we find ourselves in a pit.  So then, what lessons can we learn from this prayer of distress?

First, don’t stop praying (v. 1-2, 9b, 13-14):

A good question that we all need to ask ourselves this morning is this: where do my troubles lead me?  The psalms as a whole challenge us on this front.  We run to friends and family, we run to books and music, we run and hide out in a hole.  We run, but do we run to the Lord?  Do our struggles drive us to the Lord or away from the Lord?  When we are facing difficult times, do we take more time to get still before the Lord and pour out our hearts in prayer?  The lament psalms teach us to do that.  They call for us to come before the Lord and bring our distress to him.

This is what the writer of Psalm 88 does.  Look at verses 1-2.  There are a couple of things to note in these verses.  First, notice what the psalmist calls God: O Lord, God of my salvation.  The psalmist knows that God is not just the Lord, not just some greater being, but He is the God of his salvation.  It is a personal comment: my salvation.  The psalmist cries out to His God.  And he cries out day and night.  Thus, second, his crying out to the Lord is continual.  He cries out in the morning and he cries out at night.  He keeps coming before the Lord in prayer.  We see this a couple more times in the psalm.  Look at verse 9b.  Every day the psalmist cries out before the God.  As we will see in a moment, even in the midst of the psalmist listing his struggles he pauses to note that he is still crying out to the Lord.  He does it one more time in verses 13-14.  Look at those with me.  He keeps crying out to the Lord.  He keeps asking his questions to the only One that he knows can answer them.  He does not stop praying.  My commentator notes one of the lessons that we can learn from this psalm: “This author, like Job, does not give up.  He completes his prayer, still in the dark and totally unrewarded.” 2

So then, let me encourage this morning to not give up in your prayers.  Perhaps you find yourself in a place where you feel like you have given up on prayer a long time ago.  Or maybe it’s just hard to keep crying out the same things to the Lord.  Let me encourage you: don’t give up.  Keep praying.  Keep crying out to the God of your salvation.

Second, don’t lie about your struggles (v. 3-9a, 10-12, 15-18):

As Christians, we often feel like we need to put on a good face.  Now I get that.  I want to suffer well.  Yet, suffering well does not mean that we are dishonest about our struggles.  It does not mean that we go around pretending like everything is alright when it is not.  We can be honest with the Lord and with others about our struggles. 

The psalmist is honest about his struggles.  He gives several reasons why he feels like he is in the pit.  First reason: I am full of troubles and without strength.  Look at verses 3-5.  The psalmist feels like he should be counted among the dead.  Yes, he is living, but he does not feel that his life is worth that much at this point.  Some have conjectured that the psalmist was suffering from leprosy, which does make sense in light of what he writes.  He feels on the verge of death. 

Second reason: I am overwhelmed by your wrath.  Look at verses 6-7.  The psalmist is overcome by the difficulties that he is facing.  The wrath of God is closing in all around him.  He uses similar language in verses 16-17.  Look at those with me.  Again, the psalmist feels surrounded by God’s wrath. 

Third reason: I am alone.  Not only is he facing all of these terrible struggles, he is facing them alone.  Look at verses 8-9a and verse 18.  Again, such a description fits the idea of the psalmist suffering from leprosy.  His uncleanness would have driven all of his companions away.  We all know that one of the blessings in a time of suffering can be our friends and our family surrounding us with love and prayers.  Yet, apparently the psalmist did not even have that at this point. 

Fourth reason: I cannot praise you from the grave.  The psalmist makes an interesting argument in verses 10-12.  Look at those verses with me.  Now we might be tempted to say: ‘Yes, you can praise the Lord from the grave.’  And that would be right in one sense.  Yet, what the psalmist is referring to is praising the Lord among the living, which the dead do not do.  Thus, the psalmist is saying that he cannot bring praise God on the earth if he dies, which is another reason why the psalmist is crying out to God.  He wants to praise the Lord among the living but can only do so with the Lord’s help and grace.

These are honest reasons why the psalmist is struggling.  He is not sugar-coating his prayer.  We can learn from that.  Granted, I think it is very easy for us to fall off into feeling like a victim if we are not too careful.  But there are times when we are honestly going through difficult days.  In those times we need to be honest with the Lord and honest with one another.  This is a comforting thought I think.  You don’t have to pretend with the Lord.  You can be honest with Him.  You can bring your prayers and hurts and loneliness and heartache to Him.

Third, don’t doubt God’s sovereignty (v. 6-8, 14-18):

Did you notice who the psalmist believes is behind his struggles?  Look again at verses 6-8.  You have put me in the pit…Your wrath lies heavy upon me…You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them.  He uses the same language in verses 14-18.  Look at those with me again.  It is very clear that the psalmist believes that God is in control of his suffering.  Even though he may be facing sickness or some other tragedy, he states repeatedly that Lord is ultimately sovereign over what he is facing.

Yet, we may think to ourselves: ‘Well, the psalmist just got his theology wrong.  His suffering lead him to some bad conclusions.’  The problem with this thought is that the Bible repeatedly affirms that God is sovereign over everything, including suffering.  Think about the story of Job.  He loses all of his children in a single day along with most of his property.  In response Job says: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.  The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21).  And lest we think Job got it wrong, the text notes: In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong (Job 1:22).  God was sovereign over Job’s struggles.  Yes, Satan was involved, along with the Sabeans and the Chaldeans, but ultimately the Lord gave and the Lord took away.  The psalmist knows that the Lord is the One ultimately behind his being in the pit.

Many argue that such a thought is not very comforting.  In fact, many deny this teaching for various reasons, one of them being that it is not helpful to believe that God is sovereign over our suffering.  Yet, I would argue just the opposite.  If God is not in control of my suffering, then who is?  If someone else is in control, then what hope do I have that God can actually overpower them?  Ultimately God has to be in control or that means He is no longer God, something else is.  Now, we do have to be careful in how we understand the relationship between our suffering and God’s sovereignty, a topic which goes beyond the scope of this sermon.  But we dare not deny it.  With the psalmist, we must recognize that God is in control.  We cry out to Him because we know that He is sovereign over our life. 

So then, in light of the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 88, what will you do in the pit?  We must not stop praying or resort to pretending like everything is fine or denying God’s sovereignty.  No, we must keep crying out to the One that we know is ultimately in control of all things.  Yes, this life is hard.  We live in a sin-cursed world and we will face dark times. 

But I want to close with one final thought that gives Christians great hope even when they are in the pit.  Jesus Christ, our Savior, took on flesh and became a man.  He lived through this life just like us.  And the author of Hebrews tells us that He faced the same darkness, the same temptations, that we face.  He writes: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (4:15-16).  The psalmist knew that the Lord was the God of his salvation.  How much more do we know because of Christ?  Even in the pit, may we never stop crying out to the God of our salvation, who sent us His Son to die for us and be our great High Priest.  Amen.     

1 Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 TOTC (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 316.
2 Ibid., p.319.

~ William Marshall ~

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