Let’s consider darkness and despair, depression and anxiety, aloneness, sadness and suffering. Many psalms speak profoundly about how such emotions disquiet the soul. But psalms also give calm and renewing hope. However, that’s not true of Psalm 88. From beginning to end, darkness is the psalm’s theme and sadness is its music. Psalm 88 ends without offering any comfort or relief in the midst of great suffering.
After looking at the words of this psalm, we’ll go back a few decades to a ballad that echoed the words of the ancient psalmist. The lyrics of the ballad, written for a generation in the midst of radical change, during a time of self-proclaimed progressivism, reflect the same despair and confusion of the psalmist in ancient Israel. Kkeep reading until you get to the 1960’s song (the song is also popular today, being featured in the children’s movie “Trolls). You will be surprised to read the connection between the ancient psalm and the mid 20th-century song. However, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since the Bible tells us, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Despair has darkened the minds and troubled the souls of all people, throughout all history, and only the Light of the World, the hope found in Jesus, can dispel such darkness.
The Dark Corner of the Psalms
Before we look at the words of Psalm 88, understand that this is not a psalm of David. Verse one tells us that it was authored by Heman.
Who was Heman? We don’t really know. There’s a man named Heman in 1 Kings 4:31, and another in David’s time who was a chief singer (1 Chron 15:19), but we don’t know if either of these men wrote this psalm. Whoever wrote it, clearly suffered despair and a troubled soul.
Psalm 88 was meant to be sung while the Israelites were walking to a service of worship. It was written to the sons of Korah and for the chief musician. It begins with weeping before the Lord:
Psalm 88:1 O LORD God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee:
This reminds us that when we weep, we should always cry out to God. In our times of sadness, sorrow, or suffering, we should take our tears and our fears to God. In another psalm, we are assured that God hears our cries and that He sees our tears and responds:
Psa 56:8 You number my wanderings; Put my tears into Your bottle; Are they not in Your book?
Psa 56:9 When I cry out to You, Then my enemies will turn back; This I know, because God is for me.
Lamenting & Despairing
The psalmist begins his lament by describing the calamities he faces: “My soul is full of troubles” (vs 3). Desperation is heard in his voice and he feels that God isn’t present. The psalmist speaks with an expectation of his death:
Psa 88:3b-5 …And my life draws near to the grave. I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength, Adrift among the dead, Like the slain who lie in the grave, Whom You remember no more, And who are cut off from Your hand.
The psalmist continues and expresses an understanding of the sovereignty of God. He acknowledges God’s will (providential or permissive), and he attributes all that is happening in his life, and all that he is feeling in his soul, to God’s hand.
Psa 88:6-8 You have laid me in the lowest pit, In darkness, in the depths. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, And You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah You have put away my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an abomination to them; I am shut up, and I cannot get out;
Next, the psalmist cries out to God (vs. 10-13) asking how can he worship and praise God if he is no longer among the living or if he remains in the depths of despair:
Psa 88:10-12 Will You work wonders for the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise You? Selah Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
Darkness: My Closest Friend?
The remainder of the psalm is more lament, more despair, more confusion, more darkness. The NIV Bible translates the last words of this psalm as “darkness is my closest friend.” (vs 18b)
It can’t get much more despairing than to feel darkness all around. To feel that darkness is your companiion…your only companion and your closest friend. Haven’t we all felt that way at some time? Sadly, darkness diminishes our vision and despair displaces our hope, and sometimes we might feel like God is not present and all we hear are the sounds of silence.
Sounds of Silence
The Sounds of Silence is the title of a popular 1960’s song written by Paul Simon and performed with Art Garfunkel. Both Simon & Garfunkel are Jews, and this song echoes the words from the songbook of their religion. The same lament of the ancient psalmist (c. 1531BC) is expressed in lyrics written by Simon. Both the ancient psalm and the 60’s song are laments of despair, loneliness, and silence. But the 1960’s song ends in a very different way than the 88th psalm. It ends with a “whisper in the sounds of silence.” Let’s look at five lessons we can learn from these lyrics.
The Sounds of Silence
1) Despair in Darkness and Silence
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
Within the sound of silence
2) Loneliness in Isolation
In restless dreams, I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turn my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
3) Broken Communication:
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
4) There Is Hope:
“Fools,” said I, “you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
5) True Hope Can’t be Found in the World:
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said
“The words of the prophets are
written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence”
(Simon & Garfunkel, 1964)
A Warning and A Call
May the words of this song be a warning to all of us. The world’s riches will cloud our vision. The world’s messages will dull our hearing. We must not let silence grow, like a cancer. Instead, we must listen for the “whisper” in the silence:
“Hear my words that I might teach you, Take my arms that I might reach you…. And the sign said, ‘The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls And tenement halls and whispered in the sound of silence.”
The words of God’s prophets are writen in the Bible and they whisper to us in the silence. God’s prophets gave words of encouragement for the day and hope for the future. They tell of our great and gracious God. They tell of His love and goodness, His mercy and grace.
A Troubling Psalm
Since Psalm 88 doesn’t end with hope and is such a depressing psalm, why is it in the Bible? The answer is really quite simple. It’s there to drive us to the only One who can deliver us from despair and give us true hope. God desires that in all things we would seek Him and, when we do seek him in times of desparation, He is faithful to deliver us. ” Heman’s circumstances were bleak, his heart was heavy, and his soul despairing, but he knew to whom he should pray and who could deliver him. He began with, “O LORD God of my salvation…” (Psalm 88:1).
Dare to Disturb the Sounds of Silence with the Word of God
Darkness may be an old friend, as Paul Simon wrote, but the Bible tells us that, for Christians, darkness is not our closest friend. While there are times when it might seem that way, Jesus is always our closest friend! God will not leave us in despair. He will never leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). He has promised to be with us always (Mat 28:20).
We must remember:
- His promises in the dark seasons of the soul. (Psa 27:13, Psa 119:49-50)
- He is faithful to watch over us (El Roi — the God Who Sees Me, Genesis 16:13-14; Psa 121:5, Psa 32:8).
- Jesus is on every page of the Bible! and
- We must listen for His whispers in the sounds of silence (1 Kings 19:12).
How Can We Hear God Whisper? Be Still and Listen with…
- A prayerful, seeking heart: King David exemplified this when he said, “O God, You are my God; Early will I seek You; My soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You In a dry and thirsty land Where there is no water.” (Psa 63:1)
- A diligent mind: As you read and study God’s Word, you will come to know Him better. God speaks most clearly through His Word, and so we are told to, “study to show yourself approved unto God.” (2 Tim 2:15) What happens when we read the Bible? 1) we are being conformed to the image of His Son by the renewal of our minds and 2) we are not being conformed to the ways of the world (Rom 8:29, Rom 12:2) .
- An obedient will. What we read, we should heed. God clearly tells us of His will and His ways. Therefore, we should trust in His commands, be surrendered to His will, and know that His ways are higher, and better, than our own (Isa 55:9).
- A patient soul. God speaks in His time. Find rest in Jesus. Find peace in knowing God hears your petitions and that He offers real comfort, unfailing love, and amazing grace. Wait on the Lord and hear Him whisper in the sounds of silence:
Psa 27:14 Wait on the LORD; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the LORD!
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