Many of the psalms speak profoundly of the sadness and darkness that casts the soul into the depths of despair. But most psalms end with a quieted spirit and a renewed hope. That’s not true of Psalm 88. From beginning to end, darkness is the theme of the psalm and sadness is its music. Psalm 88 ends without offering any comfort or relief in the midst of great suffering.
Let’s learn about Psalm 88 to learn from Psalm 88. Let’s look at the words of the psalmist. This is not a psalm of David. Verse one tells us that it was authored by Heman. 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). We do not know if one of them wrote this psalm, or if it was another. However, whoever wrote the psalm we clearly hear the words of a severely troubled soul.
After looking at the words of this psalm, we’ll go back a few decades to a ballad that echoed the heart and soul of the ancient psalmist. The lyrics of the ballad were written for a generation in the midst of radical change. It was a time of self-proclaimed progressivism, yet many were experiencing the same despair and confusion of the psalmist in ancient Israel.
Please keep reading until you get to the 1960’s song. It just might surprise you to read the connection between the ancient and the recent words. However, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since we know, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Despair has darkened the souls of all people, throughout all history, and only the Light of the World can dispel such darkness.
The Dark Corner of the Psalms
Psalm 88 was meant to be sung while the Israelites were walking on their way to a service of worship. It was written to the sons of Korah and for the chief musician. It begins with a weeping before the Lord:
Psalm 88:1 O LORD God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee:
When we weep, we should always weep to God. We should take our tears to Him, our sadness, and our sorrow. In another psalm, we are assured that God hears our cries and sees our tears:
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), he cries to the Lord. He says that he is like those “whom You remember no more, and who are cut off from Your hand.” (vs 5). Desperation is heard in his voice and he clearly reveals that he feels 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 this 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?
The remainder of the psalm is more lament, more despair, and more confusion. The NIV Bible translates the last words of this psalm as “darkness is my closest friend.” (vs 18b)
Darkness: My Closest Friend?
It doesn’t get much more despairing than feeling darkness all around. Haven’t we all felt that way at some time? Darkness diminishes our vision and despair displaces our hope. We feel like God is not present and all we hear are the sounds of silence.
The Sounds of Silence is the title of a popular 1960’s song written by Paul Simon and performed by himself and Art Garfunkel. Both Simon & Garfunkel are Jews, and in this song we hear echoes of the words from the songbook of their religion. The same lament of the ancient psalmist (c. 1531BC) is expressed in Paul Simon’s lyrics. Both 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 speak in whispers in the silence. The words of God’s prophets give hope because they tell of our good and gracious God. In ancient times, God spoke through the words of His prophets. Today God speaks, even more loudly and more clearly, to us through His Son (Heb 1:1), who is the Word of God (John 1:1, 14).
When the dark seasons of the soul overwhelm us, we can find hope in the words of the Bible. Psalm 88 is meant to drive us to the only One who can deliver us from despair.
So why is Psalm 88, such a depressing psalm, in the Bible? It’s there to drive us to the only One who can deliver us from despair and give us hope in times of trouble.
Dare to Disturb the Sounds of Silence with the Word of God
Darkness may be an old friend, as Paul Simon wrote, but darkness is not our closest friend, as one Bible translation has written in Psalm 88. While there are times when it might seem that way, Jesus is always our closest friend! God will not leave us in despair. Our hope is in Him and He has promised that 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)
- We must remember that He sees us (El Roi — the God Who Sees Me, Genesis 16:13-14) and He watches over us (Psa 121:5, Psa 32:8).
- We must remember that we can find Jesus on every page of the Bible!
- And we must listen for His whispers in the sounds of silence (1 Kings 19:12).
How to Hear God Whisper? Be Still and Listen…
With a prayerful, seeking heart. King David exemplified this kind of heart, 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)
With 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, “study to show yourself approved unto God.” (2 Tim 2:15) When we study His Word, God approves for two reasons: 1) we are being conformed to the image of His Son (Rom 8:29) by the renewal of our minds, and 2) we are not being conformed to the ways of the world (Rom 12:2).
With an obedient will. What we read, we should heed. God clearly tells 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).
With 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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