Scholar Walter Brueggemann divides the Book of Psalms into two categories: orientation and disorientation. Orientation psalms are those that may or may not express affliction, but ultimately point to hope. The psalmist may be recounting past blessings, taunting enemies, or pleading for deliverance. Yet, they end with an affirmation of God’s greatness or a resolve to worship God regardless.
On the other side are the psalms of disorientation. These are those passages that do not fit well in a Sunday sermon. Many of them were purposely not included in the lectionary or edited of their most problematic parts. One of the best examples of these psalms is the 88th. While lament is a common element of many psalms, here we see one of the few instances where lament is not corrected by hope. The psalm ends with these harrowing words, vividly expressed in The Message translation:
You’ve [God] attacked me fiercely from every side,
raining down blows till I’m nearly dead.
You [God] made lover and neighbor alike dump me;
the only friend I have left is Darkness.
Reading this psalm with our modern knowledge of psychology, we can easily imagine that the author is experiencing depression and anxiety. His outlook is bleak. He feels isolated from friends and family. He has experienced great loss and feels like death is near. The whole psalm is a lament for his present state.
In his mind, there is clearly a culprit for his situation: God. In verse 9, he reminds God that he has been doing his part in prayer. In the following verse, he reasons with God, reminding him that his peril reflects on God’s reputation; after all, the dead do not worship. This confrontation continues on, and in verse 14, he accuses God of abandoning him. In short, the psalmist is disoriented, lost, and alone.
How can this desperate plea speak to us today? Paradoxically, to many of us who have experienced depression and anxiety, this psalm reminds us that we are not alone. Others have gone through this, even faithful God-followers. Furthermore, Psalm 88 reminds us that God is big enough to take our complaint, accusation, and even rationalizations. The fact that such a psalm made it into the Hebrew Scripture assures us that there are times in which challenging God is appropriate, allowed, and even healthy. Contradicting modern theologies that would shield God from blame for evil, the psalm lets lament stand on its own. It does not offer retorts or even steadfast declarations of loyalty to God.
If you are experiencing a period of darkness like the psalmist here, know that you are not alone. Know that God will hear your lament. Know that sometimes the first step to healing is being honest about the dark feelings of despair. Only after taking this step can you truly find hope. In a time where we are all expected to be happy; where sadness is treated like a disease that can disappear with a pill, and where challenging God is frowned upon by religious taboos, let Psalm 88 stand like a safe hiding place in a time of despair.
Reality Changing Observations
1. Do you identify with the psalmist’s feelings of isolation and betrayal?
2. When you are depressed, how do you remain faithful to God?
3. How can we help those who are feeling isolated and desperate like the psalmist?