The Book of Psalms is the inspired song book/prayer book for the people of God. It puts words and songs to our faith. It is surprising to some that one category of Psalm found often in the book is the lament – words for times of suffering. In fact, almost one third of the psalms are laments (ESV notes)! This type of song is both honest and needed. And it is often neglected today. If we are not careful we can mistakenly think that in order to worship God we must pretend that everything is ok, even when we are hurting deeply. Does God want us to wear a plastic smile to church gatherings and tell everyone we are fine? This is NOT true worship! God invites us to draw near to him with a true heart (Heb 10:22), casting our anxieties on him (1 Peter 5:7), and he has provided a great gift to the church in the psalms of lament. Laments are songs and prayers for people of faith in a broken world. Though there is eternal joy in Jesus, it is mingled with pain until he returns. We are not home yet. And pastors have the duty of teaching these things, to prepare the church for times of suffering and pain (Trueman).
The Reality of Suffering
God’s purpose in our faith is not to improve our circumstances, or make our lives better…at least not yet. The Kingdom of God has not come in its fullness yet. It is still God’s plan to allow suffering to continue for now. Christianity is not a system of self-improvement strategies; the Bible is not a self-help book. Believers in Christ are not immune to the fallen-ness of this world; we are not shielded from pain. Natural disasters do not overlook Christians. We suffer, and deeply. We hurt, and we hurt each other. God will one day make all things new- this is his promise and our hope. But what do we do until then?
Singing in the Rain
God graciously and powerfully enables his people to walk in hope and faith, even as we suffer. He does not want us to pretend everything is ok – to deny the reality of suffering . Rather, he desires that we bring our pain to him in broken-hearted, humble faith and worship. Like Job: sitting in the ashes, scraping his sores, singing ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ This is the miraculous difference God makes in the hearts of people in a broken world. Carl Trueman writes:
In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship.
The Darkest Psalm In The Bible
Of all the many songs of lament, Psalm 88 is the king. The ESV study bible notes call it the ‘bleakest of all psalms.’ Derek Kidner, in his commentary on psalms, says ‘there is no sadder prayer’ in Psalms than 88. It offers no direct words of comfort or hope. Yet there are signs of life and faith. The very fact that it is being sung, prayed, breathed out to God by the faithful in their pain is a sign of hope. True faith continues, though it is tested and tried in the fire. True believers endure, persevering through suffering with eyes towards God, even when God remains silent.
Psalm 88 gives voice to the sufferings of the worshiper. He brings his pain to God in a series of soul-cries:
Can You Hear Me?! (v1-2). The psalmist approaches Yahweh, the ‘God of my salvation.’ This is clearly a man of faith – a believer. These verses are the most positive in the whole psalm (Kidner); His faith is being tested, stretched, perhaps to the limit; he is at the end of his rope. But faith is seen in the fact that he cries ‘out day and night’ before God. His faith is still working, causing his very soul to cry out to God, continually. He begs God to listen, to take notice of his prayer. This demonstrates faith that God is ABLE to do something about the situation.
I Feel Dead! (v3-7). Then comes a lengthy and poetic description of the dark night of the soul. The psalmist feels dead, or feels as if his life is like those who die under the wrath of God: cut off from goodness and totally forgotten. It feels like God’s anger has come against him, and he describes being overwhelmed with all God’s waves crashing over him. These words are real, beautiful, descriptive, honest, and heart-wrenching.
I’m All Alone! (v8a). The singer feels betrayed by his friends; God has caused them to ‘shun’ him, as if he was one of the wicked. People view him with horror and disdain.
I’m Trapped, But Still I Cry! (v8b-9). The psalmist feels he has no escape. No way out. His eyes are growing dim with sorrow and weeping. But his stretched faith is still visible in the fact that ‘every day’ he calls on the LORD; He seeks God with hands spread out. He is wrestling with God like Jacob, who will not let go (Kidner).
How Can I Praise You in the Grave?! (v10-12). The singer asks if God can be praised in the grave. These verses do not deny an afterlife with God or a hope of resurrection, but rather express death as the end of our life on earth (death is called the last enemy in the New Testament – Kidner). Death is to be mourned; it is a sad fact brought about by sin. The psalmist is asking, ‘How can I give you a testimony of praise if you let me die?’ He is coming face to face with the possibility that God is not going to heal, save, rescue, etc. This is a hard truth. Sometimes God chooses not to answer our prayer the way we imagine. Kidner says this psalm is a ‘witness to the possibility of unrelieved suffering as a believer’s earthly lot.’ Yet this is ‘not a sign of God’s displeasure or his defeat.’ It is true: God may choose not to heal, or relieve the suffering, or fix the situation. Will we still trust him and praise him?
Why, God?! (v13-14). The psalmist is still praying; his faith is persistent if worn. Yet God seems to throw him down when he approaches in prayer. Why?! Why are you silent?!
You Are Destroying Me! (v15-18). The psalm ends with another lengthy description of the feeling that God is a personal enemy, setting his sights on the singer’s destruction. The final thought of the psalm is darkness. My only companion is darkness.
What Do We Make Of This?!
Very dark and difficult. These are the honest words of a believer who is hurting deeply. His faith will not allow him to simply walk away from God, yet he hurts deeply and doesn’t understand what God is doing. What can we learn from this?
- Pour out your soul to God with reverent honesty. We cannot deny the reality of our suffering, and we cannot lie to God, pretending we feel fine. He knows! Psalms of lament teach us to pour ourselves out with reverent honesty to God.
- Be encouraged with signs of life. There were no explicit words of hope, yet we saw the singer’s persistence in prayer/song. We cannot run from God or his people. This was a song to be sung corporately by the people of God. We lament together. We share life – even the seasons of suffering. When we can suffer and still pray and worship with God’s people, these are signs of life.
- God’s sovereignty a source of strength. The psalmist acknowledged that his terrors came from God. Though this seems to be a discouraging thought at first, the fact that God is in control means he is able to act for his people. Suppose all pain came from the devil, while God tried his best to keep it from happening. Is this weak God a comfort to us? What might the devil get past God tomorrow??!! Scripture reveals God to be sovereign and good. Though we don’t understand, we trust. God’s people lean on this in times of suffering.
- God hears the cries of his people, even when he is silent. In Luke 18:7-8 Jesus seems to quote the first verse of this psalm in his story of the persistent widow. God will hear his elect who cry out day and night! (Kidner) Though God may seem silent, indifferent or even against us, our backs are strengthened with truths from Scripture of God’s unrelenting, steadfast love. He will not forsake us! Though he seems far, he is working some good, eternal and glorious thing in us. Wait on the Lord!
- Remember the rest of the Story! Psalm 88 must be read in the wider context of the rest of the book of Psalms, which does speak words of hope in the mercies of God, and in the context of the whole story of the Bible! Praise God, psalm 88 is not the final word! Genesis 3 – the fall and sin of man – is not the final word! Sin and suffering are not the end of the story. Though it sometimes feels like we are under God’s wrath, we know the rest of the story of Scripture, and how God has redeemed us from wrath through Jesus Christ.
The Suffering Of Christ
God has acted. Jesus stepped into this broken world and lived as a real man. He faced temptation without sinning. He endured hard work and sweat; he felt tired and hungry and thirsty and cold. Jesus suffered. We obviously think of the physical suffering he endured on the cross, but consider the other experiences of suffering he endured:
- Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend – even though he was about to raise him from the dead!
- Like the author of this psalm, Jesus experienced betrayal by a close friend with whom he shared meals!
- Jesus felt forsaken by his Father at the cross as he bore the sins of his people!
- Jesus tasted death at the hands of his Father – drank the cup of his hot anger against sinners as he stood in our place! Overwhelmed by the waves of God’s wrath!
For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. Hebrews 2:18 (ESV)
Jesus is our HOPE, even as we hurt. He suffered for us and rose in glory that we might live with him forever in glory!
Psalms of lament, like psalm 88, help us by reminding us that this present order of things is not final (Kidner). We still await the day that Christ will consummate his kingdom in fullness, lifting the curse of creation (Rom 8), making all things new, and fitting us with glorified bodies that will enjoy him forever and ever! Hallelujah!
UNTIL THEN, lean on Jesus and suffer well for the glory of God. “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb 12:3). Pour out your soul to God in lament as you hope in him. Trust in God – he is not cruel. Know that your suffering is not meaningless (1 Pet 1:6; 2 Cor 4:17). God has promised to use our sufferings as a means of molding us to the image of Christ (Rom 8:28-29).
Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 10:28)
- Psalms 73-150, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Volume 16, by Derek Kidner. © 1975. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL and Norton Street, Nottingham NG7 3HR, England.
- “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” by Carl Trueman.