The Saddest Psalm on the Gladdest Day?
This past year, our nation has seen a significant rise in depression, isolation, and division. Some studies reveal levels of depression have tripled over the past year. Isolation is obvious. Mainly because of the pandemic, people have had to isolate from one another. Each week at church we have visitors, many times from other states, who tell us this is the first time they have been in a social gathering for almost a year. And then division, with the pandemic and politics, people have turned on one another at unprecedented rates. So, the movement seems to be down, in, away. Down, in despair, in, in isolation, and away from one another, in division and fragmentation. As I was thinking about this, recently reading Psalm 88, I noticed the same movement. Psalm 88 is a psalm about down, in, away. Let me show you a few just a few examples.
First of all, notice how Psalm 88 turns down toward depression and despair. Verse 4 for example, “I am counted among those who go down to the pit.” Verse 6, “You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Verse 7 pictures this scene of someone trying to get their head above the waves. But each time their mouth comes up, another wave overwhelms them. Verse 7, “You overwhelm me with all your waves.” I’m going down.
Notice secondly, not just down, but in. Verse 5, last part, “For they are cut off from your hand.” Verse 8, “I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eyes grow dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you.” The picture here is that of an isolated, confined prisoner behind bars, reaching through the bars, crying out for release, for freedom, for connection.
And then third, not just down and in, but then away from one another — division, separation, fragmentation — first before God and then before one another. Look at verse 14, “O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” Verse 18, “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.” The last word in Psalm 88 is darkness. You know you feel alone when darkness seems to be your best friend.
So, here’s the question we need to ask on this beautiful Easter morning. If this psalm is all about depression, isolation, and division, why are we talking about it on Easter? Some of you have been asking that question. Why look at the saddest psalm on the gladdest day? Why talk about the psalm of death on the day of life? Let me give you two reasons, just two.
Number 1, this psalm gives us words to pray as we look toward Easter. When we are living in the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter morning, we need words to say and pray. Look at verse 1, “Oh, Yahweh,” God’s covenant name. “O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you. Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry!” Psalm 88 is the most despondent psalm in all of the Psalter. There’s no other psalm that gets to the level of despair Psalm 88 gets to. There is no turning up. There’s no upward trajectory, it’s all down. But God inspired this psalm so that when we feel depressed, isolated, divided, we can sing this song in the dark. And it is ruthlessly honest.
God is like a parent. You know, when your kids are little and you are going to meet a new neighbor, you coach your kids as to what to say and not to say. We’re going to go next door; we’re going to meet the Robinsons. And they’re going to offer you food, and you say, “Yes, please.” Or if you don’t want it, don’t say, “I hate this,” say “No, thank you.” A good parent coaches their little kids so they know what to say in a particular context. God is a good parent. He is coaching his children as to what to say in a particular context. In a context of despair, here are some words that you can pray.
And this is big, because these words are not pretty. Faith does not always feel or sound spiritual. Sometimes it simply knows that God is listening even when it has nothing good to say. Let me say that again. That’s really important, and I’m competing with a train. Faith doesn’t always feel or sound spiritual. Sometimes it simply knows God is listening even when it has nothing good to say. It’s as if God is saying, “I would rather have you pray a bad prayer than stop praying.” And Psalm 88 is a bad prayer. It is full of sarcasm, pessimism, acidity. Heman, the author of this Psalm, is being overwhelmed by his feelings. But God invites him to express these feelings, even if they’re not pretty. God is giving, through Psalm 88, words for us to pray when we’re waiting in Saturday between Friday and Easter. That’s why we are looking at Psalm 88.
Let me give you the big reason. Number 2, this psalm asks questions only Easter can answer. This psalm asks questions only Easter can answer. Look at verse 10, “Do you work wonders for the dead? ” Now, within the context of this psalm, all these questions have an implied, “no.” Do you work wonders for the dead? No. Do the departed rise up to praise you? No, they’re dead. Is your steadfast love declared in the grave? No. Or your faithfulness in Abaddon, that place of ruin or destruction? No. Are your wonders known in the darkness? No. Or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? No. Death, from a human perspective, is the end of the road. It is hopeless, loveless, darkness. It is the culmination of despair, isolation, and division. Heman is simply being honest. He is saying what everyone knows is true but doesn’t want to talk about. We all know you don’t go to the cemetery to find steadfast love. You don’t visit a seminary … (A seminary?) … a cemetery. You might visit a seminary. You don’t visit a cemetery to see wonders. You go to cry, to remember, to pray Psalm 88, to ask questions.
But Jesus answers all the questions Psalm 88 is asking. Let’s walk through a few of these questions and imagine interviewing Jesus. Look at verse 10 again. “Do you work wonders for the dead?” By the way, that word wonder is “pala.” It means, “something only God can do.” Do you do things for the dead that only God can do? Absolutely, in Jesus.
Look at the second question. “Do the departed rise up to praise you?” In Jesus, absolutely yes. Verse 11, “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?” Even there, even there, your steadfast love knows no jurisdictional boundaries. Even the best doctors have to say at times, “We’ve done all that we can do.” Jesus never says those words, because there’s no limit to his healing, transforming power. “Are your wonders (verse 12) known in the darkness [yeah], or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” Yes, yes, yes, yes.
I was talking to someone recently about my strategies to face difficult situations. I call it the “worst case scenario strategy.” It certainly doesn’t help most normal people, but it really does help me. Take, for example, speaking. Speaking in public in front of a lot of people, scary people like you all, can be paralyzing. So, it helps me to imagine the worst before I speak. I don’t want to stumble over my words. I don’t want to forget key parts. I don’t want to say something stupid. I don’t want to speak heresy or be unfaithful to God’s Word. So, I imagine the worst case scenario. Lord, as I’m preparing to speak in front of a lot of scary people, what if I do stumble over my words? What if I can’t remember everything I want to say? What if I make up words? Yeah! Or, what if I bore people or say something stupid? Just an average Sunday at North Hills. What if that happens?
So, I imagine the worst and then I think, wait a second, your love for me is unchanging. It is not dependent on my performance. Your grace for me is sufficient and is made perfect even in my weakness, even in my stumbling or failing. Your grace is sufficient in my weakness. Your Word never returns void, even if I preach it awkwardly or ineptly. And so, worst case scenario, I’m good. I cannot lose when I imagine the worst and imagine God working through the worst. Well, Psalm 88 is God saying, “Let me provide words for your worst case scenario.” Your life is going down into depression and despair. You’re turning in, in isolation. People are turning away from you, and you’re turning away from others, people you used to be very close to. Darkness has become your companion.
What then? And Jesus steps in and he says, “The darkness is not dark to me.” Jesus steps in and says, “Nothing can separate you from my love, neither death nor life.” He says, “The grave is not beyond my jurisdiction.” As a matter of fact, in John 10:17, he says (and no one else can say this), “I lay down my life, and I take it up again.” Verse 18, “I have authority to lay it down [my life], and I have authority to take it up again.” Worst case scenario, through the cross to the grave, Jesus went to our worst case scenario so we could go there and back again. John 11:25,
“Jesus said to [Martha], I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die [though he go to Psalm 88 and experience the worst this world has to offer], yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never [ultimately] die. Do you believe this?”
Yes, we believe this. Psalm 88 pulverizes a view of Easter that is just an empty positivity. Psalm 88 brings the reality of the broken, fallen, painful world we live in and presents it before us, worst case scenario, which tulips and Easter bunnies and new beginnings of spring cannot deal with. If Jesus didn’t truly rise from the dead, we will remain in Psalm 88. This is why C.S. Lewis says,
“Christianity, if false, is of no importance. If true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Do you follow that? If it’s true, infinitely important. If it’s fake, no importance. The only thing it can’t be, which is what’s most people view moderately important. It gives us a little bump, a little buoyancy. No, that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus faces the darkness, plunges into it, and then rises out of it to say to us, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Either Jesus rose from the dead or we’re all stuck in Psalm 88. And I have good news for you this morning. He is risen. He is risen, indeed.
And let me talk, just for a moment, with those of you who might not be believers. I know this is a massive claim to say that Jesus does not just provide us springtime optimism of a resurrection myth. No, he actually in history, in real time, died and rose from the dead. And if you don’t believe this, if you don’t understand this or have not grasped this, I plead with you to grab one of us after the service or email me or one of us, and we will help you see. There are real sound arguments for believing the resurrection of Jesus. And if you’re feeling, after the year we’ve had, the pull toward toward Psalm 88, I would love to pray for you right now that God would use our time celebrating the resurrection of Jesus to speak hope, to provide help to your heart, even in really dark times.
Let’s pray together. Jesus, you took on our worst case scenario. You went down into the quicksand of our septic pit of sin. You took it on yourself. All of our vile thoughts, all of our wicked actions, you absorbed them. You wrapped yourself in them. The thing you hate most, you took on completely. And then you rose from the dead to wash us clean, to set us free. And you invite us to come as we are — with our questions, with our despair, with Psalm 88 words. And your death, your burial, your resurrection answers all the questions no one else can answer.
So, I pray for my brothers and sisters here. Oh God, as your Spirit comes upon us, as we feel the warmth of the sun and the breeze that you have created, may we receive a fresh filling of your Spirit who speaks hope into our hearts this Easter morning. As we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, as we turn from our own false ways to try to find or conjure up hope, as we trust fully in you, the resurrected One. Lord, fill us now, we pray in Jesus’ name. And empower each of the ones, our brothers and sisters who are getting baptized, to testify to your resurrection power in their lives. Please, Lord, fill them with your Spirit as well. And God, we thank you for giving us this privilege. Of all years, we don’t want to take the privilege of gathering for granted. We thank you. In Jesus’ name, amen.