Today’s Sunday Psalms entry is written by Timothy Tennent.
Psalm 88 (NIV)
1 Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
2 May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.
3 I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
5 I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.
6 You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
7 Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
8 You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
9 my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, Lord, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
11 Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
13 But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.
Sing this psalm with the Seedbed Psalter today! Visit the resource here.
There are three psalms in the Psalter that express such a depth of agony and suffering that the early church identified them as anticipating the kind of suffering that Christ endured (Psalms 22, 69, and 88). Christ himself quoted from Psalm 22 in that agonizing cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v. 1). Other references, such as his hands and feet being pierced (v. 16) and his enemies dividing his garments among them and casting lots for his clothing (v. 18), clearly identify this as a messianic passion psalm. Likewise, in our meditation on Psalm 69, we noted six different phrases from the psalm that were applied to Christ (69:3–4, 9a, 9b, 12, and 21). Psalm 88 is the third of this kind, though, unlike Psalm 22 and 69, it is not specifically quoted or applied to Jesus in the New Testament.
The reason Psalm 88 was identified with the passion is because of two features of this psalm. First, the psalm is about someone on the brink of death. The psalmist says, “My life draws near the grave” (v. 3). He is so close to death that even his friends already consider him as “among those who go down to the pit” and “like the slain who lie in the grave” (vv. 4–5). The theme of this psalm seems closely aligned with what would later be the experience of Christ on the night after his arrest on Thursday, but before his crucifixion on Friday, which he spent in Caiaphas’s pit. However, unlike the cross, which was a public event, Jesus spent that night alone in the pit, and we do not have not eyewitnesses to what he may have said or psalms he may have sung on that last night.
The second reason Psalm 88 has been identified with the passion is its uncharacteristic closing verse: “darkness is my closest friend” (v. 18). Despite all the despair and anguish in the 150 journeys of the Psalms, they all end with some resolution of faith and promise. This is the only psalm that ends on such a sad and dark note. This psalm seems to cross that line between lament and despair we discussed in connection with Psalm 79. However, a more careful reading of the psalm reveals that even Psalm 88 calls on God using his personal, covenantal name four times (vv. 1, 9, 13, and 14), asking the Lord to save and rescue the psalmist. Nevertheless, this psalm comes about as close to despair as possible. Since on the cross Jesus took on the deepest, crushing despair of the world, it should not surprise us that as early as Saint Augustine this psalm became identified as one of those that foreshadowed the passion of Christ.
We had the privilege on a trip to the Holy Land of actually descending into Caiaphas’s pit. Archaeologists have uncovered the first-century pit at Caiaphas’s palace that was used to hold prisoners. We climbed down into the bottom of the pit. There were no lights. We were standing there, in silence, and in the dark. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to spend the night in this pit on the night before his crucifixion. I had a small flashlight in my pocket, which I pulled out, and I opened my Bible and read Psalm 88 aloud. It was one of the most memorable encounters with Scripture I can remember.
This psalm gives us a glimpse, even if only fragmentary, of the engulfing anguish of that Man of Sorrows who stood in our place. It also gives us the courage to believe that whatever brokenness this world experiences, whatever darkness into which it descends, we can have hope because there is that One who has already traveled this arduous path. In the end, his light will swallow up all darkness as surely as he was raised from death to life.