Dark Night of the Soul – Psalm 88 and the Cry of FaithAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Preaching, Psalms, Suffering, Theodicy
The following is an old sermon I preached in Grenada, Mississippi in 2001. It is offered for a number of reasons but mostly for a friend. It deals with some “stout” material for this time of year but it is my prayer it will be a blessing. May it be so.
Dark Night of the Soul
September 23, 2001 P.M.
The fact of suffering has always been one of the greatest challenges to the Christian faith. Its distribution and degree seems random and unfair. People have always asked how this is to be reconciled with God’s justice and his love. Those are fair questions.On November 1, 1755 an earthquake devastated Lisbon, Portugal. Being All Saints Day, the churches were packed and thirty of them were destroyed. Within six minutes over 15,000 people died and 15,000 were dying. The world was shocked!
One of the stunned was the brilliant French writer and philosopher Voltaire. How could anyone believe in the benevolence and omnipotence of God now? He wrote a protest called “Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon.” Later he wrote a novel called Candide which is a brilliant satire on the notion that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds. The book recounts the adventures of an ingenious young man, Candide, whose teacher, Dr. Pangloss, is a Professor of Optimism and keeps blandly assuring him that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” He maintains this in the face of successive misfortunes.
When they are shipwrecked near Lisbon, Candide is nearly killed in an earthquake and Pangloss is hung by the Inquisition. Voltaire writes: “Candide, terrified, speechless, bleeding, palpitating, said to himself, ‘If this is the best of all possible worlds, what can the rest be?’” (Candide, p. 128, in The Best Known Works of Voltaire.).
The Bible is not glib about evil and suffering. Just the opposite is true. The Bible in fact is brutally honest about pain, misfortune and the challenge it presents to faith. Numerous psalms deal with this theme, the drama of Job, Ecclesiastes, the Prophet Habakkuk, Jesus addresses it, Paul does in a number of contexts and the entire First Epistle of Peter as well as Revelation in many ways wrestle with this theme.
The answer the Bible gives is not always as clear cut as we would like it to be. For example the Bible never explains the “origin” of evil as we would hope it would. Instead it seeks to provide ways for us to express and vent within the confines of faith and it seeks to show that Yahweh is worthy of our trust … even in the darkness.
THE DARKNESS OF SUFFERING
Psalm 88 is one of those psalms that deal with the terrifying idea of the “absence of God” in our lives — moments when he simply does not seem to be around or care. It is a lament — a wailing (others include Pss. 3, 13, etc).
Psalm 88, however, is unique not only in the Psalms but in the Bible. All the other lament psalms move from complaint through supplication to expressions of trust and praise (cf. Ps. 130). Psalm 88 does not do this, in fact there is not a single expression of hope — not a glimmer! The only indication of hope is the fact the psalmist is praying!
Psalm 88 is sometimes called “the granddaddy of all laments!” The reputation fits. The psalm is divided up into three sections: 88.1-7; 88.8-12 and 88.13-18. Each section ends with an image of darkness (mahsak, vv.6,18; hosek, v.12).
The psalmist LIVES in darkness. The Darkness is brought on by the apparent absence of God. Let’s read it together:
“O LORD, God of my salvation, when at night, I cry in your presence,let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your land.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. [Selah] You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you. Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the Shades rise up to praise you?[Selah] Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O LORD, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer terrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me. You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” (Psalm 88, NRSV)
We get some insight into the mood of this psalm from its heading where we read “mahalath le annoth” which literally means “sickness to afflict.” Heman the Ezrahite, who is said to be the author, knew about the suffering of affliction.
We get a further sense of the despair contained in this lament when we notice carefully the vocabulary used. There are three words in Hebrew for “cry” or “call” and Psalm 88 use all three (vv. 1, 2, 13), as if to indicate Heman has exhausted every possible approach to get the Lord’s attention.
The urgency of his plight is seen in the range of words he uses associated with death. Look at them: “Sheol” (‘grave” NIV, v.3), “Pit” (vv. 4, 6), “dead/death” (vv. 5, 10, 15), “grave” (vv. 5, 11), “darkness/dark” (vv. 5, 12, 18), “deep” (v. 6), “Shades” (‘the dead” NIV, v.10), “Abaddon” (‘Destruction, NIV, v.11), “land of forgetfulness” (‘land of oblivion” NIV, v.12). All of these words help us see the depth of misery and agony Heman is experiencing.
This agony is not some fleeting brush with depression. Notice the text gives us three chronological references. The psalmist cries out “at night” (v.1), he calls out “every day” (v.9) and his cries arise “in the morning” (v.13, Each reference with with a different word for “cry.”). Every possible approach, at every possible moment, has been tried and the result is only “darkness!” It is all darkness, which is literally the final word of the psalm.
Why is God absent? Why does not God hear? Why does God not rescue? These are questions we have all asked at one time or another. We ask them after attacks on the WTC? We ask them when our child is suddenly given a terrible disease? We ask that when the drunk driver walks away without a scratch and his victim is left paralyzed? We ask them when we ourselves feel abandoned by God.
Heman knows how we feel! I for one am glad the Lord has given us the psalm to help us ask and wrestle with these questions in faith.
Instead of rescue Heman says, “your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me, with all your waves” (v.7). Again he laments “Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me” (v.16). What vivid imagery and it doesn’t end here either. God seems to be the problem for Heman. He says “YOU have caused my companions to shun me” (v.8a) and again in v.18 “YOU have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend” (NIV).
Even life’s worst has to do with God, therefore Heman calls to God “out of the depths” of darkness and loneliness. It is a very realistic and haunting picture of one of God’s children suffering in this world of woe.
PSALM 88 AND THE CROSS
Many people have been troubled down through the years by Psalm 88. It is not the rosy picture they hope for. Many are not accustomed to hearing such honest and agonizing prayers “in church.” We usually eskew such grittyness. It is this lack of honestly with ourselves and with God that usually creates the problems in our faith to begin with.
One observer noted, “Psalm 88 is an embarrassment to conventional faith.” This is so because conventional faith is usually cold and lifeless and not connected to the realities of the world. Platitudes are the rule. This same observer then makes this comment, “Psalm 88 makes sense only in the light of Golgotha . . . Psalm 88 shows us what the cross is about: faithfulness in scenes of complete abandonment.” He is correct. Such suffering, such darkness of the soul, such abandonment can makes sense in the shadow of the Crucified One.
I want to make this as concrete as I possibly can. How does Psalm 88 relate to such scenes of abandonment as Auschwitz, a horror my mind has difficulty grasping! Or 9-11?
Elie Wiesel, one of my favorite authors, describes the depravity that confronted him that night he arrived at the Death Camp at the tender age of 15:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my lifeinto one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forgetthat smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of children, whose bodies I saw turnedinto wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. NEVER SHALL I FORGET THOSE FLAMES WHICH CONSUMED MY FAITH. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silencewhich deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget thosemoments WHICH MURDERED MY GOD AND MY SOUL and turned my dreams intodust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.” (Night, p. 32).
Wiesel’s pit was, like Heman’s, full of Darkness. He uses the image of night powerfully all through his book to capture the absence of God and the absence of civility. It is gripping and moving. Where was God? In the face of such outrage? Why must there be a “Dark Night of the Soul? Why?
Later in his book, Wiesel describes the hanging of a young boy who had the “face of a sad little angel.” Even the hardened SS was hesitant to hang the boy in front of several thousand folks. The officer in charge refused to give the order, so three other SS troops replaced him for the execution. Two others were to be hanged and they were screaming — but the little boy remained silent.
“Where is God? Where is He?” Eli heard someone whisper. The prisoners were forced to walk by and look at the boy in the face. Wiesel says, “But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the boy was still alive . . .” For over half an hour they had to watch the little boy struggle for life. Then Eli heard the same voice ask, “Where is God now? And I heard a voice within me answer him, ‘Where is He? Here he is — He is hanging on this gallows . . .” (Night, pp. 75ff).
Wiesel lost his faith in God in the Darkness of his Pit. For him God literally hung to death in that boy — never to be resurrected!
It is ironic that Wiesel cites Psalm 88 in the course of his book, Night. Corrie ten Boom, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Maximilian Kolbe and thousands of others did not loose faith in God in the Night of the camps. Instead that is where they found him! Psalm 88 was instrumental in being found by God. God had already provided them a language in which to lament. The very image Wiesel evokes so powerfully contains the answer to his question and the psalmist’s: Where was God?
In a way God did hang beside that little boy. God did not exempt himself from human suffering. He too hung on the gallows. At Golgotha, in the Night, at the Place of the Skull — and honestly that ALONE keeps me believing in the God of love! Brueggemann is right. Psalm 88 only makes sense in the light — or perhaps better — the Darkness of the Cross. Such Darkness can only make sense by looking at the Passion of Jesus.
Here, at the cross, we learn the true depth of God’s own suffering with us. IT SHOWS FAITHFULNESS IN THE FACE OF ABANDONMENT. The psalmist has not, unlike Wiesel, lost his faith and that is why he continues to call on God.
And Ps. 88 is a scandal to conventional faith only because conventional faith fails to deal with Golgotha. No, Psalm 88 is not a prediction of Christ’s sufferings but it serves to articulate for us the experience Jesus would live out to an even greater degree than the psalmist could imagine. Facing the Cross, Jesus soul was “full of troubles” (cf. Mk. 14.33-34). He was shunned and even betrayed by his closest companions (Mk. 14.50). His only companion was Darkness (Mk 15.33). And like the psalmist, Jesus was faithful too. In the midst of the apparent abandonment of God, Heman cries, “My God, my God” and Jesus in the face of real abandonment cries “My God, My God” (Mk 15.34).
Psalm 88 shows that God does not, in the comfortable surroundings of heaven, turn a deaf ear to the sounds of suffering on this fallen planet. Instead God has JOINED us, choosing to live among an oppressed people — Wiesel’s own race — in circumstances of poverty and great affliction. He too was an innocent victim of cruel and senseless torture. At that black moment when the Night was the Darkest the Son of God cried out, much like the psalmist and the believers in those camps, “My God, My God why have you FORSAKEN me?”
The Christian message encompasses the full range of anger and despair and darkness so eloquently expressed in a book like NIGHT. It offers complete identification with the suffering in the world. But it goes a step forward, it offers hope. That step is called Resurrection. That is the moment of victory when the last enemy, death — the Night– itself has been defeated.
A seeming tragedy, Jesus’ crucifixion, made possible the ultimate healing of the world. The Dark Night of the Soul shall be vanquished.
As Heman suffered in Ps. 88, so God’s son suffered life’s worst. That is what the Cross is about. It says God loves us THAT much, to suffer like THAT! And there is nothing conventional about that kind of love. Sheer grace is always scandalous.
Benjamin Weir, a Presbyterian missionary, was taken hostage in Lebanon in the mid-1980’s. When he was released some one asked him how he survived and what advice he had for others in similar circumstances. He said, “I would suggest memorizing Psalm Eighty-Eight. That grand old Hebrew woe seemed more cathartic than anything.” It is cathartic!
To cry out in the Darkness is to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Christ of the Cross and with thousands of saints long since gone. It is indeed an affirmation of the hope that lies in resurrection. Sometimes we have to go through the Dark Night before we get to the Dawn! But we never travel alone.
For a Friend.