6 Dec 2006

Dark Night of the Soul – Psalm 88 and the Cry of Faith

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Preaching, Psalms, Suffering, Theodicy

Dark Night of the Soul
Psalm 88


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.


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),
every day” (v.9)
in the morning” (v.13, Each reference 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.

Where is God?
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.


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 eschew such grittiness. 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 life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. NEVER SHALL I FORGET THOSE FLAMES WHICH CONSUMED MY FAITH. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments WHICH MURDERED MY GOD AND MY SOUL and turned my dreams into dust. 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.

Wiesel could cite Psalm 88, it would fit 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 Psalm 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.

Bobby Valentine

20 Responses to “Dark Night of the Soul – Psalm 88 and the Cry of Faith”

  1. cwinwc Says:

    First, powerful post Bobby. I am convinced that one of the most powerful schemes Satan possesses in his arsenal is the instrument of isolation. Even secular psychology acknowledges the need to let folks who are fighting different addictions, diseases, and mental ailments know that they are not alone.

    Certainly when we cry out in the darkness we stand in good company throughout the ages. As for those in the Body of Christ we know we’re never far from the indwelling Holy Spirit.

  2. Stoogelover Says:

    Excellent. And powerful.

  3. Paula Harrington Says:

    Thanks for this post, Bobby. I couldn’t stop reading.

  4. Bobby Says:

    Bobby, If you get a chance, will you remind me of your e-mail address (I’m at bobby.ross@christianchronicle.org)? There’s an e-mail I want to send you.


  5. Missionary's Missionary Says:

    I don’t know who I would be today had I not had a dark night of the soul. I wouldn’t be better off spiritually. Thank you for the post. Love’s prayers…Dottie

  6. Robert Wells Says:

    You are a gifted writer, Bobby, but more than that you have once again shown yourself to be one who knows the Father. Your thoughts on suffering have helped me. This topic has long been of great interest to me, as it is to most Christians. It is so easy, so common, for us to tell people that God is with them when they are hurting and leave it at that. What we’ve said is true, but we need–as you did–to make that message more real, just as our crucified and risen Savior is very real. Thank you.

  7. Velcro Says:

    Powerful Sermon, Bobby.

  8. Tony Arnold Says:

    “Do not be deceived. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer understanding, but still desiring to do our enemy’s will, looks around upon a universe from which every trace of God seems to have vanished, asks why he has been forsaken, yet still obeys God.”

    — Sr. devil Screwtape to subordinate Wormwood. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.


  9. Anonymous Says:

    Wow! This is a topic that has been on my mind for weeks. Someone once told me God’s Favor ain’t Fair. We tend to think of fairness in terms of balanced, impartial,equal,
    missing the mark. My grandmother use to say,”Isn’t He Just Wonderful”, as she suffered so many things. The early death of her oldest son, the suicide of her youngest, the rejection from her church, and the loss of the ability to walk. With tears in her eyes she would sit there for hours reading the Psalms.

    Isn’t God Just,accurate, hitting the mark, in regards to both righteousness and evil. How many of the saints have suffered since the beginning. Yet, whether it be Joseph or Job it is always correct in terms of God’s purpose for our lives. Naturally we don’t want to suffer or see the horror of this fallen world. Yet, when I look to the face of Jesus, I can’t help thinking He knows to well what it feels like to be seperated from God’s love and walk in darkness. Like only a Just God could. When Jesus comes back and seperates His sheep He will know full well the reality of the sentence He gives because He has been there.

    It makes me wonder if God’s love and value for us could have possibly increased or grown as He went through this experience. It also makes me very thankful that I didn’t suffer what other’s have. I wonder if my faith would stand the testing of such brutality and pain. I will have to share your post with my small group they have been asking these questions for weeks.

    Thanks Bobby

  10. Dee O'Neil Andrews Says:

    I, too, couldn’t stop reading this, Bobby, even though it was very painful just to read. Powerful. So grim, but so true.

    Thank you, Bobby. For being the person you are who could write such a sermon, such a man who had the strength and integrity to present such a sermon and who has the compassion of a friend who can share such a sermon with those of us who come by. I’ve been in that dark place before in my life and I understand it. I never want to be there again and hope I never will, but if that should happen, I’ll have resources such as this to remember to help me through the darkness.

    Thanks Bobby.

  11. John Roberts Says:

    I’m not sure which “friend” you posted this for, but it probably hits a lot of us somewhere close to where we live. The psalms of lament are such a powerful reminder that God isn’t just there in the successes, but in the defeats and tragedies. Thanks for sharing this great sermon.

  12. Mike Exum Says:

    Great stuff.

    I now know of two sermons ever preached on Psalm 88. Personally, I think it should be preached for a month of Sundays. This Psalm takes you deep. Deep is the only way to deal with it. It is my favorite (except once in a while when I get to reading 130, which you also mentioned.) By the way, 88 is feature in Sophie’s Choice; look into it. The opening lines of Psalm 130 were found scrawled on the walls of a gas chamber at Dachau when was liberated by the Allies.

    I think you are absolutely right to let the psalm paint its bleak picture – tell its dark tale. And I think if you do not sit with it there, you are not dealing with it (or letting it deal with you). If you are finding glib answers to the questions it raises, you are obviously not doing it justice in your study. I cannot over state this. And I commend you for handling it just that way.

    However, I have found hope in Psalm 88. But it is hope much like I find in the St. Mark’s Gospel. It is only found in the second reading –NOT the first. You see, I take Mark to be finished at 16:8. I know the compelling arguments against this, but I have chosen to chop the last 12 verses out of my Bible. I am not sure at all that Mark stopped at v. 8, but I feel very confident that 9 – 12 are not his. And I have searched long and hard for rhyme and reason in his stopping at v. 8, and I think I have found it. (Hey, it’s a theory!) And so, whether Mark intended it or not, I believe that since God inspired it, I am willing to stop there where he breaks off.

    And I take a cue from reader/response critics (a dangerous thing, I know), and view Mark’s Gospel as a revolutionary rag designed to recruit sympathetic interests by causing them to anxiously read it again in an effort to make sense of it with the women fleeing the tomb and telling no one. I think this puts the onus on the reader to take up the cause. I think the literary work is designed, probably by God rather than St. Mark, actually to sweep the reader into the narrative literally.

    In a similar way, I think we can read Psalm 88 a second time and find hope. As I said, and I would agree fully with your assessment, and would question you if you went another direction, if you had not embraced the raw hopelessness of it. The questions, such as “Do you work wonders for the dead?” or “Do the shades rise up to praise you?”, have the sting of a Job-like rebuke in them from the psalmist toward God. I mean, when your life gets so raw that you are willing to talk to God in that tone of voice, you are in some tough spot! But, this side of the Resurrection, those same questions, despite the psalmists deep angst the night they were written, find their profound “YES!” in Jesus (as Paul would say). Thus the psalmist’s narrative is swept up in Jesus’ story.

    I am mindful that the psalmist died, his voice having gone limp in the pale darkness, centuries before Jesus brought God’s answer. And, I believe that as Christians this side of the Cross, we need to lay hold of that despairing voice and deal with it even yet. But I am also mindful that God has not left it there. Of course, as far as the psalmist is concerned, He has, but as far as we are, He has not. And through that avenue, I find Psalm 88 to be as incredibly hopeful as it is despairing.

    Many blessings…

  13. Darin L. Hamm Says:

    Thanks for allowing us to look over their shoulder.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Glad to find your blog!
    God bless
    Maria in the UK

  15. Mike Exum Says:


    I finished KC about a week before Thanksgiving. It is a great book! I recommend it to all.

    I was especially jazzed by the social justice and unity aspects of the book. But then I am the choir on those points. If I recall correctly, chapter 6 was a high point for me. It alone was worth the price of the book. There were others too.

    I am recommending it to customers who seem amenable at the bookstore. (It moves slow amid the Sunset crowd.) But our preaching minister at Vandelia read it and recommended it to me. I suppose I should make a point to spread the word there.

    Thanks for writing it. I read Lee Camp’s book last year. His is another good one. I just finished NT Wright’s new one on Evil today. I have the Fretheim book you recommended a few posts back. Not into it yet. You are right, it is a big one. Will take some discipline to read it. But I am very curious about it. Relational theology of Creation… sounds good to me. Perhaps you could offer a book report to stirr things up?

    I am also looking again into Leonard Allen a bit. I have read more CoC writers this year than ever before. It seems we are finally getting some good ones. I definitely count you among the select few in that crowd.

    Many blessings…

  16. poet_imp Says:

    What a wonderful (is that the right word to use for a lament?) lesson on the reality of life. Probably the first I have heard that was not based in Job. The first that I will remember, anyway.

    Thank you!

  17. Falantedios Says:

    NT Wright comments on Ps. 88 in “Evil and the Justice of God.” He mentions that if there is a note of hope in the whole entire psalm, it is that Heman is still blaming everything on God. No matter what, he has not lost his faith that God is in control of all things.

    “The psalmist will not suggest that what is happening to him is other than the strange and terrifying work of YHWH himself. He can’t understand it; he knows it isn’t what ought to be happening; but he holds on, almost one might think to the point of blasphemy, to the belief that YHWH remains sovereign.”

    Thank you, Bobby. Again you’ve enriched my soul.

    in HIS love,

  18. Shezza Says:

    from the dark night of the soul….i say thanks

  19. hjw Says:

    Thank you so much for this. God has lead me to it now when I am in the midst of my own dark night – a severe depression. I know he is there, supporting and loving me, but he feels so very far away and I feel so alone. The knowledge that he loves me is all that keeps me together most of the time.

  20. Dorsey Tynes Says:

    Your professor(Hicks) put me on to this and very thankful. Will Move around your site more.



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