O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out to you by day. I come to you at night. Now hear my prayer; listen to my cry. For my life is full of troubles, and death draws near. [Psalm 88:1-3 (NLT)]
I woke to yet another cold dreary winter day. Troubled by a variety of concerns and hoping to improve my glum mood, I turned to Psalms. Unfortunately, I made a bad choice in Psalm 88. Written by Heman the Ezrahite, I saw that originally it was to be sung to the tune “The Suffering of Affliction” (which should have been my clue to read no further).
During David’s time, Heman was one of three chief Levites appointed to conduct music in the tabernacle (the equivalent of today’s worship leader). Perhaps he wrote this psalm to console David in his sorrow after the loss of his son but there seems to be nothing consoling about it. The speaker’s life is full of troubles; he considers himself a lost cause and as good as dead. Repulsive and depressed, he’s been forgotten by his friends, feels God’s anger, and asks God why he’s been rejected. Typically, psalms of lament eventually turn from despair to hope and from misery to confidence but there’s not even a glimmer of hope in this one! “Darkness is my closest friend,” are the psalmist’s final words. Although the RSV Bible subtitles the psalm a “Prayer for Help in Despondency,” a far better title would be “Job’s Lament!”
Later that morning, we attended worship at our northern church. The service, an Advent tradition there, was a celebration of the beautiful music of the Christmas season. As I listened to the words of the carols, my spirits lifted. Unlike Heman, this was a worship leader who knew what songs would help the despondent.
With my improved outlook, I thought back to that mournful psalm and realized that, as miserable and depressed as the psalmist was, he hadn’t given up on God. His words were honest—he was wretched and desolate—and yet he knew God heard his complaint. Even though he felt abandoned, he continued to pray which means he knew he hadn’t been forsaken. In fact, knowing his words were not falling on deaf ears, he vowed to continue his prayers. He knew that tears and prayers go together—that his troubles were a reason to talk with God rather than a reason to stop praying
It was the words of John 3:16 that made me finally understand that the sorrowful psalm and the joyful carols were telling me the same thing. No matter how wretched we feel, no matter how distressing our situation, no matter how severe our suffering, we are loved. Unfortunately, faith is no protection from trouble and sometimes we will sink in sorrow. Nevertheless, like the psalmist, we can remain earnest in prayer. Knowing that God loved us enough to give us His only son, we can know He loves us enough to hear our prayers. Even when we feel abandoned, God is with us; Immanuel is His name.
Those who are in trouble of mind may sing this psalm [Psalm 88] feelingly; those that are not ought to sing it thankfully, blessing God that it is not their case. [Matthew Henry]
For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]
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