Psalm 88

Friday, March 16, 2012 — Week of 3 Lent

Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 955)

Psalms 95* & 88 (morning) // 91, 92 (evening)

Genesis 47:1-26

1 Corinthians 9:16-27

Mark 6:47-56 * For the Invitatory

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

As far as I know, Episcopalians do something in worship today that is unique among Christians. Everywhere that we gather in public prayer today to do the Daily Office of Morning Prayer, we will read Psalm 88. When the famous Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson was on sabbatical at my seminary, he taught a class on the Psalms and remarked that he knew of no denomination that used Psalm 88 in public worship. One of the students answered “We do!” and pulled out a Prayer Book and pointed to a day like today — a Friday in the cycle of the Daily Office. Anderson seemed to like that very much.

It’s easy to see why leaders of public worship have shied away from Psalm 88. It’s pretty depressing. “O Lord, my God, my Savior, by day and night I cry to you.” That mention of God as Savior is about as good as it gets. “You have laid me in the depths of the Pit, in dark places, and in the abyss. …You have put my friends far from me; you have made me to be abhorred by them… My sight has failed me because of trouble; Lord, I have called upon you daily; I have stretched out my hands to you. Do you work wonders for the dead?” (The presumed answer is “no.”) “…Lord, why have you rejected me? why have you hidden your face from me? Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the point of death; I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind. Your blazing anger has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me.”

The psalmist not only cries out to God the passion of his misery, but also lays his circumstances upon God as the source of his suffering. Such boldness is not unknown, or even that uncommon in Hebrew tradition. But the unusual thing about this Psalm is that the prayer never mitigates the completeness of his plight with any hint of hope or praise.

There are other psalms of lament, but they usually find some expression of relief, even if only a verse — “But I put my trust in you, O Lord, and you will come to my aid.” Not so in Psalm 88. This is a cry of unbroken distress. No pious words of trust or hope soften the emotions of grief, accusation, anger, and questioning.

There are many psalms that speak of the horrors of human suffering. Psalm 22 finds its way into much of our Holy Week liturgy — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?” But Psalm 22 changes tone after 20 verses when the psalmist says, “I will declare your Name to my brethren; *in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” Eight more verses of praise and hope then follow. Other psalms of lament employ some expression of hope, some commitment to praise.

Not so Psalm 88. It ends with the psalmist bereft, alone and dark: “My friend and neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion.” That is the closing image of the psalm — “darkness is my only companion.”

No gentle encouragement. No It’ll work out. No Take heart, God is with you. This is the cry of unbroken misery.

I’m glad we have Psalm 88. I’m glad we read it out loud in public. There are times and conditions that we experience as unmitigated sadness. There are circumstances that are hopeless.

This Psalm stands to affirm that such expressions of grief are legitimate. It is not faithless to cry out in helpless and hopeless anguish. It is not wrong to place responsibility for such wrongs at the feet of God. And you don’t have to appease God with some word of piety, hope or praise. In the deepest, hopeless darkness, Psalm 88 is our companion.

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