Lament — Psalm 88

Created with Sketch.

What do God’s people sing when they are sad? when life hurts? when they feel abandoned by friends and maybe even abandoned by God? What does a faithful Christian do with their emotional turmoil?

Here are the Psalms. Here is Psalm 88; possibly one of the darkest and most hopeless laments of the Bible. You might well think it’s not good PR for God and his church to include such a miserable song in the Bible. Surely no-one would find this kind of thing attractive? Don’t we want to advertise happiness and hope and joy? Hakuna matata, anyone?

That’s surely the point of the laments. We can pick up words of immense sorrow from such faithful spiritual forebears and God seems big enough to cope with us expressing how we feel like this. The real God who is in charge of the whole world is not so fragile as to be threatened by mere mortals expressing their sorrow. It’s not faithless to be honest. Here we have absolute sorrow but no bitter anger at God. We trust he is still in control. We trust he loves us and has us in his hands. We trust him to somehow carry us through, because for all we might suffer he gave up his own son to such suffering and worse to blaze a path for us through to a transformed creation where sorrow and crying shall flee away and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

Anyway, that’s why I thought as I studied this Psalm recently, that it needed a tune that somehow blended sorrow with the kind of longed-for hope which somehow makes the sorrow more profound. Tunes are subjective, so others might not appreciate it so much. (It is slightly odd to write a melody that makes you cry yourself!)

It’s a kind of sad song but with happy bits; I like it.

— Abigail Rowbory (aged 7)

I was tempted to pick up classic country laments like the Soggy Bottom Boys’ I am a Man of Constant Sorrow, but that’s not really my style. If ever there was a Psalm for a mournful Country style this is it, though.

Here’s the NIV translation, and below a video, score and MP3 version for the English poetic translation by Michael Perry, as found in Praise!

A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According to mahalath leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

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 neighbour –
        darkness is my closest friend.

The Holy Bible, New International Version® (Anglicised), NIV®Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

The usual disclaimers apply: I’m juggling Bible translation work, raising a family and a bunch of other things so I don’t really have time to do an excellent job with the recordings or the score. I’m afraid I mostly play piano by ear so the score accompaniment doesn’t exactly reflect what I play, but it should get you close to it. I’d love others to do a better job.

Finally, here’s an excellent 2013 sermon from our pastor William Philip sensitively teaching through Psalm 88 even as he wrestled with the loss of a dear friend to despair and suicide: