Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"The Saddest Psalm in the Bible"

A couple of Sundays ago was the first time he spoke from this particular psalm, he told me; he didn't know how he could have overlooked preaching from it until now.

When Mum used to ask him Why? why all the car accidents, why all the cancer and sickness? he doesn't know why he didn't examine this psalm.

It is Psalm 88. The saddest psalm in the Bible, he calls it.

This lament is written directly from the heart of the author to God. There is no real resolution to this cry, no happy ending, no "I cried unto the Lord and He heard me" encouragement at the end.

It is written almost as part of a daily prayer cycle to someone who recognizes the role God has in his life - it opens with these words:

O Lord God of my salvation
I have cried day and night before you

It's confessional in nature: the writer lays himself open, vulnerable, exposed in his pain and uncertainty. He freely acknowledges crying day and night. This is not the prayer of a man who is dialing 911. This is the chronic anguish of someone who has come repeatedly before his God, bringing Him the pain he has suffered, the pain he continues to suffer.

The writer clearly lays out his condition, both his physical condition - "My life draws near unto death" - and his soul's condition - "My soul is full of troubles." As this sad prayer continues, we see that this is not a new affliction; he has been in pain since he was probably a teenager. And he is now at the point where he is isolated, even his loved ones having abandoned him.

But worst of all, he feels that he cannot make contact with God, despite the fact that he seeks Him early in the morning. And didn't God promise us that if we seek Him early He we will find Him?

He is at the end of his rope. His life and his heart have been splintered.


Like the delicate bones in a fragile wrist;
Like the 30-year-old's brain cradling a tumour.

Like lungs that slowly stop breathing;
Like babies who need dialysis.

Like a person on the brink of losing everything he has worked for;
Like a mind whose edges are fraying under the relentless picking of dementia.

Like the mother's email saying that her son's chemo did not take;
Like the teenager who refuses to let her mother out of her sight.

Like two hearts as a marriage splinters;
Like the son who comes across his father's body hanging from a tree.

Like the father who fights with everything he has to give life to his daughter; 
Like the woman who already knows her baby will die within hours of his birth.

Like the man holding his beloved's skeletal frame savaged by AIDS;
Like a daughter sitting by a hospital bed tracing the veins in her mother's wrist at 2 o'clock in the morning, trying to imprint them on her memory.

Like a promise unfulfilled;
Like a lifetime of regret.

The one thing this psalm provides is the meagre comfort that we are not alone in our grief and pain.
Sometimes, in our battered state, we can start to believe - as did the psalmist - that God is displeased with us. Verses 7 and 16 talk about "wrath ... fierce wrath ... terrors."
Our poet does not give up praying: in verses 1, 9 and 13 he comments that he prays continually. Yet nothing is changing for him.
And then in verse 15 we find one of the saddest statements of all: "... and while I suffer Your terrors, I am distracted."
The original word behind the translation of 'distracted' is pronounced "PUN" and is apparently the only place this particular form of the word is used in the Bible. It means to be numb, to be cold, to be wearied. To be driven to despair.
The writer knows that God is a God of loving kindness, of mercy. The first time we find this word is in the context of Lot fleeing from the city of Sodom. Through the story of Lot we see a picture of mercy extended in a background of judgment and loss.
Our poet knows that God is faithful, that He is righteous. This is not talking about a judgmental self-righteous God, but rather about a person who practises moral righteousness.
He knows all of this about God. And yet ... and yet ... his situation does not change. All he can hope for now is that he will be spared death - in verses 10, 11 and 12, he observes that the dead cannot offer praise to God or tell others about His greatness. He does not even receive reassurance that his life will be spared.
But as we were weighted down under the magnitude of the losses for our desperate psalmist, Dad gently directed us to the story of Joseph in Genesis. When Joseph was 17 years old, he was sold into slavery, rejected by his brothers. Think of his anguish, his despair as first he was thrown into a pit and then later sold and forced to march off to a foreign country. Think of how he was falsely accused by his boss's wife and packed off to jail - where he was forgotten again. But we know this is not the end of the story for Joseph. After decades of slavery, rejection, desolation and anguish, Joseph ends up as Prime Minister of Egypt. And when he is reunited with his brothers - those now tremulous, terrified men who had once so cavalierly tossed him like a sack of garbage to his oppressors - what he says is "You might have meant it for evil, but God meant it for good."
What we are seeing, from the weight of the cares and the depths of the pain we experience, is but a part of the picture.
Imagine for a moment a great cedar of Lebanon, Dad continued. The pride of the forest were the cedars of Lebanon. Known for their height and their majesty and their beauty, people would immortalize them in songs, in poetry.
And then one day a forester comes by and with his axe fells the tallest, the most magnificent one of all, and it crashes helplessly to the ground. It is dismembered and its core is coarsely hacked into manageable pieces. These pieces are dragged through the forest and eventually dropped into the sea on rafts which are floated down some distance until it is roughly yanked out at the port of Joppa and once again dragged across the ground to a sterile, dusty property a far cry from the green lushness of the cool forest from whence it was kidnapped. And then it is chopped into slabs and planks. Sawed. Chiseled. Sanded. Pounded on. Gouged and carved. And then taken to its destination, where it is smothered in molten liquid metal that scalds and burns it and from which there is no escape.
You would never recognize the great cedar of Lebanon as being the beautiful but inconsequential tree it used to be when you see it in its final manifestation, the walls of the Temple, overlaid with burnished gold, and enshrouding the Shekinah glory of God Himself. Only the finest tree would do for such a sacred task. When the tree was first cut, it seemed like a tragedy. But being destined for such an integral part of the house of God is the rest of the story for the tree.
If we had stayed in the forest bemoaning the fate of the tree, we would never have seen the entire picture. What the author of the psalm could see was only one small chapter of the story. And maybe this is the message of Psalm 88 - it shows us the need for the patience of unanswered prayer, as the hymn writer says:
                          Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
                               Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.
                               To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh
                               Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
Of course, when we examine the big picture, God is answering; but somehow our psalmist, beset with troubles of the soul and frailties of the body and weariness of the mind, is unable to appropriate God's mercy, kindness, faithfulness and ultimate deliverance to himself. Perhaps this is a lesson for those who are diligently seeking to follow God. Like the Psalmist we know the FACTS about God; but somehow it seems so hard to appropriate the TRUTH of them to ourselves. J.I. Packer put it something like this, that we need to study the facts of God; secondly, we need to make the facts our meditation; and thirdly, we need to make this meditation the subject of our worship.

Did you know that meditation and rumination come from the same root word? Rumination is a cow leisurely chewing her cud, letting it process through her four stomachs, in no hurry to digest the nourishment provided for her. This is how we should meditate on the message that God is giving us. This is how we should ponder the lessons He is trying to teach us. As we study and dwell on what we know is true of God - even in our most dire circumstances - and then turn that into the substance of our worship, shifting our focus from ourselves to Him, we will grow strong and be able to persevere.

Even though the Psalmist could not see the future for the past and the present at the time of writing these words, what a reassurance that now he sees the full picture!

God would say to us, you only see the underside of the fabric today. But I am weaving a beautiful fabric of your life. Even though you don't understand now, know that it will be good. Trust Me.

The thing that moves me the most in this entire Psalm 88 is not the sadness that wrings my heart in its stark desolation; it is what is NOT there. Hebrew poetry was written not with meter and rhyme rules, like our poetry tends to follow; it often uses thought parallelism, meaning lines themselves either balance or contrast with each other. They are written in couplets and groups of four, following strict patterns.

However, when counting out the parallelism, Psalm 88 comes up short. When the psalmist ends his lament with the words, "You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; darkness is my closest friend" ... what is NOT said is that according to Hebrew poetical rules, this is not the end of the poem, not the end of the story!

Psalm 88 is given as a citation in the Westminister Confession of Faith in footnote number 17 under the chapter entitled "Assurance of Grace and Salvation", of all things.

What might Heman the Ezrahite, musician, seeker of God and author of this song, have written, given the clarity, the wisom of hindsight?

Ah, what a gift to us as people belaboured with the cares and trials and burdens of our day-to-day lives: the rest of the story has yet to be written. We have to take what we are given as from the Giver who gives no bad presents.

Mary Oliver, one of my favourite poets, puts it this way in her poignant volume Thirst:

                                     Someone I loved once gave me
                                     a box full of darkness.

                                     It took me years to understand
                                     that this, too, was a gift.

So God reminds us, in His words through Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, "For I know the thoughts that I think toward you ... thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you an end full of hope."

And on this 26th anniversary of the day when I thought that my dreams were coming true, that I would be a pastor's wife, I can gain comfort in the certainty that even my tapestry - unravelled as it has been at times and patched together in places and maybe with the pattern getting rather muddled and indistinct - will when it is finished be a work of art worthy of hanging in the galleries of Heaven.

And I can reflect on the words of James Taylor's lament upon the death of his brother :

                              Oh, it's enough to be on your way
                              It's enough just to cover ground
                              It's enough to be moving on

                              Home, build it behind your eyes
                              Carry it in your heart
                              Safe among your own

And so I can go on, confident that some day I shall indeed know the rest of the story.


  1. i wanted to comment on your post, but found myself crying too hard to type anything...i so needed to read what your dad spoke on - that the ending of the psalm really wasn't an ending. so much brokenness. so much pain "and yet" those two words.

    i'm so sorry that you've experienced so much pain yourself - it's hard to understand the "why" sometimes, but despite all of it, and even if it doesn't feel like it, Jesus has used it for His glory. before i began to get to know you, He used you to provide a place of comfort and peace, especially in these last 8 months. your tea house has come to be a "home" for me. and i am so thankful that you've allowed Him to work through you.

  2. I just read your blog: the utterly apt timing of the James Taylor lines, " Home, build it behind your eyes / Carry it in your heart / Safe among your own" -- oh, you just can't know, Karyn, how much I needed those lines right NOW.

    Love, your friend
    Jane (still searching)

  3. I always think of you on August 4 as I read the evening Daily Light. It is full of Psalms about dark places and deep waters, and ends with Isaiah 43:2, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overflow you". I am glad you are never alone, even when it has felt so.


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