The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
August 16, 2020
There are 150 psalms. None is more downcast than Psalm 88. For, while many other psalms also lament life’s difficulties and God’s seeming disengagement, only two – Psalm 39 and this one – make that lament without sounding a single note of hope. In this psalm no flash of light brightens the bleak murk of its gloom.
Images of darkness echo throughout Psalm 88, and “darkness” is literally its last word on the subject at hand.
The man behind Psalm 88 feels, not just that God has grown disinterested, but that God has turned against him. He accuses God of having “put” him in the pit in which he’s stranded, of sending down “heavy upon” him the weight of divine wrath, and of “causing” his companions to shun him. More painful than his many troubles or his brooding sense of being doomed to death is his despondent thought that the God whom he has loved and served has “cut him off” … has “hidden” His face from him … has forsaken him.
We don’t know what exactly is going on in this man’s life, but we know who he is. The Bible says here it is Heman the Ezrahite, the director of a temple choir David set up called the Korahites. To that choir belong twelve of the richest psalms there are.
Heman is a man, as is obvious, of artistic talent and, as scripture elsewhere notes, of spiritual insight. But here he is someone whose subjective impression is clouding over his objective recognition of reality. He cannot see God’s being there to help in his time of need.
It is important to bear in mind that sometimes the most devoted believers go through periods when they sense the darkness of life more keenly than the brightness of God’s love. We must resist judging them. Rather our hearts should go out to them as we empathize with their struggle. We’d do well just to sit in silence with them, listen to them when they want to talk, speak with them when they invite a word, and stay at their side in steadfast compassion even when we can’t imagine how we’re doing them any good. We’d do well to believe, by faith, that just our refusing to give up on those who think God has given up on them has a big impact.
Rick Warren’s wife Kay was adrift in dark despondency after their son Matthew committed suicide at the age of 27 following a long battle with mental illness. She bears witness that the people who did the most for her were those who shared in her struggle and refrained from trying either to cheer her up or to correct her thinking. Kay says, “The truest friends and ‘helpers’ are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that has swallowed them alive [and who in their waiting don’t] grow afraid, anxious or impatient. They don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to … [they] embrace the now-scarred one they love, and they’re confident their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to the suffering. They’re OK with messy and slow and few answers…and they never say ‘Move on.’”
Love demands that we never give up on the Kay Warrens and the Hemans of the world (or ourselves for that matter), especially when one of us can find no hope to brighten the dark gloom under which we’re benighted. If we will just be there for the struggling in steadfast, non-judgmental, accepting concern, we can be at least their companion in the darkness – and maybe by God’s grace help them see God Himself as their companion in the darkness. Often it is darkness that brings the strongest hope to light.
Heman’s subjective impression is that God has forsaken him and abandoned him to the darkness. We know that his subjective impression does not tell the objective truth, because we know the story Heman did not: the story of God’s own Son bearing our punishment on the cross and their becoming as God-forsaken as if He were sin itself. When Jesus on the cross absorbed the full impact of all righteous wrath against evil, the Bible says, darkness fell upon the whole world; and Jesus suffered and died, alone, with darkness His only companion. Yet, in that moment of God-forsakenness, He loved us who made His enduring it necessary, and prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
And I suspect that in the moment when that decent but despondent spiritual leader Heman disparaged God’s character and slandered God by accusing Him of ceasing to care, Jesus was in fact standing right beside him, unseen, unheard, but in truth his companion in the darkness – and there Jesus was praying, “Father, forgive him; for he does not know what he is saying.”
In the pitch-black shadows of unfair suffering, we discern the grace of the God who took our insults and loves us still, and who took our drawing down on Jesus’ head all the horrors of hell and loves us still. In the darkness of His God-forsakenness, and of our own lostness, Jesus brings hope to light. He there assures us that He will be there for us, our faithful and loving companion in every moment and place.
God is that great and that good, a very present help in trouble, a reason to rejoice in hope always and everywhere!
Alleluia! That this God has claimed as His own in love! Let us exult in highest praise and deepest thanksgiving!