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Psalm 88

Dark night of the soul

What do we do when God ignores our most urgent prayers and we feel utterly abandoned? This is the psalm to pray when life is unlivable and God is nowhere to be found, his absence being our real problem.

A Korahite psalm of Heman the Ezrahite.

Yahveh, the God who rescues me
I cry out to you day and night.
2 Listen to my prayer
turn your ear to my cry.
3 For I’ve had more than my fill of troubles
which have now driven me to death’s door.
4 People consider me as good as dead
utterly devoid of strength.
5 It’s like I’ve been carried early to the morgue
or killed and thrown in an unmarked grave—
like you no longer remember me
and have cut me off from your care.
6 You’ve hurled me
to the bottom of the underworld
into a lifeless, pitch-black void.[1]
7 Your wrath is crushing the life out of me
as your breakers pummel and pound me.
8 Having made my friends abhor and shun me
you’ve driven them all away from me.
I’ve been made a captive
with no way to escape.

9 My eyes have grown dim with grief
as I call on you all day long, Yahveh
stretching my hands out to you.
10 Do you perform miracles for the dead?
Do their specters rise up and praise you?
11 Do they celebrate
your unfailing love in the grave
or appreciate your faithfulness in the abyss?
12 Are your miracles acknowledged
by those you’ve exiled to the dark—
or your saving justice remembered
by those you’ve cast into oblivion? 

13 But me, I’m still crying to you, Yahveh
bringing my prayer before you every morning.
14 Why do you reject me, Yahveh
turning your face away from me?
15 Wretched and close to death
ever since my youth
I’ve endured your terrors
to the point of utter exhaustion.
16 Your anger has overwhelmed me
your terrors have paralyzed me.
17 Surging around me like water all day long
they’ve completely engulfed me.
18 You’ve deprived me
of all my friends and loved ones
leaving darkness is my only friend.

Darkness pervades this entire psalm. In fact, it’s the only lament in the psalter that doesn’t at some point turn toward confidence or hope. But the very fact that Heman prays to Yahveh as “the God who rescues him” makes his prayer an act of faith and hope.

This psalm gives us three wonderful gifts: a model for coupling patient waiting with impatient praying, words to articulate our deepest pain and grief to God, and a license to do so without the least positive spin or cosmetic touch-up. Heman holds God alone responsible for his suffering. And knowing well what Heman thinks, God doesn’t want him to pretend otherwise out of politeness. Prayer helps us only as we truly open our hearts to him. He’s big enough to handle our honesty, however bitter.

Alluding to Israel’s captivity in Egypt, Heman speaks of his misery in captivity without any of God’s miracles and unfailing love. Clearly, God is no quick fix. Friendless, yet God-haunted, he suffers the very terrors God inflicts on God’s enemies. But despite Heman’s bluntness, he doesn’t stop praying—perhaps because he has nowhere else to turn. Though he ends his complaint in the dark, he holds onto God, earnestly hoping God will end his alienation and anguish.

Abandoned by all your friends, Jesus, you remained faithful when your alienation culminated in the anguish and scandal of the cross. Even God-forsaken, you prayed, “My God, my God!” Help me to follow you in whatever suffering you call me to bear, for your name’s sake. Amen.

In your free moments today, pray these words:

Yahveh, the God who rescues me
I cry out to you by day and by night.


[1] In the psalmist’s day, the afterlife, Sheol, viewed as a dark place of which little was known beyond the fact that it was totally lacking both God’s care for people and their ability to experience and respond to stimuli of any kind.

[2] The psalmist may wrestle with chronic illness, but his poetic language could describe a whole range of dire situations beyond illness, which allows his prayer to speak for many more of us than just the chronically ill.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.