There is no light at the end of the tunnel — Psalm 88

Psalms of the Sons of Korah

For more than fifty years following her initial visions and locutions, Mother Teresa was wrapped in dark, pitiless silence. Only once in that time did she see a glimpse of God, the rest of the time she felt as if the doors of heaven were bolted against her.S he said, “Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.” Mother Teresa’s is the longest known example of what is known as the long dark night of the soul.

Yet she always had a smile, especially around children, with a self-deprecating sense of humour. People who spent time with her came away saying that she was the most joyful person they had ever met.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

The books of Psalms are roughly themed like this:

Book 1: Psalms 1 – 41: God is beside us.
Book 2: Psalms 42 – 72: God goes before us
Book 3: Psalms 73 – 89: God is all around us.
Book 4: Psalms 90 – 106: God is above us.
Book 5: Psalms 107 – 150: God is among us.

Psalms 42, 44–49, 84, 85, 87 and 88 are attributed to the Sons of Korah. Korah, was a cousin of Moses and Arron who led a revolt against Moses: Korah died in the rebellion. His three sons were named as singers in the Tabernacle and their offspring in the Temple. The sons of Korah who wrote these psalms are descended from Korah’s sons, not necessarily the sons themselves.

A Song. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah. To the choirmaster: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

88 O Lord, God of my salvation;
    I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
    incline your ear to my cry!
For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
    I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
    like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
    for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.

Every day I call upon you, O Lord;
    I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

13 But I, O Lord, cry to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
    Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
    I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
    your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
    they close in on me together.
18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
    my companions have become darkness.

Psalm 88 ESV UK

The joy of Mother Teresa is at odds with what she said about her relationship with God, when talking about that what she said echoed the psalmist of Psalm 88. All is darkness.

A clue to the interpretation of the psalm is found in the introduction. It is a maskil a work of wisdom or philosophy. That does not mean that what it talks about isn’t real. In the same way that the dark night of the soul is a theological construct but people still experience it the psalm is based on how people experience God. In the 70 years of the Babylonian exile, there were Jews who never saw their homeland, being born in exile and dying in exile. The feeling of being cut off from God was and is a real experience.

When looking at interpretations of the Old Testament many Christian commentators ignore the Jewish interpretation. I think that is a mistake as these are the writings from and for that nation. But Christians also need to look back on these passages in the light of what has been revealed in Christ. The divisions of the psalm I have used are those suggested by Rabbi Gerstenberger.

vv. 1 – 9a God, you are the cause of my troubles

This psalm has been called ‘an embarrassment to conventional faith,’ which is why it is important. It is not the only part of the Bible that can be described this way. It could be that we need an unconventional faith instead. I have blogged before that following my near-fatal accident and going through the depression that followed, I was given the bad advice of “If you are feeling far from God, guess who has moved.” I will suggest that God does move, and when you add in mental health issues then it is usually wrong. Victim blaming at its worst.

But when we cannot feel God’s presence can we, like this psalmist, blame it on God? No, but that is not what is happening here either, I was common in the ancient Middle East to believe that the gods were responsible for everything, this is a maskil, a philosophical psalm, but there is a lot here to show that the psalmist has faith, each section starts with a call to God, and this section is addressed to “the God of my salvation,” The psalmist knows God as his saviour.

There is nothing wrong with crying iut to God, it does not, as conventional faith will tell you, indicate a lack of faith, you cannot cry out to someone you don’t believe in.

vv. 9b – 12 Questions for YHWH

The middle section is a series of rhetorical questions to which the answer is no. God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, wonder-working and faithfulness are contrasted with the place of the dead where God’s praise is not lifted up. We know from other passages such as Amos 9:2 and Psalm 139:8 that God is prresent in Sheol, the place of the dead, and knows what goes on there, but that is not what the psalmist means. He or she means that when poeple stop praising God even whilst they are alive they are spiritually dead.

vv. 13 – 18 In the morning – a new start

The morning is used here as a new start, the psalmist does not here talk about a time in the future when he will praise God, as in the other lamenting psalms, but repeats the complaint, why is God so far from him? Darkness is the only thing he has left.

The name of God, YHWH, is the first Hebrew word in verse 1, the second word in 9b and the third word in verse 13, indicating that the psalmist feels that God is getting further and further away. The ‘why’ questions are not pleas for answers but are pleas for God to take action. Even in his darkest of moods, even in his worst suffering the psalmist is desperately refusing to let go of God. The psalm is an attack on conventional faith, but it is all about the life of faith.

Psalm 88 provides a shot of realism into a conventional faith that is unrealistic and romantic. Life can be cruel, life can be unpredictable, life can be harsh. The psalms address all aspects of life, not just the good parts, if only popular theology did the same. Psalm 88 isn’t about a loss of faith, just the opposite, it shows someone addressing God as ‘my Saviour’ even when that saviour is silent. Like Mother Teresa of Calcutta who was given a vision of the work God wanted her to do, so she continued on that path even though God was silent for over fifty years. The Roman Catholic church made her a saint.

In Mother Teresa’s dark night, we can hear all the desolation of the poor, the cries of the unwanted children, the atheist, of all those who can’t murmur a prayer or feel to love anymore.  It was as if in some way she was bearing their sufferings.  And in this, she seemed in some way to be sharing too in the sufferings of Christ.

If conventional faith will not help us we need a deep unconventional faith in God.

< Psalm 87 | Psalm 88 | Psalm 89 >
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