Darkness, My Only Companion (Psalm 88)
I was greatly tempted to quietly skip over Psalm 88. But then I realized that there are many reading these meditations who can identify with the palpable sadness of Heman, its author, and wonder if anybody else has ever experienced the depths of despondency it expresses.
This has been called the darkest, most depressing, and saddest of all psalms. Unlike the other psalms of lament, this one does not conclude with praise or a declaration of joy or hope for renewed confidence in what God will do. It ends as it began: in grief and despair. This disturbing fact has led some to suggest that Psalm 89 is really a continuation of 88. But aside from the natural desire to consummate Heman's experience on a higher and happier note, there is little evidence to support this theory.
Few Christians have ever heard the name of Heman. He was the father of seventeen children and one of the choir directors appointed by David to lead the congregation of Israel in praise and worship (see 1 Chronicles 6:31-33; 15:16-17; 16:41-42; 25:5-7). He was both a singer and a musician. Some suggest this may have been the source of his struggles, as it has often been noted that musicians are especially prone to radical mood swings. That may not be altogether fair, but it certainly applies in the case of this man who wrote such a woeful psalm.
As noted, Heman is as troubled at the close of this psalm as he was at the beginning. His anguish is unrelenting. His distress is unrelieved. In spite of the dark language of the psalm, he does at least acknowledge God as the source of his "salvation" (v. 1) and is persistent in his petitions both day and night: "Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry!" (vv. 1-2) But aside from this there is no word of hope, no confidence or consolation for his soul.
His prayers go unanswered, or so it seems. His cry for help falls on deaf ears. Here's how he put it:
"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" (vv. 3-7).
Like a jar brim-full of water, Heman's soul overflows with trouble. He might as well be dead, for his life seems hardly worth living. Again, he laments:
"You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them" (v. 8a).
Perhaps Heman suffered from a disease or affliction that made his physical appearance loathsome to the sight (see Job 2:11-13; 17:7). Or it may simply be that his so-called friends could take it no more. Sadly, it doesn't take much of an excuse for us to justify abandoning our friends when they become an imposition on our lives. No one enjoys spending too much time with a Job. Perhaps Heman's trials finally became more than they were willing to bear. So they left him to his misery. It's not a pretty sight:
"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. Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?" (vv. 8b-12).
Heman is persistent in his prayers, but his patience is wearing thin. We don't know how much Old Testament saints knew about the after-life, but Heman sees no profit for God should he die. "I can't praise you from the grave," he cries. "What good am I to you if these troubles end my life?"
"But I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together" (vv. 13-17).
Like a lot of us, Heman can't help but interpret his distress as a sign that perhaps God has abandoned him. After all, it isn't as if he has suffered only for a while. Don't we all? No, Heman has seen hardship from his youth on. His agony is life-long. Hear his concluding words:
"You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness" (or, "darkness has become my only companion"; v. 18).
Bereft of friends, cut off from the compassion and love of his family, Heman has but one companion to soothe his pains: darkness! Alone, isolated, seemingly without hope, he feels engulfed by night. How tragic! As commentator Franz Delitzsch has said, "the gloom of melancholy does not brighten up to become a hope, the Psalm dies away in Job-like lamentation" (3:23).
I'm not at all suggesting that Heman's experience is normative. There is joy in Jesus. There is deliverance in God's grace and hope in his mercy. Still, we should not write him off as some sort of demented exception to an otherwise universal rule. Heman's experience is not as uncommon as we might think. There are people all around us who know and feel all too well the sorrows of Heman. They are not surprised by Psalm 88. They read it and nod with understanding. Like Heman, darkness is their closest friend.
If Heman shares anything with other psalmists, it is brutal honesty. When I read these plaintive hymns, I see nothing of our modern fear of exposure. The psalmists candidly declare their distress (4:1), sorrow (6:7), loneliness (25:16; 142:4), affliction (25:16), grief (35:14), mourning (35:14), fear (55:5), and dismay (143:4). They don't hesitate to confess that they are consumed by anguish (31:10), weak with sorrow (31:9; 119:28), worn out from groaning (6:6), bowed down and brought low (38:6), feeble and utterly crushed (38:8), troubled by sin (38:18), downcast (42:5-6), forlorn (35:12), faint (6:2), overcome by trouble (116:3), and in desperate need (79:8).
The last thing I want anyone to think, upon reading Psalm 88, is that their situation is hopeless. Although Heman never confessed it in so many words, I trust he knew, and I pray you know, that "the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love" (Ps. 33:18).