Sixth Sunday in Trinity Season: Psalm 88, 1 Pet. 4:12-19, Mk. 15:25-39
The Hebrew title of the book of Psalms means “praises,” but it may come as a surprise that that the most common kind of psalm is a lament. These are psalms that describe enemies or threats and cry out to God for deliverance. Many psalms express deep confidence in salvation and some even record answer to prayer. But some do not, and today we look at what is known as perhaps the darkest psalm.
The Text: The first verse is actually the most hopeful. Heman calls on Yahweh, the God of his salvation (88:1). But he says that he has cried day and night before God (88:1), and the implication is that it seems that God has not heard, so he pleads with God to listen (88:2). His soul is full of troubles, and he fears that death is looming (88:3). Heman says that given how God has not seemed to listen, he is already considered a dead man by God, like a corpse left in a pit, forgotten (88:4-5). He has been set free among the dead like a mistreated slave (Ex. 21:26-27, cf. Dt. 15:12-18). Not only does it feel like God considers him dead, given how things have gone, it seems clear that God is responsible: God is the one who buried him in the pit, in darkness, in the deeps (88:6). He says God has leaned His wrath upon him like a man lays his hands on a sacrifice before killing it (88:7, cf. Lev. 1:4, 3:2, 8, 13, etc.). God’s waves have come up over him like another flood of destruction (88:7, cf. Ps. 42:7, Jon. 2:3). But this judgment is also evident in the treatment he endures from those who know him. They stay far away because God has cursed him and made him an abomination (88:8, cf. Lev. 18:22-30, 20:13, Dt. 7:25-26). Heman has been trapped, and there is no escape (88:8). Heman repeats the fact that he has grown weary crying to God, calling on Him daily, stretching his hands out to the Lord (88:9). He asks six questions, variations on the same theme, but they lean in two different directions: Will God perform wonders in the grave? Will God’s faithfulness be remembered in the grave? (88:10-12). Heman insists that despite all appearances his prayer will come before the Lord (88:13). But the question still persists: Why does God reject him and hide His face? (88:14). Heman says that his afflictions have lasted for a long time (from his youth); he is near death and helpless (88:15). He closes repeating: God’s wrath comes over him and his terrors are crushing him (88:16). They are like a flood of water every day engulfing him (88:17). God has taken away his friends, those who loved him, and all is darkness (88:18).
The Sons of Korah
It doesn’t seem accidental that this psalm is ascribed to the sons of Korah. There are eleven psalms for/of the sons of Korah (42, 44-49, 84-85, 87-88). Heman, the author of this particular Psalm, appears to be a singer appointed by David to serve in tabernacle until the temple was completed (1 Chron. 6:31-33). He also appears to be the grandson of Samuel the prophet and one of the sons of Korah (1 Chron. 6:33-38, cf. 1 Sam. 8:1-2). If this is correct, we have several striking contextual notes to make: First, even though Samuel’s son Joel was apparently unfaithful (1 Sam. 8:3), God remembered His mercy to Samuel’s grandson. Second, Korah was the great-grandson of Levi (Chron. 6:37-38) of the Kohathites given charge of bearing the articles of the tabernacle in Israel’s travels (Num. 4:1-20). And Korah rose up with Dathan and Abiram in the wilderness accusing Moses and Aaron and claiming too much authority for themselves (Num. 16-1-11). It was this particular rebellion that ended with God vindicating Moses and Aaron by commanding the earth to open up and swallow Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num. 16:28-33). Literally, “they went down alive into the pit (Sheol), and the earth closed upon them” (Num. 16:30, 33). The text is clear, that families of Dathan and Abiram died, but the sons of Korah did not (Num. 26:9-11). As we consider Psalm 88, it doesn’t seem accidental that we have a song echoing so many themes to that particular episode in Heman’s family tree (see especially: 88:4, 6-8, 15).
A Brief Theology of Lament
Understood rightly, lament is actually one of the ways a fierce faith in God is expressed. Lament might be best understood as a kind of global cry of repentance. It can express regret over personal sin, but it can also include sorrow and pain for the fallen state of mankind and the curse of sin and death in the world. God promised that if Adam and Eve disobeyed, “dying you will die” (Gen. 2:17, cf. 3:4, 5:5). Lament is a sober recognition that God kept His promise because of sin. By the same token, lament is a refusal to be at peace with sin, suffering, and death in the world. Lament insists that this is not the way it’s supposed to be, that God has made other promises about salvation (cf. Gen. 3:15). This is also why even when we are experiencing great blessing personally, we are commanded to weep with those who weep and suffer with those who suffer (Rom. 12:15, 1 Cor. 12:26, Rev. 6:9-10). Ultimately, lament is a way of expressing solidarity with Jesus’ own suffering for sin and death. We do not suffer to atone for our sins, but we have the honor to suffer as a testimony to the One who has. He was the suffering servant, the man of sorrows, the lamb who was slain to take away the sins of the world (Is. 53:3ff, cf. Mk. 15:27-37).
Lament vs. Hurt Feelings
Because Jesus came and suffered and died and has become the center of the new world, all men instinctively have to deal with the cross. Those who reject Jesus as their Savior and Lord must of necessity insist that they will be their own saviors and lords. But this means that they must make their own pain and suffering somehow salvific: the wages of sin is death. Though no man can actually atone for his own sins, men still try to squeeze grace out of their own suffering. Sometimes this happens through self-righteous pride. And a man is rarely more self righteous and proud than when he believes that he is suffering unjustly – “it’s not fair!” “I don’t deserve this!” But this is particularly rampant in our culture of hurt feelings. This is even more convenient because there’s no need to argue for innocence. If anyone’s feelings are hurt they are frequently automatically given a holy victim’s status. But there are at least two problems with this: First, though people may truly be mistreated, Jesus was the only completely innocent victim. God grants grace to display that glory in unjust suffering (e.g. martyrs), but there is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved (Acts 4:12). All other names are tainted in Adam. But second, the Bible requires us to stop and ask whether the hurt feelings are just or not (e.g. 2 Cor. 7:8-12). Is a spanking unjust because it hurts? Sometimes people are hurt and sad because they have been legitimately mistreated, but just as often it’s their pride that’s hurt. They are suffering for sin, for failure, for just cause. If you never have anything to lament, something is wrong, but whining does not become holy by calling lament.
The Gospel in the Dark: Check Yourself
But Paul insists that there is a godly sorrow that produces a godly kind of vehemence and zeal (2 Cor. 7:11). Biblical lament rises up in repentance and godly action. Wallowing in hurt feelings and regret is of the devil.
There certainly is a time to mourn and a time to weep (Eccl. 3:4): it’s better to go to the house of mourning, sorrow is better than laughter, godly sorrow brings healing, and the heart of the wise is found in the house of mourning but fools always only want to laugh (Eccl. 7:2-4). As we saw last week: we do not yet see all things put beneath the feet of Jesus, but we see Jesus who suffered and was crowned with glory for us (Heb. 2:9). And we cannot underestimate the cataclysmic shift that has occurred since the cross. The effects of the curse remain with us, but the curse has been broken. He suffered that through death, he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Heb. 2:14-15). We may sing Psalm 88 and cry with those who cry, but ultimately we sing it with Jesus who has answered the questions of Heman with a resounding “Yes!” (Ps. 88:10-12).
Fixing your eyes on Jesus means that godly sorrow is not opposed to joy. Taking up the Psalms of Lament doesn’t mean being cranky. Jesus suffered for the joy set before Him, and when Paul describes his ministry, he says he goes about “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.” (2 Cor. 6:10) We may see great darkness, but we see Jesus.
If you are a follower of Jesus, you cannot be surprised by suffering (1 Pet. 4:12). Yet if you suffer for the name of Christ, do not be ashamed, and by God’s grace, He may use your agony to reveal His Son in you (Mk. 15:39).