I enjoy blues music. I don't know why I like it because it is actually quite sad music. When the African people came to America, they were brought over as slaves and they suffered greatly. They sang songs which expressed their suffering and they used the term "blues" to describe it. The term "blues" likely comes from a ceremony that West African cultures practiced. During times of death and mourning all of a person's garments would have been dyed blue. As far as I have been able to understand, that is the roots of blues music and the term "blues."
As I said, it is very sad music. One song with the title, "Learnin' the Blues" includes the following words:
"When you feel your heart break - you're learnin' the blues
When you're at home alone, the blues will taunt you constantly
When you're out in a crowd, those blues will haunt your memory
The nights when you don't sleep - that whole night you're cryin.'"
It isn't only the words that are sad, but also the very music itself. I've asked Jeremy to play a portion of a blues song, just to show how sad even the music is.
Psalm 88 is identified as a song, but its content is profoundly sad. Perhaps we could say that it is the original blues song. Strangely enough, it is one of my favorite Psalms.
We sometimes use the phrase, "I'm feeling kind of blue" to describe times when we are sad. Psalm 88, however, is much deeper than occasional sadness. I believe that it is a description of depression. Last Sunday we spoke about God as present in troubles and in looking at Psalm 91, we were encouraged by the hope that is always ours. Psalm 88 is much different and invites us to ask "Where is God?" at a time when things are very dark. Where is God when there seems to be no hope? Where is God when we are going through depression? Where is God when He seems totally absent? This is the theme of Psalm 88 and it speaks to a reality which some people find only too near to them.
I would like to invite you into a place that most of us prefer not to go. Yet Psalm 88 is in the Bible and we need to think about it. So I invite you to take careful note of the expressions of suffering and sadness found in this Psalm.
People have suggested various settings for this Psalm. Some suggest that it is written by someone who was suffering from a life threatening illness, others that it was written by someone who had been betrayed by close friends. The expressions of suffering in this Psalm are quite varied.
There are descriptions in this Psalm of someone who is experiencing physical anguish. In verse 3, 4 he says, "my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit…" These words speak of someone whose life is in danger and who feels that he is near to death. Verse 15 has a similar description when it says, "Wretched and close to death from my youth up…" One of the most difficult experiences most people face is physical illness. When our body does not work well, we feel near to death. It can be a bad cold, a flu or a serious and debilitating illness which causes us to be in this situation and it is a difficult place to be.
The writer also says, in verse 3, "my soul is full of trouble." In verse 7 we read, "you have overwhelmed me with all your waves." In verse 8 he says, "I am confined and cannot escape." In these and other statements, we sense that the writer feels as if he is drowning. Everywhere he looks there is trouble. He cannot see any way out. The trouble in these verses seems to be emotional trouble.
Loneliness is also a part of this Psalm. In verse 8 we read, "You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them." In verse 18 he says, "You have taken my companions and loved ones from me."
We also read of his spiritual anguish. He feels that God is against him. In verse 6 he writes, "You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. In verse 14 he blames God. "Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?" Along with blaming God, much of the Psalm is also a struggle with the feeling that God doesn’t hear or answer prayer. He feels as if God has forgotten him or worse, deliberately rejected him. We read this in verse 14, "Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?" When he feels that he is separated from God, he also feels as if he is experiencing the wrath of God. He expresses this in verse 7, "Your wrath lies heavily upon me."
Although we see all of these expressions of anguish, I believe that when all of them are taken together it is a description of depression. As I have spoken with people suffering from depression, they tell me that this Psalm has connected with them. Charles Spurgeon who was a great preacher and teacher and has written many commentaries on the Bible suffered from bouts of depression. As I read his comments on this Psalm, it seems to me that he understood this Psalm to be descriptive of depression.
The Canadian Mental Health Association website describes depression saying, "Someone experiencing depression is grappling with feelings of severe despair over an extended period of time." That certainly seems to be what is expressed in this Psalm.
The Helpguide.org website identifies a number of signs and symptoms of depression. Clearly I am not a psychologist, but it seems to me that many are expressed in this Psalm.
1. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. The feeling that nothing will ever get better and there's nothing you can do to improve your situation.
Psalm 88:3a, "For my soul is full of troubles…" = hopelessness
Psalm 88:4b, "I am like those who have no help…" = helplessness
Psalm 88:8b, "…I am shut in so that I cannot escape…" = nothing will ever get better.
2. Loss of interest in daily activities and the loss of ability to feel joy and pleasure.
Psalm 88:9a, "…my eye grows dim through sorrow…"
3. Sleep changes including waking in the early hours of the morning seem to be expressed in the fact that in verses 1, 9 and 13, the writer speaks about being awake at night, in the day and in the morning.
4. Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your tolerance level is low, your temper short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves.
Psalm 88:7b, "…you overwhelm me with all your waves." = feeling agitated.
Psalm 88:8b, "…I am shut in so that I cannot escape…" = restlessness.
5. Loss of energy so that even small tasks are exhausting or take longer to complete.
Psalm 88:16 & 17. "Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me."
6. Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes. These feelings are frequently expressed by the Psalmist especially as feelings that God has abandoned him.
Psalm 88:14 - "O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?"
Psalm 88:15 - "Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate."
7. Thoughts of death or suicide.
Psalm 88:3b - "…my life draws near to Sheol."
Psalm 88:5 - "like those forsaken 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."
Psalm 88:15 - "Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate."
Spurgeon comments, “Death would be welcomed as a relief by those whose depressed spirits make their existence a living death.”
8. The feeling that there is no “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Psalm 88:18 – (NIV), "the darkness is my closest friend."
There are other symptoms of depression and the Psalm does not express all of them. If one or two of the symptoms were expressed, we might just consider this a sad Psalm, but when so many symptoms are expressed, I believe that this Psalm is written by someone who was in the midst of depression. Although there are many aspects of trial and difficulty expressed in this Psalm, I believe that depression is prominent.
The most powerful thing we notice about this Psalm is that it never resolves. There is no expression of what God has done. There is no declaration that this is what the writer experienced, but now he has come through it and everything is OK. The final word in the Psalm is "darkness." The Psalm leaves us in the dark valley of despair.
There are times when people are in this place and the question is, "Where is God in this place?" Why is such a Psalm in the Bible? Are we not to live a victorious Christian life? How can we be expected to live a victorious Christian life if Psalm 88 allows for us to be in the darkness?
The Psalm leaves us in a dark place, but it does not leave us without hope. There are some very important and profound things we must notice about this Psalm.
One of the most powerful things about this Psalm is that it is there. It is in the Bible and it is in the Bible as an unresolved Psalm. There are writers who suggest that it could not have ended as it does. They suggest that part of it must have been lost. I do not believe so. I believe that this Psalm is in Scripture because God wants it there. I believe that it is an important word of God that tells us that God knows. The presence of this Psalm in the Bible tells us that when we are in depression or any other dark and difficult place God is completely aware of it. Just the fact that this Psalm is in the Bible assures us that God understands that place because His word speaks about it.
If you are experiencing depression, this Psalm tells you that God knows about it and understands just what you are feeling.
Some writers have drawn a comparison between Psalm 88 and Psalm 22. There are certainly points of contact between the two Psalms. Psalm 22:1, 2 says, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest." In Psalm 88:14 the same note of forsakenness appears when the writer says, "O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?"
Psalm 22 is recognized as speaking about the Messiah. These are the words that Jesus quoted in Matthew 27:46 when he was crucified. These words are the culmination of what is spoken about Jesus in Isaiah 53:3, "He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account." The words of Jesus expressed in the Garden of Gethsemane are also powerful words of His being in a dark place. We read in Matthew 26:37, 38, He… began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death...”"
Since Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, we know that Jesus also understands. When we are in the deepest, darkest pit, God's Son, Jesus Christ knows what that place is like. He also is "acquainted with grief" and understands our suffering. The presence of these things in Scripture assure us that there is someone who knows what our burdens are like.
The question is, "Do we understand?"
Dan Glazer wrote in Christianity Today in March 2009, "Studies of religious groups, from Orthodox Jews to evangelical Christians, reveal no evidence that the frequency of depression varies across religious groups or between those who attend religious services and those who do not. So in a typical congregation of 200 adults, 50 attendees will experience depression at some point, and at least 30 are currently taking antidepressants."
But do we, particularly those who have never experienced depression, understand this. Our temptation is to encourage people to get over it. Our temptation is to think that something is spiritually wrong with them. Our temptation is to not understand the depth of emotional and spiritual anguish which some people experience. If God speaks clearly and understandingly about depression and if he does not speak, at least in this Psalm, about "everything being OK" then shouldn't we also seek to understand?
Brueggemann is right when he writes, “Psalm 88 stands as a mark of realism of biblical faith. It has a pastoral use, because there are situations in which easy, cheap talk of resolution must be avoided”
Instead of encouraging people to "get over it" or offering solutions to fix them, we need to learn from what God does. We need to listen and to stand with people who are in the depth of despair and to learn what it means to love in this place. We need to keep people who are suffering depression before the throne of grace because often in that place their feeling of abandonment by God leaves them unable to pray and we need to pray for them.
As we have already noted, the Psalm comes to no resolution. But that does not mean that it is a faithless Psalm. The Psalm contains an important lesson for those who are in depression or any difficult situation.
In the very first verse we notice that the writer lives his depression in the presence of God, in prayer. Notice that all of the expressions of difficulty and despair are expressed to God. Psalm 88:1, 2, 9 and 13 are all prayers. He prays, "O LORD, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry…Every day I call on you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you…But I, O LORD, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you."
Notice also that the prayer is expressed not as a laundered declaration of faith, but as a "cry." The person praying is desperate and feeling hopeless, and in that place, cries out to God.
Even though he feels abandoned, he still expresses his feelings and experiences to God. He may not always feel it, but he continues to hold on to the hope that God is his salvation.
What a powerful encouragement to keep on praying even if it feels like the ceiling is made of brass and no answer is forthcoming. It is a word of direction for those in depression and encourages them to keep on talking to God, to keep the conversation going.
In the prayer that the Psalmist expresses, we also see that it is an honest prayer. Particularly in verses 14-18, we notice how he blames God and tells Him exactly how he feels. We read, "O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? …I suffer your terrors…Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me…They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me…You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me…."
God does not chastise him for such honest language. His prayer is not made pretty for the purpose of public presentation. His prayer is raw and honest and expresses exactly what is going on in his heart. The fact that this also is written in Scripture, encourages us that we can be honest with God. We can tell him how we feel. We can express our hopelessness to Him. God accepts our honesty as long as we keep talking to Him. This is faith.
In this Psalm the writer is singing the blues in the deepest sense of the word.
One writer has described this Psalm in terms of the Easter experience. Friday is the time of crisis, the time of loss and the death of hope; Sunday is the time of surprise, celebration and restoration of hope but Saturday is the time of, confusion, the silence of God, and the time of hopelessness. We don't like to linger on "Saturday" but Psalm 88 reminds us that some people live on Saturday. Living on Saturday is hard. Joy is absent and hope is hard to come by.
What do we do with Saturday? God has put Psalm 88 in the Bible to show us that he knows that sometimes we live in this place.
Faith is not only having the certainty that there is always a resolution to every problem. Sometimes faith is living in God's presence when there doesn't seem to be a resolution. This Psalm invites us to that kind of faith.
It invites the person suffering depression to keep the conversation with God going.
It invites the person not suffering depression to be gracious and loving because God is gracious and loving.
It is OK to sing the blues and to do so before our Father in heaven, who loves us!