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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:Persevere in prayer, even in the dark places
Text:Psalms 88 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 42:1-3

Hymn 11:9

Psalm 88:1-4

Psalm 43:4-5

Hymn 34

Scripture reading: Luke 23:44-49

Text:  Psalm 88

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved brothers and sisters in our Saviour Jesus,

If you didn’t notice, our text is a lament and it has a reputation as the darkest of the lament psalms.  It has an edge to it.  If you’re looking for what they call a “worship experience,” or some type of adrenaline rush, you’re at the wrong address with this psalm. 

And yet, it’s easy to see why this psalm resonates with at least some people.  It’s raw and real.  In this psalm, there’s no pretending that everything is all right in the world.  It’s honest and direct about the pain the psalmist is feeling.  This psalm speaks of a real world where real people suffer real hurt inside.  Perhaps you can relate. 

The one who wrote this psalm was Heman the Ezrahite.  He was apparently a Levite and involved with the music of the temple.  Some say that Heman wrote this after coming down with leprosy.  After all, leprosy is a horrible physical disease which alienates the sufferer.  In Israel, people with leprosy were cast out of the community.  That fits with some of the statements in the psalm about being shunned and abandoned.  It’s possible.  But it’s equally possible that Heman was suffering from a deep depression.  The symptoms are all there.  And if clinical depression is an illness like cancer, and if cancer would have been found among the ancient Israelites, then why not also depression?  Jews would have suffered from depression just like we do.    

Whether it was depression or leprosy or some other affliction, Scripture doesn’t directly say.  That’s just as well.  That means this psalm can speak to people who are hurting in a variety of ways.  It’s not limited to one affliction.  However, the one affliction that is on our minds quite a bit is depression and anxiety, its close relative.  We have to acknowledge the widespread presence of depression and anxiety.  For those of you who struggle with this, you have to know that you’re not alone.  You might be surprised to learn how many of your brothers and sisters surrounding you this morning are in the same struggle.  We don’t like to talk about it.  We don’t trust others easily with this information.  Though it’s less than it used to be, there’s still some stigma attached to depression and anxiety.  That stigma flies in the face of what the Scriptures teach us about being kind and compassionate to one another.  That stigma undermines what Scripture teaches us about carrying one another’s burdens and sorrows.  That stigma does not fit with our being united to Christ, our sympathetic and compassionate High Priest. 

In the light of what I just said, there are two main purposes driving this sermon.  The first purpose is to comfort the afflicted with God’s Word.  That’s the main thing here.  Specifically, those who are suffering under the burden of depression and anxiety should be affirmed and encouraged with what God reveals about himself here.  For the rest of us, we should come away with a better understanding of the deep pain that some of our brothers and sisters feel and how we can best encourage them.  In other words, this psalm can help us develop empathy for the afflicted.  Through this psalm, we can begin to get in the shoes of someone suffering in a horrible way and asking some difficult questions.  Then we can help them in a loving way that really serves their well-being. 

So this morning I preach to you the Word of God from Psalm 88.  We’ll see that the Bible teaches us to persevere in prayer, even in the dark places

We’ll look at how this psalm speaks of the:

  1. Deep pit of the Psalmist
  2. Direction for believers today
  3. Damning of another

There’s a danger that comes with preaching on the psalms.  The danger is that we forget what kind of writing we’re dealing with.  The psalms are poetry and they have to be read and understood as poetry.  Many of us can look back to high school or maybe university and remember over-eager English teachers who overanalyzed a poetic text.  They dissected it like it was a chemistry formula or a physics equation and in the process they killed it.  You can do that to any piece of well-written poetry and that includes the psalms.  You can overanalyze and miss the effect or the message that the poetry is designed to communicate.    

You see, poetry is writing at a different level.  That means we can’t work our way through Psalm 88 like we would work through a chapter of Mark or Romans.  We have to take a different approach.  We’ll go through the Psalm here in broad strokes, but we’re not going to carefully take apart every single word or expression.  What we’re after is the message of the psalm as a whole.

As I mentioned, Heman was the author of this lament.  He was not an average Israelite, but someone involved with ministry in the temple.  We know this from some of the mentions of him elsewhere in Scripture.  We also know that he was a believer.  From the first couple of verses, we see that Heman did not lose his faith, even though he was suffering so horribly.  Sometimes people say that there is no light in this psalm at all, but that’s not completely true.  There is still the fact that Heman is praying.  There is still the fact that he is calling out to God.  He still addresses Yahweh as the God of his salvation.  He begs for his cry to be heard by Yahweh.  The first couple of verses impress upon us that Heman was yet a believer.  For all the lament that follows, we need to keep that point in mind.  He may be weak and near the edge, but he hasn’t gone over it. 

He has a lament to bring before Yahweh and in verses 3 to 5, he first describes his situation in more general terms.  Nevertheless, it’s still personal – it involves him and his struggles.  His life has nothing but trouble and he feels like he’s dying.  His strength is gone and the grave is in sight.  In these verses, Heman piles up the words here for death:  Sheol (which is the place of the dead), the pit, the dead, the slain, the grave, those who are cut off from life by Yahweh.  Death is the curtain drawn over his thoughts.  It’s all he can think about.  He doesn’t want to die – he feels like he has already died.    

Who is to blame for this?  In verses 6 to 9, Heman points his finger at God.  Look at how many times he uses the word “you.”  God has done all this to him.  God has put him in the pit, the place that feels like a dark grave.  It’s like being at the bottom of a well, except as you look up, the light is only a pinpoint.  You’re way down at the bottom, in the pit, looking up.  All around you is darkness and you know who did this to you.  Heman knows who did it and he’s not shy to say it.  Worse, he says that he is under the intense wrath of Yahweh.  God is against him, attacking him.  It’s as if God is sending heavy waves to beat against him.  I recently read about the training that US Navy SEALS have to endure.  US Navy SEALS are special forces, elite fighters.  One of the things they do in their initial training is called surf torture.  They have to go out into the ocean with arms linked together and then sit down in the surf.  The waves crash against them and then eventually bring them back to shore.  The surf is heavy, the water is cold and they get their clothes full of abrasive sand.  That’s surf torture.  That’s the kind of thing that Heman feels like he’s enduring.  God is giving him surf torture with powerful waves of cold water, battering ruthlessly against him.    

And he’s lonely.  God made his friends abandon him.  His friends don’t want to be around him.  He’s in this pit and it’s like a prison to him.  In ancient times, cisterns or wells were sometimes used as prisons.  These were bottle or bell-shaped, wide at the bottom, narrow at the top.  This is why, when he was imprisoned in the cistern, the prophet Jeremiah had to be let down into the pit.  When he was taken out, he had to be pulled out.  You cannot climb out of this pit on your own.  It’s impossible.  That’s the pit that Heman is in.  He can’t escape.  God has put him in a place where he’s trapped.  Sadness overwhelms him and the tears he cries cloud up his vision. 

Yet there is the end of verse 9 – and it’s important to look there with me.  Look at what he says, “Every day I call upon you, O LORD, I spread out my hands to you.”  Despite everything else, he’s still crying out to God in prayer.  He’s persevering with the idea that somewhere, somehow God can still hear him.  That’s crucially important in this psalm.

Heman has questions for God.  Those questions are in verses 10 to 14.  His first questions focus on whether there’s some benefit from him being dead.  If God kills him, would there be praise from him?  Could he speak of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness from the grave or from Abaddon (Abaddon is a poetic way of speaking of the realm of the dead, sort of like Sheol)?  You might be thinking, doesn’t Heman believe in life after death?  Doesn’t he believe that people go to heaven after they die and praise God eternally?  As an Israelite, I think we can be confident that he did.  We have to understand these words in their covenantal context.  Once life is over, there are no more opportunities for praises to be given by Heman in the midst of the covenant community.  He can’t contribute anymore to praising God on this earth.  The dead don’t speak about God or about anything for that matter – they don’t speak to the living.  From the perspective of the living, the dead go silent.

It’s worth noting that this section of questions includes references to God’s wonders, his steadfast love, his faithfulness, and his righteousness.  Heman still believes that God has these attributes, despite the burden he’s carrying.  He argues that if God kills him, he won’t have the opportunity anymore to extol these attributes. 

So in the light of that, he makes the prayer to God.  Look at verse 13 and see how he says again that he keeps on praying:  “…in the morning my prayer comes before you.”  He prays and he pleads with God to give him an answer:  Why?  Why do you cast me away?  Why do you hide your face from me?  What he means is:  why does God hide his goodness and blessing from him?  All that Heman can see of God is his hand of wrath heavy on him.

The last verses of this psalm are the darkest.  At the beginning of verse 15, he says that his affliction has been with him for a long time, from his youth upward.  Incidentally, this would suggest that leprosy was not his affliction, because if he’d had leprosy from his youth, he would have never served in the temple as Scripture says elsewhere.  The terrors he has suffered for so long, they have a source.  They have come from Yahweh.  In the face of them, he’s helpless.  He says, “I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.”  Another possible way of translating that would be, “I suffer your terrors intensely.”  The gist is clear, also from what follows. 

In verse 16, he says again that the wrath of God is sweeping over him.  The imagery there again is of hot wrath and waves.  The hot wrath of God is portrayed as a powerful wave beating down on Heman.  He is being assaulted by God, attacked by him.  The language here is vivid and painful to read.  Verse 17 only adds to the horror.  He feels like he’s drowning all day long.  Then the loneliness and abandonment come back in the last verse.  Even his closest friends have left him, his beloved too – which could be a reference to a wife.  The point is that everyone has turned their back on him.  He’s completely alone and God made it happen.  What is he left with?  The very last word of the Psalm in both Hebrew and in English (in the ESV) makes it clear:  darkness.  Other lament psalms end on an upbeat note with some praise and hope, but not this one.  This lament psalm ends in darkness.  That’s why it’s often called “the Dark Psalm.”                

This is a psalm from the pit of despair, from a dark place.  No other psalm speaks quite so powerfully about the agony that sometimes is very real in this broken world.  When it comes to church music, people often gravitate towards the upbeat.  They want the praise music that lifts spirits, that’s only all happy all the time.  But that’s not the real world.  God has given us his covenant song book in the psalms.  And, yes, there are many upbeat songs of praise in the Psalter.  The book ends in what some have called a fireworks explosion of praise for God.  The next Psalm, Psalm 89, is a song of praise for God too.  But yet, throughout the psalms, we also find the reality of brokenness and hurt.  We find believers crying out to God, singing the blues.  Because God included the blues in the psalms, it’s important that we too give room to expressing these real world sentiments in our worship and elsewhere in our lives.  Loved ones, it’s okay to sing the blues, to pray a lament, to cry out to God with your questions and your pain.  It’s not only okay, sometimes it’s the only thing you can do, even the thing you must do.  Because laments are included in God’s Word, there is a place for lament in the Christian life. 

Sometimes in the midst of intense pain, whether physical or mental, it can feel like no one understands.  People come to you to try and give comfort, but it so often falls flat.  The words sound glib and trite.  They just don’t get it.  But read this psalm and try to tell me that Heman doesn’t get it.  Take it home and read it out loud two or three times and try to tell me that this man didn’t know darkness, pain, and profound abandonment.  He knew it.  The poetry here speaks of it so powerfully.  Intense is the only way to describe it.  This man was in a deep dark pit and he pulls you in with him, if you’re not already there.

But he also teaches you.  He teaches you to keep on praying, even in the pit.  We saw that this is an important point in this psalm.  Even though Heman is in the darkness and in pain, he’s still crying out.  He still has a voice and, in faith, he still uses it.  He knows God is there somewhere and that’s why he keeps crying out.  He knows that God has steadfast love and faithfulness and he wants to see it again.  He expects that God will hear him, even from the depths of the pit.  That teaches us to do the same.  Loved ones, keep on praying, even in the darkness. 

What if you feel like you can’t?  You can’t come up with the words because your brain is a fog or you just don’t have the energy.  That’s when we need to remember that in his grace, God gives us the words.  He has given us the words in Scripture.  When we can’t come up with the words on our own, and even otherwise, we can use the words of Psalm 88.  We can pray this psalm and others like it.  You can take these words and you can use them yourself as your lament and prayer to God.  He gives us these psalms for that reason.  He knows that we can sometimes be weak and unable to speak for ourselves.  So he mercifully gives us words to use.  You can keep on praying, even in the dark places, just by opening your Bible and using the words God gives in Psalm 88 and other psalms.  And if you can’t even do that, ask someone else to do it with you.  Ask a friend or your husband or wife.  Loved ones, there is a way forward.

This psalm assures us that there is someone who understands.  I mentioned that the psalmist gets it when you’re suffering in the dark pit and there doesn’t appear to be any way of escape.  But there’s more to say, because we recognize that these are not just the words of Heman.  Heman’s words are inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Even though his lament is directed towards God, there is a real sense in which his words come from God.  Remember Psalm 88 is part of God’s Word.  That tells us something important about what we have here.  God does understand.  He is alert to those who are beleaguered with afflictions.  God hasn’t disappeared or forgotten about you.  He knows the words that you need and he wants you to use those words. 

God also wants us to recognize that these words speak of someone else’s afflictions and suffering.  In Hebrews 5:7, we read, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death…”  When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection in Luke 24, he told them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  The psalms speak about Christ.  Whenever we read or sing the psalms, we need to think about our Saviour and how that poetry speaks of him.  The psalms are his songs and prayers.  Now, it is true that there are no direct quotations from Psalm 88 in the New Testament and no direct references.  However, that should not stop us from seeing this psalm in the light of Christ’s suffering and death.  If what he said in Luke 24 is true, we should expect that Psalm 88 also speaks of our Saviour.  It’s very difficult to read it as a Christian and not think ahead to Golgotha. 

On the cross, our Saviour Jesus drew near to death.  He was in the pit, near the grave.  He had been brutally beaten, scourged, nails put through his hands and feet, crown of thorns pressed into his head – blood everywhere.  Death was inevitable.  Where were his friends?  His disciples had abandoned him.  One of them had betrayed him.  Another had denied him publically, vocally, even swearing an oath, and calling down curses on Jesus.  At best, those who loved him were off at a distance, not daring to be closely associated with him.  On the cross, he was totally alone.  Abandoned by absolutely everyone.  Then the darkness came.  He was literally plunged into three hours of darkness.  The light was removed from the earth because of him.  He was in the pit, in the darkness.  But none of that compares to the unseen inner turmoil he experienced. 

In Psalm 88, Heman speaks of the wrath of God being poured out on him.  He speaks of being assaulted and attacked by God.  That’s what happened to our Saviour.  He cried out another lament, the lament of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Sometimes people understand that to mean that God abandoned him.  In a sense, that’s true.  God no longer remained with him to bless him.  But Jesus was abandoned on the cross in the same way that unrepentant and unbelieving sinners are abandoned in hell.  Whose wrath do they experience in hell?  It’s the wrath of God.  Whose wrath was poured out on Christ?  It was the wrath of God.  With the words of Psalm 88:16, we can say that the burning wrath of God swept over Jesus, God’s dreadful assaults battered him.  On the cross, our Saviour was damned, cursed, brutally attacked by the wrath of God.  You know why.  He did it to take your place.  That should have been you on the cross, receiving what you deserve for your sins.  At the cross, we see terrible suffering, but we also see mercy and love, we see grace for sinners.  This psalm points us to those gospel truths.  This morning, we’re called again to embrace this Saviour in faith.  Rest and trust that he bore suffering worse than you can imagine, that he did it in your place, for your salvation.

Brothers and sisters, then also take comfort in the fact that you now have a sympathetic Saviour.  You really do have a compassionate high priest.  Because Psalm 88 points to him, you can read that and say to yourself, “Jesus understands.  He knows the intense pain that I have.”  You can know that, it doesn’t matter how intense your pain, Christ gets it.  That’s not the end of it.  The end of it is in Hebrews 4:16.  Knowing that Christ is sympathetic and compassionate, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  In other words, keep on praying.  Just as Christ did through his sufferings, keep on praying, praying in him and through him.  Because of him, your voice will be heard at the throne of grace. 

Loved ones, I can’t guarantee the answer that will come from the throne of grace.  God sometimes delivers quickly, in this life.  Sometimes he delivers slowly.  Sometimes not at all – at least not in this life.  Sometimes his answer is to allow us to continue bearing pain as we live on this earth.  That can be hard to take, I know.  It’s not the answer we want and we’re left with the question of why.  We have a Father in heaven who does love us, but he doesn’t always give us explanations of why he does what he does.  As little children, we have to learn to trust him, even in the dark places where there’s hurt and suffering.  But as his children, he also allows us to lament and cry to him and plead with him.  Still, at the end of it, we can only believe that he hears and will answer in the way that really is best for us.  We can believe that because another was damned in our place, because we have Christ as our Saviour.

Let me end with some pastoral counsel for those who are hurting and struggling with depression or anxiety.  There are no trite and easy answers for your pain.  I am under no illusion that Psalm 88 will be an easy fix for you.  I believe it can encourage you, yes, absolutely.  I believe it can help you, just like much else in the Word of God.  We shouldn’t underestimate that.  But depression and anxiety are complex.  Many times there are problems related to your body and your brain chemistry and those problems can be alleviated with the help of medication.  There’s no shame in going to the doctor and looking at ways in which medication can help you.  If you haven’t done that already, and your condition is preventing you from functioning in daily life, you might want to consider it.  In fact, I would urge you to do that.  It’s okay; it just means you’re human.  It’s no more shameful to go to the doctor for that than it is to go to the doctor because you have cancer.

For the rest of us, let’s do our best to come alongside those who are hurting in our church family.  Be a listening ear and allow those who are hurting to voice their pain.  As God tells us in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted…”  Let’s try to reflect our Saviour who is always compassionate and sympathetic.  He’s been compassionate towards all of us, let’s be compassionate to one another, especially to those who are suffering.  AMEN.                                           


Our gracious God, the God of our salvation,

Along with those who suffer, we call to you and ask for your help and mercy.  O God, let those who suffer, whether with depression or anxiety or whatever else, let them not lose hope.  Help them with your Holy Spirit to persevere in their faith and in prayer, even when they’re in the dark places.  We thank you for our Saviour Jesus who suffered your wrath in the darkness in our place.  Thank you that he was abandoned so that we would have fellowship forever with you and with all the saints.  This gospel gives us encouragement, and we’re thankful for a compassionate and sympathetic high priest. 

This morning, we especially pray for those among us who struggle with trials like depression and anxiety.  Father, please do not let go of them, even when they feel like their hold on you is weak.  Please continue to help them with strength for each day.  We pray that you would also give healing and work through medications, so that they can function from day to day.  O Father, please do not let our suffering brothers and sisters drown in their despair.  Please lift them and let them find the strength to still praise you.  We pray that you would give comfort and direction from your Holy Spirit and from your Word. 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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