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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
Text:Psalms 88:1-18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Comfort in a World of Pain

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Selections from the 1976 Psalter Hymnal:
121 - O Godto Us Show Mercy
388 - Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me  
168 - Lord, the God of My Salvation          
413 - I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Psalm 88:1-18
One commentator notes that Psalm 88 is “the gloomiest Psalm in Scripture.”  Another writes: “This is the saddest prayer in the Psalter.”  Still a third notes: “It is good that we have a Psalm like this, but it is also good that we have only one.”
Why is it good that we have a Psalm as melancholy and tragic as this 88th Psalm? One reason is that it reminds us that other believers have experienced and agonized over what is frequently called “unanswered” prayer. We have all experienced praying for something earnestly and fervently, and yet that prayer request has never become a reality. 
Although we call that prayer “unanswered,” we all know that it really is answered. By His silence God is responding in one of several ways. He is either saying, “This is not the right time for you to receive what you are asking for.”  Or, “You will not receive what you ask for, because it would harm you instead of help you spiritually. It is not in My will for your life.”  Or, more often, He answers our weak petitions with blessings that are above our ability to ask or comprehend.
But meantime, there we are, praying our heart out to the Lord, but not receiving, at least immediately, the answer we desire. Most all of us have been there in our prayer lives. Our prayers are not usually answered right away. Our prayers aren’t usually answered in the remarkable way that Elijah’s prayers for rain were answered. James 5:17 tells us that “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” (James 5:17-18)
But this Psalm reminds us that throughout history God’s people have often prayed earnestly and fervently, yet not received the object of their prayer. The author of this Psalm is a classic example of one who prayed fervently and frequently, yet did not receive the answer to his prayers that he desired. In verse 1 we read that he prayed “day and night.” In verse 9 he writes, “I call to You every day.” And in verse 13 he describes how he cries to the Lord for help and begins his day with prayer every morning.
Yet his prayers were not answered as he hoped and prayed. He closes the Psalm, not by praying, “Lord, I see the silver lining on the dark clouds of my suffering. I see an answer to my prayers developing on the horizon.”  No, he closes by writing in verse 18: “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”
The Specter of Death
Part of the darkness in this Psalm is the specter of physical death. Verse 5: I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.”
The author of this Psalm was a long way from where David was in Psalm 23, where David so boldly proclaimed, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For You are with me; Your rod, and Your staff, they comfort me.”
We often speak about looking at a cup to see whether from our perspective it is half full or half empty.  David looked at the cup, even in the face of hardship and death, and exclaimed, “My cup runs over!”  It wasn’t just half full in David’s eyes; it was so filled with blessing that it ran over the top and could not be contained. And David had a life filled with many sorrows and hardships.
Heman, on the other hand, seems to see everything from a pessimistic view. He stands as a negative example in that regard. To look at life through pessimistic glasses is to fail to trust in the sovereign care of Almighty God.
When John Piper, the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, was diagnosed with cancer, he wrote out ten reasons why the cancer was a good thing. He pointed out that even if cancer brings death, it can draw us closer to the Lord in this life and is used by God to be our entranceway into the life to come.  
While Heman doesn’t set a good example for us in the face of death, he is without doubt a true believer in the Lord, just as he acknowledges in the first verse. As true believers we too can be overwhelmed by our sins, and by the storms and clouds of life at times. And we may feel overwhelmed most acutely as we approach death. But it is much better to face that last enemy to be destroyed, that final River Jordan, death, as David did, and not as Heman did.
Troubles Sent from God
As he prayed to God, Heman clearly acknowledged that the troubles in his life were sent from God. Eight times over, in six different verses, he stresses that his sorrows are due to God’s hand:
Verse 6 - You have put me in the lowest pit.
Verse 7 - Your wrath lies heavily upon me; You have overwhelmed me with  
                all Your waves.
Verse 8 - You have taken from me my closest friends
Verse 15 - I have suffered Your terrors
Verse 16 - Your wrath has swept over me; Your terrors have destroyed me  
Verse 18 - You have taken my companions and loved ones from me...
God’s people in every era of time have recognized that because God is sovereign, He allows trouble and hardship into our lives. He allows trouble for our good, to build us up, to nurture us according to His plan as we lean more on Him realizing our own weakness in the face of the many painful difficulties of life.
That was true even for Job. His wife had said to him, after he lost virtually all he owned, including his precious children, and as he was covered with painful boils, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die.” Job replied: “You are talking like a foolish woman. Should we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:9-10)
Because of the dark and depressing circumstances, both in Psalm 88 and the book of Job, one commentator has suggested that perhaps the book of Job was written by Heman the Ezrahite. That is probably not the case, but it is an interesting thought, because both this Psalm and the book of Job, as well as the rest of Scripture, testify that trials are permitted to come into our lives by the sovereign hand of God. 
Joseph certainly understood that. Joseph exclaimed to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Gen 50:20). He was able to say that because he saw God’s hand even in the cruel and heartless actions of his brothers when they sold him to the Ishmaelites (aka Midianites, ESV).    
Likewise, in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul acknowledged that the thorn in his flesh, a messenger from Satan, was yet allowed by the Sovereign Lord to be in his flesh, even though he prayed repeatedly that the thorn, whatever it may have been, would be removed. Paul recognized that God’s answer to his prayers was “No.” But he also recognized that the blessing in God’s answer was greater than the blessing Paul had sought in the prayer. God’s answer was above what Paul could ask or imagine. For the Lord went on to promise, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9)
What is the greater blessing? To have an easy life, with the thorn removed? Or to have the promise of increased grace from Almighty God? Is it a greater blessing to have the thorn removed? Or to know without doubt that whatever the pain, whatever the hardship, whatever sin plagues our soul, God’s grace is yet sufficient to see us through?
Obviously, the latter is the greater blessing, a blessing that caused Paul to write, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
That optimism of the Apostle – and so many others who have looked through hardships with confidence in the Lord – simply isn’t found in this 88th Psalm. In the first verse Heman acknowledges that God is the one who saved him – he is a true believer, but the joy of salvation never surfaces. 
No wonder one commentator notes that Psalm 88 is “the gloomiest Psalm in Scripture.” Little wonder that another one writes: “This is the saddest prayer in the Psalter.”  No surprise that still a third notes: “It is good that we have a Psalm like this, but it is also good that we have only one.”
Comfort Through the Lens of the Cross
While other sad Psalms, such as Psalm 42 and 43 end with encouragement, this Psalm doesn’t. It is only fully understood through the lens of the cross. For instance, through the lens of the cross we are reminded that although the Psalmist acts as if God doesn’t know our suffering, God knows our suffering more thoroughly than we know it ourselves.
Jesus has experienced all the suffering of being truly human in a fallen, hostile world full of hardship. Isaiah’s prophecy was fully realized in the troubles of Jesus’ life on earth: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” (Isa. 53:3)
Are you struggling financially? Jesus knows what it is like to not even a place to lay His head. He said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”  (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58)
Are you tired? Have you been ridiculed, mocked, made fun of? Have you ever been bullied? Jesus knows every one of those circumstances. He knows your pain; He has experienced it Himself in more severe and acute ways than you or I ever have.
Are you constantly tempted by a certain sin? Jesus understands. Hebrews 4:15 teaches that He was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. And because He was tempted, He knows what it is like for you and me as we face those temptations that are so strong and repetitive in our lives. Because He knows, He intercedes for us as our merciful and compassionate Great High Priest.      
Does it feel as though you are close to the brink of death? Jesus died one of the most excruciating deaths imaginable; and He knew from all eternity that His life was destined to end on the cross.
Sometimes people say, “I’m glad I don’t know the future, especially how I’m going to die. I don’t want to know if it will be cancer, an accident, a stroke or heart attack. That would bother me; it would be a dark cloud hanging over me every day.” Yet Christ knew from all eternity that His physical life on earth would end in the most cruel, humiliating and painful death imaginable – death on the cross of Calvary.
He knew that the pain would not just be from the nails in His hands and feet, from the crown of thorns, and the mockery of the crowd who ridiculed Him. He knew from all eternity that He would experience the pain of being forsaken and separated from His Father as He bore the sins of those who by God’s grace have saving faith in Him alone for salvation.
In other words, He knows what it’s like to face not just physical death, but spiritual and eternal death. Death in the Bible denotes separation. Physical death is simply the separation of body and soul. Spiritual death is separation from God. And eternal death is eternal separation from the love of God in the reality of hell.
On the cross, Jesus experienced all three forms of death. He experienced physical death, but also spiritual death as He was forsaken by the Father, bearing the curse of your sin and mine, if we have true saving faith in Him alone for salvation. His suffering on the cross was so great that He experienced all the agony of hell – eternal separation from the love of God – when He was crucified.
By nature we are spiritually dead, separated from God because of our sin. As Ephesians 2:1 puts it, “as for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.”  Unless you are born again – born from above spiritually and given the gift of saving faith – you will be eternally separated from the love of God in the reality of hell, which is eternal death; it is eternal separation from God’s love.  But by saving faith in Christ alone, you and I have new life from above, and death in all its forms holds no power over us. Jesus, through His suffering on the cross, conquered death in all its forms. But His victory came at a great cost, the cost of His life.  
Many commentators have pointed out that this Psalm serves as a summary of the sufferings of Jesus: His disciples all deserted Him, leaving “darkness as (His) closest friend.” And all the other sufferings in this Psalm – including the feeling of being forsaken by His Father – were experienced by Jesus. Because of that, the Psalm often became a part of the liturgy in the early church on Good Friday.
No matter where we are in life, and no matter what sufferings we have, we can be sure that Jesus fully understands our situation.  In that way we are richly blessed. Heman lived before the eternal Christ came to this earth in human flesh. Heman could not see his suffering, his “unanswered” prayer and impending death through the glorious light of the cross of Calvary and the One who suffered and died there for sinners. 
No wonder Jesus said, in Matthew 11:11, “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”   Jesus is teaching that we who are on this side of Calvary – we who know of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – have a greater understanding and blessing than those who only saw the Messiah through the shadows and types of the Old Testament.    
The apostle Paul describes the same truth in 2 Corinthians 3. He describes how there is a veil over the Old Covenant that is only taken away through saving faith in Jesus Christ. Apart from saving faith in Christ alone, there is no salvation from sin. And apart from saving faith in Christ alone there is no way to understand Scripture, Old Testament or New, “for the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” 1 Corinthians 1:18 declares.
I don’t know about you, but I am so very thankful that we live this side of Calvary!
Persistence in Prayer
When we look at Psalm 88 through the lens of the cross and the open tomb, we also see that Jesus, our Mediator, gives us great encouragement to pray even as He sets the perfect example in prayer. Just because our prayers seem at times to be unanswered doesn’t mean that we are to quit praying. 
Jesus used the example of a widow with an unjust judge to show that we are to be persistent in prayer. The widow constantly presented her case before the judge. Luke 18:4 and 5 describe how, “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’”
And after telling that parable, Jesus asked His disciples, “And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?”
Jesus not only taught us to be persistent in prayer, and how to pray using the Lord’s Prayer as a model, but He also set the ultimate example of the essence of prayer when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me, yet not My will, but Yours be done...” (Luke 22:42) That is the essence of how we are to pray – not that our will is done, but the will of God.
We can’t be too harsh on Heman. He was depressed; he had a full plate; his prayers seemed to be unanswered and he believed he was close to death. I appreciate that the Holy Spirit inspired him to write how grieved he was, because we have all been there at some points in our lives. This Psalm teaches us that we can be totally honest with our feelings when we pray to God. It also teaches us that sometimes life is hard to the very end, even for believers. It is not all about prosperity and health. Often life is about poverty and sickness; and physical life always succumbs to physical death.
And while I don’t want to be too harsh, I cannot help but think what a wonderful ending to this Psalm the words of Jesus, in His prayer in Gethsemane, would be. How different this Psalm would be, and how different would have been the attitude of Heman’s heart if he would have prayed, “Lord it seems as though my prayers are unanswered. And I have all these grievous problems in my life, not the least of that I seem to be on the brink of death, and I’m imploring You to bring changes in my life and circumstances. But Lord, not my will, but Yours be done.”
Our prayers must always focus on the will of God – not our will – to be accomplished in our lives, just as Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10)
Resurrection Power
A third truth we see, when we look at Psalm 88 through the lens of the cross and through the open tomb, is that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we, too, are raised to eternal life. (Eph. 2:4-6), causing all the negative questions of Psalm 88 to be answered with a resounding “Yes!”
The first negative question is in verse 10 where Heman asked, “Do you show Your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise You?” Consider the glimpse of heaven given in Revelation 7. John hears a great multitude singing praises to God, and those singing the praises are described as “they who have come out of the great tribulation...”
Those who have passed on from the tribulation, trial, and suffering of this life are now in the glory of heaven praising the God who wipes every tear from their eyes. The negative question of verse 10 is answered with a resounding “Yes!”
Verse 11 has another skeptical, negative question: “Is Your love declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in Destruction?” 1 Corinthians 15:55-56 answers: “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The negative question of verse 11 is answered with a resounding “Yes!”
Verse 12 – “Are Your wonders known in the place of darkness, or Your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?” James 2:19: “You believe that there is one God. Good!  Even demons believe that and shudder.”  Demons, described in Jude 1:6 as being “bound in everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day,” acknowledge the identity and glory of God, and they shudder. The negative question of verse 12 is answered with a resounding “Yes!”
And then also, through the redeeming work of Jesus, as we look at this Psalm through the cross and through the open tomb, we are reminded that we are not promised an easy life, but we are promised salvation which makes our troubles “light and momentary” compared to the surpassing glory of the eternity which awaits us. The Apostle put it this way in 2 Corinthians 4:16 to 18: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
I know that I speak to people who have many troubles, for the Scripture declares: “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). But in whatever troubles you and I encounter in the pilgrimage of this life, may we see that in Christ we are more than conquerors. May we see that through saving faith in Him we have forgiveness of our sins and the gift of salvation. In Him we have the perfect Mediator, even when our prayers seem unanswered. In Him we have strength, even when thorns are so deeply embedded in our lives – in our flesh, heart, soul and mind.
When we see our sins and our troubles through the cross – through Christ – then even in the valley of the shadow of death we will fear no evil. Instead, we can confidently entrust ourselves to Him who is always faithful, and who has promised, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). And He has promised, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb. 13:5). Amen!
Sermon Outline:
     “... You have overwhelmed me with all Your waves...”
                                                                       Psalm 88:7b
                                   Psalm 88:1-18
I.  Psalm 88 has been described as “the gloomiest Psalm in Scripture,”
     as it describes:
      1) “Unanswered” prayer (1-2, 9, 13-14)
      2) Sorrows at the brink of death (3-5, 15)
       3) Troubles sent from God (6-8, 15-18)
II.  While other sad Psalms, such as Psalm 42 and 43, end with
      encouragement, this Psalm doesn’t. It is only fully understood
      through the lens of the cross:
      1) The Psalmist acts as if God doesn’t know our suffering, but God
           knows it more thoroughly than we do (Isaiah 53; Hebrews 4:15)
      2) Jesus gives us great encouragement to pray, and sets the ultimate
           example of how to pray (Luke 11:5-13; 18:1-8; 22:39, 42)
      3) By His resurrection we, too, are raised (Ephesians 2:4-6), so that
          all the negative questions of Psalm 88:10-12 are answered with a
          resounding “Yes!” (1 Corinthians 15:55-56)
     4) We are not promised an easy life, but we are promised salvation
          which makes our troubles “light and momentary” compared
          to the glory of eternity with Christ (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2019, Rev. Ted Gray

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