Psalm 88: Companion Darkness

“The rest is silence,” Hamlet’s last words – an interesting word choice for someone who never had an unspoken thought, or so it seems to me as he shared with us, the audience, all of his ruminations. He could have as easily said, “The rest is darkness.” The Prince of Denmark was no stranger to the darkness of depression. I thought of this as I read the last line of Psalm 88, “Companion and neighbor you have taken away from me; my only friend is darkness.” (18 NAB).

All of us experience dark times. We all have dark days when we are in a funk, sometimes for no apparent reason. I’m no stranger to moodiness. Fortunately my good days far outnumber my bad days, especially the older I get. That wasn’t always the case, though. My high school years were punctuated with bad days that seemed to spin out into eternity.

For the past week or so, as I’ve prepared to begin my summer writing project, I’ve found myself in a bit of a funk. I’ve been beset by the moodiness I had experienced during high school, feeling sad, but not sure why. That’s the worst. If you know why you are feeling down, then you can do something about it. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to go down the path this book may be taking me, back to high school, when darkness was my companion. It’s not a place I want to visit, yet perhaps I must.

Psalm 88 is an individual lament. The writer is in dire straits. He is suffering from some prolonged illness which began in his youth and has him at the point of death. “Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors. I am helpless.” (13) He has been staring into the face of death for a long time. No wonder he is depressed.

The writer calls upon God by day and by night, “O Lord, my God, I call for help by day; I cry out in the night before you.” (1) While still alive, he is like one who is dead. “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am reckoned among those who go down to the Pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave.” (3-5a) His friends have abandoned him, “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape.” (8)

He asks God, is it possible to praise you from the grave? “Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you?”(10) This is reminiscent of Psalm 6:5 where the writer tries to persuade God to save him because with his death God would lose a loyal worshiper.

Sheol is a land of darkness and forgetfulness, “Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?” (12) God forgets men who die, “Like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.” (5b), people forget the dead and they forget God.

His descriptions of Sheol, the land of the dead, give us a picture of how the Hebrew nation viewed this place. It was a land of darkness, a pit where the dead are cut off not only from the living but from their God; a precursor to our modern understandings of hell.

It is God who has done this to him, we hear over and over again in the psalm. “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?” (14) The psalm doesn’t end on a note of hope and confident trust in the Lord, or a vow to God as is often found in laments. It ends in darkness and yet it is, “a noble example of a faith which trusts God utterly in spite of all discouragement, and cleaves to God most passionately when God seems to have withdrawn Himself most completely.” (A.F. Kirkpatrick)

This psalm is for anyone who is in the midst of darkness, who sees no light at the end of the tunnel. There is no light, no reason for hope in this psalm, and yet the writer remains faithful to the end. Sometimes in our life, all we can see is darkness. It doesn’t do any good to keep insisting that the dawn will come to someone who has only known darkness. Sometimes all you can do is sit in darkness and silence.

What do you do when your only friend is darkness? How do you remain faithful?

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