Darkness Is My Only Companion

Psalm 88 is a psalm of lament like no other.

person standing next to tree

Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

It’s a common misperception that the Old Testament psalms are all songs of praise or thanksgiving. The reality is that the majority of them are desperate pleas for help in times of trouble. Scholars label them psalms of lament.

The troubles listed in these laments are the many troubles and tribulations that afflict human beings. They include: life-threatening illness, anxiety, malicious gossip and reputation smearing, social ostracism, betrayal by friends, murder by ambush, oppression by the rich and powerful, defeat in battle, foreign invasion, even old age.

What is striking about these lament psalms is that the psalmists bring all these troubles before God. The lament psalms are poetic prayers. They plead for God’s saving intervention.

And in most, there is not only a fervent plea but also an ardent hope that God will come soon to save them. Yet if God delays, the psalmist remains confident that God will nonetheless come. A good example is Psalm 22, where after the psalmist expresses his torment in anguished terms, he concludes the psalm in confident praise.

The Israelite Horror before Death

Psalm 88, however, stands apart from all the other lament psalms. For one thing, it contains one of the most vivid descriptions of the ancient Israelite’s expectation on the afterlife. That expectation did not involve a belief in either a heaven or a hell. Instead all the dead, righteous or evil, entered the subterranean world of Sheol (also called the Pit). We see this world described in verses 3-6 and again in verses 10-12.

This land of the dead was a shadowy world where the dead subsisted in a drained-out ghostly existence. We might think of them as zombies. What was most distressing about this world of the dead was that God was not present in it. God abandoned them.

We experience the bleakness of this vision of the afterlife when we hear the psalmist talk of the dead as …those whom you [God] remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. (Verse 5). This is intensified when the psalmist rhetorically asks: Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? (Verse 10) The implied answer, of course, is No.

In this language we see how much of an existential horror death is to the ancient Israelite mindset. The expectation of resurrection has yet to dawn in the Israelite consciousness. This is important to remember when we read the language of salvation in the Old Testament. It does not mean going to heaven when we die. Rather salvation language talks of God’s intervening rescue of us in the trials and tribulations of this life. The Exodus story is the great epic of salvation in the Old Testament.

A Dialogue of Accusation

The second striking feature of Psalm 88 is the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God as the source of his troubles. In Verses 6-7, he moves to second-person address, saying, You [God] have put me in the depths of the Pit…your wrath lies heavy upon me.

This accusatory speech continues as the psalm progresses. Inverses 13-18, one accusation piles onto another:

O Lord, why do you cast me off?

            Why do you hide your face from me? (Verse 14)

I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. (Verse 15)

Your wrath has swept over me;

            your dread assaults destroy me. (Verse 16)

 I am astounded at the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God of being the cause of all his troubles, in effect, his enemy. If biblical faith is to be understood as trust, then here we see its almost negation. The only vestige of faith that I can identity in this psalm is the fact that throughout the psalm, the psalmist continues to address his complaints to God.

The psalm in fact is a prayer, for it begins O Lord, God of my salvation(Verse 1). The psalmist has not cut off his dialogue with God, even though the tone has turned angry and vituperative. This psalm calls to mind the boldness of Job as well as he contends with God over the cause of his misery.

At the Bottom, Despair

The final striking feature of this psalm is its ending. The psalm comes to an abrupt stop on a bottom note of deep despair:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.(Verse 18)

This is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the verse. But the Psalter in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer gives it an even more desolate expression.

My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,

            and darkness is my only companion.

Here the psalmist finds himself in profound and deep isolation. He sees no reason for hope or confidence that God will hear his prayer or reverse his situation. It is certainly the starkest verse in all the psalms and possibly in all of the Bible. Whereas the other psalms of lament have various expressions of hope and confidence in God, this one stands apart in its utter hopelessness.

A Psalm for Humanity in Its Depths

I find myself amazed that the editors of the psalms should have included this psalm in their collection of ancient Israelite poetry. The tendency of most pious would have been to exclude it as a perversion of faith.

I am glad the editors did not. It seems to me this psalm gives expression to those times when our own faith hangs on by something as fragile as a spider’s silk strand. These are the times when life experiences throw us into such confusion and despair that we can see no light at the end of our tunnel.

At such times, we, too, know darkness as our only companion. I certainly have experienced such times in my own life, especially in my young adult years. It is reassuring that the psalmist seems to give us sanction for lifting up such times of depression to God, even if it must be in the words of accusation, desperation, and despair.

It is also why this psalm can speak powerfully to people trapped in a downward spiral. Once when I was serving as a hospital chaplain, I visited a patient who was suffering from a serious kidney disease that had endured for ten years. She was a good church woman. But as we talked, she expressed her weariness with God who did not seem to respond to her prayers for healing. She felt, she said, so utterly alone and abandoned, especially as her friends at church continued to enjoy robust health.

I suggested that I read a psalm to her and then ask if it expressed how she was feeling. I read Psalm 88. When I finished, she looked at me and said, “Chaplain, I don’t feel that bad yet.” This psalm may have been helping her to realize that her faith was not yet at such an end as she thought it was.

One of the things that has always drawn me to the Bible is the astonishing range of human experience that its words give expression to. Its understanding of the realm of faith is far more expansive of human experience and emotions that most religious people dare go.


A Time for Lament

We need the psalms of lament to give voice to our anguish.

Bible text: Psalm 79

I have been both alarmed and saddened by the news that has been coming out of the Middle East in recent weeks. In particular, news stories on the eradication of ancient Christian communities in northern Iraq.

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has occupied much territory in Syria and Iraq. Wherever they come into power, they move quickly to cleanse the territory of religious elements that they consider incompatible with their strict form of Islam. That has included Shiites, Yazidis, and the various forms of Christianity that have flourished in these areas for 2,000 years.

Recently ISIS drove all Christians out of the city of Mosul. It has targeted churches, monasteries, and Christian homes for destruction. This is a terrible tragedy, as Mosul was home to an ancient Christian community that stretched back into almost apostolic times. It formed a part of the distinguished Church of the East, which has a rich and beautiful legacy of theology, liturgy, and scholarship.

ISIS’s attacks on Christians are only part of a larger decimation of ancient Christian communities throughout the Middle East. The civil war in Syria has been equally destructive to ancient Christian communities there. Christians in Israel/Palestine have been caught between two equally hostile movements coming from both Zionism and Islam. And the ancient Christian Coptic community of Egypt is under constant threat.

What Is a Proper Christian Reaction?

How should Christians react? One option might be for Christians to adopt the tactics of violent, radical Muslims whenever they feel their religion has been insulted. We saw a good example in the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons they thought insulted the Prophet.

They took to the streets in violent mayhem. Boycotts of Danish goods were proposed. Embassies attacked. Editors given death threats. It’s become dangerous to cross Muslim sensibilities. Christians could respond in kind. They could create similar mayhem, and some have as we have seen in the Central African Republic.

I have a problem, however, with such behavior. It does not fit with the compassionate, pacifist mind of Christ that I find depicted in the New Testament. The apostle Paul calls upon Christians to have the same mind that was in Christ (Philippians 2:5). And when I read the gospels, I cannot believe that Jesus would advocate social mayhem, massacres, and vilification of enemies.

So do Christians just roll over and let the forces of evil trample all over them? Do the bullies win? This is a dilemma that I do not have an adequate response for.

Finding a Voice in the Psalms

But one thing I can say. The experiences the Christian world is experiencing in the Middle East gives me new appreciation for those psalms in the Old Testament that scholars call the psalms of lament.

Psalm 79 is a good example. It is a psalm of anguish over the Babylonian destruction of Solomon’s temple and the city of Jerusalem. The words of the psalmist must fit exactly the feelings of those Christians in Mosul who witnessed the burning of their churches and had to flee their hometown. Hear these words:

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;

            they have defiled your holy temple;

            they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.

They have given the bodies of your servants

            to the birds of the air for food,

            the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.

They have poured out their blood like water

            all around Jerusalem,

            and there was no one to bury them.

We have become a taunt to our neighbors,

            mocked and derided by those around us.

How long, O LORD?…

Why should the nation say,

            “Where is their God?”

Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants

            be known among the nations before our eyes.

Sometimes Christians object to these psalms because they find them too depressing or they cringe at the psalmists’ cries for revenge and retribution. The author of Psalm 79, for example, prays that God will pour out his anger on those who have perpetrated this terrible destruction.

Yet, I think these words and sentiments are precisely accurate. They express the churning emotions of those whose lives and patrimonies are being so ruthlessly destroyed. They give a way to vent those raging emotions.

Our Precious Heritage of Sorrow and Lament

I believe we cannot excise these psalms out of our worship and our spirituality without being false to real life. It is said that after the attacks of September 11, 2001, many people gathering in churches to lament the tragedy found that these psalms of lament expressed exactly what they were feeling.

Does reciting these psalms prevent future attacks? No. But they do give vent to the tumultuous feelings we feel. And maybe that is important in helping us to get to the state where we do not feel compelled to seek revenge. Giving into revenge only traps us and our enemies into a cycle of endless violence that repeats itself over and over again. Just look at how true that was in Northern Ireland and how true it is today in Israel/Palestine.

Let us then claim these psalms of lament as a rightful and precious part of our spiritual heritage.