Psalm 88 and Being Honest To God About Our Situation

Does it seem that God has abandoned you?

One cannot accuse Scripture of whitewashing things, or just painting a rosy picture about life. It presents things as they really are, warts and all. And that includes God’s people who get depressed, discouraged and question whether God is even there. It even records cases of them sinning big time.

So it is a very realistic book, and tells it like it is. That should be good news for all of us. In a moment I will speak about the lament psalms, but let me first offer three quick stories. Last night, with another rather sleepless night, I was crying out to God. I actually asked him if he had turned his back on me. While my mind knew the correct answer, my troubled spirit was still wondering.

Secondly, in another article on this site someone had sent in a comment saying she was concerned that a church minister had spoken about porn in his sermon. She asked: “Is that what a church service for? To bring up about porn?” I replied to her this way:

Thanks ****. Well, a church pastor should proclaim the whole counsel of God. That includes the good news of salvation, but also the bad news of sin. And given that porn is one of the biggest and most widespread sins in our culture today, and sadly perhaps one of the biggest and most widespread sins in our churches today, he dare NOT refuse to speak on it. People need help dealing with that sin as much as they do with gossip, unforgiveness, anger, greed and so on.

And thirdly, on the social media one friend who, like me, can get discouraged and depressed, and is willing to be honest with her concerns online, shared a quote by the great Puritan writer William Gurnall: “The Christian must trust in a withdrawing God.”

She said this was the hardest thing for her as a Christian. I replied: “Yes it is tough, but the Lord we serve and who gives us comfort knows all about it – he said the same thing: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’” That of course is a perfectly true and biblical reply, but I realise that it will not automatically take away the doubts, the questions, and the worries all believers can have.

The truth is, while some preachers and teachers claim we should never have any negative thoughts, and just always be happy and smile a lot, that is NOT what Scripture teaches. I mentioned the lament psalms. These are hardcore psalms where God is accused of being aloof or absent or silent or indifferent. The psalmist bares his soul as he speaks of his pain, his grief, his doubts, his problems, and his seeming hopelessness at times.

Two incredible things about them: there are more lament palms than any other kinds of psalms (we even have a whole biblical book with the word in it); and the psalms were meant be sung in group worship. Yes, the words of despair, distress, anger, complaint and doubt are meant to be sung in praise to God. But see more on this here:

With all that in mind I want to speak to just one of these psalms. Of interest, almost every lament psalm will normally end with a bit of praise or words of trust in God. However, Psalm 88 does not do this. Only the first line gets close to being a statement of faith. Here is the Psalm:

O Lord, God of my salvation,
    I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
    incline your ear to my cry!

For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
    I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose 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.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
   my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O Lord;
    I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

But I, O Lord, cry to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
    Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
    I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
    your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
    they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
    my companions have become darkness.

Wow, that is a very bleak psalm indeed. But if you are into the bogus ‘your best life now’ gospel, you better give it a very wide berth. It sure does not fit in with the tele-evangelists who insist that everything will be just peachy if we are faith-filled believers.

A few introductory points about this psalm. It is possible the psalmist was ill, and even dying. Like Job, he was going through some very difficult times indeed. But while it is full of lament, at several points the writer does acknowledge the sovereignty of God in all his troubles. And do not forget that this psalm is part of the inspired word of God. It is meant to be there.

Let me offer a bit of commentary on the psalm. First, and on a bit of a tangent, it is possible this psalm led in part to the first big hit for Simon & Garfunkel, “The Sounds of Silence” released in 1964. Some of you recall the opening line: “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again”.

The final verse of Psalm 88 – verse 18 – says this: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.” As mentioned, the other lament psalms finish on a positive note, but not this one. Darkness was this psalmist’s old friend.

Image of When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent: Finding Hope in the Psalms (Foreword by Mark Dever)
When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent: Finding Hope in the Psalms (Foreword by Mark Dever) by Duncan, Ligon (Author), Dever, Mark (Foreword) Amazon logo

Also, some general remarks from American pastor and professor Ligon Duncan. His thin volume When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent: Finding Hope in the Psalms (Crossway, 2020) looks at this psalm along with Psalm 89. He writes:

Psalm 88 is perhaps the most tragic psalm in all of Scripture – no psalm is sadder. . . . The tone of Psalm 88 is unwaveringly dark. That fact in itself is important. Psalm 88 describes what many Christians know to be true. Christians face troubles, often abiding, intractable ones….


False teachers often capitalize on the suffering of Christians to promote false doctrine. For instance, prosperity-gospel peddlers assert that if you simply had enough faith, your troubles would go away. Obviously, we need only look to the examples of the apostle Paul and of the Lord himself to demonstrate just how false these sentiments are.

He goes on to note that how we help people in these dark times is crucial: “As we minister to the suffering, we must also lend a sympathetic ear and exercise great patience. People must process pain and sorrow, not simply ‘let go’ of it.”

And some useful commentary from Richard Phillips. His opening paragraph on this chapter says this:

One of the best advertisements for the book of Psalms is that it delves into every emotional state known to humanity. If you turn to the Psalter, you will find a chapter that connects with what you are going through. But do the Psalms connect even with the believer who has seemingly lost all hope and is barely clinging to God? The answer is yes, and the proof is Psalm 88.

And I note that he also looks to the words of Christ in relation to this seeming abandonment by God:

The point of the psalm is simply that the author feels abandoned in the face of despair. In this lament, and its expression through prayer to God, he has the companionship of Jesus Christ on the cross. Before we ever think to rebuke and correct a broken spirit crying out with a broken heart about God, let us remember the cry of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Jesus could utter that cry without a shred of doubt in God. With that in mind, our best ministry to depressed believers will often be simply to offer a patient heart of sympathy. We should also direct their faith to the Savior, who suffered both with and for them. The despairing believer, trusting in Christ, will find Jesus a true companion in sorrows – a friend who both understands and offers spiritual help.

Let me finish with a few more thoughts from Duncan:

Christian, when you find yourself in trouble like that described in Psalm 88, you are being granted by the Father just a tiny taste of what Christ endured for you to the full. He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Was there ever a sorrow like this? Your troubles pale in comparison to the burden he bore. This psalm ultimately points to Jesus’s suffering for you. . . . Psalm 88 may be the darkest psalm in the Psalter, perhaps the darkest chapter in all Scripture. But because of the work of our Lord Jesus Christ, there is a light of hope even here that will never go out.

[1677 words]

8 Replies to “Psalm 88 and Being Honest To God About Our Situation”

  1. Bill, I totally sympathize with you regarding your sleepless nights and very real thoughts that God is seemingly so remote as to not even be present with us.
    I suffer through this thought pattern daily, sometimes multiple times a day, as I’m a widower who like you lost my wife to multiple cancers and then lung failure at what I consider a too young age in her early 60’s.
    I’ve tried to get back up, I seek the Lord everyday in prayer, in His word, was faithfully attending church multiple times a week, seeking fellowship and help.
    Then covid hit, my church complied with all the shutdowns without a thought to how this impacted their members, and I started having some aging issues, so haven’t been back.
    I have very hard thoughts that are perfectly expressed in Psalm 88, and I go back and forth from these thoughts and my unfaithfulness to faithfully worshiping and seeking Jesus in all His glory, live, mercy, and grace.
    I still don’t understand why I have to be alone, I’ve pleaded for a wife, or as yes, begged for an end to the endless lonely hours, prayed He’d just take me if my lot is C to be alone, then I frequently circle back to Job 13:15 and 14:5.
    Praying for you in your loneliness and heartbreak losing your precious life companion and wife.

  2. Psalm 88 helps believers realize that it’s ok to be sad or even angry at God for a time. This is important in our Christian culture which is so often hyper-focused on positivity. (And, as you note, Bill, it helps combat bad theology about prosperity.)

    The Australian music group Sons of Korah created a beautiful, stirring rendition of Psalm 88 on their latest album. I think you’ll appreciate it.

  3. Wow! I have been hanging out in the Valley of the shadow myself. Never having experienced the heartbreak I’ve gone thru recently. I am determined to write for the Daily Declaration on it. I have found some flecks of gold myself (tx Mr Dean from the comments). Hallelujah! Precious Lord! What He has suffered for us!!! Glory praise and honour to the Lamb who was slain!That He May receive the reward of His suffering! Early 2023 I prayed that “I might know the fellowship of His sufferings” ….wow! I got a taste. Now I can comfort others with the comfort I have been comforted of God. Precious!

  4. Well, there’s always the Book of Job. Consider what he suffered, and for how long. However, there was a light at the end of the dark night of the soul. Job held his faith despite the arduous circumstances of his everyday life and God restored everything he’d lost to him. I’m in a similar situation to the other widows and widowers who read Bill’s columns, having lost my own beloved husband recently.

    Remember, though, if you are in this situation, do not be afraid to contact qualified Christian counsellors and psychotherapists. God gave them that professional expertise to act as a channel of his mercy and compassion to those of us who are afflicted and in need. You do not have to go through the process of grieving or loss alone. Although, in some sense, it will never really go completely away, it can be mitigated through allowing yourself to receive the pastoral ministry of others.

  5. The videos of Andrew Brunson (‘Prepare to Stand’) are very honest about his experiences in prison in Turkey q.v.

  6. Hi Bill…..May I dare suggest to you “the life,walk & triumph of faith “ by William Romaine OR “the bruised reed etc “in the Works of Richard Sibbes OR “providence “ by John Flavel as wonderful tonics for a bruised soul. All 3 are experts in their handling of the broken or bruised heart & the why……

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