Praying in the Dark

 
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Introduction

I have to admit that my heart has been a little heavy this week as I’ve been getting ready for yesterday. And as I thought about the message I should bring to all of you this morning, it occurred to me that there are times when circumstances in our life weigh on our hearts so much that to walk into a worship service like this morning, and to sing the songs we sang—it might not express what’s really on the heart. Sometimes, when something is weighing on the soul, it just doesn’t feel right to come and sing happy songs—it feels empty. We know the words are true. We know we might mean them at some point, but at the time is just seems disingenuous.

When I turn on Christian radio—which I rarely do, actually—but when I’m in the car and the news isn’t interesting, and there’s not much to listen to, I’ll flip through the stations and eventually I come across one of the local Christian music stations. And invariably, the major theme that runs through, I’d say, 90% of popular Christian music is that the Christian life is filled with a lot of difficulties. But when we’re down and we’re feeling out, we can turn to Jesus and eventually we’ll feel better again. The music tends to sound the same—really, all Christian music tends to have the same kind of “feel” to it. And the music is always positive, it’s always encouraging—it’s always K-love!

But I tell you, when your heart is truly down—when your life is devastated—that kind of music doesn’t satisfy, because it’s not the music of the heart. If you were to sing the song on your heart, it wouldn’t always sound like that. Sometimes, we just need to sing something in a minor key for change—because that’s the only thing that can express the weight on our heart. And the sad reality is that the church really doesn’t have songs in a minor key.

In that respect, I’d say that pop Christian music has done the church a horrible disservice. It’s almost like, if we want to have music like that, one of you is going to have to write it. Because the music that we do have isn’t written for the person in the midst of the pain—in the darkness of life’s miseries—it’s always aimed at encouraging the person who’s finally coming out of it.

Yet in the vacuum of contemporary church music, the Lord has given us a priceless gem. He knew exactly what the human heart needs at times of great distress, when the heart is weighed down with pain. And, not surprising, it has very little in common with the music of our day. And that gem is Psalm 88.

Psalm 88 has been called “the darkest psalm in the psalter.” And for this, it tempts the NT Christian to disregard it as the expression of a well-meaning but seemingly faithless OT saint who simply needs to move into the light of the NT gospel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Listen as I read this psalm:

A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. For the choir director; according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

O LORD, the God of my salvation,
I have cried out by day and in the night before You.
Let my prayer come before You;
Incline Your ear to my cry!
For my soul has had enough troubles,
And my life has drawn near to Sheol.
I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit;
I have become like a man without strength,
Forsaken among the dead,
Like the slain who lie in the grave,
Whom You remember no more,
And they are cut off from Your hand.
You have put me in the lowest pit,
In dark places, in the depths.
Your wrath has rested upon me,
And You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah
You have removed my acquaintances far from me;
You have made me an object of loathing to them;
I am shut up and cannot go out.
My eye has wasted away because of affliction;
I have called upon You every day, O LORD;
I have spread out my hands to You.

Will You perform wonders for the dead?
Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah
Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave,
Your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness?
And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

But I, O LORD, have cried out to You for help,
And in the morning my prayer comes before You.
O LORD, why do You reject my soul?
Why do You hide Your face from me?
I was afflicted and about to die from my youth on;
I suffer Your terrors; I am overcome.
Your burning anger has passed over me;
Your terrors have destroyed me.
They have surrounded me like water all day long;
They have encompassed me altogether.
You have removed lover and friend far from me;
My acquaintances are in darkness.

Background

We know little to nothing about this man named Heman. There’s a few individuals by that name mentioned in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, but they seem to be referring to different individuals.

But even more than that, more than one commentator has noted the extremely vague details regarding what’s actually going on in the psalmist’s life that would spark such a desperate plea. He doesn’t mention any explicit enemies who are persecuting him, as is often the case in these kinds of psalms. Some have suggested that he might have been suffering from an illness, although even in that, the language remains so elusive that in the end, there’s only one thing that can be said about what we going on—we’re not sure. How’s that for certainty!

But you know what—I think that’s exactly the point. Because the psalm is written in such a way that it invites us in to the experiences of a man who could just as much be going through exactly what we are. And in so doing, his desperate prayer becomes our own prayer—a prayer that our hearts longs to make, and he’s done it for us.

So let’s dive a little bit into this psalm, and as we do, I want to point out three realities of the afflicted, and the first is…

1. Desperation (vv. 1-9)

This is the experience of the afflicted. Normal, everyday life might be hectic and busy. We might feel like things are moving fast and it’s hard to keep up. But the chaos of the normal hustle and bustle of life carries with it a sense that at the very least, everything is all right.

When everything’s going okay, and life’s just peachy, we might remember to pray—or we might not. We might spend time with the Lord, but if we miss it—no big deal. There’s tomorrow.

But when affliction comes, it invites with it an intensity to our spiritual life we might not have ever had before. This is when the soul enters into a level of desperation—where the only thing that’s on your heart is the Lord.

And that’s where we find the psalmist at the outset of this psalm. He calls out to God with perhaps the only positive expression in the psalm—“O Lord, the God of my salvation” (v. 1). He’s calling out to the God whom he knows can deliver him from his affliction, and as we continue, we see that his desperation has driven him into a perpetual state of pleading before God. “I’ve cried out by day and in the night before You.” And this isn’t just any kind of crying. This is a kind of protracted wailing that goes on perpetually all day long.

This man is desperate, and he’s desperate for God to hear him. He says in verse 2: “Let my prayer come before You; incline Your ear to by cry!” Listen to me, God! Hear me when I pray to you!

Have you ever been to that level of praying? Where you’ve moved passed to niceties and you’ve finally demanded a hearing? That kind of prayer doesn’t come out of our normal devotional routine. This is the prayer of the afflicted—the prayer of the one who doesn’t think he can bear it any longer. In fact, that’s exactly what he says in verse 3—“My soul has had enough troubles, and my life has drawn near to Sheol.” The affliction is so bad that he is convinced he is near to death. But what’s compelling is that statement, “My soul has had enough—literally, the Hebrew reads, “My soul is sated with troubles”—filled to capacity.

This is a man who has reached the breaking point. I’ve only had one migraine in my life. Now, I’ve experienced pain before. I’ve broken arms and cut open my head, my chin, etc. I bit my tongue off as a little kid! I’ve been in pain. But I’ve never experienced anything like that migraine—not because it’s the most excruciating pain in the world—but because it’s an all-encompassing experience. It kind of incapacitates you, to some degree, and I remember lying on the bed, rolling in pain, thinking to myself—“I can’t take this anymore!”

And it’s that kind of desperation that marks the experience of the afflicted. Life has stopped. It’s like time has slowed down in some sinister way so that the pain and the sorrows can linger. And it drives a person to seek God desperately.

Now, the psalmist really is convinced that he is approaching death. He writes in verse 4, “I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit; I have become like a strong man without strength, forsaken among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more; and they are cut off from Your hand.” So the desperation of the psalmist is heightened by the real possibility that he won’t recover from this. Whatever is going on, whatever the affliction, this man is staring death in the face.

And this is where his prayer turns a different direction—because he begins to address God in a way we haven’t seen yet. He says in verse 6: “YOU have put me in the lowest pit, in dark places, in the depths. YOUR wrath has rested upon me, and YOU have afflicted me with all Your waves. YOU have removed my acquaintances far from me; YOU have made me an object of loathing to them; I am shut up and cannot go out.” So you see what’s happened. He’s beginning to see God as the one who is ultimately responsible for everything going on. Now, we might balk at that and say, “He’s just blaming God!” Hasn’t he read the book of Job? Doesn’t he know how that turns out? Well, yes he has. The verbal and conceptual parallels between Job and Psalm 88 are so numerous that I’m absolutely convinced this man had Job and his experiences in mind as he wrote this psalm.

But really, his prayer is the prayer that all of us have in times of pain and desperation—“Lord, why are you doing this to me?” “Why are you letting this happen?” We pray that way because we know that God is—SOVEREIGN.

And that introduces the second reality of the afflicted—expectation.

2. Expectation (vv. 10-12)

This is the hope of the afflicted. The hope that the God of the universe—“the God of our salvation”—can and will do something about our problems. This is where our desperation drives us—to expectation.

Now remember, the psalmist is convinced he’s about to die. So in his desperation, he calls out to God and says, “God, I know you can act, so you have to act quickly before it’s too late!” He says beginning in verse 10, “Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Will Your loyal love be declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” In other words, Lord, you have to act quickly, because I’m about to die, and if it not now, when? Will your loyal love be able to help me in the grave? What’s your faithfulness going to do for me after I’m dead?

But more than anything, what I want you to see is this kind of praying—this kind of desperate, despairing pleas to God is not the words of a faithless man. Quite the opposite, these are the words of someone whose faith is enlivened by his affliction. I’m mean, look at what he’s acknowledging about God! God isn’t some deity in the sky who would like to do something but his hands are tied. He’s not impotent to act. What does he say? Your loyal love. Your faithfulness. Your wonders. Your righteousness. This is a man who knows God, who knows what God can do, and who knows that God can act and save him. That’s not faithlessness.

And so what we see here, and what we’re enjoined to pray in our own afflictions, is the prayer of faith. But in this case, the prayer of faith isn’t some prayer where you say, “Lord, whatever you want to do—I’ll be cool with it. If you want to help me, that’s fine, but if not, I’ll just continue on, cause I know you work all things together for good…” No, in this case, faith says, “Lord, act now! I’m about to die, I know you can do something about it, and I can’t take this anymore!” That IS faith.

Robert Davidson put it this way:

He believes in a God who saves, who delivers, who helps, but who now seems to be of no help—a God who is present, but present now only destructively in the psalmist’s experience… Here is someone who prays and keeps on praying while everything in his life seems to scream out against his belief that there is a God who delivers… Yet this is faith, not merely rebellion or gloomy depression.

It is the prayer of faith that says to the Lord, “God, I’m not okay. I don’t think I can take it anymore.” It’s a prayer of faith to say, “Lord, where are you? Why don’t you answer me?” Because in each of these instances, you’re turning to the Lord with expectation.

Later on, you might pray a different prayer. When the cyclone has passed, and there’s maybe been some relief, you might be able to see a perspective that has God’s grander plans and purposes in mind. You might be able to recognize that God works through suffering—that he really does work out all things for good for those who love him (Rom 8:28). You might be able to gain that perspective we find in Philippians 1:29, when Paul calls suffering a gracious gift from God on par with faith. That kind of spiritual development comes as we move from darkness to light, so to speak, in the midst of affliction.

But not everyone gets there in an instance, and I want you to know that that’s okay. And because God is gracious, and faithful, and righteous, he will bring you to that place—eventually. But in the moment, sometimes the only thing we know to pray is the simple prayer of desperate expectation.

And that leads us to a third reality of the afflicted—resolution.

3. Resolution (vv. 13-18)

This is the deep desire of the afflicted. They pray in the midst of desperation, and they pray with the hope of expectation. But what they truly desire is resolution.

But here’s where we face what I think is the most powerful and sobering part of this psalm—there is no resolution.

Verse 13—“But I, O Lord, have cried out to You for help, and in the morning—the time of God’s help—my prayer comes before You. O Lord, why do You reject my soul? Why do You hide Your face from me? I was afflicted and about to die from my youth on; I suffer Your terrors; I am overcome. Your burning anger has passed over me; Your terrors have destroyed me. They have surrounded me like water all day long; They have encompassed me altogether. You have removed lover and friend far from me; My acquaintances are in darkness.”

What the psalmist most desires is what ultimately never comes. We never hear a resolution to the problem. We anticipate it—we expect, like with other psalms, for him to break out into praise when the Lord finally answers his prayer and rescues him from his misery. But that never comes.

Instead, he recounts one last time the extent of his pain. His prayers aren’t answered. The Lord seems to have rejected him. His afflictions have seemed to have gone on since he was a boy (verse 15). And from there, these descriptions seem to accumulate and accumulate. He’s overcome by terrors, by the burning ager of God. He feels crushed under God’s wrath. His friends have abandoned him. I’m mean, this is just awful!

And the whole psalm ends, “My acquaintances are in darkness.” Talk about the opposite of a Hollywood ending. This isn’t right! Life isn’t supposed to go this way! At least that’s what we want to believe. But one of the biggest values of this psalm is that it reminds us that resolution doesn’t always come to all our problems—that there is such a thing as tragedy. And there might be afflictions and struggles that you will carry with you your whole life.

Some of you know what I’m talking about. Some of you have had medical issues for you or your family that just never seem to end. And some of you are right in the midst of the pain, and you don’t know if you can bear it any longer. And I wish I could say that it’ll all go away in time. But I can’t say that. Sometimes the prayers of the saints, in their darkest hours, end when they breath their final breath.

I mean, I hate to bring us all down, but I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I tried to paint life in nothing but rosy shades. But here’s the grace of God in all this—Psalm 88 is for you. It’s YOUR prayer. And God has put it in the Bible for you! As Marvin Tate put it:

Whoever devises from Scripture a philosophy in which everything turns out right has to begin by tearing out this page of the volume. Psalm 88 may be “an embarrassment to conventional faith,” but it is an embarrassment which we should keep. Whenever we pass through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ we may find that it prepares the way for divine comfort.

In other words, we need this psalm. The Bible would be incomplete without it—not just because it’s inspired and we’d be missing it. But because without it, we would be missing a vital witness that speaks to all of life. As Tate goes on to write,

Long trails of suffering and loss traverse the landscape of human existence, even for the devoted people of God. There are cold, wintery nights of the soul, when bleakness fills every horizon, and darkness seems nearly complete.

Conclusion

That is the reality of the world we live in. We live in a broken world—a world filled with sin, and pain, and death. And whether or not we ever personally enter into the kind of affliction we find here in this psalm, we know that others have and do.

The psalm ends with a stark and sober statement—“My acquaintances are in darkness.” And when you’re in the midst of intense affliction, darkness is about the best term to describe it.

But I’m reminded of another psalm which speaks of darkness—and its words offer a ray of hope even to the one who thinks God’s not listening. Psalm 139:12—“Even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You.” As we pray to God in our desperation—when we pray with expectation that God can take away our pain—when we hope against hope that resolution will come in the midst of the darkness—we pray to a God who can see in the darkness. He does know your pain. He does hear your prayers.

And he sent his very own Son into this world of darkness to make things right. To take what is broken and put it back together. “The Light shines in the darkness,” John says, “and the darkness did not overpower it.”

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