A study by Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health (IMH) found that about 13% of over 1,000 Singapore adults polled between May 2020 and June 2021 experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety.1 According to the World Health Organization, across the world about 300 million people of all ages are currently suffering from depression.2
Psalm 88 powerfully expresses the painful suffering of those who are depressed. We’ve seen that as many as a half of all the psalms are laments or contain some lament. But no psalm is as bleak and despairing as Psalm 88.
Its context in the book of Psalms deliberately highlights its sense of despair. Psalm 87 ends with the words, “As they make music they will sing, ‘All my fountains are in you’” (v. 7), and Psalm 89 begins, “I will sing of the LORD’s great love for ever” (v. 1). Psalm 88 almost seems to mock the joyful praises in the songs that come before and after it.
Like so many of the laments, Heman the songwriter keeps the specific details of his “troubles” (Psalm 88:3) from us. This suggests that he is more concerned about the pain that they cause him.
Heman points his finger squarely at God, “you have put me in the lowest pit”; “you have overwhelmed me with all your waves”; “you have taken from me my closest friends” (vv. 6-8). Like Job, Heman knows and confesses that “the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away” (Job 1:21). But unlike Job, he cannot yet say, “may the name of the LORD be praised” and blames God for being the ultimate cause of his troubles.
How does a Christian who has experienced God’s amazing love and grace in the Lord Jesus respond to Psalm 88? First, we must acknowledge that there may be times in our life when we feel that “darkness is [our] closest friend” (v. 18). Some believers sadly suffer with clinical depression. Recently, I read of a godly young pastor who had suffered from depression and tragically took his life. Christians will go through times of physical or mental suffering, bereavement, failure, disappointment, or persecution. We may feel that God has hidden His face from us.
Psalm 88 gives us permission to cry out loudly to the Lord. Repeatedly, Heman calls out to God (vv. 2, 9, 13).
For all his pain, Heman never stops praying. He may feel God has turned His face against him but he continues to turn his face towards God.
Heman only had the vaguest understanding of life beyond the grave (vv. 10-12). We, though, know that a day is coming when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Because Jesus died and rose again, we have a certain hope that our darkness will end “for the Lord God will give them light” (Revelation 22:5).