The Bleakest Psalm Is Really a Night-light

I read Psalm 88 recently in my devotions, and it filled me with thanksgiving. Which might seem odd. Because this psalm just may be the most bleak of the canonical songs.

Heman the Ezrahite, the apparent composer, was seriously depressed. Maybe he was chronically ill. Or maybe, like many, he battled almost constantly against a relentless darkness. We really don't know. But he said he had been this way since his youth (v. 15). He felt abandoned by God (v. 14), his beloved (v. 18), and companions (v. 8). He was desperate and his prayers seemed to be going unanswered (vv. 13-14). He was so overwhelmed that he felt close to death (vv. 3, 15).

So why did this psalm make me feel so thankful? Simply because God mercifully included it in the Bible. I find that amazing.

This song is a cry for help to a God who seems angry and distant. Admittedly, that doesn't seem very encouraging at first. I mean, if I had consulted God about songwriting and what his hymns should include, I would have taken this one to him and said, "This psalm needs at least a verse or two of some hopeful promise. And, really, the last word of the song shouldn't be 'darkness.’ Way too heavy."

But God wisely didn't consult me. He knows there are moments for saints when things look so bleak that all we can do is cry a lament to him. We cry, "Where are you? I know you're there and I know there's light, but I can't see it! Please, please show me!"

I've been there. I've known that kind of darkness. And this Psalm is a gift from God to his children. It's a song for them to sing during the desolate moments, which one day will be swallowed up in unending light.

There are other psalms one should meditate on in such times, like Psalm 27 and Psalm 139. And the Bible as a whole resounds with hope. But Psalm 88 is a merciful reminder from God that the experience of darkness is "common to man" (1 Corinthians 10:13), that when we're in it we are not as alone as we feel, and that he is with us after all.

Isn't it just like God to make a bleak psalm a light for those who sit in darkness?

"...even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you" (Psalm 139:12).

Jon Bloom (@Bloom_Jon) is the author of Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith and serves as the President of Desiring God, which he and John Piper launched together in 1994. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Pam, their five children, and one naughty dog.