At God’s Mercy: Psalm 88

At God’s Mercy: Psalm 88

Psalm 88 is an individual psalm of lament by someone so overwhelmed with troubles (v. 3) that he is abandoned by his friends and feels abandoned by God. This psalm is a song of distress and misery that offers no simple answers for the grief, loneliness, and questions that overwhelm the psalmist. 

Unlike other lament psalms, which usually include some explicit expression of hope or end on a confident note, this psalm has no clear declaration of relief or praise, and it ends with loneliness and darkness (v. 18). However, there are subtle hints of implicit confidence.

The psalmist begins (vv. 1-2) by turning to and crying out to the “God of my salvation” in his time of misery, when it feels like there is no answer given to his suffering and troubles. The psalmist expects his petition to be heard, even if there is no answer.

He boldly addresses God as the source of his anguish (vv. 3-9), which implies that God is also the source of relief and rescue. The psalmist then suggests (vv. 10-12) that God should rescue him from his despair because he cannot glorify God and praise him for his wonders if the psalmist dies of despair under God’s wrath.

These hints of hope are the reasons for the psalmist’s persistent appeals to God (vv. 1, 3, 9, and 13). Despite his affliction and despair, the psalmist trusts that God is faithful with “steadfast love” (v. 11). Steadfast love is a unique, strong, faithful, covenantal love that only God can give, because God is steadfast love.

Application to Christian Life

Psalm 88 is an invitation to an honest assessment of your life. God understands the full range of human experience and can handle your loneliness, your sorrow over your sin, your cry for help in a relationship, or your unwavering feelings of depression.

Psalm 88 shows us that God sanctions desperate, despair-filled, and barely-hopeful prayers — prayers about what the Puritans used to call “God’s dreadful withdrawal.” All of us experience moments in life when God seems silent. God allows these seasons of dreadful withdrawal in which we find ourselves crying for his return with great intensity. We find ourselves longing for God in brand new ways, so that the only thing that ends up mattering to us is God’s return. It is because we experienced nearness to God that the distance bothers us so much. Our longing for God means we know him, and more importantly, that God knows us.

Psalm 88 is also meant to be sung. God meant for people to sing songs of lament as they came to worship him. This is the intermingling of hope in hopelessness: “God intended the darkest human laments to be brought together with the brightest human hopes.”[1] God’s grace is sufficient for anything you are going through now or that you went through in the past or that you will go through in the future.

Notice that the psalmist never questions whether or not God is in control. In fact, it’s the reality that he knows God is in absolute control that is causing him so much pain. God may relieve us from our troubles, but God always demonstrates his sufficiency in our troubles.  

This psalm of lament shows us that our doctrine of God matters for real life. We can be completely honest with God about all our feelings. Only God is great enough to receive this kind of honest response to suffering and not make it worse. While we may be overwhelmed with grief and misery, God is never overwhelmed, threatened, or exasperated. Only God can handle the worst of our suffering. Also, God is not frustrated by our honesty with him. We can approach God because we feel forsaken by God, but we also never worry about God rejecting us, judging us for being honest, or forsaking us. Going to God when feeling forsaken, despairing, doubtful, and afraid is an act of faith.

In verse 7, the psalmist says that the flood of his troubles feels like God’s relentless wrath. Charles Spurgeon explains how this can also this turn our attention to the work of Jesus Christ:

“There was One upon whom God’s wrath pressed very sorely, One who was in truth afflicted with all God’s waves, and that One is our brother, a man like ourselves, the dearest lover of our souls. And because He has known and suffered all this, He can enter into sympathy with us this morning whatever tribulation may beat upon us. His passion is all over now, but not His compassion. He has borne the indignation of God, and turned it all away from us: the waves have lost their fury, and spent their force on Him, and now He sits above the floods, yea, He sits King for ever and ever. As we think of Him, the Crucified, our souls may not only derive consolation from His sympathy and powerful succor, but we may learn to look upon our trials with a calmer eye, and judge them more according to the true standard. In the presence of Christ’s cross our own crosses are less colossal. Our thorns in the flesh are as nothing when laid side by side with the nails and spear.”[2]

In all these ways, Psalm 88 shows us that we are always at God’s mercy, which is the safest place to be.

Prayers Related to Psalm 88

“Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent, BCP, 218)

“Comfort and heal all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit; give them courage and hope in their trouble, and bring them the joy of your salvation.” (Prayers of the People, Form IV, BCP, 389)

[1] Charles H. Spurgeon, “For the Troubled” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons (vol. 19; London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1873), 16.

[2] Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change, 114.