by Shane Scott
Since the time that I began preaching, more and more of our hymnals have incorporated actual psalms from the Old Testament. The index of Hymns for Worship lists twelve psalms set to music. But there is a category of psalms that – so far as I know – our hymnals do not include. Psalms like Psalm 88-
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 (Psalm 88:13-18).
These psalms of deep mourning and anguish are usually called psalms of lament. There are more lament psalms than any other category in the entire Psalter, and yet I cannot remember ever singing one of them. Have you ever sung a song in worship that concludes, “Darkness is my only friend”?!
And yet when God gave his people a book of praises to use in worship, he filled that book with psalms like this one. And remember, these were primarily used in Israel’s collective worship in the temple. Even the psalms that sound personal, like Psalm 88, were designed to be sung with those gathered at the house of God, just like we typically sing songs that are individualistic – like “I am Resolved” – in the assembly with other Christians.
But even as our hymn editors have added more and more selections straight out of the Book of Psalms, they seem to have deliberately avoided using songs of mourning like the ones God gave to Israel.
My guess is that we just aren’t very comfortable with talking to God like these psalmists did, or like Job did. It is easy for us to delude ourselves into thinking that church is for people who are just blissfully traipsing through life, and that worship is only for those who sing a joyful noise to the LORD.
This is just not true, however, and more importantly, it is insidiously dangerous. Because real life is filled with pain, with loss, with guilt, with sorrow. And if we imagine that in order to worship we can’t be in this kind of inescapable anguish, then what we have to do is try to tuck away that grief in a corner of our heart where God won’t see it. And once we start to imagine we can hide things from God, we are on the road to catastrophic spiritual failure.
God gave his people psalms like this one because he wants us – all of us, including all of what we are going through. Yes, he desires our thanks and praise when the world makes sense to us. But when we are disoriented by life, God wants our hurts and fears as well. And he is big enough to allow us to speak to him with complete transparency. In the case of Israel, he wanted them to come and do this in the place where his presence was most accessible – the very temple itself. And through the greater temple of Christ, he invites us to come boldly to the throne of grace and cry out to him in the honesty of our broken-heartedness.
Not only that – God wants us to do this together. He wants us to “weep with those who weep,” as Israel did when it sang these psalms. He wants us to realize that we are not isolated in our despair, but that right alongside us are many others who are traveling the same road.
When you read or pray or sing a psalm like Psalm 88, you are being reminded that other children of God have faced what you face, have felt what you feel. And just that realization – that you are not suffering alone – is itself a comfort. And it may be the case that – as often happens in lament psalms – by the time we finish pouring our heart out to God, we will see him already at work, and begin to thank him for what he is about to do or has already done (as happens in Psalm 22).
But if our lament does not have a “happy ending,” that’s ok, too. By singing them honestly before God and in fellowship with God’s people, the Lord will use the lament to reassure us that we can be authentic with him and each other, that we are not alone, and that the darkness is not in fact our only friend.