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The Basement of the Psalms – Psalm 88


David Powlison called this Psalm the “basement of the Psalter”, and for good reason. In most of the Psalms we hear a complaint, or a cry for help, but we also see some kind of uplift. The Psalmist remembers Who he is talking to, and finds hope, and strength. The ground stabilizes under his feet. 

But not here. Here there is cry, and complaint, but in the end, the writer Heman laments, “darkness has become my only companion” (v. 18). That includes God. No uplift – only darkness.

We can make some educated guesses about Heman’s situation: he had suffered a long time (15); he felt like he was on the precipice of death (note how verses 3-7 feel like waves repeatedly pounding the shore of his life); he may have been quarantined for his illness (8c); and thus he was cut off from all his friends (8a). 

Note how the dimensions of his suffering cover his whole life: it originated within himself, with his illness; but then it was horizontal, in his being cut off from his friends; and it was vertical, because he only heard silence from heaven. Today we might call Heman “depressed.” In every dimension of life, he was suffering a vacuum, a nothingness. His body was not working; his friendships were gone; and the heavens seemed to be made of brass. This is perhaps the greatest pain of depression – the nothingness of it. Ask a depressed person how they feel, and you may not get an answer. How do you describe zero? What words can illustrate a void, a vacuum? That’s the Psalm.

It’s In the Bible

You are forgiven if you think something like, “Huh, that’s in the Bible?” Yes it is, for a reason. Certainly we should not emulate everything we read in Scripture – Judas went and hung himself, after all. But we can assume that in the Psalms there are lessons here for us. Heman isn’t doing something wrong. He’s actually modeling something for us. 

That is: utter honesty before God. God knows each of our thoughts, our feelings, our despair. We do Him and ourselves no good to pretend that they don’t exist. Best to let out with them, to Him. And so, despite the darkness of the void, Heman keeps talking to God. Thus this Psalm is not only the basement of the Psalms, but also one of the most courageous of the Psalms. For though he cannot see God, nor hear Him, he keeps talking to Him. This is honest faith and also courageous faith. 

The Central Point

Some of us have known this feeling all too well, especially over the last year. And you too have fought courageously, to continue keeping your nose turned toward God – to keep talking to Him, in the solitary silence of the lockdowns. Perhaps that’s because, like Heman, you have not forgotten or become embarrassed by this great theological truth: that it’s God Who does it all: 

You have put me in the depth of the pit (6)

Your wrath lies heavy on me (7)

You have caused my companions to shun me (8a)

You have made me a horror to them (8b)

I suffer your terrors (15)

Your dreadful assaults destroy me (16)

You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me (18)

Heman knows that even the vacuum of depression is not an infinite darkness, that exists independently of everything else. There is a sovereign King and Father behind it, who can intervene, if He so chooses. A God Who gets glory by being Father to His people, including Heman. 

Which then explains Heman’s undercurrent of anger, or at least painful displeasure with God, from start to finish. Heman knows that he is deserving of wrath, like all mankind. And yet isn’t God’s goal to get glory from His life, by redeeming his life? How can God display His glory in Heman’s death (10-12)? This is key – Heman finds his footing here, in the fact that God wants, more than anything else, His own glory. So he appeals to God on that basis. If I cry to You, O my God, why are You silent? Why do I suffer so long? How are You glorified in this silence?

This is where God leaves us, sometimes – in painful silence. I didn’t at first want to read this Psalm, when it came up in my reading. It’s not pleasant to consider that I too, one day, could be in Heman’s spot, experiencing such seemingly unending pain. 

No Place for Heman

But if and when we do find ourselves in the basement, only the big God of Psalm 88 will do. It’s a hard truth, that God is not just allowing but causing these sufferings. But that truth is also the ground of hope, and the traction for our footing, when we are suffering. Because if God is the One Who put us here, however inexplicably, He is also the One who can get us out. 

Thus the health, wealth and prosperity gospel preachers are not just preaching a different version of the gospel, but a different gospel altogether. Because at the center of their gospel is a different God altogether. Because in Heman’s world, GOD is at the center. God determines, God lifts up, and God casts down. But in Joel Osteen’s world, it’s our faith that’s at the center. Our healing, our prosperity depends on the strength of our faith, which makes our faith god, not, you know, God.

So Heman’s lament would find no place in a service at Joel Osteen’s “church”. But it did find a place in the Scripture. So could it find a place in our church services? Our American devotion to optimism and cheerfulness, and our making “Be nice” the 11th commandment make it hard. But we should give it a go. Lament is a right way to worship God. And perhaps it is the most courageous – to cry out to Him and worship Him, especially when He is so difficult to see, through the fog of seemingly unending pain. 

What about in our friendships? Can Heman’s lament find a place there? Certainly this is not a Psalm to mindlessly quote to a suffering person. Better to consider these truths now, when the iron is cold, so that when we’re in the fire, we need not say anything. We need only look each other in the eye, and cry. And then lead one another to keep talking to God. To woo one another away from silence, to voice honest complaint and cries before the God Who is sovereignly causing it all. 

Walking In and Beyond Heman’s Steps

We need this, we must do this, because when we look up, we see more than Heman could; we are more privileged than him. For we know that God came close, in His Son. He wept outside the tomb of Lazarus, as he comprehended all the darkness of death through the eons. And then he took all God’s wrath for us upon himself. He knows what we experience. He knows. He alone. 

And he also knows what’s on the other side of it all. He knows, because he’s been raised from the dead. He holds our lives in his hand, and when we are raised with him, all will be made right. And somehow, gloriously, it will all be seen to have been worth it. That’s not to diminish the suffering, but to say how glorious it will be then.

So then, why Lord? Why Heman? Why the suffering? The glorious answers will come on the other side. But perhaps also some glory from Heman’s suffering will show up in your life, too. Or mine. Through’s Heman’s example to us:

To be honest with God . . .

To keep talking to God . . .

. . . in the faint, suffering-weakened faith that God is yet still there, though inexplicably silent. He is there, and still able to change whatever He chooses, for His glory. To submit to this truth, in the low, dark places, is the path to glory:

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name

Philippians 2:8-9

Because Jesus has walked our path, and therefore been exalted, we know that He waits for us with glory. And he will one day, farther along, be seen by you and me to have been worth it all. All of it.

* Reminds me of Josh Garrells’ song, “Farther Along”: https://youtu.be/IctD9l4F-ag

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