Summary: The Psalmist of Psalm 88 expresses “Prayers that Light Darkness” with prayer as an: 1) Urgent appeal in Affliction (Psalm 88:1–9a), 2) Urgent appeal with No Answers (Psalm 88:9b–12), 3) Urgent appeal under Divine Wrath (Psalm 88:13–18).
Psalm 88:1-18 A Song. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah. To the choirmaster: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite. 1 O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you. 2 Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry! 3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. 4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, 5 like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. 6 You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. 7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah 8 You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; 9 my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. 10 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah 11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? 12 Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? 13 But I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. 14 O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? 15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. 16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. 17 They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. 18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness. (ESV)
The powerful, descriptive phrase “dark night of the soul” is not much used today, but it was in the Middle Ages, where it was found in the writings of the European mystics. It is a translation of the title of a book by the Spanish monk St. John of the Cross known in English as The Ascent of Mount Carmel (1578–1580). What is the dark night of the soul? It is a state of intense spiritual anguish in which the struggling, despairing believer feels he is abandoned by God. This is what Psalm 88 describes. It is not unlike other psalms in which the writers complain of their wretched circumstances and lament their misery. But these others all move toward some state of resolution, maturing faith, or hope by the end of the psalm. This is not the case with Psalm 88. It begins with God, but it ends with the words “darkness is my closest friend,” and there seems to be no hope anywhere. (Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 42–106: An Expositional Commentary (pp. 715–716). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.)
In some Christian groups a false piety has given people the impression that believers should never find themselves in such a predicament and no spiritual songs are sung to suggest an experience of this nature. It is reassuring to realise that God’s word contains prayers that depict the kind of dark experiences through which Christians are sometimes led and confronts them in an open and honest way. It is shocking to many readers, who can imagine such words coming only from an unbeliever. But God’s children too may find themselves temporarily overcome by despair when devastating disaster strikes them. ( Brug, J. F. (1989). Psalms 73–150 (2nd ed., p. 68). Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House.)
Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, had many such dark periods in his life in which he spoke of ‘the hiddenness of God’. Christian hymn-writers, following the lead of our psalmist, have written similarly. In the second verse of Edward Mote’s, My hope is built on nothing less, we sing: When darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace; In every high and stormy gale, My anchor holds within the veil. Psalm 88 encourages us to ‘cling tenaciously to God in the dark’ as Job did in his sufferings. The psalmist is likened to Isaiah’s description of the person who fears the Lord and obeys yet ‘walks in darkness and has no (apparent) light’. Isaiah urges one in such a situation to ‘trust in the name of the Lord and rely upon God’ (Isaiah 50:10). Like Psalm 87, Psalm 88 in the inspired superscription before the first verse, as a ‘Song’ as well as a ‘Psalm’ belonging to the SONS OF KORAH. Like the heading to Psalm 80, Psalm 88 is “TO THE CHOIRMASTER/CHIEF MUSICIAN” with perhaps a suggestion concerning the tune or instrument—"ACCORDING TO/UPON MAHALATH” (see the heading to Psalm 53). The expression ‘LEANNOTH”, which is unique to this psalm, may be a part of the tune’s name or a separate item about the psalm’s content and associated with a verb meaning ‘to humble’ or ‘to afflict’ (cf. verse 7 ‘afflicted’). It describes the despair which permeates this psalm.( MacArthur, J., Jr. (Ed.). (1997). The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed., p. 820). Nashville, TN: Word Pub.)