Psalm 88, Why It's OK to Experience Sadness


Psalm 88 is the hopeless despair psalm. 

Unlike other psalms, there is no redemption or hope in its conclusion. 

Christian scholar H.C. Leupold said of it, "The psalmist is as deeply in trouble when he has concluded his prayer as he was when he began it."

Psalm 88 opens with the psalmist pleading with God to listen because he's nearing death (verses 1-6). 

He proceeds (verses 7-9) to accuse God as the source of his grief.

He tells God (verses 10-13) that he's no use to God if he's dead.

In verses 13-15, the psalmist demands to know why God has spurned, rejected, and poured out his wrath on him.

He ends the psalm with grim resignation, 

"You have taken my friend and my loved one from me. Now darkness is my closest friend."

Damn.

This is why you'll likely never hear Jewish or Christian renditions of the psalm.

Until today! I cried hearing it: Sons of Korah - Psalm 88c

It made me think how it's ok to be sad. God doesn't reject our sadness; He commanded us to weep with those who weep. I take that to mean that if a friend is sad and crying, to cry with him and comfort him. Yeshua cried when a friend died.

It's true that happy people make the world a better place, but it's hard to be genuinely happy if you haven't experienced its opposite. Just as God is a God of both mercy and justice, one without the other is imbalance or even abuse, so also with joy and sadness.

The authors of this rendition of Psalm 88, the Australian music group Sons of Korah, call out how sadness is a juxtaposition of joy. One without the other is lacking: 

"We find, in the Psalms, a deep joy that subsists in deep sorrow. The psalmist was always a man of joy because he was first a man of sorrows. He sowed in tears and reaped with joy (Psalm 126:5). Perhaps the most important thing for us today then, is not the pursuit of happiness, but the pursuit of sadness. The psalms invite us to share in the joy of God by first sharing his grief. It is a grief he bore most visibly in Jesus Christ who “was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.” In this age sorrow and joy belong together and it cannot be otherwise. If we anaesthetize the sorrow, we forfeit the joy."

Sons of Korah

Hearing the line, "You have taken my loved one from me", I thought back to my younger brother Aaron. When I think of Aaron's death 4 years ago, I still feel sadness and grief. I have often asked God why Aaron died. I have never understood why. Maybe I'll never know in this life. I have at times felt angry at God for his death. I can relate to Psalm 88. 

I've been experiencing sadness about some personal matters recently. I recognize I've brought some of the trouble on my own head through sin and mistakes. (I think God's justice is mostly natural: no supernatural intervention required, just natural consequences.) Psalm 88 tells me it's OK to be sad and grieved. It's even OK to be angry at God for a time.

Over the last few months, I've been reading through Jeremiah and Lamentations. They're full of grief and sadness at God's judgement of the nation of Judah. Jeremiah's story ends with the king of Judah fleeing Jerusalem before the Babylonians. He's captured, his sons slaughtered in front of him, then his eyes put out so that the last thing he sees is the murder of his children. He's brought in chains to Babylon, the Temple is sacked, its precious artifacts of gold and silver carried off, the Jewish people are taken away as slaves, and many others are murdered. Darkness.

Even in the Biblical Feasts we see the reality of sadness and grief. While most of the feasts are joyful -- 3 we're commanded to rejoice on -- there is yet a holy day, Yom Kippur, filled with sadness, fasting, and contrition.

Disciples of Yeshua don't have to pretend that everything is OK. There will be times of sadness and darkness and death. Yes, in the end we'll be with the Lord and experience infinite joy. But in this life will have our share of sadness.

You'll need Psalm 88 someday. If not today, some sad, grief-filled day ahead. I am glad God allowed for this sad psalm to be preserved in the Scriptures.

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