Kindly, christianity.com posted my article, “When Despair is Our Only Song.” The article focuses on Psalm 88 and its unique place in the canon to speak to those in great despair. As Calvin writes in his introduction to the commentary on the psalm, Calvin writes,
This psalm contains very grievous lamentations, poured forth by its inspired penman when under very severe affliction, and almost at the point of despair. But he, at the same time, whilst struggling with sorrow, declares the invincible steadfastness of his faith; which he displayed in calling upon God to deliver him, even when he was in the, deep darkness of death…. We should rather rest assured that the Spirit of God, by the mouth of Heman, has here furnished us with a form of prayer for encouraging all the afflicted who are, as it were, on the brink of despair to come to himself.
I am limited to 700 words, so in this article I could not do justice to this psalm as a 60-minute, Sunday morning sermon would do. Yet I hope the article encourages many.
When Despair is Our Only Song
Two weeks ago I received a phone call from a lady who had found my cell phone number via the Internet. She relayed that she has been experiencing great financial difficulty and relationship problems for close to a decade. She had hoped and prayed for breakthroughs and victories. She also had sought the Lord for more contentment and given much thanks for her difficulties. However, the pain now had become too much for her—too prolonged of a season. Her question to me was, “Is it true that it is God’s will for me to go through this trial?” I could hear her sobs as we were on the phone.
Her pain is not unique to believers. I have seen utter despair in the lives of people who have lost family members in sudden, tragic deaths; I encounter such hopelessness when fairy-tale marriages devolve into horror-story court proceedings. Almost inevitably, a believer experiencing the silence of God questions his own faith, or the goodness of the God who rules over such earthly evils.
At times of great hopelessness and despair, I like to direct people to Psalm 88. It is a song for a soul “full of troubles” (v.3) – the only psalm that does not contain a note of hope. It teaches the faithful at least three great truths about walking with the Lord through the most difficult times of life.
1. When despair is our only song, we should cry out to the God who saves us (vv. 1-7).
The singer of this song, Heman, knows the Lord as Savior—the “God of [his] salvation” (v. 1). The depth of his despair is not a litmus test of the reality of his salvation. To the Lord he cries out earnestly of his hopelessness (v. 2)
The psalmist’s troubles are fierce. He is to the point of feeling that he is near death (vv. 3-5). Providentially, the writer’s experiences find their origin in the Lord, if for no other reason than the Lord’s decision not to intervene in his life (vv. 6-7). The God of salvation is overwhelming the psalmist with waves of troubles. Yet he cries out day and night to the Lord, for the Lord who is putting him in the pit remains his only hope.
2. When despair is our only song, we might question God’s power beyond the grave (vv. 8-12).
God’s dealings make Heman a “horror” to his friends (v. 8). The author is so saddened that he cannot escape despair. Nevertheless, the Lord remains silent to the cries of the struggling saint (v. 9). So the hopeless one raises a series of questions for the Lord (vv. 10-12). The essence of the questioning is, “If you do not bring me out of my troubles, and I die as a result, can I know your glory beyond the grave?”
The question is legitimate, for if God cannot save in this life, there is no hope for him to save in the afterlife. Instead, “Abaddon” will swallow our bodies and souls after we have despaired of life. Surely one understands why Heman’s eye – like my caller’s eye – “[grew] dim through sorrow” (v. 8).
3. When despair is our only song, God still might leave us alone in the darkness of our pain (vv. 13-18).
The desperate situation of Heman does not stop him from praying (v. 13). Also true, however, is that his continual prayer does not end is trial. Now an adult, the writer has experienced this pain since his youth (v. 15)! Certainly one would expect the Lord, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy,” to say “enough is enough.” Instead, the Lord assaults the worshipper such that he is only surrounded continually by being alone in his despair and absent of friends.
Thus, it would appear that living with prolonged despair or hopelessness can be a real experience for a believer as wise and sincere as Heman (cf. 1 Kgs. 4:31). The Lord – Heman’s Lord – can and does leave his own in experiences in which they despair of life itself. He can and does remain silent to cries when life is so bad that even our friends desert us. Still he invites us to come to him asking, seeking, and knocking for answers to our prayers, and to pray to him without ceasing, confidently, for grace and help in our times of need (cf. Mt. 7:7; 1 Thess. 5:17; Heb. 4:16).
Our God can offer this invitation in his goodness because he has experienced the very despair we experience. Christ, who had perfect fellowship with the Father, (unlike the fellowship we have that is marred by our sins), was cut off from fellowship with the Father on the Cross. In three short hours Christ experienced more distance from the Father than we could experience if the Lord prolonged our despair from our youth into late adulthood (cf. Mt. 27:45). The Lord’s friends too deserted him, and he embraced the dark pain of the sins of humankind alone. For Christ and for us, God has done wonders beyond the grave by raising Christ from the dead. That same God can do wondrous things when despair is our only song. Psalm 88 reminds us that he has heard that song before from Heman and the choirs of Israel, and he will hear it from many whom he will save.
Eric C. Redmond is Executive Pastoral Assistant and Bible Professor in Residence at New Canaan Baptist Church , Washington, DC.