June 21st, 2015. Last Sunday at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, Reverend Norvel Goff said these words, where only half a week before such great evil had descended upon his church that nine had been killed during Bible study by racial hatred and evil. As he spoke in the first sermon after the massacre, he said this: "We ask questions, Lord; we ask 'Why?' We cannot help it. It's our human nature. But through it all, those of us who know Jesus, as we find ourselves engulfed in sadness and darkness, and as we find ourselves walking through the shadow of the valley of death, for those of us who know Jesus, we can look through the windows of our faith and we see hope and we see light, and we hear your voice saying, 'I am with you.'"
What if you cannot look through the windows of faith and see hope, see light, or hear God's voice saying "I am with you"? What if the darkness is too dark and the doubt is too loud? What if death is all around you, like some of the pastors to whom I ministered this past week who have lost family and home and future and church. What if deceit is in your marriage? What if betrayal has come from friends? What if you face loss of loved ones, loss of respect, loss of health, loss of your faculties, loss of freedom, and loss of a future? What if it's loss of your country's moral compass? What if you're just getting old, getting tired, or seemingly forever lonely? What if the darkness is really that deep?
That is actually the reality of this song. Everything I have mentioned is covered to some extent in this very Psalm. This is the reality. This is the world in which we live and this is the Psalm that names them all with no relief, no light, with no redemption, with no exit mentioned. It is the only Psalm in the entire Bible at which there is on road up. The valley has no mountain following it. It is darkness without the dawn. So you have to ask, "Where is the grace here? Why is this in the Bible? Did somebody make a mistake?" Well, you know not but still we're forced to ask, "Then why is it here? Where is the grace?" The grace first in this. This is not a forbidden Psalm.
God wants us to name the pain
What is expressed here is not forbidden. The Father allows his child to complain (see verses 3-4). Modern language: "Lord, this is the pits. I know we just had Vacation Bible School but this Psalm does not recognize the song, 'I'm happy, happy, happy, happy, happy all the time.'" Not so here. Doesn't fit, won't be wedged in. Not only does the Father allow his child to complain, the Father allows his child to blame (see verses 5-8). The Father not only allows complaint and blame but even the sarcasm and chiding of a child (see verses 9-12). Not only does the Father allow the child to chide but ultimately to cry (see verses 13-15).
Les Miserables is in our community now. We watch and we weep, whether movie or play, and the words of the play are the words of this Psalm. Here are the first three stanzas of "I Dreamed a Dream":
There was a time when the world was a song … and there was a time when it all went wrong.
I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
As they turn your dream to shame
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed
The dream I dreamed
If it sounds blasphemous, it if sounds not religious, remember, it's precisely what this Psalm is saying. I thought it would be better, Lord. I called you and you didn't answer. I heard about the miracles. Why don't you do them now? I know why there's the song in the play, but why this Psalm in the Bible? Surely for this reason: So that I can name the pain that I feel and so can you. If God does not forbid this Psalm, then he allows us to say what is real: "Lord, this makes no sense. Lord, this hurts too much for it to be good. Lord, where did you go?"
There are some Psalms that I believe I have read hundreds of times. There are some Psalms that I have preached scores of times. I have never preached on this Psalm before, but I can remember the one time when I read it to such powerful effect on my own heart.
A dear friend who came to my wedding, my sweet and tender pastor friend, was so troubled and torn at times in his own soul that at times he was not able to go into the pulpit. That weakness, that hurt, that emotional struggle of his own heart, made him a pastor who was so empathetic to the hurting, who was tender to those who didn't seem to have any hope because he knew exactly what they were feeling like. My friend, who at some point could not get back out of the pit, and despite being a pastor and having people love him, took his life.
A day after that, I called his wife, and in the phone call she said she has just read Psalm 88 in her devotions. I told her I had just read it in my devotions, and we both knew why. It's the only Psalm with no way out. It's the only Psalm that is completely dark. And on that day, we did not need anyone, even the Bible, to say you need to get over this, there is a silver lining, it will all work out in the end, it will be okay. On that day, in that moment, we needed our God to understand how dark our lives were, how sick our hearts were, and how much we did not want anybody to do more than understand what we were experiencing. This Psalm, where it is in the Bible, is intended just for that, to say our God knows. For the reason that he knows, we can not only name our pain but pray in our pain.
God wants us to pray in our pain
Did you catch it? Verse 1 says, "Oh Lord God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you. Let my prayer come before you. Incline your ear to my cry." Right in the middle of verse 9 this is said, "Every day I call upon you, oh Lord. I spread out my hands to you." "But I, oh Lord, cry to you. In the morning my prayer comes before you," says verse 13. Even in the midst of the pain, even when it seems like there is no way out, here comes prayer. God, I still have to turn to you. Just a quick reminder: When it's hardest to pray, pray hardest. The psalmist is doing it here, even when there's not an answer, even by the end of the Psalm it hasn't turned around. He's still, in the whole Psalm actually, crying, complaining, turning to God. That says even when we name our pain, even when we haven't done it right, we can still pray in the midst of our pain, and that's not forbidden either.
Grace and the Psalms
Where is the grace in this Psalm? This Psalm is not forbidden. Where else is the grace? We sometimes forget that these Psalms are arranged across generations, collected from across generations into the Bible, and there are five books in the Book of Psalms in our Bible. The first 41 Psalms are God's blessings upon the nation through David. Psalm 42 through 72 is the continuation of the dancing of the heart in joy as God is continuing his blessing through the realm and the kingdom of Solomon. Then you get to Book 3, chapters 73-89, this last Psalm right toward the end where the nation is coming undone. Now there is an enemy at the gate. Now the people are going into exile. Now they're in ruins; now they're enslaved again. By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, and there was no hope and there was no way out and there was only darkness, and here it is. You do finally get past it, right? There comes Book 4: how to hope when the Messiah is not yet here. Finally, Book 5, shows us how to continue to depend on promises when you know the Messiah will come. There's a movement, a movement of reality, a movement of the heart from blessing to dancing to darkness before hope and praise come again. It's right in that darkness that this Psalm is written as though God is saying every experience you would have, every emotion that you would feel, God is saying he understands and he is able to identify. That's why we go to the Psalms.
Haven't you found this at different phases of your life, you go to different places? Sometimes you find that Psalm of great joy, sometimes you find that Psalm of guidance, sometimes you find that Psalm that says, "I hurt so bad right now." There's a Psalm that deals with that. Our hearts begin to resonate with a God who is saying, "I know every experience." We reach for the Psalms, we teach the Psalms, we find solace in the Psalms, and we find ourselves in the Psalms. In all these phases and experiences of life, as God is saying to us, "I know you, I know your life, I know the pain is real. I know it, I name it."
It's not the only reality. This is not the only Psalm, and that's part of the grace as well. We find such hope in this middle book just as God is saying, I get you, I know what it means, it's not foreign to my understanding. Then we realize if God is so honest about the darkness then we can trust him when he says something about the light as well. If it were all light, if it were all joy, if it were all happiness, happy, happy, happy all the time, we'd say that's not real. If God is willing to say, I know the pain, then we can trust him when he says there is an answer to this.
Why should we trust it? Because it's not the only Psalm. It's also not the final Psalm; it's not the last Psalm. Psalm 88 is followed by lots of neat Psalms, some of which have been referenced already today in our singing, in our worship. This is also not the last time Psalm 88 will be used.
Some of you in the room went with us to Israel just a few weeks ago. There is a wonderful, awful place that we go to in Israel. It is the house of Caiaphas, the high priest to whom Jesus was taken for trial and beating before his great agony. They've made excavations so you can actually see where the house was on a hill, and therefore some stables were built under the house into the hillside as the hill falls away. Into the limestone that's there, there are actually hitching posts that are carved out of the rock where you could tie the reigns of a horse. Just as those hitching posts are carved out of the rock down low, there are also hitching posts that are carved high in the stone, where no horse's reigns would be but where men would be tied to be beaten and tortured in the house of the high priest. What darkness? That's not the deepest darkness. You go from there to the pit that's in the rock which became the holding cell where men before their trials were simply cast into the pit, either to be broken by the fall or by the darkness. There are stairs now that take you down to the pit, and when you get to the bottom of the pit there is a large book on a lectern. The book has one Psalm in many languages so that no matter where you come from in the world, you can read that one Psalm in the pit. You know what Psalm it is. It's Psalm 88.
Why that Psalm in that pit? Because it's not just a Psalm about what you experience, but what our Savior experienced. The great reason that Psalm 88 is in the Bible is not just so that God will show that he knows our pain, but that he is willing to enter it, which is precisely what he did through his Son, who knew the worst of our sin and shame and hurt. This is a God who says for justice's sake he would enter in and take the penalty. For that reason I trust him. "Man of sorrows, what a name for the Son of God who came, ruined sinners to reclaim" by a suffering that is beyond our understanding; stricken, smitten, and afflicted, so that the wrath of God would fall upon him and not touch you or me or any who turn to Jesus Christ and believe that he paid it all so that we would be set free from the darkness.
Even when we experience darkness' reality here we know this is not forbidden to express, nor is it the only thing that we will experience, nor is it the last thing that we will experience. This is the promise of God. He who knows us will free us from our sin, shame, and pain. For that reason, we know his grace and tell the world about it. You do the same.
Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.