Sometimes kings want to dance in the streets with their scepters hanging out. Sometimes you want to mourn the death of children through social media. We do not have to shit on other people’s joy or pain while processing our own legitimate emotions. There is room for both.
There are 66 books in the (Protestant) Bible, but only about eight in the Good Christian's Choice Selections of Common Praise for Worship, Remembrance, and Joy Together in Song Book of the Faith . . .
"Seriously God, what the f . . . ?"
~ Too many hearts from the beginning till now.
Here is the harsh reality: over 80% of the psalms contain some measure of complaint or request for assistance from God. Well over 1/3 of the Psalter are psalms of lament, what Walter Brueggemann calls psalms of disorientation. These are the psalms that record the loss of stability, the loss of equilibrium from our lives. Conflict and trouble have crept or charged in. The world is not as it should be. We are clawing at the sides of a dark pit, while our ever-present enemies taunt our pain like a dangled rope.
In much of modern western Christianity, psalms of lament are disrespected. If not completely ignored, they are made into songs, included in sermons, and thrown into bad Christian self-help books by cutting out the cries of pain and focusing on the possible happy endings. Pain is only seen as a path to progress. Hurt paves the road to heaven.
Troubling words and images are revised or culled altogether, and calls for vengeance have little place in polite churches. There is no asking YHWH to destroy enemies like salt does a snail, or to make those who harm us like a stillborn fetus (Psalm 58). It is inappropriate to bestow heavenly blessings upon those who smash the oppressor’s babies against jagged rocks (Psalm 137). None of that fits polite church culture. That level of pain is censored.
Similarly, Psalm 88 is forgotten – so forgotten it is not even included in the Revised Common Lectionary. Why? Because Psalm 88 doesn’t play nice with the other psalms: She’s the rebel who said to hell with biblical poetic conventions, I do what I want.
There is a structure that all psalms of lament follow. They contain 1) an address to God, 2) the raising of complaints and/or petitions to God, 3) a confession of trust in God, and finally 4) a promise to praise God once He comes through. In some respects, psalms of lament are how some issue fox-hole prayers: “God, shit just got real. I need Your help. Even though the situation looks bleak, I know You got my back. Thank You in advance. I owe You one.”
All psalms of lament follow this basis structure. All of them contain a petitioned problem but end in pronounced praise. All of them. Except Psalm 88. It is the only psalm without a turn toward hope, praise, or promises to God.
More than that Psalm 88 is an indictment of God: The Lord sits not on His throne but on the witness stand.
O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken 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.
In the sleepless night, we cry, we beg for God to hear our prayer, but hear no answer. Our soul full of troubles, our life on the brink of death, we feel forgotten by silent skies and lead-covered clouds. The only thing we are sure of is the source of our pain, the one who stands accused:
You have put me in the depths of the Pit
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow…
From the witness stand, the divine is silent. The Almighty seems to plead the fifth. But still we press the witness for answers:
But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Still no answer is forthcoming, only a realization:
Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.
And there the psalm ends. There is no turn towards the good. There is no easy resolution or a nod toward the possibility of one. It ends emotional, evoking the words of a grief-stricken C.S. Lewis: “The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’” ~ A Grief Observed
What do we do with this? First remember our humanity, and the humanity of the author.
“The Psalms, with a few exceptions, are not the voice of God addressing us. They are rather the voice of our own common humanity – gathered over a long period of time, but a voice that continues to have amazing authenticity and contemporaneity. It speaks about life the way it really is, for in those deeply human dimensions the same issues and possibilities persist. And so when we turn to the Psalms it means we enter into the midst of that voice of humanity and decide to take our stand with that voice. We are prepared to speak among them and with them and for them, to express our solidarity with the anguished, joyous human pilgrimage. We add a voice to the common elation, shared grief, and communal rage that bests us all.” ~ Walter Bruggemann, Praying the Psalms
Second, we remember the reality of our perception. Sometimes God is hidden from our sight, silent to our ears, beyond our grasping, bloodied fingers. And that is why this psalm is so beautiful and appropriate to complete the Psalter.
It is present to say the questions “why?” and “how long?” are appropriate. That asking “what did I/he/she/we/they do to deserve this?” is valid.
That it is okay to scream, even at God, because the lines of communication are still open: at least you’re still talking.
And besides, God can take it.
But what do we know? We made this game and you probably think we’re going to Hell.
If the above didn't drive you to drink, then you should read about why “There really aren’t enough good hymns written about_______”
We've taken some hits for this card, which puts us in good company: so has God. We and the Almighty would like some vindication.
We (the creators of the game, not God) went to different "Christian liberal arts colleges" where we heard too many people, including religion professors who should have known better, accuse God of "dashing babies against rocks" with omnipotently calloused hands, or ordering the children of Israel to do so, using this passage as a source.
Does the Divine Warrior occasionally order the slaughter of whole nations, men, women and children, in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament? Yes (see our post about "Not giving a $h!t about the Canaanites"); however, this psalm is not such an example, and it is important to recognize that.
The speaker is not God, it is an individual crying out to God on behalf of his (some scholars argue her) people in their time of abject suffering. They are "by the rivers of Babylon," mocked by their oppressors after their Temple has been destroyed, their mothers and daughters raped, their fathers and sons decimated, and the survivors death-marched across a desert.
This is a song of lament hummed traversing The Middle Passage, chanted across the Trail of Tears, whispered in cattle cars to Auschwitz.
From a heart of sorrow the psalmist wishes equal harm to befall his/her tormentors, cries to the heavens for it to be a reality, but God does not swing any infants by the ankles, nor order such to take place. God's hands are clean and so is the singer's. No Babylonian children were harmed in the making of this psalm. But that is (almost) a secondary point.
Here is what should give you pause:
If you cannot fathom the level of anguish required for a normal person to wish a gruesome death upon another's child, then you have lived a charmed life and should praise whatever deity you hold dear; but how dare you blithely minimize or judge someone else's expression of a pain you can't comprehend?
Who are we to criminalize another, not for action, but a plea of distress to God? And what hubris does it require to indict God for not condemning them for their poetic, emotional release?
Perhaps we should ease up on people in pain.
Perhaps we should allow them to honestly grieve in their own way.
But what do we know: we made this game and you probably think we're going to Hell anyway.