At Rock Bottom (Ps. 88)

Publié le 4 juillet 2020 dans Traductions

Nous proposons la traduction suivante du message du dimanche pour nos amis anglophones…

Psalm 88: Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. 2 May my prayer come before you, turn your ear to my cry. 3 I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. 4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without
strength. 5 I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. 6 You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. 7 Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. 8 You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; 9 my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to you. 10 Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? 11 Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? 12Are your wonders known in
the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion? 13 But I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. 14 Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? 15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. 16 Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. 17 All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. 18 You have taken from me friend and neighbor – darkness is my closest friend.

Have you ever felt at rock bottom? The psalmist has hit rock bottom so hard that he no longer has the hope of resurfacing, of staying alive.

Heman is a famous cantor, mentioned several times in 1 Chronicles 25.5-6 (All these were sons of Heman the king’s seer. They were given him through the promises of God to exalt him. God gave Heman fourteen sons and three daughters.
All these men were under the supervision of their father for the music of the temple of the Lord, with cymbals, lyres and harps, for the ministry at the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman were under the supervision of the king).
He was a man esteemed for his spiritual qualities v.5, he was a seer of the king to reveal the words of God and to exalt his power, ‘seer’ is a term used to designate a prophet because he knew and understood the ways and will of God. But here he is at rock bottom.
Many psalms begin when the psalmist is heavy hearted and in pain, but reach a point of inflection where, after prayer and reflection, the psalmist finds hope and peace in the Lord (Psalm 86.14-15 Arrogant foes are attacking me, O God; ruthless people are trying to kill me — they have no regard for you. But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness).

However there is no turning point in Psalm 88. This psalm is one of the few that ends without any light, without any expression of hope or confidence. In fact, darkness literally has the last word, the psalm ends like this: “You have taken from me friend and neighbor – darkness is my closest friend ». (V.18). The first verse is the only explicitly positive formula in all of the prayer: “Lord, You are the God who saves me ». All that follows is just a flood of darkness, death and despair.
How did such a psalm end up in the psalter (hymnbook)? What encouragement does such a psalm give us?

Someone understands my distress

One day or another you will experience a situation similar to Heman’s. Either you are at rock bottom (the pit, v.5, 7), you no longer have any strength (v.5), you are close to dying or you wanted to die (v.6), you see no way out of your distress (darkness v.7), like Heman, you feel submerged by waves (v.8), you have the impression of drowning in problems, you are
abandoned by your friends ( v.9), your eyes are reddened by tears (v.10), you see no meaning, you do not understand God’s plan (v.11-13), you do not hear an answer to your prayers (v.14), your “why” (v.15) seems to get lost in the universe.
Remember that someone has been there before. He described your distress. You are not alone.
Heman is a true believer, a pious man, a Levite, a man used to celebrating the blessings of the Lord: he was there when David brought back the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem carried by the Levites in the midst of cheers and people rejoicing (1Chronicles 16.41), he was there when Solomon had the ark transported to the newly built temple (2 Chronicles 5.12) and the glory
of God filled the place.
Someone we trust has experienced similar pain and identifies with our grief. It’s weird, but it comforts us to know that the psalmist, after having poured out his heart before God, ends on a dark note. Because we don’t always finish our prayer time with a radiant face like Moses. Prayer does not always produce quick answers. There are pious men and women whose lives have been filled with learning patience. Psalm 88 reminds us that we can have real faith, authentic faith and experience such distress. The psalmist understands.

Athanasius, a father in the early church, said that whatever your particular need or concern, you will find a set of words in the psalms that will echo it, and from there, a cure for your illness.
And, more importantly, God placed Psalm 88 in the bible to reassure us that He understands. He knows how men speak when they are desperate. He knows that all suffering raises questions about His character. Heman, who is used to singing the praises of God, has questions and misunderstandings about Him v.11-13. This means that God is not indifferent to the suffering of men, he cares.
He experienced suffering himself. Jesus shared our suffering (poverty, exile, rejection, mourning, injustice, hunger, thirst, abandonment of his friends … and the death of the cross). When someone suffers, He understands them even before they tell Him their problems. He can even describe them with precision. Jesus understands our sorrows because he suffered before
When we are overcome with endless pain, it’s difficult to believe that God loves us, but it’s Jesus suffering that proves that He does. This doesn’t mean that we fully understand everything that is going on. But by looking at Jesus (the man of pain, used to suffering) we learn that suffering and love are compatible. Jesus suffered and yet he is the Father’s beloved, the One in whom the Father takes perfect pleasure. Because of this I can suffer and yet be loved by God.
The cross reminds us of God’s love for us, it’s as if he said to us « If I sacrificed my son for you, do you think I would be so mean as to deny you my love now? « 

Someone controls all of this

What are the causes of this suffering? Isn’t that the first thing we want to know? The causes, the why, the reason for our suffering.
We can note that in this passage Heman is overwhelmed, he feels abandoned by God. He presumes that God is angry with him but, like Job, he can’t see why, the feeling of guilt is nowhere to be found. He knows he is a sinner but he does not link his distress to sin.
It isn’t obvious that there is a link between sin and a heart filled with sadness, because our Lord Jesus Christ himself was seized with sadness and anguish and said to his disciples « My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26.38). Now we know there was no sin in Him, so this deep depression was not linked to any sin.
What are the causes of poor Heman’s suffering? The causes of the psalmist’s suffering are not clearly revealed to us, what we do know is that they are diverse « I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength », v.4. We would like to establish a precise diagnosis: « that’s it, if you settle this you will no longer suffer ». But it’s often a bit simplistic,
our lives are more complex than that:

  • we don’t know if he is plagued by physical illness, but what is certain is that he is experiencing terrible exhaustion, he no longer has physical strength. He thinks he will soon die, v.4-5,
  • he is lonely and abandoned by his friends, v.9, 19
  • he also feels abandoned by God, v.14-15
  • he has suffered in the past, v.16 says he already suffered in his youth from a serious illness or injury.

We can see that the causes of his suffering are multiple: physical, relational, spiritual … we could add that Satan plays a role, in addition to our own sin, our faults, our false beliefs.
Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12, evokes a thorn in his flesh (a physical problem) that makes him suffer, but he says that it was an angel of satan who struck him, and that God himself did it, because of his pride « I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me ».
So several causes for one problem. There are also causes that we don’t know about. Job ignores the primordial role of Satan in his ordeal, even after God has saved him, he doesn’t know why he suffered.
It’s possible that we suffer without ever knowing all the reasons.
But what strikes me in Psalm 88 is that Heman links all his afflictions to God himself. God Himself is the author of his distress, v.7-9 and 16 « Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves, Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me’. (‘you, your, your »)
If the tone of Heman’s words are perhaps accusing towards his God, he acknowledges that God is in control of his life, of every event, and he submits to it. In fact, the psalmist’s belief is that God is sovereign over his troubles, and this belief is the basis of his trust in God, who is also the God of his salvation.
If God brought these troubles into his life, then it’s reasonable to conclude that God can also deliver him from them because God knows what He’s doing. We know that God is good, full of love, that he is all-powerful and perfect in wisdom, Psalm 86.5 « You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you ». What He allows to happen in our lives, as difficult as it may be, is for our own good, if not here and now, in eternity.
This brings us to the third point.

Someone to talk to

The only thing that the psalmist does is « he cries to God day and night ». He talks to God about his despair. v. 2-3, 10, 14. He doesn’t question God’s existence or His perfect justice for one moment, he suffers, cries, doesn’t understand … but he pours out his soul before God.
If you suffer, if you are in pain, don’t turn your back on God, but go to him and pour out your heart before him.
Heman’s prayer in Psalm 88 is an example and a support for any discouraged soul.
The Bible doesn’t always help us identify the causes of our suffering, but it does direct our thoughts to God who knows everything and in whom we can have complete confidence.
Ed Welch wrote, “Turning to God and handing over the mysteries of suffering to him is sort of the answer to the problem of suffering. »
In suffering you can decide to call on God for help or not to call on him.
In Hosea 7.14 God denounces the peoples attitude « They do not cry out to me from the bottom of their hearts, but they groan on their beds ». However poor Heman cries out to God, he cries out his pain, his despair, his incomprehension, he speaks to God and reproaches him for his
silence … but he cries out to God. He does not spread his bitterness to others but to God himself.

This is what this psalm teaches us. But maybe you are thinking ‘I don’t know how to pray, I won’t even know what to say’, you lack the words to describe your experience. The psalms lend us words so that we can speak to God in the diversity of our experiences. When we don’t know what to say, he’s the one who puts words into our mouths. He is teaching us to express
ourselves. Isn’t he close to us by doing this?

This is probably one of the main purposes of the book of Psalms. Tim Keller writes, “The psalms were written to be prayed, recited and sung, to be practiced, not just read. We are, in a way, called to integrate them into our prayers, or rather to insert our prayers into them and to approach the Lord in this way’.
By doing this, our hearts discover God, not as we would like or desire him to be, but as he truly reveals himself. The portrait which is painted of Him (in the Psalms) is of such richness, going beyond anything that man can invent. His holiness, his wisdom, the fear he inspires, his tenderness and his love exceed anything one can imagine.


Are you God’s friend when all is going well, do you trust him when everything is fine, or do you show distrust in him (or turn away from him altogether) when things go wrong?
Turning away from God offers no consolation, no meaning.
Psalm 88 tells us that Heman did not turn away from God when nothing was going right in his life, he continued to cry out to him, even when God didn’t seem to respond. He continued to trust him, which is the surest way to successfully get through the trial.

God always has reasons for what he does, and he always has reason to do what he does.
Human reason is limited and obscured by sin. This implies that we are unable to discern the motives that prompt the Creator to act, unless he reveals them to us himself.

Psalm 88, like the cross of Jesus Christ, warns us that life won’t be easy. If Jesus the Master suffered we too will share in the suffering here below. The servant is no greater than his master. We are called to be like Christ. However, death does not have the last word. It will give way to glory and joy for eternity.
Have you seen how Psalm 88 ends? « You have taken from me friend and neighbor – darkness is my closest friend ». It ends with abandonment and darkness.

If you are a New Testament reader then these words surely remind you of the crucial gospel point where Jesus is confronted with the deepest darkness of the wrath of God (Matthew 27:45-46 « From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.
Since Jesus himself endured the abandonment that we deserved, we know that God will never abandon us. He is there with us, even when we do not feel his presence at all.