Like One Cut Off
(H) A song, a psalm of the sons of Korah, for the director of the choir, according to Mahalath Leannoth, a maskil of Heman, the Ezrahite. (1) Yahweh, God of my salvation, day and night have I cried out before you. (2) Let my prayer come before you. Incline your ear to my cry for help, (3) for my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to the grave (Sheol). (4) I am counted among those who go down to the pit. I have become like a man without strength, (5) like one turned loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no longer, for they are cut off from your hand. (6) You have put me in the lowest pit, in dark places, in the depths. (7) Your wrath lies heavily on me, and you humble me with all your waves. (Selah)
Two groups of synonyms point the way to this segment’s message. The first two verses contain two different words for “cry,” the first a verb (vs. 1) and the second a noun (vs. 2), describing the psalmist’s sense of desperation as he prays. Next, we find several synonyms associated with death: “grave (Sheol)” (vs. 3), “the pit” (vs. 4), “the dead, the slain that lie in the grave” (vs. 5), and “the lowest pit in dark places, in the depths” (vs. 6). Finally, we encounter two repetitions in this segment of the psalm: “before you” (vss. 1 & 2) and “pit” (vss. 4 & 6). Doom and gloom characterize the psalmist’s state of mind as he pens this desperate prayer.
I. What I do: I cry out to God for help. (1 & 2)
II. Why I do it: I feel like one buried alive. (3-7)
When overwhelmed with feelings of despair, I cry out to God for help.
Among the psalms, Psalm 88 stands out as one of the bleakest in terms of the sense of desperation and hopelessness conveyed by the sons of Korah. In today’s therapeutic world, we might call this condition “clinical depression” or in more medieval terms, the “dark night of the soul.” (NOTE: in the June 30th study of Psalm 77:1-6 we also considered this topic). In the words of Elizabeth Wurtzel, “The fog is like (being in) a cage without a key.” Another author has written, “Slowly slipping in a deep dark pit, I find myself near the end of my life.” And another: “(I feel) like I am in an ocean of doubt and despair, gradually sinking and gasping for air.”
One’s perception of time and space can become severely distorted in such unrelenting periods of depression. It may seem as if what we are experiencing will never come to an end. In addition, we may feel as if there is no escaping the claustrophobic prison in which we are confined. That is precisely what the psalmist conveys in this passage. We sense how endless his ordeal must have felt with the phrase, “day and night I have cried out before you” (vs. 1). We sense his raw desperation about being confined in “Sheol,” buried alive in a “pit” without the hope of escape (vss. 3-6). He sums up his experience with the words, “You have put me in the lowest pit, in dark places, in the depths” (vs. 6).
For those enduring bouts of depression, today’s world offers a variety of helpful palliatives through counseling, therapy, psychiatric treatments, and mood altering drugs. In the ancient world of the psalmist, such resources were rarely available. All he could do was cry out to God for relief in the midst of his despair. We should never forget that the most effective remedy in our efforts to alleviate the symptoms of depression remains looking to God for his gracious intervention and waiting for him to shine the light of his presence into the darkness we are experiencing.