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Psalm 88: The Lament of All Laments

Devotional 4

This may have been posted before. If you don't have a half hour, start at point two, at the ten minute mark. It is worth it. I found it very comforting, as I have been "interrogating God" quite a bit in the past few months, wondering why He is letting so many children here die, or just across the border as Russia has resumed bombing of Idlib. Many babies are being born with breathing difficulties in the border region. Something is in the bombs.

This talk by Tim Keller and the following article from Bill Muehlemberg have been quite a comfort to me when I find myself upset at God or the universe for this seemingly non-stop sorrow.

There are also great, great insights into the Book of Job. I find it amazing that more and more can continue to be revealed from books and chapters that we have read for years.

Here is a brief part of my woeful lament followed by Muehlemberg's comments on Psalm 88 and other imprecatory Psalms.

"A new child came into our home today; I fight against it. I don’t want to say hi, I don’t want to be friendly. I don’t want to make you laugh or hug you? Why should I, she (you) will just die again, and for every bit of love and care that I show, it will be all the more difficult. God, this is not fair! God, why do you torture us, why do you torture the mother. ISIS came into their village, killed the men who would not join them, raped so many of the women. How can these people still believe in You and say “Alhamdulillah?”

This child though is so much like you Jesus, You had to flee your country, You were born in a village where all the babies were slaughtered. If I met You on the road to Egypt, would I have helped Your fleeing family? Jesus, You have to give me the victory, I don’t want to be cold-hearted, I don’t want to meet you on the final judgment day, and have You say to me “I was starved for affection, for love, yet you would not even hug me.” Jesus, help me to see You in these children and never forget that they are Yours." - end of comment


Given that we usually think of the psalms as songs of praise, it may be startling to some just how much ‘negative’ content is found in the psalms. Indeed, it may surprise many believers to learn – especially those who are into things like the positive confession movement – just how much of the Psalter is filled with complaints, anxiety, despair and protest.

This class of psalms – which is the largest type in all the psalms – is known as the lament. Exact numbers vary, but there may be as many as 65 or 67 lament psalms, depending on who is doing the counting. Also known as psalms of complaint, or protest, these are found throughout the Psalter. Indeed, they are found throughout the Bible. An entire book of lament has been written – known, not surprisingly, as the Book of Lamentations.

The lament psalms are cries of despair, anger, protest and doubt. They feature regularly in the psalms, and are not something the biblical writers or God himself were ashamed to put into Holy Scripture. They may be an embarrassment to some Christians, but they are a normal part of Israel’s praise and worship – which is what the psalms were all about.

It is interesting that the lament or complaint psalm dominates the 150 Psalms. Most of these are individual laments, such as Ps. 3, 22, 57, 139; but there are also corporate laments, such as Ps. 12, 44, 74, 80. Let’s consider just a few of these psalms.

Psalm 6:5-7 is quite interesting in this regard: “No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.”

Whatever the cause of the suffering described here, the suffering described is acute and the outlook is bleak. Although the psalm ends on a more optimistic note, there is no denying the venting of negative emotion and sentiment.

As D.A. Carson says, “There is no attempt in Scripture to whitewash the anguish of God’s people when they undergo suffering. They argue with God, they complain to God, they weep before God, a faith so robust it wrestles with God”.

Psalm 13:1-2 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”

But while optimism can be found in the end, pessimism and despair are allowed to be aired forcefully and unashamedly.

Or what about Psalm 88, called “the blackest of all the laments in the Psalter” “For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. 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. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves” (Ps 88:3-7).

“Psalm 88 is an embarrassment to conventional faith”. The misery being described by Heman in this psalm may well be that of leprosy. He “never considers that his sufferings might be the result of chance. He is convinced that they come from God.” And he is more than willing to have it out with God over the matter.

Heman’s psalm has nothing to do with modern notions of positive confession and self-esteem. Says Beisner, “For people tired of faking it when times get tough, Heman’s psalm, dark and dismal as it is, should be a breath of fresh air! It positively reeks with honest misery! He makes no excuses for God. He hides none of his complaints. When he feels abandoned, he says so.”

Or as Marvin Tate comments:

“With other laments, Psalm 88 stands as a witness to the intent of the Psalms to speak to all of life, to remind us that life does not always have happy endings. Long trails of suffering and loss traverse the landscape of human existence, even for the devoted people of God. There are cold, wintry nights of the soul, when bleakness fills every horizon, and darkness seems nearly complete.”

It is a characteristic of the righteous to have many afflictions, not to be affliction-free. The righteous may be ‘broken-hearted’ and ‘spiritually crushed’; they may have many afflictions (Palm 34 v 20). God’s presence is experienced within these crisis situations; there is no divine guarantee that the righteous will escape the crises and trials of mortal existence.”

The truth is, human emotion of all types gets a good run in the psalms. There is no simple positive confession here. As Allender and Longman rightly state, “The Psalms are permeated with despair. When we read on in them, we notice that the psalmists consistently return to the Lord with joy and confidence. This might give us the impression that the psalmists’ cry is simply a brief episode, setting up the praise at the end. But this is a misunderstanding, because what appears to us to be a quick transition from crying to rejoicing is actually the culmination of a long struggle.”

Not only do the lament psalms allow for negative emotion, they allow for full expression as well. Negative confession, in other words, is in full swing here. Walter Brueggemann makes this quite clear in his important work, The Message of the Psalms, in which he devotes considerable space to the laments. He is worth quoting at length:

“The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.”

Rather than being an embarrassment to Christians, these psalms are to be seen as fully representing Christian spirituality. As John Goldingay remarks, “The psalms of pain and protest shock Christians who are not used to this way of talking to God. Yet they have an explicit place in the NT. Jesus uses the phraseology of Pss. 6 and/or 42 in Gethsemane, and on the cross utters the extraordinary cry that opens Ps. 22 (Mark 14:34; 15:34). Nor does Jesus pray these prayers so that we might not have to do so, for a lament such as Ps. 44 appears on the lips of Paul (Rom. 8:36). In the NT, believers grieve and protest. To refuse to do so is often to refuse to face our pains and our losses.”

But distress is always recounted in an appeal to Yahweh, and the sufferer nearly always moves on to some expression of hope. Both the occasional acceptance of unmitigated lament and the frequent progression beyond it are defining characteristics of psalmic prayer, and potent aspects for those who wish to appropriate them today.”

How to Deal with Dark Times!


  • CH

    • 1 year ago
    Beautiful! Excellent! Thank you for posting that, Jon.
  • ForeverSailing

    • 1 year ago
    Thank you for posting this, Jon. It spoke to and helped me on a number of levels. I also recently listened to another Tim Keller talk called Training in Wisdom that can go hand-in-hand with his talk about Psalm 88. Here's the OEG link to the post:
  • MikeB

    • 1 year ago
    Great presentation with appropriate advice. Thanks Jon!
  • Frank

    • 1 year ago
    Very good. Sheds light in times of darkness, and makes me examine my heart about whether my own relationship with God is transactional.