Neck deep in Matt Woodley’s anguished chapter on “Prayer as Mystery” (The Folly of Prayer: Practicing the Presence and Absence of God), I flipped the page open to 88, a psalm of lament from Heman the Ezrahite. And I wondered why God would find it brilliant for me to hang out for any length of time in this seething black pit of despair.
Still, that’s where God pointed; that’s where I’d stay. I was in the midst of a seven-day stay, letting the same text speak for several days in row. The lights had burned brightly of late, and it seemed harmless enough. Strange, though, to try to engage a lament when, at the present moment, one doesn’t feel particularly sorrowful.
Enter the benefit of a seven-day stay: Stick around long enough, and it works its way through you.
The Word is like that.
The first couple of days were easy. Oh, look, I thought. Even in his anguish, the psalmist knew that darkness comes from God’s absence — real or perceived. He knows only God will bring him light and life. Good job, Heman. I patted the psalmist on the head for his display of maturity in the midst of despair.
But as the week wore on, my condescension toward the Ezrahite faded and instead I poked at him a little with my elbow, nudging him over so I could take a seat with him there in the dark.
I wanted to keep playing the psalm like a continuous loop recording. I’d see Heman get to the end and barely gasp out the final words, “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.” And every time, my eyes raced back up to the opening words of his lament before the darkness could catch hold, “O Lord, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you.”
Heman penned the last words still drowning in his pain.
He experienced no rescue, no comfort, no relief.
Woodley observes that 88 breaks the rules:
Every other psalm of lament eventually returns to hope and trust in God. The psalmist cries out to God in his pain; he even yells and argues with God. But the prayer softens as he calmly proclaims, “But still I will trust you, God.” Psalm 88 is the exception to that pattern. In this prayer the psalmist cries out to God; he’s sincere; he believes the right things about God — but help doesn’t seem to come. . . . This prayer trails off in unresolved tension, doubt, hurt, anguish and mystery.” (The Folly of Prayer, page 58, emphasis added)
After one day’s reading, I noted in my margin, Rinse, repeat, as though by just going back to the start desperate Heman’s darkness would dispel.
And, perhaps, might mine.
Another day I reminded myself to fight back the darkness. You can do better than Heman, I thought. Just fight it back.
When the psalmist observed that he had been “set apart with the dead” and wondered aloud if God could be “known in the place of darkness,” I remembered that God can make the darkness itself shine. As though to argue with Heman, I scrawled 139 in the margin. Remember Heman? Remember what David said in 139?
And then one day I looked to the left hand column in my bilingual text. I often switch over to my second language, my favorite language, when God and I meet up. For reasons I don’t yet understand, my soul seems to reach into a richer, but more raw honesty with Him there.
As I look back at my margin scrawl, I notice it was then that I stopped talking to Heman and started talking to me. No more patronizing, no more chastising the lamenting psalmist. When he cried out Ya no puedo más (I can’t do it anymore), I responded in kind: Yo me siento así (I feel like that). I too lamented about close friendship with tinieblas (darkness) and the oscuridad (blackness) that seemed to fill me.
I listened to my heart a while, and felt my anger rise on about Day 5 that Heman would leave the psalm ending this way.
The darkness didn’t lift. God didn’t answer.
It didn’t resolve.
At last I just sat still, and gave up trying to force light and resolution on the psalmist, seeing saw what Matt Woodley was talking about. In 88 God gave us unanswered prayer.
He gives us His silence as gift.
And He lets us live with it.
Woodley says this:
God views the mystery of unanswered prayer with the utmost seriousness. God doesn’t fear my questions and dark emotions. God even provides the words I need to express my agony back to him. (p. 59)
88 lets us believe that sometimes, even though we believe right, think right, live right, we’ll still come face to face with the tinieblas. 88 gives us a framework to believe that we can say these things to God. His own hot breath penned these words through His servant Heman.
And in so doing, Woodley tells us, that “Psalm 88 is God’s dark, messy, painful gift to us.” (p. 58)
Reflecting and reposting from the archives after spending a little time with Heman again. His words are heartbreaking – but soul-mending all at the same time.