We express diverse emotions in our prayers. We thank God joyfully for unexpected gifts. We request urgently items or services that we or loved ones need. We sob prayers of grief, and argue angrily when we struggle to understand why certain events have occurred.
Several biblical prayers fall into the last category mentioned above. Often, as in Psalms 6 and 10, the Psalmist first expresses deep despair, then. If only in anticipation, thanks God for hearing his prayer. Psalm 88 is not such a prayer. Its writer begins by begging God (whom he identifies as the One who saves) for his attention. He describes his despair and longs for God to hear him:
“O LORD. The God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you, turn your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near my grave” (Psalm 88:1-3).
He has lost hope; he fears that God has forgotten him, as if he were a lifeless corpse in a grave. He feels very strongly that God is acting in wrath against him (See verses 4-7). In the next verses, he sounds much like Job, alienated from his friends, he asks God for the opportunity to present his case, but suspects that God will not hear him:
“You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to him, I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you” (verses 8-9).
His sense of being ignored by God reveals itself as he compares his state to that of the dead, to whom God does not listen. He believes, so he continues to pray, but despair has destroyed his trust:
“Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend (verses 14-18).
The Psalmist understands the concept of hurt so deeply felt that words cannot express it well. He feels hopeless. I write these words as I absorb that Robin Williams, who brought much laughter to our world, apparently has killed himself. Suicide usually requires a loss of hope, a sense that no options remain. The Psalmist almost seems to be there, but he is not. He still cries out to God; he still prays. He has lost friends; his life has no apparent meaning, but this man of prayer still presents his case to God. Sometimes suicide is a cry for help that has gone awry. When all seems lost, like the Psalmist, we still must speak and tell others our hurt. While we pray for an answer, we still cling to life with hope. Psalm 88 seems to be a prayer of a man that has no hope, and indeed it has no words of gratitude or praise for God’s having heard the prayer. Yet, this prayer of lament reveals in its beginning, in the greeting given to God, that this troubled man still believed and still hoped, even when darkness had become his closest friend. Remember that the prayer begins, “O LORD, the God who saves me…” Let us continue to remember, even as we grieve or hurt, that God can save, and remembering to believe, keep on praying that God will preserve our hope.