Psalms For Life
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Yahveh Elohim hear our prayers

Psalm 88

Dark night of the soul

This psalm teaches us how to pray when life is utterly unlivable and God’s absence seems to be our biggest problem.

A Korahite psalm. To the worship director: to the tune of “The Suffering of Affliction.” A contemplation of Heman the Ezrahite.

YHWH, the God who rescues me
I cry out to you day and night.
2 Listen to my prayer
turn your ear to my cry.
3 For I’ve had more than my fill of troubles
which have now driven me to death’s door.
4 People consider me as good as dead
utterly devoid of strength.
5 I’m like someone discarded among the dead
killed and thrown into an unmarked grave—
someone you’ve cut off from your care
and no longer remember.
6 You’ve hurled me
to the bottom of the underworld
into a lifeless, pitch-black void.
7 Your wrath is crushing the life out of me
as your breakers pummel and pound me.
8 Having made my friends abhor and shun me
you’ve driven them all away.
I’ve been made a captive
with no way to escape.

9 My eyes have grown dim with grief
as I call on you all day long, YHWH
stretching my hands out to you.
10 Do you perform miracles for the dead?
Do their ghosts rise up and praise you?
11 Do they celebrate
your unfailing love in the grave
or appreciate your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your miracles acknowledged
by those you’ve exiled to pitch darkness
or your saving justice remembered
by those you’ve cast into oblivion? 

13 But me, I’m still crying to you, YHWH
bringing my prayer before you every morning.
14 Why do you reject me, YHWH
turning your face away from me?
15 Wretched and close to death
ever since my youth
I’ve endured your terrors
to the point of utter exhaustion.
16 Your anger has overwhelmed me
your terrors have paralyzed me.
17 Like water surging around me all day long
they’ve completely engulfed me.
18 You’ve deprived me
of all my friends and loved ones
leaving darkness as my only friend.

Darkness pervades this entire psalm. In fact, it’s the only lament in the Psalter that doesn’t eventually hold out a glimmer of hope. The psalm is full of descriptors of Sheol, the dark afterlife realm whose inhabitants were believed to be bereft of God’s care, unable to experience any stimuli. One name for it was Abaddon, a place of utter ruin. But the very fact that Heman keeps on calling YHWH “the God who rescues” him and praying to him makes the psalm an act of hope and faith.

Heman may wrestle chronic illness, but his poetic language could equally describe a whole range of dire situations beyond illness. This lets his prayer speak for many more than just the chronically ill.

This psalm gives us three wonderful gifts: a model for coupling patient waiting with impatient praying, words to articulate our deepest pain and grief to God, and a license to do so without the least positive spin or cosmetic touch-up. Heman holds God alone responsible for his suffering. And since God already knows what Heman thinks, he doesn’t want Heman to pretend otherwise out of politeness. Prayer helps us only as we truly open our hearts to the God who is big enough to handle our honesty, however bitter.

Alluding to Israel’s captivity in Egypt, Heman speaks of his misery in captivity, but without any of the unfailing love and miracles God showed his people then. Clearly, God is no quick fix. Friendless, yet God-haunted, Heman feels like he’s drowning, suffering the very terrors God inflicted on Pharaoh. But despite Heman’s bluntness, he doesn’t stop praying—perhaps because he has nowhere else to turn. Though still in the dark when he ends his complaint, he holds onto God, earnestly hoping God will end his anguish and alienation.

Abandoned by your friends, Jesus, you remained faithful even when your faithfulness led to the anguish and God-forsakenness of the cross. Help me to cling to you even when I feel abandoned. Help me to be as honest as Heman here—for the honor of your name. Amen.

In your free moments today, pray these words:

YHWH, the God who rescues me
I cry out to you by day and by night.

Why YHWH?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.