Saturday, December 03, 2005

Psalter 88

There is nothing in scripture that explicitly promises us that we'll get what we want. In fact, the contrary is true.

One interesting place to see the idea of suffering, or merely not getting what you want despite having played by the rules, is given by the 88th psalm in the Psalter. Since my Hebrew is long since gone [and I don't think I was at the stage of doing poetry anyway], I'll present the NET translation of this psalm. After presenting this psalm of modest length, I'll offer some commentary.

*****BEGIN Psalm*****

Psalm 88

A song, a psalm written by the Korahites; for the music director; according to the machalath-leannoth style; a well-written song by Heman the Ezrachite.

88:1 O Lord God who delivers me!
By day I cry out
and at night I pray before you.

88:2 Listen to my prayer!
Pay attention to my cry for help!

88:3 For my life is filled with troubles
and I am ready to enter Sheol.

88:4 They treat me like those who descend into the grave.
I am like a helpless man,

88:5 adrift among the dead,
like corpses lying in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
and who are cut off from your power.

88:6 You place me in the lowest regions of the pit,
in the dark places, in the watery depths.

88:7 Your anger bears down on me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (Selah)

88:8 You cause those who know me to keep their distance;
you make me an appalling sight to them.
I am trapped and cannot get free.

88:9 My eyes grow weak because of oppression.
I call out to you, O Lord, all day long;
I spread out my hands in prayer to you.

88:10 Do you accomplish amazing things for the dead?
Do the departed spirits rise up and give you thanks? (Selah)

88:11 Is your loyal love proclaimed in the grave,
or your faithfulness in the place of the dead?

88:12 Are your amazing deeds experienced in the dark region,
or your deliverance in the land of oblivion?

88:13 As for me, I cry out to you, O Lord;
in the morning my prayer confronts you.

88:14 O Lord, why do you reject me,
and pay no attention to me?

88:15 I am oppressed and have been on the verge of death since my youth.
I have been subjected to your horrors and am numb with pain.

88:16 Your anger overwhelms me;
your terrors destroy me.

88:17 They surround me like water all day long;
they join forces and encircle me.

88:18 You cause my friends and neighbors to keep their distance;
those who know me leave me alone in the darkness.

*****END Psalm

PP Commentary:

(1) This is an incredibly bleak psalm. I don't think it would be wrong to say that the feeling of despair is shot through and through this psalm.

(2) Yet at the same time, the psalmist invokes Yahweh in vv 1-2. This would seem to imply the idea that the psalmist --- despite his angst and distress --- still views Yahweh as the sovereign Lord and Master of all reality, able to do as He pleases in His time.

(3) Especially noteworthy are vv 14-16:
(a) The psalmist accuses Yahweh of explicitly rejecting and ignoring him.
(b) The psalmist has experienced "horrors" that, in some ultimate sense, come from Yahweh.
(c) The terrors and anger of Yahweh overwhelm and destroy the psalmist.

If we take the sovereignty of God seriously, it seems that Yahweh is here presented as the explicit and sole author of the horrors and terrors for which the psalmist laments. While one gets theology from the places where theology is discussed rather than in readings that have a large poetic latitude to them [i.e. Psalter, Ecclesiastes, Job], we cannot, it seems, ignore the charge here that Yahweh is presented as the author of evil.

But, with the NT revelation --- I'm thinking of the close of Romans 8, those of us on the other chronological side of the cross and empty tomb know, if we let Paul speak for himself [and, as Evangelicals say, for the Holy Spirit too], all things work together for the good of those who love God, i.e. those who are [in the Pauline context] justified by faith alone. As a consequence, the travails of this world may rob us of the temporal and often ephemeral bliss of what the world can provide, causing us to cry out to Yahweh just as does the psalmist, but those of us with the NT revelation know that these bad things happen under the umbrella of God's divine sovereignty which extends over all things, in particular, our ultimate salvation.

(4) The psalm does not end with praise or benediction directed towards Yahweh. In fact, the psalm starts out bleakly, stays bleak, and finishes bleakly.

Those of us who affirm the active agency of God in using men to communicate His revelation to us must then ultimately say that this lugubrious psalm is divinely inspired --- God's providence has left us a psalm that is pain from beginning to end. Contrast this with the watered-down success theology and feel-good fuzzies put forth by wimped-out Evangelicals.

(5) At the same time, this psalm is embedded in the Psalter, which contains many more psalms of praise and optimism in Yahweh. In fact, the Psalter contains a very wide range of human emotions, the same range a normal healthy person runs through in his life.

Taking the liberty of posting a relevant comment from an email sent to me by Steve Hays at Triablogue: You wouldn't want more than one of those in the Psalter. But it's striking that inspiration and providence included one--just one--that starts in darkness, gropes around in the dark, and ends in darkness--which no happy ending tacked on. The walk of faith ranges from sunrise to pitch black.

This post was inspired by some private emails with Steve. While I'd instead prefer an attractive single Christian female muse [twenty- or thirty-something], life is not perfect, so I suppose I have to take whatever muse I can find!


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