Dark Despair in the Psalms

In our lifetimes while this creation still groans for its ultimate liberation when all things are made new, we will continue to struggle and be in conflict—even as the holy ones and redeemed people of our great God. The flesh will still war against the spirit in union with the liberating Spirit of the Lord. Abiding joy will grapple with spells of misery. Forthright faith will wrestle with candid doubt. The light of hope will contend with the darkness of despair. Christians will experience “the dark night of the soul” as it has been called.

Psalm 42 expresses such a bout of melancholic despair. The man wails over his parched and famished soul. He’s become weary and weak in the absence of his great satisfaction that comes only from his nearness to God. He feels the distinct horror of divine absence, of God being far off from him. Worse, those around him taunt him about God’s apparent withdrawal from him. He sheds tears day and night in ragged agony. Even the memories of the former times of delight in the worship of God torment him by their absence:

When I remember these things,
​​I pour out my soul within me.​​
For I used to go with the multitude;
​​I went with them to the house of God,
​​With the voice of joy and praise,​​
With a multitude that kept the feast.

Yet the man of Psalm 42 is self-aware. He’s attentive to the state of his own soul. His soul is like one unfathomable ocean roaring out in a call to another unfathomable ocean who is the covenant Lord of his life. And he addresses his own soul with the promises of God, reminders of God’s khesed—his steadfast kindness and mercy, his covenant faithfulness. Twice, the man exhorts his own soul in this way:

Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
​​Hope in God; for I shall yet praise him,
​​The salvation of my countenance and my God.

The man of Psalm 42 confesses something intriguing about God that is especially vital to this present struggle with despair. God is “the salvation of the face” or countenance. God will be praised again, because he will bring deliverance to the despairing countenance of his faithful one. This promise remembered is a desperate call to hope in God.

If Psalm 42 is a dark dirge for contemplating and contending with despair, then Psalm 88 is the very darkest. The man of Psalm 88 experiences himself as one who’s abiding under the wrath of God with such severity that he likens himself to one of the dead. His despair has made him as estranged and abhorrent to his acquaintances as death itself would do. His loved ones and companions have been distanced from him. He’s utterly alienated in his despair from every source of comfort and welcome. The darkness is his only friend.

He questions if God can miraculously deliver him from this gloom of living death and if there’s any possibility of recovery from this living death to renewed life again marked by praises and confession of God’s faithfulness to his people:

Will you work wonders for the dead?
Shall the dead arise and praise you?
​​Shall your lovingkindness be declared in the grave?
Your faithfulness in the place of destruction?
Shall your wonders be known in the dark?
And your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

Psalm 88 is so despairing that it gives no answer to these questions. The man of Psalm 88 is left to sit in this darkness and wait in silence. This man knows a “dark night of the soul” that can only be survived. Nothing else can be said of it in the moment. He must wait.

How can God do this to his righteous one?

Can God even know this despair experienced by his creatures?

Consider: Is Jesus not the man of despair in Psalm 88? Is this not our Lord in his hour of judgment, torment, and death? Is this not the righteous one afflicted by God and cut off from all hope and comfort—cast away from companions and loved ones? Is this not the Son of God laid in a tomb during that vigil, waiting silently along with the world for the answer of the most extreme form of renewed life—resurrection from the dead?

Yes. Yes to all. Yes and amen.

Like many other psalms, Psalm 88 finds an expression in the life of the Son of God. And the Son of God shares in the experiences and life of his people.

Spells and even seasons of deep despair, dark nights of the soul, are part of the lives of the people of God here and now. And Jesus who has made us holy and brought us near to God through his own agony and despair is a man who understands us—a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He’s a faithful high priest who intercedes for his people, knows his people, comforts his people, becomes and imparts strength in their weaknesses. He is the one who offered up prayers and supplications with vehement cries and tears to God who was able to save him from death (Heb. 5:7).

Why are you in despair, O my friend?
And why are you in turmoil within you?
Hope in Christ, for you shall yet praise him—
The salvation of your countenance and your God.

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