Friday, February 29, 2008

Psalm 88

Friday, February 29, 2008 -- Week of 3 Lent

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 955)
Psalms 95* & 88 (morning) 91, 92 (evening)
Genesis 47:1-26
1 Corinthians 9:16-27
Mark 6:47-56
*for the Invitatory

Psalm 88 is unique in the collection of psalms. It is an unrelenting lamentation of woe and despair.

The psalmist opens with the cry, "O my God, my Savior, by day and night I cry to you," but the only action attributed to God is hurt and absence. "You have laid me in the depths of the Pit, ...Your anger weighs upon me heavily... You have put my friends far from me... Your blazing anger has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me..." The psalmist continues to cry out, "My God, I have called upon you daily," but there is no answer.

He asks God, "Why?" "O God, why have you rejected me; why have you hidden your face from me?" He argues, "What good is this?" If he dies, God can do nothing for him and he can do nothing for God. "Do you work wonders for the dead; will those who have died stand up and give you thanks? Will your loving-kindness be declared in the grave or your faithfulness in the land of destruction? Will your wonders be known in the dark or your righteousness in the country where all is forgotten?" The answer to all of these rhetorical questions is a resounding, "No!" (Note: this is written from the traditional perspective that after death is nothing, or a shadowy near-nothing-life in Sheol.)

There is no expression of hope. There is no prayer of confidence in God's deliverance. There is no promise that the psalmist will return with praise and thanksgiving after God's mighty arm rescues him. This is a psalm of unrelenting lamentation of woe and despair, ending in darkness. The last verse: "My friend and neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion."

I was visiting my seminary in New York City one summer, and I heard a lecture by the noted Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson, a United Methodist teaching at Princeton; he was on sabbatical there that year. He said of this psalm that he knew of no instance when it was appointed by a lectionary to be used by any Christian church in public worship. A quick student piped up, "We do!" He pointed to the regular cycle of psalms in Daily Office. Psalm 88 is part of the cycle. It always appears on a Friday, the day of the crucifixion.

Anderson was impressed. He felt this psalm is an important one. It speaks for a dark place where we sometimes find ourselves. It shows that it is okay to bring our grief, our anger, our complaint, our fear to God without feeling like we have to cover it up with false hope. The scripture includes words to God that express our hopelessness, and thus that is a faithful and honest communication to God. We can be completely honest, even if that means we have nothing good to say to God.

Some problems don't lend themselves to a cheery ending. Some situations do not hold a promise of deliverance. Sometimes we lose our hope altogether. Sometimes "darkness is (our) only companion."

Our voice is represented in the great collection of the Psalms. We have words for our emotions, words that are honored and revered among our holy texts. They are present and alive in the midst of our testament of hope. It is a good thing to have and to remember Psalm 88. If we are fortunate enough not to need to pray it for ourselves, we can certainly offer it on behalf of those who live in such despair and hopelessness.


Audio podcast: Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week. Click the following link: Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117

An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location --

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

Visit our web site at

Our Rule of Life
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 9:51 AM, Blogger The Underground Pewster said...

Whenever you sink to the depths, go to Psalm 130 which reminds us that after we cry, we "wait," and we "hope," and we shall be redeemed.

At 9:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fr. Lowell -- After attending conferences in Little Rock on bridging the faith and professional communities caring for the mentally ill, I used this Psalm to open Centering Prayer this morning. I asked those praying to hear this Psalm as a prayer from one who is mentally ill. I was very moved by the anguish in this Psalm.

Charles Tyrone
All Saints Russellville


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