WHAT IS MOST STRIKING ABOUT Psalm 88 is that there is no relief. Heman begins the psalm by crying to the Lord, disclosing his discouragement in various ways, and he ends in gloom and despair. Most psalms that deal with discouragement and despair begin in gloom and end in light. This one begins in gloom and ends in deeper gloom.
When Heman begins, although he cries to the Lord, “the God who saves me” (the only note of hope in the entire poem), he plaintively observes that he cries out before God “day and night” (Ps. 88:1). He frankly feels he is not being heard (Ps. 88:2, 14). He is not only in difficulty but feels he is near death: “For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave” (88:3). Indeed, Heman insists that others treat him as if he is doomed (Ps. 88:4-5). The only explanation is that he is under divine wrath: “Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves” (Ps. 88:7; cf. Ps. 88:16). Not the least of his miseries is the loss of all his friends (Ps. 88:8).
Worse yet, Heman is convinced his whole life has been lived under the shadow of death: “From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death,” he writes (Ps. 88:15). Did he, perhaps, suffer from one of the many ugly, chronic, progressive diseases? “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” (Ps. 88:15-17).
But what makes the psalm utterly grim is the closing line. Not only does Heman charge God with taking away his companions and loved ones, but in the last analysis, “the darkness is my closest friend” (Ps. 88:18). Not God; the darkness.
One of the few attractive features of this psalm is its sheer honesty. It is never wise to be dishonest with God, of course; he knows exactly what we think anyway, and would rather hear our honest cries of hurt, outrage, and accusation than false cries of praise. Of course, better yet that we learn to understand, reflect, and sympathize with his own perspective. But in any case it is always the course of wisdom to be honest with God.
That brings up the most important element in this psalm. The cries and hurts penned here are not the cheap and thoughtless rage of people who use their darker moments to denounce God from afar, the smug critique of supercilious agnosticism or arrogant atheism. These cries actively engage with God, fully aware of the only real source of help.