Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Dealing With Depression: Psalm 88

Psalm 88 is a dark psalm. In many other psalms, the writer is going through troubles as he is surrounded by enemies or as he is dealing with his rebellion or sin. As the psalmist finishes, he usually ends with his eyes refocused on God and a word of trust and praise. Psalm 88 ends with the words You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.

There is no further word of trust, no glance heavenward. The psalmist stares headlong into the life given him and his conclusion - darkness is my closest friend.

The first thing we notice about the Psalm is that it is a song. The inscription reads: A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According to mahalath leanoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite. Imagine standing up Sunday morning and singing this psalm with one another. But that is what this psalm is - a song set to music to be lead by the director of music.

What is the response of the church to be for those who suffer with depression? While depression often remains hidden in the church, as if the depression person must be either rebuked or pitied, Psalm 88 teaches us to sing to one another about darkness. While we love to praise God with songs of thanksgiving and salvation, there is a place to talk about the darkness of the soul. Depression/darkness is to be out in the open. The people of God are to address the issue.

That means two things:

First, those who struggle with depression must learn to talk about depression and second, the rest are to learn to listen to those who struggle with depression.

Sounds simple? Well, no because if someone struggles with depression, one of the hardest moments of their life is to talk about their darkness. Sure, they may talk but listen to receive words of hope? Or they may not even be at the point of talking. At times it may be like no one will understand or at other times it is like laying on the weight bench with too much weight on the bar - they just cannot lift this to a conversation. Darkness is a lonely place.

On the other hand, those who listen must learn to listen and not give out cliche, religious, empty answers. Or they must be able to patiently draw out a persons darkness, which takes time and trust. It is usually not time to be looking for sin or casting out demons - it is a time to listen, love and patiently suffer alongside of the one in darkness.

How does the church deal with those who struggle with depression? Psalm 88 tells us to speak about it, sing out loud the struggles with darkness. God's Word is profound here. What happens when we sing about it? First, God is found in the pciture. Second, the person living in darkness understands this will not be swept under the rug and the church is not filled with Christians who have it all together. And third, those who sing for the depressed person are reminded to love them, to have mercy on them and to above all remember them.


Janice Van Eck said...

David... thanks for sharing this on your blog. Though this is often one of the hardest things to admit or talk about, how helpful it is (or should be!) for the rest of the Body to know and to help carry that person through. Praise God there are such psalms in the Word. Often, as we become more open ourselves, as hard as that is, we discover there are often many others struggling with very similar things (and thankfully not all at the same time!).
Keep writing...

Don Worthley said...

Fascinating take on Psalm 88. I make it a point to read the Psalms each day and somehow I've always missed this Psalm over the years. After it caught my attention, I decided to search the internet to see who else might be writing and thinking about this Psalm.

First, I stumbled on this entry ( which highlights the fact that we tend to ignore the odd and difficult-to-understand passages, especially if we already entrenched in some pre-defined, possibly highly systematic theology. I found Isaac’s thoughts really interesting since I love to have my theology nicely organized in a very Western grid of air tight theological compartments which help my simple mind wrap itself around the very big ideas we find throughout the Scriptures.

Then I found your post which took me on a slightly different, but equally challenging journey, a journey that is just as liberating as it is challenging because of the realization that God’s not challenged or put off by our expressions of despair. To think He even wants us to sing about it when we gather.

Excellent post. Thanks for taking us down this road.

Ruben said...

This is what I was taught about Psalm 88:
"Of course we cannot change the Bible, but if there was one passage which should not be in there, it ought to be Psalm 88. This psalm can only be for the lazy, for the damned, for those who refuse to help themselves. This psalm is for those on drugs, on welfare, the criminals who have no place in heaven. This is for those on the highway to hell. With this psalm God is letting you know what it feels like to totally condemned so you better watch out and make sure you've been saved."
Yep, apparently, that's the only reason God put this psalm into the Bible according to the pastor whose exegesis I heard - to further crush those already crushed.
What I think: Psalm 88 is a good example that you can make the Bible say anything you want to.
And yet I take comfort in it, it's the only passage in the Bible I relate to at the moment. It contains a truth more human than anything I have ever seen expressed.

Ruben said...

Although Psalm 88 is often read as the psalm without hope, without rehabiliation, it should be pointed out that notwithstanding, even in this psalm the wonders and the love of God are affirmed - if only doubtfully in the rhetorical questions.

James said...

Don't miss the fact that this is a psalm. It's a prayer to God. It's written by someone living in what is or feels like darkness, which invites argument to define darkness. On the extreme, it's those living harsh and super immoral lives, yes; on the normal, it's those who feel God is absent. How many characters in the Bible are there who are left without God's apparent blessing and presence? How many Christians are there who want to hear God more and feel Him more? I think this psalm is for the believer who knows God is real, that He is his God, and that He is his greatest confidant; that he's reached a point that he knows God is worth being his God despite what God is giving him. The writer is proving he's a believer because God is worthy and not because God is blessing him. I think this is a remarkable prayer. It takes some nerve to stand on a faith that's not immediately rewarding and one that's seemingly un-hopeful. To me, that's awesome.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to thank you for writing this! I have been in an utter depression for the last 4 months and was on the brink of committing suicide today, knife prepared to do the job this evening and note written. I began as a last resort to randomly read something out of the bible and read 88, utterly perplexed by what it said. I could not believe something as upright and fanciful as the bible would have a passage I could relate to so directly. I was curious what others had to say about the passage and I read this first off of a Google search. I have decided to put down the knife and reconsider what I have to live for. God bless you :)

Anonymous said...

I ran across this randomly when I typed in Psalm 88.

Thank you for sharing it.

I have been in a dark place for some time, and it is giving me the courage to seek help.

pmezak said...

I also have been pretty depressed lately, and feel like I have no one to turn to. I have felt separated from friends and loved ones, all the things this psalm mentions. I opened to it randomly last night and couldn't believe how accurate it was for my situation at the moment. It did help me to feel less lonely, if even for a little while, because obviously God knows and understands....thanks for writing about it here.

steve bloem said...

I appreciated your comments on Psalm 88. I have had episodes of clinical depression for 25 years.
If you google, broken minds, bloem,
you can read all about my wife's
Robyn and I story. We have a couple of pages on Psalm 88.
Steve Bloem
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Lee said...

I take groups to the Holy Land quite regularly. In the bowels of the Gallicantu Church, which is built on the site believed to be the Palace of Caiaphas on the east slope of Mount Zion, there are water cisterns from pre Roman times, which by the time of Jesus were probably used to hold prisoners because the only access is from an aperture on top of the cell. the prisoner would be dropped in and there was no hope out of the cell since it was hollowed out of solid rock and have no doors. We remember Christ in his darkest hours in this cistern, awaiting his fate. In the cistern, the church has placed an album of Psalm 88 in many languages , including mine, which is Chinese. I would recite it to my fellow travellers and we would come out desolate, but reaching for God.

In this global economy where we have learnt to worship success, speaking about any failings, let alone depression, seems so inept. Psalm 88 strips away the bravado of strong words and happy faces, and exposes us to be helpless, desolate and weak. It is only when we accept that we need God that we seek him, and not limiting the Almighty to exalt us, set us high up above others, or avenge us. When darkness is all around us, we can listen, and we can bow to the will of God, not aiming to win or to be reinstated, but to realize that we can still choose to keep faith, to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
Sure, praises and exaltation are important part of our faith, but so are all those in need, all those who are desolate, for groping for faith in those dark hours will have ensured the closeness of God to their hearts at their hour of need.

Merry said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

for me I think depression comes on because life makes it apparent that God blesses folks very differently. If your on the short end of the stick its confusing & hurtful given the whole "God loves you" teaching and "God doesnt make any junk" thing. He in fact does bless differently - this is how he rolls. Just read the bible and you will see multiple examples beginning in Genesis. The church in general should reconsider their teachings to include the - "you may suck but that's God's will" doctrine which would probably make it better than roaming around aimlessly, confused for 60 years hoping for a better day when none will be forthcoming.

ekaterina said...

Dear friends,

thank you for each putting your imput about Psalm 88. I have been living this Psalm today and the Lord somehow showed it to me. Thank you to those brothers and sisters who are willing to help people like thus, undergoing PSalm 88. But also, how great is Jesus, who will not let us suffer more than we can bear. I just wait till this season of Psalm 88 ends.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading through the Psalms to find this joy that comes from praising God. While I knew that Psalms included several chapters of David asking God to rescue him or put his enemies to shame, I did not know that there would be so much sadness. I was looking for joy, remember?
Anyhow, today I was feeling especially low & Psalm 88 was next. That's all me, right now. Has been for a long time...years. I've tried counseling & worn out my few friends. If I didn't love my mother so much I woulda been gone a long time ago. But it was good to read this. I'm encouraged that joy WILL come in the morning. The darkest hour comes just before the day.

Osten Aune said...

This is my response to Rueben!

Somehow Rueben's response is nothing more than typical Republican uncompassionate rhetoric!

The Rich and Powerful believe their wealth and status
qualifies them to sit in judgement of the poor rather than to assist them.

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."
~John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)

Worship by those who neglect the poor is offensive to God!

How dare you judge on who and who should not enter heaven. God loves ALL people... even the ones you despise.

Eilif Aune

Osten Aune said...

In God's wisdom he did not let Rueben pick and choose what is in the Bible!

Gordon said...

For many years Psalm 88 has been comforting to me. I have struggled with un-wanted homosexual feelings since my youth, yet I have chosen to fear God openly and conform my life to Him rather than to my lust. Along with the Psalmist, I will continue to cry out to the Lord. I will continue to trust Him. One day I shall be in His presence and He will hold me close and welcome and comfort me. Therefore, I will continue to fear Him openly today; not trusting my feelings, rather trusting in the One and only true God.

Keziah weNa said...

Thanks a lot for blogging about this, it has enlightened my thoughts. God bless!!!

JesusHealsMarriages said...

Thanks for your post on Psalm 88. I did a short message on the tremendous encouragement this Psalm shows us about Christ's work in our despair.

Steve Bloem said...

Thanks for your blog on this so important psalm. Allot of people just skip it. But if you read the 16th century Puritans they preach it with great insight and exhortation. I have severe depression and I know that there are dark dungeons beneath the Castle of Despair. In an upcoming book on Bible Characters and Depression, I have a chapter on Heman, God's lonely man.
In Christ,
Rev. Steve Bloem
Co-author, Broken Minds Hope for Healing When You Feel Like You're Losing It.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I have used this psalm when depression strikes for a number of years. As you say it is when we can speak about our depression that we make the first step on the road to recovery

Unknown said...

Amen that's awesome