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God’s Word for You

Psalm 88:14-18 Darkness is my friend

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, August 2, 2019

14 O LORD, why do you reject me?
  Why do you hide your face from me?
15 I have been afflicted from my youth
  and am close to death.
  I have endured your terrors.
  I am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me.
  Your terrors have destroyed me.

The New Testament does not associate this Psalm with the Messiah directly. Modern editions of the Greek New Testament (the Nestle-Aland and the United Bible Society editions) provide a reference to Psalm 88:9 (“You have removed me from my friends”) under Luke 23:49, “the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance.” Another such reference is verse 12’s mention of Abaddon with Revelation 9:11. But a close look at verses 14-18 strongly suggest the suffering of Jesus on the cross, especially the moment where the agony of his suffering wrenched Psalm 22:1 from his lips: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34). That cry of Jesus is a testimony that he was actually being forsaken by the Father; that his suffering was indeed the agony of hell. Can we even imagine what it was like for the sinless Son of God no longer to feel the mercy or love of his Father, but only wrath, pain, loss, and abandonment? Doesn’t Heman illustrate this for us? “O Lord, why do you reject me?” His entire state of humiliation is compacted into the words, “I have been afflicted from my youth and am close to death.” He was drinking the cup of God’s anger, the cup he had asked (if it were possible) to avoid. But now? “I have endured your terrors. I am in despair.”

I have a friend who knew a woman in a hospital who constantly rejected any mention of Christ, of forgiveness, of the Bible or of religion in general. She wanted nothing to do with any of it, and wanted to face death on her own terms, sinking (she imagined) into peaceful oblivion without any need for God. Then came a day when my friend heard a blood-curdling scream from the woman’s room. The nurses and staff ran quickly there to find her dead, her face still contorted in the scream that had been her last word, or sound, on earth. Surely there was a woman who realized too late what hell would mean. Heman said: “Your wrath has swept over me. Your terrors have destroyed me.”

17 All day long they surround me like water.
  They have battered me all at once.
18 You have taken my loved one from me, and my friend.
  Darkness is my friend.

Another connection to the language of the crucifixion is the reference to God’s terrors (“they”) that “surround me like water.” In Psalm 22:16, the Messiah says “a band of evil men has encircled me.” The waves of God’s fury “battered me all at once,” a curious image enhanced in Hebrew by the word yachad “all at once (in a united way).” Christ suffered the eternity of hell in just a short while, humanly speaking, on the cross.

Heman mourns the loss of his friend. The word “loved one” (‘oheb) is sometimes a synonym for Jerusalem (Psalm 78:68, 87:2) or as a description of the sanctuary there (Malachi 2:11). Here something more human is meant, since he adds, “my friend.” This seems to be a reference to the writer’s very last friend, since he has already been separated from everyone else he cares about.

The final phrase is just two words: mayuda’ui maḥshach. The last word is “darkness,” a kind of darkness so deep that people lose their way in it, a word sometimes paired with “deepest darkness” (Psalm 107:14). This is a darkness masking light but also masking righteousness, a darkness filled by “haunts of violence” (Psalm 74:20), a darkness where sinners think, “Who sees us? Who will know?” (Isaiah 29:15). It can only be brightened by the hand of God himself, who says, “I will turn the darkness into light before them” (Isaiah 42:16).

The word maḥshach is a pual (passive intensive) participle. It might be used here as a substantive, “My (only) acquaintance (friend),” or as a summation of his acquaintances, like Jesus’ disciples who deserted him, in his grieving loneliness: “Darkness is all I know.” For a human, this should never be the case, for we always have a companion, a friend in Jesus. He has promised to be with us always and at all times (Matthew 28:20), and this was known to the writers of the Psalms: “You hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory” (Psalm 73: 23-24). But for the suffering Jesus on the cross, this was the sorrowful cry from our Lord as he suffered in our place. “Darkness is my (only) friend.” He tasted death so that we would be rescued from it. He entered the grave to blaze our path out of it. He entered the darkness and the silence to be a light “shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19) and the word spoken in the silence: “Rise; get up and enter your rest” (Hebrews 4:6). This will be the word you hear, because you heard the gospel spoken in your lifetime and did not reject it. Psalm 88 will never be a Psalm you need to sing in your despair. It will be a song you study and apply to your Savior, knowing that he has taken your place in order to give you a place with him for all eternity.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.



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