Psalms Book 3: In the Lowest Pit

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on February 17, 2006

Psalms 88:1-18

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Psalm 88. And as you do so, let me encourage you to brace yourself, because this is probably the saddest Psalm in the whole of the 150 Psalms.

You know, in almost every Psalm, no matter how low the psalmist gets, by the end of it you get to some spark of hope, some word of grace. And it just never comes in this Psalm. And that’s really important for us to realize. As Christians face troubles, deep troubles, intractable troubles, unrelieved troubles, troubles that never go away in this life, there have been at least four responses to that from teachers.

False teachers have often said one of two things to Christians. Some false teachers have said suffering, trouble, pain — it’s all an illusion. And if you could just open your eyes to reality you would realize that there is no suffering, there is no pain, there is no trouble.

You’ve heard the joke about the boy who lived next door to the Christian Scientist. Now, I’m not talking about a rocket scientist who goes to First Baptist Church, I’m talking about a follower of Mary Baker Eddy, the Christian Science cult that teaches that there is no pain, there is no death. That’s just illusion, and if the mind could be awakened to reality there would be no experience of pain and death. And the little boy comes next door one day and says to his Mom, “Mommy, Mommy! The lady next door, she’s sick.” His mother is a Christian Scientist, and she says, “No, son. The lady next door is not sick, she just thinks she is.” He comes back the next day and says, “Mommy, Mommy! The lady next door is real sick!” “No, son, she’s not real sick. She just thinks she is.” The next day he comes back and he says, “Mommy, Mommy! The lady next door is dead!” Well, her positive thinking and her Christian Scientist outlook didn’t do much good with that particular circumstance, but that’s one thing that false teachers say.

Interestingly enough, it’s actually an Eastern idea. You get that idea in some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism. Peter Jones was here this last week, and it’s good that we bring that in. Much of neo-paganism has bought into that Hindu or Buddhist idea that suffering, pain, is an illusion; if we were just enlightened, it would all go away. Well, that’s false teaching. We know that. We live in a fallen world. There are consequences to sin. Sin brought with it misery, and so the misery is not unreal; it’s very real.

Other false teachers deal with it this way: If you just had enough faith, your troubles would go away. The problem (if you’ve got suffering and frustration and trouble and pain and trial in your life) is you’re just not trusting the Lord enough. That’s what our health-and-wealth teachers say — the “word of faith” teachers that propagate the land. They say if we just had enough faith everything would be all right.

Both of those are false responses to trouble and pain in the Christian life. On the other hand, many well-meaning Christians are impatient with Christians who are under long suffering, and they’ll often say to them ‘You know, you need to really let go of this and just trust God.’ Now, of course, it’s always good advice to say, “Trust God.” That’s never, never, a bad idea — to trust God. But it’s also important for us to be patient with Christians that are trying to get there, but their trial is so deep and so intense that they’re having a hard time getting to where they themselves know they need to be.

And by the way, that’s one of the good lessons we do learn from this Psalm: patience with brothers and sisters who know they need to be trusting and resting in God. They know that that’s where they’re supposed to be, but they’re having a hard time getting there because of the depth of their circumstances.

On the other hand, sometimes as we face trouble we don’t get the counsel, “It’s all an illusion;” we don’t get the counsel, “If you just trusted God everything would be all right;” we don’t get the counsel, maybe, “Aw, you need to put this behind you and get on with life.”

Sometimes we get other kinds of counsel. Sometimes we get counsel from friends that say something like this: “You know, the believer never ever faces unanswered prayer, unrelieved suffering. The believer just never is there, in the Christian life.” And again, this Psalm is waiting for us in that kind of a circumstance, to help us know how we ought to respond.

On the other hand, some people come to a passage like this and say, “Ah, this teaches us that there are no answers, and so the answer is to realize that there are no answers.” Well, that’s not the message of this Psalm either, because even in this Psalm that ends with such bleakness, there are in fact some answers. They may not be all the answers that the Bible gives us, but there are some very important answers. And then of course elsewhere in the Bible there are some additional important answers. We’re going to try and look at that tonight. Let’s walk through this Psalm together, but first let’s look to God in prayer.

Our Lord and our God, we need Your help as we study this Psalm, but we thank You that it’s in Your book, because sometimes we need these words to sing; because sometimes we find ourselves right where this psalmist is. Help us, then, to behold wonderful truth from Your word, even when that truth is hard. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is the word of God:

“A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah.” [Them again!]

“For the choir director; according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

“O Lord, the God of my salvation,

I have cried out by day and in the night before Thee.

Let my prayer come before Thee;

Incline Thine ear to my cry!

For my soul has had enough troubles,

And my life has drawn near to Sheol.

I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit;

I have become like a man without strength,

Forsaken among the dead,

Like the slain who lie in the grave,

Whom Thou dost remember no more,

And they are cut off from Thy hand.

Thou hast put me in the lowest pit,

In dark places, in the depths.

Thy wrath has rested upon me,

And Thou hast afflicted me with all Thy waves. [Selah.

Thou hast removed my acquaintances far from me;

Thou hast made me an object of loathing to them;

I am shut up and cannot go out.

My eye has wasted away because of affliction;

I have called upon Thee every day, O Lord;

I have spread out my hands to Thee.

“Wilt Thou perform wonders for the dead?

Will the departed spirits rise and praise Thee? [Selah.

Will Thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave,

Thy faithfulness in the place of destruction?

Will Thy wonders be made known in the darkness?

And Thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

“But I, O Lord, have cried out to Thee for help,

And in the morning my prayer comes before Thee.

O Lord, why dost Thou reject my soul?

Why dost Thou hide Thy face from me?

I was afflicted and about to die from my youth on;

I suffer Thy terrors; I am overcome.

Thy burning anger has passed over me:

Thy terrors have destroyed me.

They have surrounded me like water all day long;

They have encompassed me altogether.

Thou has removed lover and friend far from me;

My acquaintances are in darkness.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.

I was looking through the hymnal this afternoon, and I noticed with interest that there is no rendition of Psalm 88 in our hymnal! And it’s no wonder, is it? It’s dark. But what can miserable Christians sing? What do you sing when you’re in a valley, like this psalmist is? Well, Psalm 88 is there to express some of the great truths of the Christian life for us, and I want to look at those together with you in four parts.

This Psalm (and we could outline it various ways) opens in verses 1 and 2 showing us an unanswered prayer. Then, in verses 3-9, this Psalm affirms that God is behind the psalmist’s troubles. In verses 10-12, the psalmist raises an argument with God, an important argument with God that teaches us something about the finality of death as well as the hope of the resurrection. And then finally, in verses 13-18, we see that this prayer is still unanswered, and that in and of itself has a message for us.

Let me walk quickly through the Psalm in each of those, and then point you to two things: First, to the points of hope that can be drawn from this Psalm; and then, to some other Scriptural truths which control our response to God in deep times of trouble.

Let’s start in verses 1 and 2. Here the psalmist is basically crying out ‘Lord, please hear me! Please, just hear me!’ Listen to what he says:

“O Lord, the God of my salvation, I have cried out by day and in the night before You. Let my prayer come before You; incline Your ear to my cry!”

In other words, the psalmist is saying ‘I’ve been pleading for Your help, but it’s like You haven’t heard me.’ The psalmist has lifted up a petition, a prayer, a request for help, but that petition has seemingly been unheard.

Now what do we learn from that? We learn that sometimes even strong believers feel as if their cries for help have gone unheard, and that means that in those circumstances we need to be careful not to be Job’s counselors and tell Job that if Job had just not sinned, or if he would just get around to repenting, or if he would just trust God more, then everything would be OK.

No, there are seasons when strong believers feel as if their prayers have not been heard, and thankfully, this Psalm reminds us of that. You know, if that weren’t the case, there really would be a cause for despair. If you were going through a season where a prayer had not been heard and you thought that the Bible teaches that true believers never go through those seasons, then what are you going to think about yourself? That here is a godly believer — and by the way, we’re going to disclose the identity of this believer at the end of this Psalm — here’s a godly believer, a strong believer, but right now he doesn’t feel as if his God is hearing him.

Now, we know, if we can step back, that ultimately there is always a bigger picture in that dynamic; but we also know that when we’re in the midst of that battle of prayer and we’re praying for the conversion of a loved one, and that conversion has not come, that it is a deep, deep burden to bear when that answer has not been given that our heart so longs for; and we’re praying for that deliverance from a sure death sentence from the doctor, and the word of mercy and relief and grace and miracle has not occurred, it is a difficult, difficult place to be.

And this psalmist is right there, feeling as if his prayer has not been heard. And that teaches us to be sensitive, and it teaches us to be supportive to our brothers and sisters when they’re in that circumstance.

The second thing I want you to see is in verses 3-9. This psalmist — and isn’t this section poignant? — this psalmist basically says ‘Lord God, I’ve got one foot in the grave, and You’re pushing me there!’ This psalmist has nothing to do with the theology of Rabbi Harold Kushner. You know, if Rabbi Harold Kushner had been there with the psalmist, he would have said ‘Look, sometimes bad things happen to good people. You’re a good person. God has nothing to do with this. He’d love to help you out, but He can’t, because He’s not in control of everything. And if you can just come to terms with the realization that God’s not in control of everything, and He’s not in control of your circumstances, ah! you’ll get some relief.’

And that’s not what this psalmist says. This psalmist knows that God is sovereign. You know, isn’t it interesting that never once does Job entertain the thought that God is not in control of his life? In fact, the whole wrestling of the Book of Job is precisely because Job knows that God is in control of his life, and he wants to know ‘Lord, what in the world are You doing?’ Nowhere does Job get comfort from the thought ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that You’re not in control, God.’ And say what you will about this psalmist, he never starts spouting drivel like that. He never tries to find comfort from saying ‘Oh, I understand now. God’s not in control. This isn’t His fault. He’d like to help me if He could.’ No. Over and over, this psalmist acknowledges that God is in charge. His message here in verses 3-9: ‘Lord, You don’t know the troubles I’ve seen. I’m like a dead man, and You’ve put me here.’

Now what do we learn from that? Well, one thing we do learn is because this psalmist won’t let go of the sovereignty of God, we need to be sympathetic with him. But again as we pull back and look at the bigger picture, we also need to realize this, my friends: Isn’t it a kindness that God is patient to listen to this psalmist talk like this? You know, when you cry out to God and you say ‘Lord, You just don’t know how it is with me!’

You know, the truth is, it’s the other way around, isn’t it? We just don’t know what the Father has done for us. We’ll never know. We’ll spend eternity plumbing the depths of what the Father has done for us, has paid for us, what Christ has done for us, has paid for us, and we’ll never, ever, know what They’ve done for us.

It’s kind of like a little child who’s going through a problem at school and saying to Mom and Dad, “You just don’t know the trouble I’m facing!” And Mom and Dad are thinking, “Oh, dear child, I wish you never had to grow up and understand what I’ve been through for you, what I’m going through for you now, and you don’t even realize what’s going on. You’re all upset about that eraser, or about that pencil, about that friendship, about that problem with that teacher, and you don’t know what I’m going through to make your life like it is.” Isn’t it a kindness that God would be so patient with the cries of this seemingly deserted believer? And that ought to teach us personal patience and grace with Christians that are going through these times. If the Lord can bear it, well, we can bear long with those friends, too, on their journey as they come to terms with God’s providence.

But thirdly, I want you to look at verses 10-12, because now the psalmist has come up with a pretty clever argument: ‘Lord, You really need to hear my prayer!’ Here’s the argument: I want to praise You, God, but I can’t do that if I’m six feet below the earth. I can’t praise You from the grave. I can’t witness to Your wonders. I can’t tell people about Your righteousness. I can’t tell about Your justice, Your faithfulness, Your mercy, if I’m dead! So please, hear me! Answer my prayer!’

Well, there’s a lot to learn from the psalmist’s statements. For one thing, again, let’s pat this psalmist on the back. The psalmist has not forgotten the chief end of man. The psalmist has not forgotten the purpose of life: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

But ironically, isn’t it interesting that God will do and has done precisely what the psalmist thinks he can’t?

‘Lord,’ he says, ‘will You perform wonders from the dead?’

‘As a matter of fact, yes, I will,’ the Lord says.

‘Will the departed spirits rise and praise You?’

‘As a matter of fact, dear Old Testament believer, they will.’

‘Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave?’

‘Yes, it will; in My Son’s grave.’

‘Will Your faithfulness be shown in Abaddon, in the abyss, in the depths of hell?’

‘Yes, it will. My Son will endure it for you.’

‘Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness?’

‘Oh, yes, they will; in the deepest depths of hell.’

‘Will Your righteousness be known in the land of forgetfulness?’

‘Oh, yes, it will.’

You see, the very finality with which the psalmist views death serves to beautifully highlight the Christian hope of the resurrection. That’s important for us to remember, because ultimately our hope is not simply that when we die our souls immediately go to be with the Lord, though they do. Our hope is that one day our bodies will be raised from the dead, and the totality of us, body and soul, will live and praise and worship God for His righteousness and faithfulness and justice and mercy forever. And the very lack of that full understanding of that truth by this Old Testament saint highlights that truth for us as Christians.

But then we get to verses 13-18 and there’s still no answer. The psalmist cries out ‘I’m burdened, and I’m burdened by You, O God. But I’m still waiting for Your help.’ And this reminds us that there is not always a happy ending in this fallen world.

Just this afternoon I was visiting the World Magazine website, and it featured a picture of a tiny little emaciated African girl who died last week. She had been ministered to by Christian missionaries, and she died. There was no happy ending for that little girl in this life. And the psalmist does remind us that there are not always happy endings in this fallen world.

Derek and I were chatting with the other ministers just a few days ago, and Derek was giving us a devotional that told us something from the life of John Wesley. A fact you may not know about John Wesley is that he was in a very unhappy marriage. And it was so unhappy that he got a letter telling him that his wife had died and had been buried several days before, without his even knowing. There wasn’t a happy ending to that. I don’t think any of us would want to question what a lover of Christ and a man of God John Wesley was, but there was no happy ending in that story. It made Derek and me pause and thank God again for our wives, Rosemary and Anne! But there are believers where the endings are not happy.

But that’s not all that we learn from this. We learn that there is indeed unrelieved suffering in the believer’s life, but this Psalm also teaches us that the believer never ever comes to terms of peace with the pain and the suffering of the fallen world. The believer always knows this is not how it is supposed to be. This is not how God intended it to be, and the believer traces it all the way back to — where? — to sin. Misery always paints a line back to sin, and until sin is dealt with, then misery will never be eradicated.

And then, of course, we can be encouraged, because, bless his heart, this psalmist doesn’t give up. Have you noticed that? He doesn’t stop praying. Ah! That’s one of the lessons we’re going to learn in a minute.

But finally, let me just reveal to you the identity of the author of this Psalm. You saw his name at the beginning. This is a Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite. Do you know who he was? He was one of the pioneers of the choir of the Korahites in the temple of God. This guy put together a choir that gave you a number of the Psalms, and that lets us know that no matter how dark was this time in his life, this was ultimately a man who trusted God, who loved the worship of God, who loved the Lord’s people, who led in worship, who had a design to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Now, what are the points of hope in this Psalm? What are the points of hope? Well, let me mention three.

The first and most important point of hope in this Psalm is found in the very first verse. What does the psalmist call God? “O God…O Lord…God of my salvation.” The psalmist is acknowledging by the very name that he uses to title God that God is our only help and hope, and that’s one of the very big points of hope in this Psalm. God is our only help and hope, and that is the one thing that is never taken away from any believer. No matter what else is taken away from a believer, that help and hope can never be taken away. That is so important for us to remember. Everything else can be lost in this world, but not that.

Secondly, notice that even in that crazy argument to the Lord in verses 10-12 about how the Lord needed to hear him because he couldn’t praise Him from the grave, even in that argument, what do we see? We see the continuing desire of this psalmist to praise God. Have you ever met someone who the troubles of life have simply made bitter? They’ve become bitter, they’ve become cynical, and they have no hope. Well, despite what he has been through, this psalmist is not there. He still wants to praise God, and that is a great blessing. Even if he’s having a hard time doing it, he wants to get there.

And thirdly, notice that even though there’s no answer to this prayer in verses 13-18, the psalmist is still praying. What’s the message for us? Don’t stop praying.

Why does Jesus use that illustration of the importunate widow at the door of the unjust judge in the middle of the night? Because His message is ‘Don’t stop praying.’

And those are three great encouragements in an otherwise very, very dark Psalm. But of course, those are not the only answers. There are more answers from the Bible, and I want to close just by sharing with you some words that John Piper penned. Many of you know that yesterday John had surgery for cancer. And you know, they say there are four types of people in the world: those who had cancer, those who have cancer, those who are going to get cancer, and those who are going to die before they get it! Now that’s probably a little bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not far from it.

And here’s what John Piper said. You remember his book, Don’t Waste Your Life? Well, he’s just written this article, and you know what it’s called? Don’t Waste Your Cancer. And here’s what he says. He says ten things.

“I write this on the eve of my cancer surgery. I believe in God’s power to heal, by miracle or by medicine. I believe it is right and good to pray for both kinds of healing. Cancer is not wasted when it is healed by God. He gets the glory and that’s why cancer exists, so not to pray for healing may waste your cancer. But healing is not God’s plan for everyone, but there are many other ways to waste your cancer, and I am praying for myself and for you that we will not waste this pain.”

[And then he gives ten points:]

1. You will waste your cancer if you do not believe that it is designed for you by God. It will not do to say that God only uses our cancer but doesn’t design it. What God permits, He permits for a reason, and that reason is His design.

2. You will waste your cancer if you believe it is ultimately a curse and not a gift, because there is therefore now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus. The Lord does not withhold any good thing from those who walk uprightly.

3. You will waste your cancer if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God.

4. You will waste your cancer if you refuse to think about death. We will all die, if Jesus postpones His return. Not to think about what it will be like to leave this life and meet God is folly.

5. You will waste your cancer if you think that beating cancer means staying alive, rather than cherishing Christ. Satan’s designs and God’s designs in your cancer are not the same. Satan designs to destroy your love for Christ; God designs to deepen your love for Christ. Cancer does not win if you die; it wins if you fail to cherish Christ. God’s design is to wean you from the world and feast you on the sufficiency of Christ.

6. You will waste your cancer if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God.

7. You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepening your relationships with manifest affection.

8. You will waste your cancer if you grieve as those who have no hope.

9. You will waste your cancer if you treat sin as casually as before. Are your besetting sins as attractive as they were before you had cancer? If so, you’re wasting your cancer. Cancer is designed to destroy the appetite for sin.

10. You will waste your cancer if you fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ. Christians are never anywhere by divine accident. There are reasons for why we wind up where we do. Remember, you are never left alone. You have the help you need. My God will supply every need of yours, according to His riches in glory in Jesus Christ.”

All of those are good Christian counsel to those who find themselves in a deep valley of trouble. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, thank You for this hard Psalm. Teach us the lessons of it, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Would you stand for God’s blessing.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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