Psalm 88 is a lament. The psalmist is greatly distressed and emotional. Most interpreters of the psalm believe the reason for the distress is found in some type of terminal illness. Loneliness and spiritual distress accompany physical illness. These are reflected in the psalm as well.
Many psalms have a theme which connects judgment from God with the threat of a watery death of some sort (Ps 18, 66, 69, 88, 124, 144; Jonah 2). All of these psalms share the following components:
- The psalmist is overwhelmed by raging water.
- The psalmist is surrounded by accusers.
- The psalmist maintains innocence.
- The psalmist affirms reliance upon God.
- The psalmist cries out to God for deliverance from the waters.
In some of these psalms the psalmist is drawn from the waters so that he might offer praise to God for deliverance. This is not the case in Psalm 88.
When a person is near death with an illness, there is a heightened awareness of danger. Terminally ill people feel like they are falling beneath the waves and being pulled toward the grave.
Psalm 88 applies not only to illness but to any severe emotional distress in life or even a life-threatening situation like warfare or a pandemic.
The kernel of the psalm is found in verses 14-17.
Great distress, pain, and affliction over a prolonged period of time drains a person of hope. This psalm reminds people that we don’t always have the answers to the difficulties people face. Why is it so hard to admit this? There isn’t always a happy ending in this temporal world.
Wrong Thinking of Distressed People
The psalmist begins this psalm with the words, “LORD, God of my salvation.” He was rightly related to God. There is no reason to assume otherwise. He continually cried out to God night and day. Yet he maintained that he was under great distress. His soul was full of trouble and he was being pulled toward the grave (v. 3). This thought expands into verses 6 and 7:
Weak and Vulnerable Constitution
Believers who battle depression would certainly be able to relate to this psalm. Some people are intensely inward with a very sensitive, thoughtful disposition. Others are intensely outward with a very cheerful, spontaneous disposition. Some are pessimistic and others are optimistic. The former see life through a dark filter. They are cognizant to the evil surrounding them, the evil within them.
Long-Term Illness or Mental Affliction
A brooding inner loneliness combined with distress like some sort of illness is impossible to overcome apart from Christ. If such a person is controlled by his own thinking, he will quickly be overwhelmed by all these negative emotions. He must combat this state of mind by speaking and believing the truth as revealed by God’s Word. God’s thoughts about a person’s disposition in life must reign supreme.
Depression is often the result of a long period of some kind of distress mishandled by the mind. It’s not only the body that is exposed to illness; them mind grows sick too. Mental illness leads to physical illness. Physical illness leads to mental illness. It’s a gruesome synergy leading to the perpetuation of depression.
Sometimes ongoing, dominating sin leads to such depression. Perhaps it’s just one great sin committed in the past. It is a hope-wrecker. Life quickly becomes burdensome. If the sin is public and known, there is no place to hide. He cannot bear to look at the faces of the people who once respected him. He feels so alone, so isolated. He longs for relief. Where does he find it? Drugs? Death? How does he escape self-condemnation?
A believer abandoning God’s Word will think an ever-descending spiral of depression. Such a spiral may end in self-murder. It is delusive to think that Christians do not commit self-murder. Sometimes they abandon healthy practices and slowly, almost passively, kill themselves. Others just end it all at once in some dramatic way, leaving family and friends to pick up the hopeless remnants of a life lost.
Satan and demons cannot possess the soul of a believer, but such dark spiritual forces oppress the soul of every believer to one degree or another. All people are in the world he is energizing. He is the believer’s most powerful adversary. He attacks faith and hope ruthlessly. He stands as the accuser of the brethren. He makes people mindful of guilt and hypocrisy at every turn. He delights in deceiving. He is a roaring lion among weak lambs.
We face times of testing and temptation. God allows this to come into our lives. When this happens, people often think that God must not love them as much as He loves others. That’s more self-thinking at work. The truth is that the Lord loves those whom He chastens. God viewed Job as a man of complete integrity. God asked Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? No one else on earth is like him, a man of perfect integrity, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1.8). But God allowed Satan to afflict Job and test this matter of complete and perfect integrity. Job said, “Surely the arrows of the Almighty have pierced me; my spirit drinks their poison. God’s terrors are arrayed against me” (Job 6.5). Even our Lord Jesus prayed, “Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour” (John 12.27).
The expressions from the psalmist in Psalm 88 are lessons from a man going through great affliction. Some people pursue pleasure in life. Others dive deep into their own thoughts. Both pursuits end in the same place. However, a clear understanding of our bankrupt spiritual condition is a valuable catalog of knowledge. If we endure distress and depression over a period of time, we can come out of it all the better. We find a lifeline of grace at the end of it.
Maybe you have always been weak and vulnerable. It’s your nature. Maybe you have been reduced to such a state through illness or other afflictions accumulating in life. Maybe you simply cannot shake that great sin you committed in the past. Maybe satanic forces are oppressing you. Perhaps God is allowing a period of testing in your life. Psalm 88 is cast in a bleak, dark, and frightening setting. Still, there are some positive reflections that come from it.
Right Thinking of Distressed People
1. Sin is exceedingly sinful.
There wouldn’t be depression apart from sin. Depression is the bitter fruit of sin. Adam communed with God in the midst of the Garden at the end of each day. He was unfettered by sin. But he was untested. Once he rebelled against God, the inward pain must have been very acute. We are truly sons and daughters of Adam. We are born for trouble as the sparks fly upward. We find distress and depression at some point during our earthly sojourn. Full joy and gladness are reserved in Heaven for us.
- One day, “Joy and gladness will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee” (Isaiah 35.10).
- But today, “I eat ashes like bread and mingle my drinks with tears because of your indignation and wrath; for you have picked me up and thrown me aside” (Psalm 102.9).
- “You frighten me with dreams, and terrify me with visions, so that I prefer strangling (suffocating) – death rather than life in this body” (Job 7.14-15).
The expression of Job is fulfilled in the life of Judas. Where is the source of such deep depression? It is found in the exceedingly sinfulness of sin.
2. Grace is exceedingly beneficial.
It seems we don’t understand how amazing grace is until peace and comfort are taken from us. One mark of spiritual maturity is the realization that it’s a wonder that we find lengthy and wonderful respites of grace instead of constant distress and depression. Sin alienates us. We see our imperfections so clearly even as we serve God. Grace reminds us that God still loves us. It magnifies who He is and what He has done for us. It breaks us free from depression and gives us a reason to adore God and to love life once again.
God revives the broken and contrite heart. If God marked my iniquities against me, my life experience would find an apt description in Psalm 88. It is where things would begin and end. But grace brings me to the light of God’s countenance without fail. I’m not overwhelmed in some watery grave of depression. Instead, I drink deeply from the wells of joy and salvation! I can’t complain of darkness, affliction, and distress when grace reminds me of the unchanging love of God for me. My hope and confidence are deeply rooted in Him. This energizes my devotion and service for Him. He restores my soul!
3. Jesus is exceedingly sacrificial.
Jesus died for my sin not His own. He took upon Himself the sin of the world. As terrible and as lonely as we sometimes feel in this world, what was it like for Jesus? The spotless Lamb of God was the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side through eternity. He took upon Himself the suffering due to us as the Just for the unjust.
Jesus was a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. He drank deeply and drained to the very dregs the cup of God’s wrath and indignation. He was made a curse for us. His creation was aligned against Him at every level. The Father Himself turned away from the Son. Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken Me?” The sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sin is beyond adequate description.
4. Godlessness is exceedingly hopeless.
It is one thing to live life feeling alienated from God; it’s quite another to die alienated from Him. If a person dies in their sins instead of in Christ, he faces everlasting torment. Imagine a life of depression followed by the depressing reality of eternal torment. Sinners outside of Christ will be cast out into a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. The comfort of God’s presence will not be found. They are hopeless souls undergoing everlasting torment.
If depression and distress don’t lead you to Jesus Christ for salvation, they will pull you down into the depths of death and Hell. This is how it will be for people who will not receive the Savior. It is the end of the godless. “The wicked are like the storm-tossed sea, for it cannot be still, and its water churns up mire and muck. There is no peace for the wicked” (Isaiah 57.20-21).
The Glorious Place of Eternal Joy
“Seek the LORD while he may be found; call to him while he is near. Let the wicked abandon his way and the sinful one his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, so that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will freely forgive” (Isaiah 55.6-7). If you will come to Christ for salvation you may not avoid distress and bouts of depression, but you will certainly have everlasting joy and gladness in Heaven. The believer is assured of Christ’s continual intercession throughout life. He or she will have a new body prepared by the Lord Jesus for them in the end. Best of all, Jesus is preparing a place for us. Not merely a location but a place free from sorrow, death, distress, and depression. It is a glorious place of eternal joy!