When “darkness is my closest friend”: Reflections on Psalm 88

Posted by on Mar 31, 2017 in Blog | 2 comments

I was in a meeting a while back where a man said that he and his family had been living in Psalm 88 for a fair while – especially in v18b. Naturally I had to look it up. The tone of his comment had alerted me to expect something that fell a long way short of cheerful, and my instinct was right.

The psalm is hauntingly sad. While it starts hopefully (“you are the God who saves me” – v1), it finishes in a very different place, speaking about abandonment, rejection and suffering, before finishing with the sobering conclusion that “darkness is my closest friend”. While many psalms speak of struggle and difficulty, they usually find some kind of resolution before the end. This one does not. Understandably it is not a favourite preaching passage, as most prefer more encouraging fare for their Sunday diet. But you can’t ignore its sentiments – they are found both in Scripture and in the lived experience of many people, so what are we to make of life when we enter Psalm 88 territory?

Psalm 88 insists that we face those times when joy seems a far distant memory, and the present moment is experienced only as an oppressive weight. It forces us to ask how it can be that some decidedly decent people land up in this place – often as a result of circumstances completely outside of their control. And it could be that the decidedly decent person is you.

First, let’s feel the image. What does it mean to experience darkness as your closest friend?

Perhaps it is the sense that disappearing into darkness is better than living in light which constantly exposes the depth of the problems being faced. Or it could be that darkness simply means nothingness – and when struggling with something that seems insurmountable, disappearing into nothingness might seem the preferred option.

Perhaps this is not an image to be explained, but one to be sensed. If darkness is your closest friend, life is at a genuinely desperate point. The exact contours don’t have to be spelt out. Our common humanity makes it possible for the image to remain unscripted, and yet to be fully understood. And presumably it was the line of this Psalm that inspired the Simon and Garfunkel song Sounds of Silence with its opening line, “Hello darkness my old friend”. In spite of the songs rocky start, it went on to resonate with millions, and marked a turning point in their fortunes.

Whatever interpretation you choose, don’t miss the obvious.

This is a psalm of lament. The lament psalms acknowledge that life often does not run to plan. The psalmist’s response is to plead with God, then to complain to God and sometimes to even shake the fist at God. Whilst some might gasp at the boldness of that (how can you challenge God?), in its own way it speaks a word of hope. The psalmist complains to God because the psalmist continues to believe that God exists. And if God exists, then hope can never be abandoned. Rather than being the victim of random chance (the only explanation for the atheist), the lament psalms insist that it is still worth struggling with God, because no matter how bewildering God’s current silence might seem to be, God’s very existence means that there is always a flickering hope that while weeping may last all night, joy will come with the morning (as Psalm 30:5 claims).

What does this mean? If darkness is your closest friend, keep complaining to God. Strange though it may seem, it is a form of holding on to the faith, for it expresses a trust (and reveals a faith not yet abandoned) that God does know, does understand, does care and will eventually act. It is that firm conviction that makes the pain of the present unacceptable, and vindicates our complaint. We know that God loves us too much to allow this present angst to continue unabated. And so we plead with God, struggle with God and even shake the fist at God – because the moment we leave God out of the equation, we have most truly abandoned hope. And then darkness really is our only friend…

But even as we say those words we know they are not really true. And so we continue to complain to the God who never really abandons us…

2 Comments

  1. Thanks Brian that is one of the most insightful comments I have heard on this topic.

    • Thanks Graham. I think it is a topic we don’t think about enough.

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