What We Can Learn About Depression from the Saddest Psalm in the Bible
A STUDY OF PSALM 88
Introduction: More than 300 million people worldwide battle medically-recognized depression, and according to the WHO it’s the leading cause of disability in the world. It affects women twice the rate of men; but depressed men are 4 times more likely to commit suicide. Depression-related diagnoses in America have soared the recent years, especially among young people. The American Journal of Psychiatry reports that children as young as 3 are battling clinical depression. In a broader sense, all of us have moments when we feel depressed.
- Some depression is biological in nature, having to do with hormones and chemical imbalances.
- Some is medical. More than 200 common prescription drugs have side effects that may contribute to depression.
- Much of our depression is philosophical, which experts won’t admit. The teaching of atheistic evolution, which pervades our culture despite its glaring inaccuracies, can only bring despair to those who ponder its implications.
- Some depression is the result of our sinful nature and choices.
- Some is demonic; we’re engaged in warfare with a terrible enemy.
- And some of our depression is circumstantial as we are overwhelmed by the pressures of life.
The writer of Psalm 88 was depressed, and Psalm 88 has the distinction of being the saddest chapter in the Psalms. It is the only Psalm in which there is virtually no expression of hope. The writer felt worse at the end than at the beginning. Yet Psalm 88 is a part of inspired Scripture and contains an incredible lesson.
Exposition: Let’s begin by working our way quickly through the verses of Psalm 88. According to its heading, Psalm 88 was written by a man named Heman the Ezrahite. We don’t know exactly who this was, but he had terrible problems.
- Verse 1: Lord, You are the God who saves me…That is the emotional high point of this Psalm. This man begins by addressing the Lord as the God who saves him. From this point on, his emotions go downhill.
- Verses 1-2: Day and night I cry out to You. May my prayer come before You; turn Your ear to my cry. This written prayer represents what the Psalmist was saying aloud day and night.
- Verse 3: I am overwhelmed with troubles. That word “overwhelmed” has to do with overflowing waters, of being swept away by a flood of pressures. It occurs twice in this chapter.
- Verses 3-4: …my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. This man was overwhelmed with trouble and apparently battling an illness that seemed terminal,. He had suffered a massive loss of physical and emotional strength. He was collapsing.
- Verse 5: I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from Your care. This man was upset with God. Many of the biblical heroes were very honest in their prayers. This man blamed God for allowing these problems to overtake him.
- Verses 6-9: You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; You have overwhelmed me with all Your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. Some people suggest this man had been diagnosed with leprosy, which meant isolation from human contact and being left to literally rot to death.
- Verses 9-12: I call to You, Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to You. Do You show Your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise You? Is Your love declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in Destruction? Are Your wonders known in the place of darkness, or Your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion? In a series of rhetorical questions, the man asked God, “What good can I accomplish in this condition? What purpose would it serve if I died?”
- Verses 13-14: But I cry to You for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before You. Why, Lord, do You reject me and hide Your face from me? Notice that answerless question: “Why?”
- Verse 15: From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne Your terrors and am in despair. This man’s entire life had been hard. Perhaps his diagnosis of leprosy was the final verdict in a lifetime of failing health. The word “despair” is the translation of a Hebrew term found only here in the Bible. Various translations say, “I can’t take it anymore… I am finished… I am helpless… I am desperate… I am worn out….”
- Verse 16: Your wrath has swept over me; Your terrors have destroyed me. Here was a worship leader who said, “God, You have destroyed me.”
- Verses 17-18: All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. There was not a single moment in the day when this man felt better. All day long he suffered. And in verse 18 he ends his psalm and his prayer by saying to the Lord: You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend.
That all sounds very depressing, doesn’t it? This man could not change his circumstances, no matter how much he wanted to. He seemed unable to lift his own spirits. There are times when we cannot change our circumstances or even lift our spirits. But all is not lost. As depressing as Psalm 88 seems, there is something hopeful about it. There is a powerful lesson here. There was one thing this man could do, and he did it with every verse, with every sentence, with every word. He prayed. Every verse is a prayer to God. When you can’t change your circumstances or lift your spirits, there is one thing you can do. You can keep praying. The most hopeful verse in the entire Psalm is verse 1, when he started his prayer by addressing the Lord as “the God who saves me.” Now, a careful study of Psalm 88 shows us Heman the Ezrahite prayed to his God in seven different ways.
First, he prayed audibly. He said, Day and night I cry out to You. The word “cry” indicates vocality. I think most people in the Bible prayed audibly. While God can read our minds, our thoughts are better articulated when they pass through our lips. If you’re in a depressed frame of mind, it helps to pray audibly. It makes our prayers more specific and reminds us we really are talking to someone there in the room with us.
Second, this man prayed with pen and ink. He wrote his prayer. He took the time to gather his thoughts and compose them into a poem of prayer. Writing out our prayers or composing them into a poem is a powerful spiritual exercise. Many of our great Christian hymns have come about in this way. I keep a little prayer notebook and find great therapy in writing out a prayer to God when I feel overwhelmed.
Third, this man prayed musically. He offered his prayer in song. When he wrote out his prayer, he didn’t write an essay, narrative, or letter. He wrote a poem set to music, and he sang out his prayer. The superscription says it was a song for the music director to teach the choirs of Israel. The Psalms were hymns to be sung. There is a powerful effect to singing our prayers; that’s the value of Christian hymnody. That’s why I keep a hymnbook by my desk. Remember, it was when King Jehoshaphat put choirs in front of his armies that the enemy forces were routed. Satan hardly knows what to do with Christians who sing.
Fourth, this man prayed physically. He didn’t curl into a fetal position and whimper. Verse 9 says, I spread out my hands to You. This man may have been kneeling or sitting or standing, but he exerted the energy to lift his hands upward, toward heaven and toward God and toward the source of his help, and his uplifted hands were a symbol of faith and need and expectancy. The people in the Bible prayed very physically.
Fifth, this man prayed honestly. He was not irreverent or blasphemous, but he was brutally open as he told God how he felt.
Sixth, he prayed scripturally. You find many of his sentences and phrases recorded in a similar fashion elsewhere in the Psalms. He must have been very familiar with the Psalms, because he uses language and terms that are reflected in other Scriptures. For example, Psalm 68:20 says, “Our God is a God who saves.” And Heman began his prayer, “Lord, you are the God who saves me.” Psalm 5 says, “In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice.” Heman said, “In the morning my prayer comes before you.” In other words, sometimes our best prayers came when we’re familiar with certain Scriptures and turn them into prayers, which we pray over and over, using the very words of God.
Seventh, this man prayed persistently. Verse 1 says he prayed day and night. Verse 9 says he prayed every day. Verse 13 says he prayed each morning. Despite his depression, this man persevered in prayer. He prayed frequently. Even when it seemed God wasn’t answering, he kept at it. He knew the truth of Luke 18:1 – We ought always to pray and not give up.
Eighth, this man prayed, and in the providence of God his prayer led directly to Psalm 89. The Psalms are arranged in their order by the Holy Spirit who inspired them. Commentators have long understood that if you want to really understand a Psalm, you need to also notice the one that precedes it and the one that follows it. I believe the Lord wants us to know that we aren’t stuck in Psalm 88 forever. We are there for 18 verses and we read its last line, “Darkness is my closest friend.” But then our eye falls to the very next verse –Psalm 89:1, which says: “I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.”
Conclusion: In 1942, a group of about 50 volunteers from the Army Air Corps signed on to a top secret and dangerous mission. Sixteen crews trained day and night for secret bombing raids that were almost suicidal in nature. They were under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle. One of the men was Sergeant Joe Manske, a mechanic and gunner on aircraft #5. The bombers flew their mission and were returning home when they faced tremendous headwinds that slowed their progress and used up their fuel. On aircraft #5, the crew realized that without a miracle they’d crash at sea and be lost. Sergeant Manske unbuckled his harness and in the back of the B-25 bomber, he got down on his knees and earnestly prayed. As he prayed, something almost miraculous happened. The winds began to shift direction, and the headwinds slowly turned into tailwinds of about twenty-five miles per hour that pushed the planes toward their landing site. They made it to China where the crew bailed out and survived until they were rescued (See Barry Loudermilk, And Then They Prayed (Barry Loudermilk, 2011), 33-47). This man couldn’t change his circumstances and he couldn’t lift his spirits, but he could pray; and somehow, as we pray, God gradually changes the headwinds to tailwinds.
We encounter a lot of headlines in life, but even in the most difficult times we can unbuckle our harnesses, kneel down in the darkness, and pray. And when we pray in Jesus’ Name, somehow, in God’s timing, the headwinds turn into tailwinds and they push us from the bleak despair of Psalm 88 all the way into Psalm 89. We can bail out there, and find that beneath us are the everlasting arms. Instead of saying, “Darkness is my only friend,” we can say: I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever. With my mouth will I make known your faithfulness to all generations.
And somehow, the tailwinds keep pushing us on, through the pages of Scripture until come to the Gospel and Jesus, the light of the world, and then they keep pushing us all the way to heaven.
When darkness is your only friend, prayer is your best option, and the Light of the Word is your greatest hope. When you feel darkness closing around you, remember Christ, and keep on praying the name of Him who said:
I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12).