1 LORD, you are the God who saves me; I entreat you night and day. 2 May my pleading come before you; turn your ear to me, I pray.
3 For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near to death. 4 Counted with the ones who perish, I have neither strength nor breath.
5 To the grave I am abandoned, like the bodies lying there. You remember them no longer; they are cut off from your care.
6 In the lowest pit you cast me; in the darkest depths am I. 7 For your wrath is heavy on me, and beneath your waves I lie.
8 Closest friends you’ve taken from me; loathsome to them is my plight. I am trapped—escape I cannot; 9 misery has dimmed my sight.
Daily, LORD, I call upon you; in your sight my hands I spread. 10 In the grave do you show wonders? Are you worshipped by the dead?
11 Is your love shown in Destruction— in the grave your faithfulness? 12 Are your wonders known in darkness, or in death your righteousness?
13 But I cry to you for help, LORD; at the dawn to you I pray. 14 Why, O LORD, do you reject me, and why turn your face away?
15 From my youth I’ve been afflicted; death to me is always near. I have undergone your terrors, and I am in deep despair.
16 Your fierce anger has engulfed me; by your terrors I am crushed. 17 All day long they overwhelm me; over me the flood has rushed.
18 You have taken my companions and my loved ones far from me. Now my closest friend is darkness; not a ray of light I see.
This can be sung to any tune with an 8787 metre.
Francis Bacon, Head VI, Arts Council Collection, Hayward Gallery, London
Francis Bacon’s art is not pretty or soothing, expressing the pain and cruelty of the human condition in works such as “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” or “Head VI” which started his series of “screaming popes”. Yet there is something searingly honest in this art, speaking to people who know the depths of despair. This is art which speaks the truth about the bottom of the pit. As does Psalm 88, with none of the happy ending that is found in many of the other Psalms where anger with God is resolved in defiant faith. Here instead there is the bewilderment of someone in solitary confinement, whether by the hand of others, or because they have isolated themselves. They are totally cut off from any encouraging presence, and feel hemmed in. Even God has deserted them, and they argue with God “What good is it if I die? Will that bring you any glory? I want to live and to know your love and wonders.” Their plea is met with apparent silence.
Walter Breuggeman identifies this as one of the Psalms of disorientation, pointing out that life is “savagely marked by disequilibrium, incoherence, and unrelieved asymmetry” yet observing the “curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.”
This Psalm speaks of experiencing the world when it is at its most painful, and refusing to give up entirely on a relationship with God. For only the God who can stand our screamed out questions and demands for answers is worth believing in.
God who is beyond knowing, deeper than pain, holder of desolation, when the way meets a prison wall stay with us.
The Revd Fiona Thomas is a member of Christ Church, Bellingham and serves as the Secretary for Education & Learning of the URC.