The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 10th August 2008
Earlier in this service the choir sang Psalm 88. When they did so, they did what has been done here for a thousand years, in this church, and the church that stood on this site before, and in church that was here even before that. Christians have followed Jews in singing or saying the psalms daily, so that the words and the thoughts slowly get taken into our mind and our heart in prayer. The psalms become food for the life of faith.
When we say or sing the psalms we enter into the experience of the Jews from hundreds of years before the time of Christ. Psalm 88 was obviously written by someone going through a time of terrible trouble: ‘For my soul is full of trouble and my life draweth nigh unto hell.’ … ‘Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit: in a place of darkness and in the deep.’ This person feels he in prison and he cannot get out: ‘I am so fast in prison that I cannot get forth’. He is utterly alone: ‘My lovers and friends hast thou put away from me: and hid my acquaintance out of my sight.’ Traditionally, the psalms were thought to be the work of David, but it seems very unlikely that David would write a psalm about how he has suffered ‘from my youth up’. We simply don’t know who it was that turned his experience – and it probably was the experience of a man – into such vivid and heart-rending poetry. What it does tell us is that for people of faith then, as now, there could be terrible and dark times in which all they could do was to cry out to God for mercy and help. The Hebrew text ends with the word ‘night’. Though the psalm seems to end with darkness, there is, however, just one chink of light - because the psalmist brings his cry to God. He has nowhere else to go – and that is the point of the psalm. The psalmist cries out to God about the way God has treated him. Because, deep down he is a person of faith, it is to God that he cries: ‘O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee.’ However bad the experience he is going through, he still thinks of God as ‘the Lord God of my salvation’. The psalm takes its place within the ‘praises of Israel’ because it reflects a vital aspect of the experience of Israel. Parts of it are very like the way Jonah cries to God from the belly of the fish. I could imagine it being prayed in exile in Babylon or from the very heart of Auschwitz. After all, Eli Wiesel called his famous book about life in Auschwitz Night.
One reason the Church has used them so regularly is because Jesus must have known them well. He probably used them in his on prayer and let his experience of God be shaped by them. As the Son of David, he must have entered into the experience of David’s psalms. So it is entirely in line with the traditional way of reading the psalm, to ask in what way this psalm reflects the experience of Jesus. The obvious answer is to see it a psalm which gives us an insight into what might have been his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was arrested and on the cross when he was crucified: ‘For my soul is full of trouble : and my life draweth nigh unto hell. I am counted as one of them that go down into the pit.’ His death raises the question, ‘Dost thou shew wonders among the dead : or shall the dead rise up again, and praise thee?’ We are told that he died asking a question very like, ‘Lord, why … hidest thou thy face from me?’ And when he died, there was darkness over the land.
The reason the Church continues to say this psalm is not because of the darkness, but because of the light of the resurrection. To the question, ‘Dost thou shew wonders among the dead : or shall the dead rise up again, and praise thee?’ the Church answers ‘Yes’, because of the resurrection. To the question, ‘Shall thy loving-kindness be shewed in the grave : or thy faithfulness in destruction?’ the Church answers ‘Yes’, because of the resurrection. And when the psalmist asks, ‘Shall thy wondrous works be known in the dark : and thy righteousness in the land where all things are forgotten?’ the Church says ‘Yes’, because Christ is risen! The psalm is so dark, that it is easy to miss the way it also talks of God’s wonders, of God’s loving-kindness, of his faithfulness, his wondrous works and his righteousness. Recently, we have heard of Mother Teresa’s struggle with the darkness of depression at the end of her life. Faith in God doesn’t take away the darkness. In some ways it can make it seem darker. But the Church exists because of the light of the resurrection. That light is always there within the body of the Church. I think of Charles Dickens, writing about Mrs Gradgrind, as she lies dying. She says, "I think there's a pain somewhere in the room but I couldn't positively say that I have got it.’ The Church is like that: there’s hope in this Church, and though we may not be able to say positively that we have got it, we know it’s there somewhere, so we don’t give up. We hang on in the darkness, like Mother Theresa, and like the psalmist, because of the hope that’s there somewhere.
Is this a psalm for you and me? Yes, because we never know when the darkness may come. Few of us, perhaps, will know the loneliness and the darkness of prison or detention centre, but some will. All of us will know the darkness that can come with bereavement and loss at some time in our lives. At any one time 5-10% of the population is suffering from depression. That means all of us must know someone – perhaps ourselves - suffering from this illness, which Churchill called his ‘black dog’. If the last word of the psalm is ‘darkness’, the first is ‘Lord God of my salvation’, and because of the resurrection the Church dares to add as its last word its Gloria. From the very depths of the pit, in and with Christ, we cry out: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen
So let us read this psalm as a prayer for, and a prayer with, all those for whom it speaks of their experience today:
O LORD God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee : O let my prayer enter into thy presence, incline thine ear unto my calling.
2. For my soul is full of trouble : and my life draweth nigh unto hell.
3. I am counted as one of them that go down into the pit : and I have been even as a man that hath no strength.
4. Free among the dead, like unto them that are wounded, and lie in the grave : who are out of remembrance, and are cut away from thy hand.
5. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit : in a place of darkness, and in the deep.
6. Thine indignation lieth hard upon me : and thou hast vexed me with all thy storms.
7. Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me : and made me to be abhorred of them.
8. I am so fast in prison : that I cannot get forth.
9. My sight faileth for very trouble : Lord, I have called daily upon thee, I have stretched forth my hands unto thee.
10. Dost thou shew wonders among the dead : or shall the dead rise up again, and praise thee?
11. Shall thy loving-kindness be shewed in the grave : or thy faithfulness in destruction?
12. Shall thy wondrous works be known in the dark : and thy righteousness in the land where all things are forgotten?
13. Unto thee have I cried, O Lord : and early shall my prayer come before thee.
14. Lord, why abhorrest thou my soul : and hidest thou thy face from me?
15. I am in misery, and like unto him that is at the point to die : even from my youth up thy terrors have I suffered with a troubled mind.
16. Thy wrathful displeasure goeth over me : and the fear of thee hath undone me.
17. They came round about me daily like water : and compassed me together on every side.
18. My lovers and friends hast thou put away from me: and hid mine acquaintance out of my sight.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen