Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Does Psalm 88 Belong in the Bible? Or, Does God Work Wonders for the Dead?

I ask that because Psalm 88 appears to be merely an intense, bitter lament against God. Unlike many of the lament Psalms, which indicate a turning point after the lament which results in a renewed trust in God for deliverance, and usually end on a positive note, in 88 Heman plays the role of killjoy.

His Psalm becomes a big ol’ buzzkill by ending badly: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness” (v18). But, sure, despite my provocative title, Psalm 88 belongs, and also points us to Christ, as well.

The cause of Heman’s lament seems to revolve around certain relationships and God’s perceived responsibility for their falling apart. In verse 8 Heman reports “you have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them.” Because of this, Heman views the whole of his life as one continuous stream of effluence: “afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless” (v15). In fact, Heman waxes a bit hyperbolic by stating he is as good as dead: he draws near to Sheol (3), is regarded as going to the pit (4), like the ‘slain that lie in the grave’ (5), and is overwhelmed by God’s wrath (7, 16). One would think he might have taken the advice of Job’s wife, to simply curse God and die.

Yet hope abides in Heman and shines through the darkness of his emotional valley.

The Psalm begins with a recognition that the God Heman addressed is the God of his salvation (v1). Furthermore, Heman reports that his cry is to God, ‘day and night’, and beseeches God to hear his prayer even more. This expression of hope is repeated in the middle, at verse 13, indicating that despite his misery Heman knows that relief is to be found in the God of his salvation.

His may be honest questions, but more than likely are a bit of sarcasm dripping from Heman’s lips:

“Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Is
your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are
your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of
forgetfulness?” (v10-13).

One might suppose that Heman’s answer to all these is an emphatic – and bitter – No, No, No, No, No and No.

Yet despite Heman’s sarcasm and despair, we know differently. We know that Yes, God does work wonders for the dead! Whether we think we’re dead, or wish for the grave, or are actually dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2), it is precisely for the dead that God works his greatest wonders! Paul reports to his Corinthian brothers that “we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (1 Corinthians 1:9).

Yes, God works wonders for the dead! See Elijah raising the widow’s son. See Lazarus come forth from the grave. See Jesus’ empty tomb.

Yes, God works wonders for the dead! See God making us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:5). See God making us alive together with him (Colossians 2:13-14). See God bringing us from death to life (Romans 6:13).

Yes, God works wonders for the dead! And not only that, the ‘departed’ who have been made alive in Christ DO rise up to praise God. His steadfast love IS declared ‘in the grave’ – to those walking dead, spiritual zombies, that we all are before being made alive in him. His faithfulness IS declared in the realm of spiritual death that enslaves us until our release in Christ. His wonders ARE known in the darkness, and his righteousness IS known in the land of forgetfulness, because there is no darkness strong enough to hide the light of truth and there is no forgetting the righteousness of the Creator.

At some point, most of us feel like Heman, and like Paul. If not physically dead already, we think that we are emotionally dead, and that it’s all over but a lame graveside service and ignominious burial. But the fact that God has raised the spiritually dead to newness of life, and that He promises to someday raise the physically dead in Christ to a renewed body and creation, should give us great hope that God can work wonders among the deadness of any situation we face.

Yes, God works wonders among the dead.

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