“O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.”
-Psalm 88:1-2, NRSV
I was raised as a petticoat-and-patent-leather little girl in the deep South. Sundays were for looking pretty and acting even prettier. We said “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” and heard, ad nauseum, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
I didn’t run into my first lament psalm until college and didn’t study one closely until Divinity school. But I remember feeling set free by the honesty the psalmists expressed in their relationship with God. I had no idea that we were allowed to talk to God like that—much less that doing so was showcased as a biblical example of prayer!
I especially loved how the lament psalms claimed the speaker’s struggle, fear and anger, while also expressing hope in God’s faithfulness to right what was wrong. Within the anguish lay the assurance that God will never forget us. The juxtaposition of faith and struggle felt so real to me.
Psalm 88 is the only lament psalm that does not include a reassurance of God’s goodness or expression of trust in God’s saving action. Full of grief and anguish, the psalmist describes sleepless nights, abandonment by God and friends, desperation in “the regions dark and deep” (v. 6). The speaker feels trapped, sensing that Sheol, the place of the dead, is near. Waves overwhelm, God’s wrath has “swept over,” and assaults “surround . . . like a flood all day long” (vv. 16-17).
But the psalmist does not, or perhaps cannot, reassure herself that joy will come in the morning.
Yet the speaker offers this deepest struggle to the only One who can change things: God, whose steadfast covenant love has saved the people time and time again. Though the psalmist cannot sing of that redemptive love this once, the entire prayer conveys a bedrock trust. After all, why cry out to a God who never hears or responds?
Despair turned to God is not truly despair at all—it is honest, soul-deep prayer. Psalm 88 is permission to disobey the rule about only saying nice things, at least in our prayer life. This prayer invites us to offer our truest, unadorned anguish to the God who makes all things new.