The birth of my fourth child was hours away. As I leaned hard against my husband, a small chisel of pain grew into a mighty pickax. I envisioned accepting the labor pain as a tool in my hand. It had a purpose, more than just scraping a path out of the darkness for my daughter. It would carve a channel from my heart to the heart of Jesus. With each labor pain I asked God to meet me in that moment.
Lament is the language of the Bible for suffering. There are more psalms of lament than any other kind. Even among those, Psalm 88 stands unique. It is one of only two (the other being Psalm 39) that does not offer a resolution to bring us out of the darkness and into God’s light. In this poem we find the author, mid-labor, with his pain tool raised high, hammering hard with sharp words and tearing questions.
The poem is a chiasm, a common literary structure in the Bible. This puts the climax and main point of the author at the center, like the point of an arrow. In a typical chiasm each section has a mirror image on the other side of the central point. Psalm 88 begins with a cry directed to God that is present and continual.
First person language outlines the boundaries of his agony, even though we don’t know the cause. He is overcome by physical and emotional weakness.
The language shifts from self to God. It is God who has placed this unwanted pain tool in his hand. Fellowship with God and friendship with people are cut off. Yet, he is still showing trust in God’s proven character to listen.
We find in verses 10-12 the center of the chiasm, as the darkest questions of the sufferer’s heart are laid bare. Even in the asking he is appealing to God’s proven character and showing faith in the middle of agony.
The last section mirrors verse 3-9. The “depths of the pit” in verse 6 now swirl with a flood of despair. We long to see his pain assuaged, a joyful “and yet...” bringing resolution and confidence. Instead his persistent hammering has unearthed a new fountain of grief.
In this poem, verses 1-2 have no counterpart at the conclusion, just brief echoes in verse 9 and 13. This leaves us with an unresolved chiasm structure. His central questions linger in silence, waiting for an answer. Where is the God of MY salvation? Will He answer?
My baby was born just before midnight. I laid down my pain tool, while holding the precious lessons close. For each wordless groan I had received Word-filled peace that flowed more readily into a heart made open through pain. Even as I write this, I know my sweet resolution could highlight a terrible loss for you. My temporary, physical pain of labor cannot be compared to deep, relentless grief and agony of the soul. What about all those who stand with pain tools still raised high and questions loud in the darkness?
A lament is a vocalization of pain, alongside an appeal to God’s character and proven trustworthiness. It is an offering of faith to speak words of lament back to Him. He invites you to put words to your sorrow, to plead to see His wonders. He will meet you there in the place of darkness with His answer of steadfast love.
God’s answer to all the questions that aching souls could ever ask was His own Son. Jesus accepted pain and suffering willingly and carved the way open to God. You can choose to trace the same channel of grief and hurt that He already etched deep for grace and mercy to rush down to you. Your pain became His at the cross and His victory over death and suffering is now yours forever.
“Do you work wonders for the dead?”Jesus breathed in the morning air outside His grave. He works the wonder of new life for all who are dead in sin.
“Do the departed rise up to praise you?”Jesus now lives to praise His Father and make intercession for us, transforming our feeble prayers into a precious offering.
“Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?”
Sin seals us in a tomb. Jesus calls our names and commands us to come out! His faithfulness to God is our confidence in this life and tethers us to unshakable hope beyond the grave.
“Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”
Jesus brought light to captives sitting in darkness. He came to those who had forgotten God and lifted them out of the pit.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
2 Cornthians 1:3-5