Reflections on Psalm 88 by Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is one of my favorite critical scholars to read due to his interest in broader hermeneutical and interpretive questions than those often asked by writers in the Old Testament “guild.”  Though his reading of the OT is governed by a meta-narrative I don’t share (causing us to come to very different conclusions in many places) his close attention to the text and its textual claims is refreshing.  (I should make clear from the outset that even in the quote below, I take issue with a few phrases.)

In preparing for a sermon on Psalm 88, I came across these interesting comments in Brueggemann’s Old Testament Theology: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.  Psalm 88 is a raw cry to God from one who is deep in the depths of suffering.  I love how Brueggemann captures the tension that the Psalmist seems to be feeling as one who has witnessed God’s salvation in the past, but who now is struggling to understand why he feels to abandoned in the present:

The silence [of Yahweh] finally can lead to less energetic, almost phlegmatic obedience; or it can on occasion still evoke strident protest.  Thus we take our final consideration of the voicing of negativity from Psalm 88, a very different kind of “limit expression.”  Ecclesiastes has lost any passion or impetus to cry out to Yahweh.  Perhaps that should be our final word on negativity for with Ecclesiastes we reach, in one sense, the end of the Old Testament.  But such melancholy is unrepresentative of Israel’s faith and even of Israel’s way of negativity.  Therefore high-energy protest seems a more appropriate conclusion than low-energy, calculating submissiveness.

Psalm 88 expresses an incessant crying out to Yahweh in need (vv.1-2, 9b, 13).  The cry, remarkably enough, does not even utter a petition.  It is all complaint, voiced as accusation against Yahweh.  The speaker refers to deep trouble: “Sheol,” “the Pit,” “no help,” “among the dead,” “slain,” “remembered no more,” “cut off,” dark and deep” (vv. 3-6).  More than that, it is Yahweh who has done this to the speaker:

Your wrath …
you overwhelm…
you have caused…
you have made… (vv.7-8)

your wrath …
your dread…
you have caused… (vv.16-18)

The accusation turns to threat against Yahweh in the rhetorical questions of vv.10-12.  If Yahweh allows the death of the speaker, Yahweh will lose a witness to Yahweh’s hesed.  There will be no speech on earth, among the living, of Yahweh’s steadfast love or faithfulness or wonders or saving help. The loss of the speaker will cause Yahweh to lose the speech on which Yahweh’s reality in the world depends.

But there is no answer to this plea.  That’s negativity!  The very silence and remoteness of God, which Ecclesiastes takes as a matter of course, is here a cause for rage and indignation.  Here Israel seeks to show that the losses sustained through the silence of Yahweh are not only to the Israelite who speaks.  There will be losses as well for Yahweh, who will no longer be praised (v. 10).  Ecclesiastes, in its resignation and coping resolve, is a more modern response to the absence and the silence of God, but Psalm 88 is more characteristically Jewish.  Ecclesiastes’ countertestimony has a terminus, but Psalm 88 has no end.  The cry of the psalm will continue.  We can imagine that Israel – this Israelite, some Israelites – will continue to sound this shrill psalm.  They will not sound it forever.  They will only sound it until “my prayer comes before you.”  That, however, may be a very long time.  In this version of the countertestimony, however, Israel will not quit in resignation.  Israel will not match the silence of God with its own submitting silence.  Israel, rather, will keep on speaking its petition until it moves Yahweh into speech and action.  That is how Yahweh was moved to enact Yahweh’s powerful verbs in the first place (Exod 2:23-25).  Israel, in this version of the countertestimony, does not propose to stop now … or ever.

Pgs. 398-399 (Bold emphasis added.)

While Brueggemann’s words come across as a bit brash in places, I really appreciated the idea of Psalm 88 as “high-energy protest.”  And while our theological sentiments might cause us a bit of discomfort with protest against God (after all, we saw how God responded to Job – although this is a whole other discussion!), I appreciate how Brueggemann ties in this cry to God with actual belief in him.  Geoffrey Grogan even cites him at one point where he says:

It is remarkable that Israel’s rage against God did not drive Israel away from God to atheism or idolatry, but more passionately into prayer addressed to God.

Cited in Prayer, Praise & Prophecy, pg. 152.

Again, it is disputable whether “rage” against Yahweh is the right term (after all, is “rage” against the Lord ever justified?), and yet the thrust of this line is still excellent: when Israel is utterly flummoxed by God’s actions or seeming lack thereof, they go to him and say so!

This concept is one I find incredibly comforting.  Psalm 88 invites us to avoid godless and hopeless grief, and instead models for us persistence and trust.  It allows us to pour out deep anguish of soul without fear that we’re “sub-par” Christians or, even worse, somehow numbered among the reprobate.  In short, Psalm 88 reminds us that the effects of the curse truly are as horrible as they feel, and gives us a script to follow as we lament this sad world while at the same time longing for the promised world to come!

Rev. R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA