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The Saddest Psalm in Scripture

More By Bert Daniel

Out of all the 150 psalms, none is sadder than Psalm 88.

Many psalms begin with the psalmist burdened and in trouble, only to reach a turning point where, after prayer and reflection, the psalmist finds hope and peace in the Lord. But there is no turning point in Psalm 88. In fact, darkness literally has the last word, with the psalm ending, “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me: my companions have become darkness” (Ps. 88:16).

The opening line is the only explicitly positive statement in the whole prayer: “O LORD, God of my salvation.” Everything that follows is a flood of darkness, death, and despair.

And yet, even in this psalm so characterized by darkness, there is reason for hope—especially for those who most deeply identify with the psalmist through personal loss, agonizing grief, or ongoing bouts of depression.

I’d like to suggest four ways that hope is revealed in this darkest of psalms.

1. Hope Is Revealed in His Continued Prayers

It’s possible for people to become so overwhelmed with sadness that they cease to pray—never to pray again. The sadness seems so real; God so distant. But the psalmist doesn’t stop. He keeps praying:

O LORD, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry! (Ps. 88:1–2; cf. vv. 9, 13). 

There are times when our lives can seem so dark and hopeless that for us to simply keep on praying is a testimony to God’s grace in our lives.

There are times when our lives can seem so dark that for us to simply keep on praying is a testimony to God’s grace in our lives.

In your sorrow, are you still crying out to the Lord? Then that’s grace. And there’s still reason to hope.

2. Hope Is Revealed in His Conviction That God Is Sovereign

In verse 1, the psalmist addresses God as “the God of my salvation.” But then in verses 6–8, he declares:

You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah (Ps. 88:6–8, emphasis mine).

So who is God for the psalmist? Is he the God of his salvation or the cause of his darkness? The psalmist insists God is both.

Who is God for the psalmist? Is he the God of his salvation or the cause of his darkness? The psalmist insists God is both.

The psalmist isn’t accusing God. He’s not saying, “How dare you put me in the depths of the pit!” Rather, he’s humbly acknowledging and submitting to God’s complete control over his life. In fact, the psalmist’s conviction that God is sovereign over his sorrows is the basis for his confidence that God is also the God of his salvation.

If God brought these troubles into his life, then it’s reasonable to conclude that God can also deliver him from these troubles—or at least see him through it.

3. Hope Is Revealed in His Honesty and Vulnerability

Prior to preaching Psalm 88, a number of church members told me how much they were looking forward to hearing me preach this psalm. I was a bit surprised. Psalm 88 is the saddest psalm in the psalter—what’s there to look forward to? But, instinctively, I understood. In the throes of despair, sometimes it’s a comfort to know we’re not crazy. Someone we trust has experienced a similar pain and identifies with our grief.

Ironically, it’s immensely comforting to know that after the psalmist pours out his heart to God, he ends on a note of darkness. We don’t always walk away from prayer with our faces shining like Moses. Prayer doesn’t always produce quick answers. Psalm 88 is a reminder that we can possess real faith—genuine faith—even if we feel worse after we’ve prayed than we did before. The psalmist understands. And more importantly, God put Psalm 88 in the Bible to assure us that he understands.

We don’t always walk away from prayer with our faces shining like Moses. Prayer doesn’t always produce quick answers.

The psalmist’s willingness to be so open about his own unresolved sadness reminds us that we’re not alone in our sorrows. Likewise, the honest sharing of our own sorrows can be a powerful tool in ministering comfort and hope in the lives of others (2 Cor. 1:3–7).

4. Hope Is Revealed in the Promise of the Resurrection

Perhaps verses 10–12 mark the lowest point in the psalm. The psalmist finds no relief from his suffering, not even in death:

Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
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?

Everything the psalmist says about death is true for those who have not experienced God’s salvation in Christ. For them death isn’t a relief, but results in ultimate and final darkness.

Although this isn’t true for the believer, sorrow tempts the Christian to believe otherwise. Battered by despair, sometimes our sense of God’s love and assurance proves elusive. This was surely true of the psalmist: “O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 88:14). Lacking the assurance of God’s love, the believer, like the psalmist, may fear that death only promises more misery. 

Psalm 88 is a reminder that we can possess genuine faith even if we feel worse after we’ve prayed than we did before.

But the Lord Jesus directly addresses our fear of death. His word pierces through the darkness and quiets our fear: “I am the resurrection and life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live” (John 11:25). Jesus died the death we deserve to assure us of God’s complete forgiveness and unfailing love. And Jesus was raised from the dead to assure us that in the life to come we will know the peace and comfort of God’s presence forever.

Hope in the Darkest Night

We will all have days, perhaps years, of darkness. This is one of the unfortunate consequences of living in a fallen world. Yet it’s reassuring to know that Scripture doesn’t ignore or minimize our sorrow. Rather, when we’re brokenhearted, Scripture speaks to us with genuine empathy and profound hope.

Psalm 88 may be the saddest psalm in the Bible, but even in the saddest of psalms we can see hints of God’s hope. In our moments of deepest despair, may we, too, cry out: “O LORD, God of my salvation.” Because he truly is the God of our salvation—even in the darkest night of our souls.

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