Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Thank You, Psalm 88

What do we make of Psalm 88? We saw last week that the Psalms of lament are a beautiful, if misunderstood, part of the Psalter, and that they serve a clear spiritual purpose. I talked about how much I liked Walter Brueggemann’s explanation of the cathartic pattern of these Psalms:

  1. Kvetch.
  2. Kvetch.
  3. Kvetch.
  4. Receive assurance of faith.

But what happens in a Psalm when there’s no happy ending? Welcome to Psalm 88, which opens with the usual litany of complaints about isolation, fear, and imminent death. But instead of the usual “But yeah, I guess I do know that you’re God and all” ending of the customary Psalm of lament, Psalm 88 closes like this:

[16] Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; thy terrors have cut me off.


[17] They came round about me daily like water; they compassed me about together.

[18] Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.

That’s bleak, man.

As far as I know (and please correct me if I’m wrong), Psalm 88 is the only Psalm without a happy ending. There’s no resolution here, no attempt to comfort. The Psalmist just puts all the pain out there and allows it to stand, unvarnished.

A few years ago I interviewed Martin Marty for an article I was writing, and he described to me the beautiful routine that he and his first wife had when she was terminally ill:


I’d get up with her at midnight when she took her medication and we would read the Psalms.  I would read the even Psalms and she would read the odd Psalms.  I skipped 88 and she caught me.  She said, “Who do you think you are to skip that?  If you don’t pray the rough ones, the other ones don’t mean anything.”

Marty had tried to skip 88 because he thought it would be agonizing for his wife, who knew she was dying, to hear the Psalmist’s cold description of God not being present with anyone in the grave. (vv. 10-12)  However, she called him out on it, and ultimately taught him that there is beauty in the stark realism and despair of this difficult piece of scripture.

Over the years, Psalm 88 has unexpectedly become one of my favorite Psalms. It’s the one I turn to when I feel despair about situations I cannot change, the one I fall back on when God is impossibly far away.


There is comfort in not only speaking our most heinous fears out loud but also in not hastening to cover them up with quick platitudes about how we know God will come to our rescue and deliver us from illness, pain, and death. Sometimes, God won’t. Period. But we still find hope in the forlorn austerity of this Psalm, simply in knowing it’s entirely permissible to speak to God this way.

God can handle it. Voice your pain. “If you don’t pray the rough ones, the other ones don’t mean anything.”

#Twible Ps 80: G, you’re supposed to be a shepherd, right? So herd us right back to you. Pls don’t make us into mutton pie for our enemies.

#Twible Ps 81: In which G plays the role of the Jewish mother no one appreciates. “No, don’t mind me. I’ll just sit here alone in the dark.”


#Twible Ps 82: G has 9:00 welfare meeting w/ other gods. Baal fattens up on donuts while G advocates enhancing Medicaid programs.

#Twible Ps 83: Kick our enemies’ butts like you did to those Midianites that time with all the blood & guts & gore. That was WICKED cool, G.

#Twible Ps 84: I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the temple of my G than dwell w/ you fools in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. But maybe I’ll visit.

#Twible Ps 85: How long will you be ticked at us, G? Cause this time out chair is hard & uncomfortable. We’ll be good now, we promise. Pls?

#Twible Ps 86: G, I’ve been your faithful follower all my life & now it’s payback time. You TOTALLY owe me. So go shame my foes ASAP. Thx.

#Twible Ps 87: Quick! Donald Trump needs long-form proof that you were born in Jerusalem & are registered in G’s Book of Zion. Cough it up.

#Twible Ps 88: Only Ps without even the pretense of a happy ending: Life sucks & then you die. So why is this one of my favorite Psalms?



  • http:.// Course Correction

    I love Ecclesiastes for the same reason: It’s honest.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment David Van Biema

    Regarding non-happy endings. Psalms 44? 89? 137? (well, maybe 137 happy to some, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to barbecue with them.) But none as beautifully unified a lament as 88.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment daniel

    Since being diagnosed with metastatic cancer four years ago, this psalm and psalm 38 have become my favorites. As you said, “There is comfort in not only speaking our most heinous fears out loud but also in not hastening to cover them up with quick platitudes about how we know God will come to our rescue and deliver us from illness, pain, and death. Sometimes, God won’t.” I tend to despair in LDS settings when responses to my health issues range from “put on a happy face!” to flaky dietary advice and the implication that if only I had enough faith, I’d be healed. The Old Testament books (Job & Psalms in particular) have instead become my trusted advisors.

    I particularly like the NIV translation of this psalm, which ends with verse 18 as “You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend.” Oddly, living in the shadow has become something of a comfort with scriptures such as this as a guide.

    Thanks for singling this one out.

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