Psalm 88 is a startling contribution to the Psalter. It is the only one of the 150 psalms that includes not a single explicit word of praise or thanksgiving.* It neither blatantly extols God nor celebrates God’s handiwork; it does not resolve a cry of anguish or sorrow into one of gratitude and triumph. It is a lengthy and relentless song of lament, accusation, and horror, unrelieved at any point by even a hint of explicit optimism. It has been called “an embarrassment to conventional faith” – “adamant in its insistence and harsh on Yahweh’s unresponsiveness,** and many commentators have sought either to interpret away its starkness or to rail against its inclusion in the Psalter.
However, Psalm 88 belongs in our Scriptures as a genuine, no-holds-barred expression of the sense of abandonment and loss that accompanies real-life devastation. It has a legitimate place in our compilation of the relationship between God and human as an expression of the darkness, the anger, and the bewilderment that accompany life’s most desolating events. It is only those not yet versed in the torments of life who could suggest that Psalm 88 be discarded. While “[i]n ‘proper’ religion, the expression should not be expressed . . . it is also the case that these experiences should not be experienced."**
Since these experiences are, in fact, experienced, it would be rejection of God, a conclusion that God’s silence is, in fact, the final “word” (in the Hebrew sense of event, thing, or deed) in the face of disaster, for the Psalmist to remain silent in turn. And it would be a denial of God’s interest or engagement in the depth and profundity of the worst experiences of darkness in the human experience to respond to God’s silence with a chattering insistence that “all is for the best.” To rail against God, to accuse God of disinvestment, to comment sarcastically on the consequences to God of God’s departure, to insist upon describing to God in minute detail the agonies of one’s existence – all of those movements in Psalm 88 bespeak an individual whose relationship to God has been one of such intimacy that he or she continues to honor it in the context of fury and confusion and refuses to accept without remonstrance silence on the part of God.
(*James Boice, Psalms (1994) 42-106 and **Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (1984), 78 and 53.