The Cries of a Broken Person – Translating Psalm 88
There are many lament psalms within the Psalter. Yet, there is only one lament psalm without a positive resolution. This is that psalm. It is a complex weaving of expressions between the brokenness of their life amidst the quiet distance of God. Every word written/spoken here an act of faith, and trust in their Lord who feels quiet and distant. Even as they lie broken, near death, and neglected by God, they continue to cry out to the God of their salvation.
The Cries of a Broken Person
A song of a psalm for the sons of Korah: to triumph over sickness, to answer an educated man.
1LORD, the God of my salvation, * I weep before You day and night. 2Let my prayer come before You, * give Your ear to my cry. 3For troubles have overwhelmed my soul, * and my life is nearly lost to Sheol. 4I have joined those descending to the pit, * like one whose strength has failed. 5Abandoned among the dead, * like the slain lying in the grave, those You no longer remember, * excluded and cut off from Your hand. 6You have put me in the deepest pit, * into the darkness and the depths. 7The weight of Your anger crushes me, * and You overwhelm me with all Your waves. Selah 8You took everyone I knew from me. * You made me repulsive to them. I am locked up and cannot get out. * 9 My eyes are failing from grief. LORD, I call upon You all day long, * I stretch out my hands to You. 10Will You work wonders for the dead? * Will their spirits rise up and praise You? Selah 11Will Your love be spoken of in the grave? * Your faithfulness in the place of the dead? 12Will they know of Your wonders in the darkness? * Your justice in the land of forgetfulness? 13As for me, LORD, I cry out to You for help, * from the morning, my prayer seeks You. 14Why, LORD, do You reject my soul? * Why do You hide Your face from me? 15I have been miserable and near death since my youth; * I can no longer endure Your terrors. 16Your burning wrath has swept over me, * Your terrors have reduced me to silence. 17They surround me like a flood all day long, * they close in on me from everywhere. 18You have taken my lover and friends far from me, * now, darkness is my closest friend.
Shifting our Perspective
The vivid sorrow, grief, and conclusion of this psalm is a lot to hold. For many of us – at many times in our lives – this psalm confronts our understanding and idea of God. This psalmist allows us to directly face a disconnect many of us know between what we think of God and what we experience of God.
Should we discount our experiences when they conflict with the stories we’ve heard about God?
What happens when God appears to act unlike the God we’ve been told about? Or does he fail to hear our cries?
Why do people flee from those who are stricken by illness, disfavor, or bad luck?
There are likely not answers for these questions. I can tell you that the experience of being alone in trouble is all too common. When sharing about how I live with depression, there are many who seem to be taken from me. Those two times in my life where I attempted to take my own life are still with me. I can close my eyes and be back inside those moments. The helplessness and despair articulated by the psalmist feels familiar. Much of this feels like a prayer I could have prayed if I had more faith.
One of the most challenging aspects of this psalm is their faithfulness. It confronts our hope for protection from the pains of life. It challenges our understanding of what it means to be blessed. They have been near death since childhood and anyone they knew or loved have abandoned them. They are wasting away to death in the midst of a city of people going on with their lives, experiencing joy, and new life.
Christ in Psalm 88
At many points in the Old Testament, we are invited to see the trifold way that people are blessed. These three ways are the sign someone is blessed. They live long healthy lives, they have substantial material wealth/assets, and they have families (specifically many descendants). The story of Job is a good place to see this. Specifically, pay attention to how Job is restored at the end of the story along with the language his friends used to condemn him during his trials. These three themes continue to appear often within our modern Christian communities. These are not signs of blessing for one following Christ.
Jesus had none of these qualities. He died poor, without descendants, and was murdered by the state at a young age for a crime he did not commit. The savior who we cry out to was not blessed with that trifold blessing. Jesus as the source of all blessings and hope showed us that none of those three were a divine sign of blessing for a person. He instead showed us a new way, the true way, and the way of the kingdom of God.
I often reflect and meditate on what his final days must have been like. While this psalm is not written about Jesus, who would not be born for centuries, so many of the lines resonate with what he went through. That the Christ cried out in despair “Father, why have you forsaken me” right before he died. That resonates so closely with many lines in this Psalm that it feels pulled right from this page. Let us not forget that His experience of crucifixion was central to the invitation Jesus gave to follow him.
Jesus invites us to pick up our cross, and follow him to death.
When we are baptized, we experience in part this death and resurrection. A resurrection the psalmist has no knowledge or hope in.
Yet, they trust God. They trust that even the pain of their life is not a sign that God has abandoned them. They cry out through the pain of their faith and their grief.
May those of us who find ourselves beyond that misguided trifold blessing take heart. God does hear us, and we are beloved. There is life after death. There is wholeness within being broken. Holiness is found within humility and meekness.
When God doesn’t Intervene
Our conception of God’s intervention is often that God needs to come to us, and save us from our circumstances. Yet, this is at odds with the reality that God is already present with us in the midst of our whole life. I know not what is happening in your life today, or in this season. Yet we know that Jesus endured the Cross, only the Apostle John was spared martyrdom, and God did not intervene for this Psalmist. Throughout history there have been horrible atrocities from which God’s intervention appears to have been absent.
Part of the challenge is that God is larger beyond comprehension, and incredibly intimate with all who welcome Him. Jesus tells us that we should be kind to those who persecute us, and shows us a way of refusing to be violent that may lead to our death. This is the example given to us to follow. That God will fail to act in the broad sweeping strokes that might rescue us because that is not what Immanuel – God With Us – means.
God heard every word of this psalmist, and their pain pierced His heart. We have a God who enters into our times of hurt to weep with us. To be present with us. In the midst of all the unknowns, evils, and sorrows of life, there is a God who hears before we even speak. A God who is waiting with the words we cannot even bring ourselves to think – let alone whisper in our souls. A God who poured out the very Holy Spirit into each one of us. The Spirit of a counselor who will forever be with us. A Spirit who is the fullness of God Himself.
Wrestling with Verse 4
A lot of this psalm was pretty straight forward from a linguistic perspective. The biggest challenge actually occurred rather early on, with the fourth verse. While trying to capture as much of the nuance as I could, it became a jumbled mess. This is the more verbose first pass, with the preceding verse for context.
3For troubles have overwhelmed my soul, * and my life is nearly lost to Sheol. 4I include myself with those going down into the pit, * having become like one whose strength has failed.
This is the fourth verse as it currently is rendered.
3For troubles have overwhelmed my soul, * and my life is nearly lost to Sheol. 4I have joined those descending to the pit, * like one whose strength has failed.
These are different translations of that verse with different meanings. They both would serve the purpose of praying through the breviary. When reading the initial pass, one can feel the looping sentiments it takes your mind through. This is not the point of praying the office.
The compromise was to simplify the duration/tense of the actions. This allows the current nature of the psalmist to be rendered faithfully. It shifts its previous and ongoing nature to be implicit, based on the full context of the psalm.
Selecting a Title
The Latin title given to this Psalm is ‘Hominis Graviter Ægrotantis Oratio’ or ‘The Speech of a Grievously Sick Person/Man’. For our title, we’ve chosen to use the type of speech shown to us in the opening of the Psalm; weeping/crying out. Next we looked at the fullness of the psalm and could not discern in what way the person was sick. It is clear that the person’s life has broken their body and spirit. My hope is that this will be more inclusive of the psalmists despair, weakness, and frailty. Our title is ‘The Cries of a Broken Person.’
Initial Translation Finished 30 October 2022
Translations for Urban Monastic are open to refinement and improvement. This has been translated. Yet, this is a reminder that no translation is ever complete. Cultures change, languages change, we better understand the source texts and languages, and adapt them as they get used in context. We will continue to refine and enhance our translations. If you are interested in helping, please let us know!
Paul Prins on 21 December 2005 in Rome, Italy.