Psalm 88: God’s love declared in the grave

In today’s lectionary, I read the following from Psalm 88:
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness? (Ps. 88:10-12)
Psalm 88 is a very dark passage in the Bible. Unlike most other psalms of lament, this one never offers a word of praise and confidence in the faithfulness of God. The psalm ends without resolution: “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” In the verses cited above, the psalmist asks several very pointed and honest questions. The basic thrust of the complaint is that God does not seem to be faithful to those who are dead, or who at least seem to be dead in the eyes of the world. The psalmist wants to know if God is in fact faithful or faithless in Abaddon. Is the steadfast love of God declared even in the grave?

The answer to these questions does not come until Jesus Christ descends into the grave, into the depths of Abaddon, for us and our salvation. In the cross of Christ, God enters into the Pit in order to rescue and redeem those who are lost “in the land of forgetfulness.” Jesus went into the “far country” and died the second death so that those destined for the grave might instead enjoy life everlasting in the land of the living. He descended into hell that we might ascend with him “far above all the heavens” (Eph. 4:10). He went to the darkness that we might receive light and life. We see the glorious fruit of what Christ accomplished pro nobis described by Paul in his powerful passage on resurrection in 1 Corinthians.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:51-57)
Thanks be to God that Christ has indeed given us the victory over sin and death, that God works wonders for the dead, that God’s steadfast love is declared in the grave, that God is faithful even in Abaddon, that God’s saving help is known in the darkness, in the land of forgetfulness!

Comments

a. chapin said…
David,
Thanks for that post about Psalm 88. I find it’s one of the more interesting psalms – its very inclusion in scripture is significant; a glimpse into hell in the midst of scripture that is full of hope and reassurance (generally).

The very complaint is an expression of some sort of faith, I think. When we humans have completely written someone off as unreachable – or untrustworthy – we don’t expression our doubts to them, because we regard them as untrustworthy. So this ‘hopeless’ expression, by being expressed to God, undermines its own position through being expressed.

Thus I read an unstated – maybe because words can’t be found for this – faith that God actually won’t abandon anyone. And at the same time there’s a good dose of bitterness about the absence which is the present reality of the experience. John of the Cross wrote that when experiencing the consolation of the felt reality of God, one cannot remember His absence, and the opposite it also true….