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God, I feel dead

August 26, 2018, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Psalm 88:1-18) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Psalms
Preached at a Mandarin (Sunday) service

Tags: Korah, Maskil

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Title: God, I feel dead
Date: 26th Aug 2018
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

Today, we shall continue our sharing of the Maskil Psalms. 【1】 Each of these Maskil Psalms has something to teach and enlighten us. Last week, Elder Chern Han shared from Psalm 142, about the struggles of feeling trapped and cornered by enemies, like being imprisoned in a cave. 【2】 This week we will go even deeper into the struggles of life and address the issue of death with Psalm 88. (Psalm Reading. Prayer.)

Psalm 88 is considered one of the darkest psalms in the Bible, and as we have just read, you can see why. The entire psalm revolves around a theme of death and loneliness, and unlike other lament psalms, even compared to Psalm 142 from last Sunday, this one barely utters any verses of hope. If I were to summarize this psalm into a line, it would be this: “God, I feel dead”. The psalmist even expressed his degree of depression: 6 You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. I need all of us to reflect on this: Do you think that the psalmist desired to live, or to die? You might think that the answer is obvious. Of course, the psalmist desired to live. Why else would he be praying to God? If his wish was to die, he would have given up already. You might think that a person with suicidal thoughts would not be praying a prayer like this. These were my initial thoughts too. But as I researched deeper into this, I realized that perhaps the line of demarcation isn’t as distinct as I had imagined it to be. A person thinking about death can also be desperate to live.

“Think about the last time you had a bad day. Maybe it went something like this: you woke up late, missed the bus, was forced to skip lunch, got into a quarrel with someone close to you, got reprimanded for a mistake that wasn’t yours, reached home and realized your overdue bills. We would all have had a similar ‘bad day’ experience before, and when trapped in those situations, all we wish is for the day to “hurry up and end” or to “go home and sleep it off.”
Now magnify that on the scale of someone’s life. Imagine the multiple pressures of daily living come crashing down, snowballing into one giant mess of chaos and dysfunction. These are real things that real people face. When a barrage of these occurs at the same time or in quick succession, the pain that develops can be drawn out and seemingly impossible to heal from.
Suicide isn’t giving up, it’s using up. To completely use up our emotional reserves; drawing out every possible ounce of hope and optimism. To be exhausted of all those qualities – so exhausted that the flame of life itself is compelled to diminish.” 【3】

That is how I have come to interpret Psalm 88. Because of all the overwhelming troubles, the psalmist already had one foot in the grave. He felt dead. Throughout the psalm are words associated with death: 3 I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. The most obvious sign of death is the physical weakness. 4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. And such frailty isn’t just a recent phenomenon. 15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. The feeling of death isn’t merely physical, it is also social. 8 You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; 9 my eyes are dim with grief. 18 You have taken from me friend and neighbour— darkness is my closest friend. We do not know if the psalmist was shunned and rejected by his closed ones because of his misfortune; or was it because he had to be quarantined from others for pragmatic reasons. It could be both. It could even be self-inflicted by a mind in depression. As one person who was in depression wrote: “As those who suffer from it know, intractable depression creates a planet all its own, largely impermeable to influence from others except as shadow presences, urging you to come out and re-join the world, take in a movie, go out for a bite, cheer up. I felt isolated in my own pitch-darkness, even when I was in a room full of conversation and light.” 【4】 That’s what death feels like, when you feel cut off from all human contact. The feeling of death is not just physical and social, it is also spiritual. 7 Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. 14 Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? The Psalmist felt that God was ignoring him and all his troubles were God’s persistent angry judgment upon him. 5 I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. The Psalmist felt that God was treating him like a dead person. The feeling of death is not just physical and social, it is also spiritual.

To me, this sounded like a person who was at his wit’s end, someone who desperately wanted to live but simply didn’t know how to go on. To me, this sounded like a person in more pain than they knew how to cope with. It is truly a paradox of experiences. On one hand, he feels dead; physically, socially and spiritually. Yet on the other hand, he cannot deny that he is still alive. At some point in time, his emotional tank must have run dry. He may have felt the desire to die. Suicide isn’t giving up, it’s using up. All the hope and optimism had been drained away. Despite this, the desire to live can co-exist with the desire to die. Both desires are present in the psalmist. This is why I’ve titled my sermon: God, I feel dead. Don’t just say “I feel dead”. Say “God, I feel dead.” Just the mere presence of the word “God” can make all the difference, because this statement now transforms into a reaching out to be heard. The psalmist might truly be in a state of hopelessness and despair due to overwhelming life circumstances. But regardless, he was still alive, and that made this prayer to God possible. When the sentiment isn’t just “I feel dead”, but “God, I feel dead”, it is an attempt to connect with another person. God is a person. There is a person who is the recipient at the other end of this prayer. That’s what matters.

Since this is a Maskil psalm, I am inclined to believe that this prayer was composed as an instruction to all the desperate Israelites in need of emotional support. Would a psalm like Psalm 88 really help people in need? You might be wondering if there can be such power in a song. Can singing a song or praying a psalm really transform the state of a person feeling dead? Yet I believe in the power of such a prayer. This must be why love songs are always so popular, even if it seems strange to be singing about being heartbroken. For those who are stuck in a love crisis, the love songs are like an external coping resource resonating through compassion, empathy, and concern. It makes a difference to vocalize it. Psalm 88 works the same way for people who feel dead. Today I hope to do the same for those who are overwhelmed by troubles. If you feel dead, even abandoned by God, or maybe you have a friend suffering in depression, I want to help by teaching you to pray like Psalm 88.

What you need to do is to “blame” God. I say this a bit fearfully and also very daringly, but that’s what Psalm 88 sounds like to me. The Psalmist repeatedly stated that God was fully responsible for all his troubles. 16 Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. The Psalmist “blamed” God in almost half of his verses. Yet there is actually no proof that God did anything directly to him. But one thing is certain. God was his personal saviour. 1 Lord, you are the God who saves me. So as long as God is in charge of the world, and God has the power to save him, then the “blaming” seems somewhat legitimate. I am fully aware that there is a danger in complaining and grumbling to God. That was the sin committed by the Israelites in the wilderness during their exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. But I think there are 2 key differences between the Israelites’ grumbling and the Psalmist’s form of making God take responsibility. One, the Israelites were totally ungrateful about their salvation from slavery and their first sight of trouble was to complain. However, the Psalmist situation was not about ingratitude, but rather about prayers that were repeatedly unanswered. It didn’t start with grumbling and complaining like the rebellious Israelites. Psalm 88 is a desperate final measure. Two, underlying the Psalmist’s blaming of God was his personal relationship with God. The Psalmist could express himself daringly precisely because God was his God and no other. The Israelites were tempted by foreign idols and the life back in Egypt, whereas for the Psalmist, he was consistently and fully devoted to God as his only saviour. The Israelites grumbled to stray away from God. The Psalmist held God responsible to draw God closer to him.

Brothers and sisters, this is what it means to have faith in God. It means that you even dare to hold God accountable to his promises and his divine role as our God. In verses 10-12, the Psalmist talked about God’s wonders, love, faithfulness and righteous deeds. But he stated these as a criticism of God that all would be too late if the Psalmist eventually died from his troubles. All these marvellous actions of God would be meaningless in Death, because death was the end. In essence, he was challenging God for who he was. I know you are such a good God. I’m already praying to you every day and every night. When are you going to listen to me? Where is your salvation? Brothers and sisters, I’m teaching you to pray like this in the most desperate of situations because I believe in such prayers. “Suicide isn’t giving up, it’s using up. To completely use up our emotional reserves; drawing out every possible ounce of hope and optimism.” Yet if you can pray like Psalm 88, blatantly and with such no-holds-barred interaction with God, then there is hope. If you believe that you can still struggle with God, then there will always be some fight left in you.

I want to say some final words about our view towards death. My stand is that we should not fear death, but we should desire life. As Paul states in Philippians 1: 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. We should not fear death because we know that we already have victory over death in Jesus Christ. But sometimes, our troubles and mental pain are so overwhelming that we fear living more than we fear death. I know that life can be a struggle, sometimes going through even a day can feel difficult. But like Paul, it is important to stay alive even for the sake of others. If you cannot conquer your depression, you can at least outlive your depression. But to do that, you must hold fast to God. If you are already desperate, then you may as well be unashamed before God. God, I feel dead. Aren’t you the God of the living? (Mark 12:27) God, keep me alive. I want to live.

Lastly, to those who are relatively trouble-free, and those with a sunny disposition, Paul reminds us in Romans 12: 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Be reminded in Ephesians 5: 18 Be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Psalm 88 should be a reminder to us to sing lament songs together with people who need a prayer partner. Be there for them.

[1] http://www.jubilee.org.sg/sermons/? stag=Maskil
[2] http://www.jubilee.org.sg/sermons/?sermon_id=860
[3] https://www.sos.org.sg/blog/suicide-isnt-giving-up-its-using-up
[4]https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/magazine/10Depression-t.html

Psalm 88 (Listen)

A Song. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah. To the choirmaster: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

88:1   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!
  For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol.
  I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
    I am a man who has no strength,
  like one set loose among the dead,
    like the slain that lie in the grave,
  like those whom you remember no more,
    for they are cut off from your hand.
  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
  You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a horror to them.
  I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
  Every day I call upon you, O LORD;
    I spread out my hands to you.
10   Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
11   Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12   Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
13   But I, O LORD, cry to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14   O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
    Why do you hide your face from me?
15   Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
    I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16   Your wrath has swept over me;
    your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17   They surround me like a flood all day long;
    they close in on me together.
18   You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
    my companions have become darkness.

(ESV)