A Soul Full of Troubles

Notes for a prayer meeting:

About The Author: This evening I want to spend a few minutes looking at a Psalm written by a man called Heman. When the writer of the book of Kings wanted to emphasise how wise Solomon was, he said he was even wiser than Heman (1 Kings 4:31), so this man Heman was known as one of the top 5 wisest people around at that time. Heman was also one of the 3 main men that David put in charge of singing in the tabernacle (1 Chron 6:33); he was responsible for leading the Israelites in worship, but there’s only one Psalm in the Bible attributed to him.

Psalm 88

I wonder how familiar you are with this Psalm. Maybe you prefer to stick to more cheerful Psalms, or at least ones that finish on a more positive note. This one ends with no sign that things are going to get better any time soon.

And maybe this makes me a bit strange, but that’s precisely why I think it’s so helpful.

Jesus said “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4). Heman was mourning but saw no sign of comfort. Maybe you feel you can relate to that. Hopefully looking at this Psalm will help you. Or maybe you don’t feel you’ve ever had any experience that’s remotely comparable to what Heman’s talking about. Maybe you will one day, or maybe looking at this Psalm will help you to help other people who are going through something like this. Hopefully either way we’ll all see something in this Psalm or be reminded of something that will help us to pray this evening.

v1 – “O LORD, God of my salvation” – Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but this is the prayer of a saved man.

Christians are commanded to “rejoice always” (Phil 4:4), and there are some Christians, who I’m sure are well-meaning, but they give the impression that rejoicing always means Christians should always be cheerful (if Christians go around looking miserable, what message does that send to non-believers?). In that case, it would seem that what Heman’s expressing in this Psalm is not a legitimate part of Christian experience. If someone is going through something similar to Heman and hears that Christians are supposed to always be cheerful, that’s probably going to make them feel even worse. Well, I think the fact that this Psalm is in the Bible tells us this is a legitimate part of Christian experience.

Sometimes, if a parent is pleased with a child’s drawing, they’ll stick it on the fridge with a magnet for everyone who enters their kitchen to see. Imagine what it must’ve meant to Heman, having poured his heart out in this deeply sorrowful Psalm, that God put it in the Bible for millions of people to read over thousands of years.

So what do we do if we’re feeling like Heman did when he wrote this Psalm? To begin with, Heman remembers his salvation: “O LORD, God of my salvation” – Although his soul is full of troubles, he refuses to completely give in to despair. He remembers his salvation, and calls out to the God who saved him. Likewise, whatever trouble we might be facing, we can still hold onto the certain hope of salvation that Christ secured for us. We might be looking down a very long, dark tunnel, but there is some light at the end of it.

“I cry out day and night before you” – Some people cry out about their troubles. Perhaps they even cry out day and night. But instead of crying out before God, people complain about God. “How could God allow such a terrible thing to happen?” Some people might ask that question with a genuine desire to understand, but others think they know so much about the universe that they can say with confidence that God couldn’t possibly have good reasons for allowing people to experience pain, so they’re annoyed or even angry at him, and they complain about him to other people. I doubt any of us here would complain about God out loud to other people, but perhaps there are times when we’re upset that his will is evidently not what we want. We know we’re supposed to submit to his will, so in our prayers we stick to the right words “not my will but yours”, but actually there are things we want to complain about. Heman sets an example for us in being honest in prayer and taking our complaints to God. Spurgeon said: “When a man dares to pour out his complaint before the Lord’s own face, his woes are real, and not the result of petulance or a rebellious spirit.”

Heman only actually makes one request in this Psalm, and it’s in v2: “Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry!” He spends the rest of the Psalm describing his troubles and asking God questions. The one thing he asks for is that God listens to him.

I wonder if we’re so used to prayer that we sometimes forget we don’t have an automatic right to expect God to listen to us. We can draw near to the throne of grace with confidence because we have a great high priest (Hebrews 4:14-16), but it struck me that this one request that Heman makes is actually a much bigger thing than we probably appreciate most of the time: that God, who created the universe by speaking, should listen to what we have to say. Even if he wasn’t ever going to answer, just the fact that he pays any attention to us at all is incredible if we stop to think about it.

In v3-5 Heman begins to describe what he’s going through. Effectively he feels like he’s almost in hell, cut off from God, in a dark place. God seems absent. To be set loose is usually considered a positive thing – not to be tied down, not to be tethered – but in this case Heman feels like his life’s not even dangling by a thread; that tether has been cut. There’s nothing left connecting him to the land of the living.

But there’s a shred of hope in that he only feels “like” those God remembers no more. He knows that’s not actually the case. Thank God that, even though it might sometimes feel like it, and we certainly deserve it, he hasn’t cut us off from himself. He does remember us.

In v6 Heman says to God: “You have put me in the depths of the pit”. He acknowledges God’s sovereignty in the midst of his trouble. It’s not that God has forgotten him, or that God’s trying his best but can’t manage to keep everyone out of trouble all the time. It was God who put Heman in the pit. I think most people in our culture would think we’re crazy to worship a God who would do this to his own people, but even if we don’t understand why God would do it, there is hope in the knowledge that he’s in control.

In v7 Heman was overwhelmed by the weight of God’s wrath on him. People sometimes say “God never gives us more than we can bear”, but that’s not true. He never exposes us to temptation without providing a way of getting out without sinning, but sometimes he does overwhelm us. He overwhelmed Heman.

He may allow us to experience more of the weight of his wrath than we can bear as well, but of course we also have reason for hope in that we know he will never pour it out on us, because he’s already poured it all out on Jesus. So from our position in history we have an advantage over Heman. If we feel the weight of God’s wrath lying heavily on us, we can turn that into a greater appreciation for what Jesus did for us on the cross.

In v8 Heman says “You have caused my companions to shun me” – Again he’s acknowledging God’s sovereignty. God is in control of relationships breaking down.

On one level it could be that a relationship breaking down was our fault, and perhaps we need to repent of treating someone badly, but knowing that God planned it gives us cause for hope. Humanly speaking, some relationships might seem beyond repair, but the God who planned on the relationship breaking down in the first place is also capable of fixing it. And in the meantime, or even if it’s not his will to ever bring about reconciliation, he’s still in control of the situation, and he will use the experience for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28).

So Heman’s overwhelmed, his companions have abandoned him, and at the end of v8 he says “I am shut in so that I cannot escape”. He sees no way out. In v9 his “eye grows dim through sorrow” – he’s weeping so much that his eyesight’s failing. What’s he supposed to do? If “God never gives us more than we can bear”, is he supposed to bear it? No. He can’t. Instead this overwhelming trouble leads him to call upon God. He spreads his hands out to him.

Then notice how he pleads with God in v10-12: “Do the departed rise up to praise you? … Is your steadfast love declared? … Are your wonders known …?”

Heman pleads with God on the basis that he knows God wants people to praise him. God wants his steadfast love and faithfulness to be declared, He wants his wonders and righteousness to be known.

It sounds like God is rather self-centred, and in a sense he is – and rightly so! The God who created all things, the Supreme Being over the universe should be the centre of attention, he is worthy of all our praise – but this is a good thing for us too, because (a) we’re beneficiaries of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, and (b) it means our hope of experiencing God’s steadfast love and faithfulness is based on God’s character rather than our performance.

Some people try to make deals with God, promising to do certain things for him if he’ll get us out of trouble, and it seems quite noble to want to do something for God to repay him for his goodness, but God doesn’t do things for us so that we’ll do anything for him in return. He does things for us so that his steadfast love and faithfulness and wonders and righteousness will be known.

So Heman is setting us a good example for how to plead with God: “Do the departed rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?”  He wants to praise God for his steadfast love and faithfulness; he’s asking God “how can I do that if I’m cut off from you, in the grave with those you remember no more?”

He’s asking God questions, but these are the kind of questions that come from faith. He believes God is sovereign and that his purpose is to glorify God, but he’s struggling to match up his belief with his experience.

Then again in v10 we have an advantage over Heman, because we know the answers to his questions: Yes, God does work wonders for the dead, and yes, the departed do rise up to praise him. Jesus went even further into the pit than Heman. He died, and was buried, but God raised him back to life, and as a result, thousands and thousands of us who would otherwise have been destined for eternal death will instead inherit eternal life, to the praise of his glorious grace.

But that knowledge doesn’t make present suffering disappear. And being a Christian, even one who prays every day, doesn’t mean you’ll have an easy life. In v13 Heman cries to God, “in the morning my prayer comes before you”. v9 says he cried out to God every day, and v1 says he cried out day and night, but it seemed in v14 like God had cast his soul away, and hidden his face from Heman, and v15-18 Heman’s troubles haven’t gone anywhere. Again he describes feeling close to death, God’s wrath sweeping over him, and his companions shunning him.

But even though his sorrows are apparently here to stay for a while yet, there’s still a hint of hope in v14: “Why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” – The fact that he longs to see God’s face indicates that he is truly one of God’s saved people, so however he might feel at the moment, he won’t ultimately be cast away. If God had really cast Heman away, he wouldn’t still be praying to him.

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