For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
Psalm 88:3 (NRSVCE)
I found it ironic this morning that in the very midst of the holiday season my chapter-a-day journey would bring me to perhaps the darkest song we will encounter in this anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics. As we reach the end of 2020, mental health experts have warned that social isolation, fear, anxiety, and depression created by the pandemic will have long-term effects. Just a few weeks ago it was reported that San Francisco has had more deaths by drug overdose in 2020 than Covid deaths. It is clear that many people are finding themselves in dark places mentally, emotionally, and spiritually right now.
One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate about the Great Story is that it doesn’t gloss over the darkness that is experienced on this earthly journey. In fact, what I have found in the 40 years that I’ve been studying it is that suffering is consistently presented as an essential ingredient in spiritual development, formation, and maturity. I’m reminded of our landscaper telling Wendy and me not to be too generous in giving water to our newly planted trees and shrubs. “They need to suffer a little bit,” he said, “even if it looks like they’re struggling you want to force them to push their roots deep into the soil. It will ultimately make them stronger and healthier.”
The liner notes of Psalm 88 attribute the lyrics to Heman the Ezrahite, who was well-known as a Hebrew sage in the days of Solomon. If the song is at all biographical, then Heman had a rough life. There is no uplifting statement of faith or hopeful assurance like those found in the darkest of King David’s songs. There is darkness, the pit of despair, the loneliness of being a social outcast, and the ever-nearness of death. If you’re an angst-filled teenager or a melancholy Enneagram Type Four, then you’ll love wallowing in the gloom as Heman pens “the Darkness is my closest friend.” It is part of the human experience to attribute life’s difficulties with divine wrath, retribution, or judgment.
It’s easy to overlook, however, that the lyrics quite purposefully state that the person is still praying morning (vs. 13), noon (vs. 9), and night (vs. 1). He is struggling through the darkness, blaming his troubles on the God to whom he continues to cry out, to pray, and to seek. As I meditated on this fact, God’s Spirit brought two other passages to mind:
Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings
to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute—
you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you;
night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.
Psalm 139:7-12 (MSG)
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)
In the quiet this morning I find myself reflecting on the difficulties we’ve all experienced in 2020. On this life journey, I’ve observed that every person treks through dark places when the last thing I want to hear is a cheery “Buck up little camper” or some over-spiritualized encouragement. As an Enneagram Four, I’m given to wallowing in the melancholy. In my own life journey, like Heman the Hebrew Sage, I’ve found myself in those stretches just continuing to press on in seeking, stretching, crying out morning, noon, and night.
Jesus told His followers that He was “the vine” and His Father was “the gardener.” From my current waypoint on life’s road, I can look back and see how in the darkest stretches of my life journey the Gardner was present, watching over me, pruning, and prodding: “Keep thirsting. Dig those roots deep into the soil. That’s where you’ll find Living Water.”