Sermon Manuscript

The Unheard Prayer

Psalm 88

We are in Psalm 88 today. It is a psalm of lament. Laments contain a complaint, a struggle, a problem is brought to the Lord. Of the 150 psalms 67 are psalms of lament. There are more laments than psalms of praise. That may surprise you for a book titled “The Praises.”

In the psalms of lament the Lord is addressed and a struggle is brought to the Lord and then a response from the Lord followed by a confession of praise or thanks. Psalm 88 is unique among the laments for the reason that God never hears this prayer, there is no turn to praise, there is no celebration of victory.

Derek Kidner said, “There is no sadder prayer in the Psalter. (Kidner, 348). Walter Bruggeman said, “Psalm 88 is a peculiar theological treasure.” At first glance there is hardly a spark of hope. You may think the person’s life was pointless and insignificant, but that is not true.

 *This psalm helps us understand the place of unanswered prayer.*

 A goal of mine for church is that we build each other up. You may feel on a high after worship and this psalm may be a downer. But sometimes you have to go through the valley to get to the peak. And there is so much to learn in the hard parts of life and the hard parts of the Bible. This psalm teaches us that. God’s word is powerful, but sometimes we have to work hard to understand it.

Part of the reason I wanted to study the psalms is because there is a range of emotion expressed in them that is absent in today’s culture and even the church. You may be uncomfortable with this psalm. I know you would be uncomfortable if someone spoke like this in your small group. I think that forthrightness is part of the healing that it offers to us. As we read this psalm I want you to pay attention to the hurt, the lostness, the absence of God moving, words and adjectives. Pay attention to the language used for the struggle he is in.


 A Song. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah. To the choirmaster: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite. O LORD, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you. 2 Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry! 3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. 4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, 5 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. 6 You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. 7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah 8 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; 9 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. (Psalm 88:1-18 ESV)

  1. The Reality of Life with Suffering

The psalm witnesses to the possibility of unrelieved suffering in a believer's earthly existence. The happy ending of most psalms of this kind is seen to be a bonus, not a due. It's withholding is not proof of either God’s displeasure or his defeat. This is not unusual in the bible:

We are not told the exact situation here. There are times knowing the people and details around a song are helpful to apply, but sometimes not knowing their details helps us to relate it to the details of our life.

You may wonder if this is even a person with faith. I say yes. V1. He calls God by his personal, covenantal name. God is the God of his salvation. He prays day and night. Even in the midst of not being heard he continues to seek after God in prayer! V9 He prays every day. The last phrase is the darkness is my closest friend. Or in Hebrew it is more like “My closest companion is darkness.” The psalm ends on that downward note.

He knows God could save him. There is great faith expressed here. Part of the struggle is often that we know God is omnipotent; we know he is omnipresent. Speaker trusts Yahweh’s capacity and has no doubt that if he answered all would be well. Words of his like Cry, call, prayer  reflect the urgent need and deep trust. We profess that he cares for and loves us. And yet we have pain and hardship that he does not assuage; he does not remove it. It is very possible we have significant needs and cares that God does not help.

Jesus prayed with tears that the cup of suffering might be taken away. It was not.

Paul was given a thorn in the flesh from the Lord. It kept him from becoming conceited. He pleaded with God to take it away but God said,  "My grace is sufficient for you,"  (2Co 12:9 ESV). It led him to boast of his weakness because in them Christ was made strong. 

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Rom 8:22 ESV)

The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Rom 8:26 ESV)

Christianity is realistic about life. The world is fallen and we feel God’s absence as a part of judgment for sin. Christianity acknowledges these hurts. Doesn’t provide any gimmicks. It acknowledges hurts. God created us as emotional beings. Emotions are not wrong. They express what is going on. They can come out in uncomfortable ways. But if we restrain them, ignore them, then they are redirected in destructive ways.

Expectations. Biggest mental health issue is anxiety. Part of the reason people struggle with anxiety is because of wrong expectations. Life isn't a bed of roses. Serving God does not mean the waters are constantly parting for you and the glory cloud of God is hovering over you face. Sometimes we are living in Psalm 88.

When you are in the pit. When you are in the darkness, keep persevering. This is what it looks like to persevere in prayer. Are you a prayer warrior only when you get what you want immediately?

Elizabeth Elliot "No Graven Images".

  1. Persevere in Service to God. 

 It is hard to hear someone say the things that he says here:

  • God remembers him no more.
  • He is in the depths and says God has put him there (v6).
  • God’s wrath is heavy upon him. God brings punishment on people when they do wrong. We saw that a few weeks ago when David sinned and God punished him.
  • Adding insult to injury is the fact that all his friends have abandoned him. He is lonely. There is no one to go to.
  • The last word of the psalm is darkness; his closest friend is darkness.

But here, as in the case with Job, there does not appear to be a direct correlation to what he is getting and what he has done.

But despite this he does not give up. He is going to God with his struggles. That is key here. When we seek after God we find him. It may not be immediate but he works in us.

Similar to the book of Job. Job wrestled with God, he struggled with what he went through, he brought hard complaints and laments to God and to his friends. It was a struggle but he came to a deeper knowledge of God. God rebuked Job’s friends for not speaking what is right about God as my servant Job has (42:8). Job spoke out of emotional distress, didn’t understand why things were happening, but he sought after God.

 Like Job it also gets at why we serve God. Do we serve God so that he will give us what we want. Many times in life when people turn from God in hardship it reveals they had an understanding of God that I do this for you and you will do this for me. When they realize that God doesn’t work that way they don’t want anything to do with him. God is nothing more than a salesman who won’t drop his price. They don’t see him as their Lord and king. Keep seeking after him. Ask God to show you what you need to see. 

When you are in the pit 

1) keep seeking God. Be honest with him. Seek help/truth.

2) keep going to church. Psalm 73 last week.

3) keep talking with others (be emotionally involved). Yes, people may not understand. Yes, they may not say the right things. People are not omnicompetent.

When you go through this and you quit church, you avoid people, stop praying that is when Satan is rejoicing. As hard as it is to read this psalm the author is still going to God with his struggle. And this psalm is written to guide us in times of unanswered prayer. When you reject these you push aside the medicine that may heal you.

Learn to express yourself to God. Search your heart. Chip Dodd “Instead of facing the truth, we seek counterfeit solutions, trying to avoid the neediness and vulnerability so often found with truth. We drink to excess. We seek pharmaceutical solutions to avoid emotional problems. We use religion and ego-centered spirituality as a drug. We pray for God to stay away so we can hide from the truth. We furiously erect walls around our hearts. We actively pursue behaviors that will silence our hearts.

Like a tree on main street, it doesn't matter how many sidewalks are put down around it, sooner or later the roots will reach up and snap it in two” are y

Where are you disappointed with God? I'll parent but only if it goes well. I'll be in church but only if there are no potholes.  I'll start the business if it goes well. Then you get in it, you need help, and feel silence. Why continue?

Continue because God calls you to it. Continue because you know God will deliver you. Continue because you are not surprised it is hard. Continue because you know it is part of God’s plan for you.

The world has one set of metrics for determining significance and worth. God has another. God’s is about faithfulness. We measure things in dollars, fame, what you can buy, and do, etc. The kingdom of God turns all of that upside down. Greatness is about being a servant. A lot of servants get run over in life. Happened to Jesus.

  1. The Hope of the Big picture, Turning Point

Despite the darkness of this psalm there are signs that point to a brighter future. I want to highlight those now. You may struggle to identify with this psalm and I think there is a reason for that. We need to see suffering is normal. We need to see we have hope in it. I want to give you several things that hammer home the hope here.

 1. the author's name. Heman. Sons of Korah.  

allows us with hindsight, to see his rejection was only apparent. His existence was no mistake. There was a divine plan bigger than he knew, and a place in it reserved most carefully for him.

[Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. (1Ki 4:30-31 ESV)

“For this supposedly Godforsaken author seems to have been one of the pioneers of the singing guilds set up by David, to which we owe the Korahite psalms (42-49, 84, 87) one of the richest veins in the psalter. Burdened and despondent as he was, his experience was far from pointless. If it was a living death, in God’s hands it was to bear much fruit.”

Don’t think your life pointless. Don’t think your suffering is meaningless. Keep faith that God can use your darkest moments to shape you in significant ways. It seems to happen here. It certainly happens with many other biblical figures. Heman’s life did not end in darkness.

  1. The placement of this psalm. 

This psalm does not end the book of psalms. It doesn’t even end Part 3 of the psalms. Psalm 89 ends this section, and it begins with:

[ I will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations. (Psa 89:1 ESV)

It is a reminder of:

[ For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psa 30:5 ESV)

We have to look at the psalm in the collection as a whole and that tells us something of the greater story of our lives. Psalm 89 points back to the covenant God made with David and how that promise frames hope through dark times. God made a promise and will not change it.

  1. The book as a whole.

The two main kinds of psalms are psalms of praise and psalms of lament. The laments are weighted heavily toward the front end of the psalms. As you move through the book of psalms it moves from lament to praise and the last few psalms 146-150 celebrate the complete and unending worldwide praise of God.

“As the book of psalms moves from lamentation to praise, God is teaching us something in that movement, something about our worship and something about our lives.” Mark Futato, "Transformed by Praise".

The psalms move toward this day. Your life is moving toward this day. Your darkness will come to an end if you choose to have your identity wrapped around the plans and purpose of God. If you don’t then darkness will consume you.

  • Jesus. 

This leads us to see how the psalm points to hope in Jesus. God is doing something in the world to move it from lament to praise and that work is done chiefly in Jesus Christ. Jesus comes to bear our darkness and to suffer rejection for us.

Several questions are raised in this psalm with a touch of irony.

10 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you?

Ironically the answer to this, which Heman couldn’t fathom, is, yes, God does raise the dead. Jesus Christ is the only person to be completely forsaken by God. On the cross he cried. There is a disconnect between Heman’s experience and ours.

16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me

18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness. 

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34 ESV)

 He was consumed by darkness. “there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour," (Luke 23:44 ESV)

 Only person completely separated from God is Jesus. He did that so that you might never know the complete loneliness. He did it that we might receive the Holy Spirit to comfort us. To call God Father. To know him as friend.

If you are a believer you should certainly be able to relate in some ways to this psalm, but we have a better hope. Jesus is the guarantor of a better ministry, a better covenant , a better promise (Heb 8:6), and a better reward (11:16). It is more sure, more stable, more steadfast than all others.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10 ESV)

 Don’t be scared to admit your hurts. You are on the path to glory. Don’t be ashamed to talk about your defeats. Don't be ashamed to have to wrestle with God in prayer.

William Cowper was one of the great English poets of the 18th century. He struggled greatly with what was then called melancholy. We today would call depression. He was institutionalized for insanity and shortly after that found refuge in Christianity. He struggled with doubt and depression all his life, even had failed attempts at suicide, but he kept turning to Christ and he kept writing poetry. He penned one of the great hymns of the church and I want to read it.

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never failing skill

He treasures up His bright designs

And works His sov’reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan His work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

And He will make it plain.

Conclusion: Your circumstances may not be any better than the psalmist here, but your hope in Christ is better. In Christ we know that behind frowning providence is the smile of a father. That his purposes will ripen fast. And we look to him in faith that he can and is doing something greater than we can imagine.

Discussion Questions

  1.  Have you ever had a significant prayer request that went unheard? How did you handle it? Have you ever felt some of the things the psalmist does here?
  2. What does the struggle in this psalm teach you about what to expect in life?
  3. How does this psalm encourage you when things get hard? How does faith in Christ change the way you suffer?