As strange as it may sound, we can all be thankful that Psalm 88 was included in the Psalter. This psalm is unbroken distress from beginning to end with nary a word of affirmation of trust or hope in God. The Psalmist says his "soul is full of troubles," that he is "like the slain that lie in the grave," that God's "wrath lies heavy upon me," and so on and so on, billowing clouds of blackness lingering above his words. Finally, in the end, he accuses God of having "caused my beloved and my friend to shun me" and says that "darkness has become my only companion." It is the voice of one who has faced lifelong trouble and suffering, without relief.
Although I cannot stand in the writer's shoes, I can identify with his sense of unrequited loss, as I suspect anyone who has lived a while can. I was lamenting today the apparent loss of the ability to any longer sleep an unbroken eight hours without awaking, a small loss in the context of the universe of loss. And yet even small losses are real and lamented at times. And at times, like the writer of Psalm 88, I am not prepared to immediately make great affirmations of trust in God, of hope that this will change. There is some wrestling to be done, some being in the moment of loss. Psalm 88 says that's OK. That's part of the reason that the psalm is likely there for us.
There is a difference between grief, our human reaction to loss, and self-pity. True Christian grief says, "I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. … Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men" (Lam. 3:19-33). On the other hand, self pity turns our gaze inward. It is a morbid self-introspection and, ultimately, if it persists, can turn to bitterness and even unbelief. It's a "Lord, do you not care. . . ?" (Lk. 10:40) that grows exponentially if it's not nipped in the bud. But note, though there are no affirmations of hope and trust, the writer of Psalm 88 is engaged in a dialog with God. He is praying to the One who has answers for his grief. Maybe he can't make the positive affirmations that other psalms of lament come around to, yet, nevertheless, he's still talking to God. And that is hopeful.
Let's face it. Sometimes loss is so acutely felt that you can't say the words you know are true, or hope are true. You can only cry out to God, argue with God, even accuse God. That He condescends to allow us that fearsome privilege, that He even gives us this psalm as a pattern for doing just that, only demonstrates how great a condescension He has made for us (Phil. 2:5-8). Eventually, once we have said our piece and shut up, we'll hear something like "let not your hearts be troubled," "fear not," or "rejoice." And for me, the one who cannot sleep the sleep of a child, there is the promise that He will give me "rest" (Mt. 11:28), if not now, then soon. Very soon.