This blog post was originally posted on October 27, 2015.
In a previous reflection, I shared my own struggles with unanswered prayer, which although grounded in a biblical perspective on prayer, only referenced one specific text. The psalms of course are the primary school for prayer in the Bible. Many psalms of lament struggle with God's delay in answering prayer, but the usual pattern is that eventually God responds to the cry for help. In Ps. 31 the person in distress felt forsaken, but God eventually heard his cry. "I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help (v.22).” This is the typical pattern in every case except for one, Ps. 88. In this psalm a person in great distress cries out to God for help, but help never comes. The petitioner appears to end up in despair as the psalmist ends by praying "darkness is my only companion (19b)."
What do we do with this psalm? More often than not we don't deal with it at all. It is never one of the psalms assigned for Sunday morning. If we do address the psalm, we try to explain away too easily God's lack of response. We may even provide unsubstantiated explanations. For example, we might wonder if the person praying this psalm wasn't faithful enough even though nothing in the psalm suggests that to be the case. In contrast, what Israel did was include the psalm as an example of what sometimes happens when we pray--nothing. God is silent. God doesn't respond. No other explanation needs to be given.
So what do we do with that? The psalms reveal a people who have a covenantal relationship with God. In this covenant, both partners in the relationship exercise extraordinary freedom. Therefore, even though the bible bears witness to a God who has compassion for his people, just because God's people are in desperate need doesn't mean that God has no choice but to respond. Why God doesn't act can't be explained. For our part, we have the freedom to keep asking God for help, or we can throw in the towel. We have the freedom to also express our frustrations and disappointments. We can also remind God, as the psalmist did, that a dead man (apparently a possible end for the psalmist if God doesn’t help) will not be around to give God thanks (v.11b).
I take comfort that this psalm was included in the Bible because it lets me know something I really need to know when God is silent--I am not alone in this experience. That it was included in the Bible suggests that the Israel who had experienced God's compassion in time of need was also an Israel that knew that sometimes God didn't come to their aid. Both experiences are part of this relationship for Israel and for many people ever since.