What would you say to a man who felt weak and near to death? Whose friends and loved ones had abandoned him? Who felt afflicted, assaulted, and terrorized, with the events of life overwhelming him like a flood?
Would you tell him he needed to pray to God?
What if he told you that he’s been praying day and night to God, crying out to him? What if he told you that, as far as he is concerned, it is God who has put him in this dark place, God who assaults and terrorizes him, God who is overwhelming him, God who casts him away?
Would you say that his theology was wrong, that he needed to have a better concept of the love, mercy and grace of God?
Let me introduce you to that man: Heman the Ezrahite. All of what I described in the past two paragraphs is packed into his psalm, Psalm 88. He is living in misery and finds no relief in God. Perhaps shockingly, the misery in the psalm is unremitting. It starts in misery (verse 3: “for my soul is full of troubles”), continues in misery (verse 7: “you overwhelm me with all your waves”), grows to more misery (verse 14: “O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?”), and ends in misery (verse 18: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me”). Unlike so many psalms that start in misery, despair, or anger, it doesn’t end on a joyful, peaceful, or confident note. The psalm is an unfiltered prayer of someone living in pure misery.
So what would you say to Heman? Here are a few ideas.
1. Whatever you say, don’t condemn him. God has seen fit to take Heman’s prayer and include it in his Psalter. The Psalms are God’s words, but in a unique way, at their core, they are a series of prayers and meditations that God has written for us, as if to say, “Think like this about me, about yourself, and about the world around you. Talk to me this way.” So we dare not condemn Heman for not having “positive” thoughts.
2. If you say something, maybe you should commend his faith. He is in misery, but he prays to God daily (verse 9), day and night (verse 1). He boldly pleads God’s honor and not his own (verses 10-12):
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon [the place of destruction]?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”
3. Maybe you don’t say anything and just be with him. Maybe you can rectify some of his external problems, but maybe not. He feels cast aside by man and by God; maybe God is using you for his deliverance. Maybe it starts with joining him in his prayers.
4. Maybe, very carefully, you tell him, “Jesus understands”. Jesus said on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). The Son knows what it means to be abandoned by God and man.
Are you feeling like Heman or know someone who is? I hope this helps. I wish I could say something like, “Heman, you just need to do this thing or think this thought.” But I don't think that this psalm will allow that. At some point, you hope to tell them (or remind them) about the good news of Jesus Christ. But first, it’s enough to be with them and pray with them.