Whether or not we call it a secondary or parallel pandemic, there is no doubt that there has been an upsurge in mental health issues during the past year. Some fear it will have a long-term impact, especially on younger age groups. It is a silent issue at the best of times, it is easier to ask about physical than mental health. We all know people who have trials in this area to a greater or lesser extent and Christians are not immune. It can be difficult to distinguish between spiritual and mental trials and the impact they have on each other. Medical and other assistance is of course often needed but with whatever the case we must bring our situation before God. Scripture shows us how to go to God for comfort and strength in such afflictions. It does not give us glib platitudes; it plumbs the depth of mental distress to lift up the troubled and cast down.
The bleakest lament from a distressed condition is found in Psalm 88. As David Dickson notes, this is the experience of a ‘wise and holy man…under the heaviest condition of a wounded spirit of any that we read of.’ Heman the Ezrahite was one of the four wisest men in all of Israel (1 Kings 4:31) yet here he prays for comfort in wrestling by faith and pouring out his soul to God. It is the heaviest possible condition we can imagine for a believer. He does not seem to find the comfort he seeks, yet he clings to God. This deep trouble of a wounded spirit is recorded here for our understanding and spiritual benefit. Perhaps our situation or that experienced by others is equally bleak or less so. Or perhaps meditating on this psalm can help prepare us for future affliction. C H Spurgeon was perhaps reflecting on this psalm when he said the following:
The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour.
Those who find their assurance of God’s love and comfort is clouded by their experience in their heavy affliction can still find comfort here. As David Dickson remarks, ‘those who flee to God for reconciliation and consolation through Christ, have no reason to suspect themselves, that they are not esteemed of and loved as dear children, because they feel so much of God’s wrath.’ Here is a saint who has drunk as deeply of that cup of sorrow as any who will read this Psalm. ‘Yet here is one so much loved and honoured of God’ that he is used in writing Scripture ‘and a pattern of faith and patience unto others.’ He could still call him the God of his salvation. Dickson draws further help and comfort in this updated and abridged extract.
1. Clinging to God by Grace
He fastens his faith and resolution to pray constantly to God until he receives and answer. Those have fled to God for grace and have received the offered reconciliation in the Messiah have entered into covenant with God for their everlasting salvation. They ought to stand fast in holding onto this covenant, however hard their condition may be.
When a believer has laid hold on eternal life, they may by the same right ask and expect comfort in and deliverance out of every trouble. Heman does this here (v1-2). God can love a person and keep praying in faith for a long time without an answer to comfort them. Yet this is all in love, wise love.
There is a difference between the lamentation of the worldly man and the believer. The worldly person sighs and cries, to whom they know not. But the godly present their lamentations to God. We must pray to God again and again patiently, until we know it is answered.
2. Clinging to God in increasing Troubles
There are nine deepening troubles that add to each other in misery.
(a) His soul is full of troubles, so full it can hold no more. Soul troubles are the most pressing troubles (v3)
(b) The sorrows of the mind are able to waste away the body, which cannot but shrink and pine away when the soul is sick with anguish (v3)
(c) His soul’s condition seems desperate like those that go down to the pit. Whatever strength of soul or body a person is soon emptied when God puts them in distress. Without fresh supplies they are as those that have no strength (v4). I am as a man that hath no strength.
(d) He is like the living among the dead, no longer fit for any duty of the living. The believer may sometimes be so burdened with trouble of spirit, that they can neither think, nor speak, nor go about any duty of the living for a time (v5).
(e) He is like someone killed violently, thrust out of the world suddenly with a deadly wound. A soul dear to God may experience such a condition (v5)
(f) He is deprived of the comforts of life and is it were left under the power of death. The believer may sometimes lose sight of the everlasting promise and seem to be rejected by God (v5).
(g) He seems to be deprived of all light of consolation, in the gulf of desperation without deliverance. The believer may feel themselves to be in such a condition, the lowest pit. Whatever trouble we are in, or however great danger we seem to be in, the believer’s wisdom is still to look to God. This may add to grief and fear, yet it prepares the way for the remedy and keeps the believer on the right terms with God.
(h) He has the felt wrath of God pursuing him, overtaking him, lying heavy on him, tossing him with new fears and assaults. These are like the waves of the sea when they come one after another, and endlessly dash on what they find in their way. Such may be the case of a beloved soul in its own felt sense (v7).
(i) He is deprived of all comfort, even any consolation from his friends or fellowship of the godly and wise (v8).
3. Clinging to God in Faith
He wrestles in prayer using four reasons to strengthen his faith and hope of being comforted.
(a) He earnestly seeks comfort only in God with tears (v9).
(b) He must not perish without an answer to his prayer to edify others and glorify God’s name (v10-12)
(c) He is resolved not to cease praying (v13)
(d) He cannot be cast off from God even though His face is hidden (v14)
4. Clinging to God in Grief
The psalmist presents his misery before the Lord, persuaded that he must experience the Lord’s compassion in due time, although he has been afflicted since his youth (v15). When we have tried all means for receiving comfort from God, it is safest for us to lay our grief before God, until He is pleased to show pity.
5. Clinging to God in Fear
The weight of present troubles, is accompanied with the fear of worse to come. Some of God’s children are more tried in their consciences than others. Some souls may experience this all their days. Severe trials may sometimes make faith stagger with doubting, and perplex our reason so that we are like someone that is beside themselves. But although the godly experience doubt, they are not driven to despair; they may be cast down, but they are not destroyed. The terrors of God in the plural number are upon him, that is, frequent terrors, and multiplied terrors (v16-17). They are compared to waters enclosing someone before they are aware.
6. Clinging to God in Isolation
There is no one who is compassionate toward him (v8 and 18). There was none to pity him, none to counsel or comfort him, none to whom he might impart his mind fully for ease. His old friends, and such as loved him before failed him and forsook him. He must sit solitary in darkness. Such a heavy and comfortless condition may be the lot of a beloved child of God.
The fact that he ends the psalm without any comfort for the time being does not make this psalm any less comforting than any other psalm. It shows that he was being supported for the time being even though it was without comfort. He had comfort given to him afterwards since he was able to turn this sad complaint into a song both for himself and for the Church.
This teaches us that seeing God can sustain a soul by secretly supporting faith, though without a felt sense of comfort. This may be even under the heaviest and most grievous felt sense of wrath. A believer in God must therefore lay hold on God’s goodness, promise and covenant. They must continue to trust in the Lord even though He seems to slay them (see Job 13:15). The example of Heman the Ezrahite here teaches us this.
If we have never experienced the deep emotional and mental distress of Heman the Ezrahite we have great reason to be thankful. If we have known these depths, we are not alone. It is a great blessing that the Bible records such anguish to show us how to express ourselves in the midst of it. The Holy Spirit as the Comforter is able to draw near and apply the Word to the deep griefs of the mind. We need the same compassion for those who are going through dark valleys in their own experience
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