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Psalms 139 and 88

A Scripture Reading of Assurance and Lament for Two Voices

Psalm 139 is a testimony to God’s unlimited capacity to know us and to be present with us. Psalm 88, by contrast, is a psalm of lament and unrelenting darkness and is the only psalm that does not include a vow of praise or a statement of hope.

Yet Psalm 139 contains surprising verses of imprecation asking for God’s vengeance, and even amid the darkness of Psalm 88 the psalmist cries out to the God believed to be his Savior.

Hearing these two psalms in juxtaposition allows a congregation gathered together to find where its individual voices fit in these prayers. Am I experiencing the assurance of God’s presence? Or am I in the pit, crying out in despair? In what sense am I experiencing God’s constant presence as overwhelming? Hearing these two psalms together can help us anchor one another.

Voice 1:

LORD, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, LORD, you know it completely.

Voice 2:

LORD, my God, my Savior,
by day and night I cry to you.
Let my prayer enter into your presence;
incline your ear to my lamentation.
For I am full of trouble;
my life is at the brink of the grave.

Voice 1:

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

Voice 2:

I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I have become like one who has no strength;
lost among the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have laid me in the depths of the Pit,
in dark places, and in the abyss.
Your anger weighs upon me heavily,
and all your great waves overwhelm me.

Voice 1:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

Voice 2:

You have put my friends far from me; . . .
I am in prison and cannot get free.
My sight has failed me because of trouble;
LORD, I have called upon you daily;
I have stretched out my hands to you.

Voice 1:

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Voice 2:

Will your wonders be known in the dark
or your righteousness in the country where all is forgotten?
But as for me, LORD, I cry to you for help;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.

Voice 1:

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Voice 2:

LORD, why have you rejected me?
Why have you hidden your face from me?
Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the point of death;
I have borne your terrors and am helpless.

Voice 1:

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

Voice 2:

Your blazing anger has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me;
they surround me all day long like a flood;
they encompass me on every side.
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
and darkness is my only companion.

[said in a whisper]

Voice 1:

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.

[building to a crescendo]

Voice 2:

LORD, my God, my Savior,
by day and night I cry to you.
Let my prayer enter into your presence.

Voice 1:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.