“You have taken from me friend and neighbour—darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88:18 NIV)
There aren’t sufficient details in Psalm 88 to know the specific nature of the suffering the psalmist was enduring when he put his feelings to paper (or parchment). Was it a back-stabbing colleague or boss? Was it cruel treatment from foreign invaders or betrayal by a friend or family member? Was it anguish caused by a physical ailment or an attack on his mental wellness?
Whatever it was, many identify with the pain expressed in the psalm, not least its final phrase: “darkness is my closest friend”. Kathryn Green-McCreight is a pastor who often feels exactly like this. She suffers from protracted bouts of mental illness, and she has used this final phrase of Psalm 88 as the title of her book: Darkness Is My Only Companion.1
That final phrase in the Hebrew psalm is so terse and broken to be almost painful and incoherent. Perhaps that brokenness itself complements the anguished tone of Psalm 88. It also explains why translators interpret the broken phrase in different ways. “My companions are in darkness” (RSV) conveys the anguish we feel when our friends (or family) seem to be totally in the dark concerning the nature of our suffering. The sort of advice they offer (“Pray harder! Try harder! Just get up and do it!”) shows that they are in darkness and do not understand that “the sick individual cannot simply shrug it off or pull out of it”.2
A Jewish translation (Tanakh) renders the same phrase as “my companions are out of my sight”. Friends who are in the dark are friends who are out of sight in the sense of not being near me. Perhaps they avoid me because they don’t enjoy being with someone who doesn’t smile or say anything. Or they have given up on me because they can’t understand why I just don’t snap out of my depressive moods.
Whatever the exact nature of the darkness in Psalm 88, what is clear is that God understands. The inclusion of Psalm 88 in Holy Scripture is one way in which God helps us understand that sometimes “it is okay to not always feel okay”.
The God of the Bible understands. Lord, help us understand also. AMEN.
1 Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
2 Ibid., 25.
|Bishop Dr Gordon Wong was elected Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2020.
He served as President of the Trinity Annual Conference from 2012-2020.