Original Research

'Darkness is my closest friend' (Ps 88:18b): Reflections on the saddest psalm in the Psalter

Ernst R. Wendland
Verbum et Ecclesia | Vol 37, No 1 | a1543 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v37i1.1543 | © 2016 Ernst R. Wendland | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 29 October 2015 | Published: 25 May 2016

About the author(s)

Ernst R. Wendland, Department of Ancient Studies, Stellenbosch University, South Africa


On the face of it, there are no bright spots in Psalm 88 – no hope at all for the bitterly lamenting psalmist, or seemingly for his readers today either. This intensely individual complaint expresses ‘the dark night of the soul … a state of intense spiritual anguish in which the struggling, despairing believer feels he is abandoned by God’ (Boice 1996:715–716). So why has this disorienting ‘psalm of disorientation’ (Brueggemann & Bellinger 2014:7) been included in the Psalter, the penultimate prayer of Book III, and what are we to make of it? One cannot of course provide definitive answers, but several suggestions may be offered based on the opinions of a number of capable Psalms scholars, coupled with some personal observations. After citing the text in Hebrew, along with my own English translation, the poetic structure of the psalm is overviewed and then selected features of its artistry and rhetoric are discussed. This study concludes with an assortment of reflections that speak to the theological importance of this dark psalm and its relevance for all those in particular who wake up in the morning, consider their current situation in life, and wonder: ‘Can it get any worse?’

Intradisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary implications: This study illustrates how a close literary–structural analysis can serve to reveal insights of exegetical and theological significance while at the same time critiquing certain received scholarly positions. In particular, it challenges the prevailing opinion of commentators that Psalm 88 is entirely pessimistic in its outlook on God and life.

Keywords: Psalms;literary-structural analysis; Hebrew poetry; OT theology


Psalms; Literary-Structural Analysis; Hebrew Poetry; OT Theology


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