Who Knows This Agony? A Response To Psalms 88 &89

We come now to psalm 88, the lowest point of lament and despair in the entire psalter, the only psalm which does not have a ‘yet’ or a ‘nevertheless’ to redeem its pain, but, considered as a psalm in itself, ends in the same agony and loneliness with which it began:

My lovers and friends hast thou put away from me: and hid mine acquaintance out of my sight.

That is the end of the psalm, but it is not the end of the psalter, the book of praises. In fact, as Paula Gooder points out in the Introduction to David’s Crown, it is, in terms of the number of verses in total, the exact mid-point of the psalter, it is the middle, and not the end of the story. This is vital for us to remember: both that we can freely tell God our worst fears and feelings, as the psalmist does here, and also that we can know that those fears and doubts are not the end of our story, any more than they are the close of the psalter, for the psalter re-ascends from this darkness and closes with praise. It is this, which enabled me, in my response to psalm 88 to trust God with the uncensored bleakness of my own personal experience of darkness and depression.

And for that reason also, I have decided not to post this psalm alone but to pair it with psalm 89, indeed my poems for 88 & 89 are on facing pages in the middle of David’s Crown so that they can be read together. and the opening verse of psalm 89 is:

  1. MY SONG shall be alway of the loving-kindness of the Lord: with my mouth will I ever be shewing thy truth from one generation to another.

In my answering poem our agony, expressed in the poem on 88, is met by the agony of Christ who comes, in his compassion, to share our desolation with us, that he might redeem and heal it. and that is why these poems should be read as a pair.

As always you can hear me read the poems by clicking on the play button or the title and you can find the other poems in this evolving series by putting the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

The full set of these poems has now been published as a book David’s Crown which you can buy from UK Amazon Here, or, in North America, it should soon be available from Amazon Here.

LXXXVIII Domine Deus

My saviour’s words of welcome ‘all is well’!

Was that just some false dream I used to have?

I tremble once more on the brink of hell,


Soon I’ll be weeping in its lowest pit. The grave

Would be a kinder place than this. The dead

Forget, but I remember and I grieve


For all that I have lost: the green leaves shed

And stripped from me, my lovers and my friends

All torn away. Just emptiness and dread


Are my companions now. No one defends

Or speaks for me. Lord I have cried to you

And you say nothing. Empty silence rends


My heart in pieces. There is no one who

Can find me now, for who could ever know

This agony unless they felt it too?


LXXXIX Misericordias Domini

Who knows this agony unless they feel it too?

You answer me in darkness from your cross,

It is your pain that draws my heart to you


As deep calls unto deep and loss to loss.

Your covenant was sealed in your heart’s blood

When it is pierced with mine. And our cries cross


In flesh and blood as I encounter God,

Not on the heights, but in the pit of hell.

Then I can sing the triumph of the good


Then I can truly know all will be well.

I recognise my saviour’s mighty arm

Because it has been pierced. The bloody nail


Means more to me than those who see no harm

And keep God as a talisman, a spell

A cosy comforter, a lucky charm.


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Filed under imagination

9 responses to “Who Knows This Agony? A Response To Psalms 88 &89

  1. Since Psalm 88 is the lowest point… could not the entire book then be The Hero’s Journey… and this the bottom/ordeal making Psalm 89 the beginning of “the road back” and “resurrection” in the ending psalms?

  2. This brings to mind a line from one of your Good Friday sonnets: “In the cold hell where you freeze, you find your God beside you on His knees”

  3. Heather Seargeant

    Thank you Malcolm. In the company of those who know.

  4. David C Brown

    I appreciate the feeling “from the depths”; it is the great comfort to know that wherever we are that is low the Saviour has been even lower.

  5. Robin Ralston

    Greetings, Malcolm!

    I wanted to thank you for your inspiring posts during Lent and the new book of Psalms poetry. For years, I have been writing responses to the Psalms, my favorite book of the OT-perhaps, in the entire Bible.

    Your poem-prayer and thoughts in response to Psalm 88 were helpful in my own study last week.

    The idea of not giving up in prayer despite the perceived silence or wrath of God, made me think of Christina Rossetti’s revealing poem. I wanted to share it with you, (though I think you may know it) since Word in the Wilderness is focusing on prayer this week as well.

    Alas my Lord, / How should I wrestle all the livelong night by Christina Georgina Rossetti Alas my Lord, How should I wrestle all the livelong night With Thee my God, my Strength and my Delight?

    How can it need So agonized an effort and a strain To make Thy Face of Mercy shine again?

    How can it need Such wringing out of breathless prayer to move Thee to Thy wonted Love, when Thou art Love?

    Yet Abraham So hung about Thine Arm outstretched and bared, That for ten righteous Sodom had been spared.

    Yet Jacob did So hold Thee by the clenched hand of prayer That he prevailed, and Thou didst bless him there.

    Elias prayed, And sealed the founts of Heaven; he prayed again And lo, Thy Blessing fell in showers of rain.

    Gulped by the fish, As by the pit, lost Jonah made his moan; And Thou forgavest, waiting to atone.

    All Nineveh Fasting and girt in sackcloth raised a cry, Which moved Thee ere the day of grace went by.

    Thy Church prayed on And on for blessed Peter in his strait, Till opened of its own accord the gate.

    Yea, Thou my God Hast prayed all night, and in the garden prayed Even while, like melting wax, Thy strength was made.

    Alas for him Who faints, despite Thy Pattern, King of Saints: Alas, alas, for me, the one that faints.

    Lord, give us strength To hold Thee fast, until we hear Thy Voice Which Thine own know, who hearing It rejoice.

    Lord, give us strength To hold Thee fast until we see Thy Face, Full Fountain of all Rapture and all Grace.

    But when our strength Shall be made weakness, and our bodies clay, Hold Thou us fast, and give us sleep till day. Blessings on your week!

    Robin Ralston

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