Praise in the dark

You’re about to enter a dark room. And often, even if you know the layout of the room well, you reach in first and grope for the light switch. After all, you wouldn’t want to trip over anything, right?

Sure. But that’s not the whole truth. No matter how grown up we think we are, there’s still some small part of us that’s afraid of the dark. It’s the kid in us groping for that switch.

And somehow, these days, prayer feels a little like that.

. . .

Many of us are familiar with the idea that there are psalms of praise and psalms of lament. The poetry of praise shows up regularly in Sunday morning worship. Indeed, it’s hard to read through the Psalms without so-called praise choruses popping spontaneously into our heads.

But we’re more leery of lament. We might hear of it in a sermon, but who wants to spend their Sunday morning singing dirges?

It might be surprising, then, to realize how far you have to go in the Psalter to come to a proper psalm of praise. Try it. Start with Psalm 1 and keep reading. Here’s what you’ll find:

  • Psalm 1, as we have seen, sets the tone for the Psalter by giving us the foundational vision of the two paths a person can follow in life: a path of righteousness, grounded in God’s instruction and leading to prosperity, or a path of wickedness, leading to destruction.
  • Psalm 2 is a royal psalm declaring how God will uphold his anointed king. But it’s also worth noting that this is said against the background of other nations conspiring together to overthrow said king.
  • Psalm 3 is a prayer for deliverance from enemies.
  • Psalm 4 is a prayer for God’s help and mercy.
  • Psalm 5 is a prayer for deliverance from enemies.
  • Psalm 6 is a prayer for deliverance from some sickness that has the psalmist at death’s door.
  • Psalm 7 is a prayer for deliverance from enemies.

Hmm. Anybody notice a pattern there? After establishing something of a foundation for the whole collection in the first couple of psalms, what we get, in rapid succession, is: Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!

You have to admire the realism with which the collection was put together. The Psalter begins with the bold declaration that those who follow the way of righteousness will prosper in everything they do (Psalm 1:3) — then moves straight into a string of poems about how much the psalmist suffers, how much the psalmist gropes for God in the dark.

That groping, however, is not without hope. In Psalm 7, for example, the psalmist cries out to God for rescue, believing his cause to be just. Indeed, he’s confident enough to pray, in essence, “If I’ve done anything wrong, if I’ve done anything to deserve this kind of persecution, then never mind; just let my enemies catch and kill me” (vss. 3-5).

The psalmist, however, fully anticipates being saved and vindicated by God. The poem ends on this note: “But I will thank the LORD for his righteousness; I will sing praises to the name of the LORD Most High.” (vs. 17, CEB).

Here, the praise is still anticipatory; the psalmist’s situation is still dark. But then, at the beginning of Psalm 8, we get this: “LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!” (vs. 1a). It’s as if the ending of Psalm 7 — singing praises to the name of the LORD — anticipates the beginning of Psalm 8.

And in case the reader isn’t paying attention, Psalm 8 ends with the exact same phrase. It’s not unusual for a psalm to begin and end with the same idea, repeating some of the wording (this is sometimes known as an envelope structure). But the repetition is typically not exact, as it is in Psalm 8. It’s as if the poet wants to signal a sense of perfection and completion as the composition comes back full circle to its beginning.

Moreover, as some scholars have noted, Psalm 8 is the only psalm that is addressed directly to God from start to finish. That makes it particularly appropriate for us to make it our own as a personal or corporate prayer.

And as we’ll see, I believe it’s a prayer that can help us find praise in the dark.