In Psalm 88, the psalmist cries for help and prays to Yahweh to hear him (vs. 1-2). His soul is full of torment, his strength has left him, he’s got one foot in the grave (vs. 3-4). His friends already think of him as dead and forgotten—even by Yahweh (vs. 4-5). He begs Yahweh to take away his inexplicable yet overwhelming anger (vs. 7, 16). He hurls at Yahweh the question of why Yahweh has forsaken him (v. 14). Unlike many other psalms which pray for deliverance from evil, this one does not end with any note of hope.
This psalm could well have been the prayer of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night of his arrest. There Jesus pulls Peter, James, and John aside and, “distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33, English Standard Version here and following), tells them “‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death’” (v. 34). Walking a short distance from them, Jesus throws himself on the ground and prays, “‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (v. 36).
This cup to which Jesus refers is the experience of death. This death Jesus will freely choose in love to endure in the place of all human beings and for our sake.
We do well to be clear about what death means. To begin with, it means the end of physical life. Jesus knows his heart will stop beating and, with it, all his other bodily functions will end.
Jesus also knows his death will include disgrace: the end of his good name, any possible positive memory of him, any meaning in his witness to Father. He knows he will be betrayed, denied, and abandoned by his closest friends. He knows he will be labeled a convicted criminal in the grossest possible miscarriage of justice. He knows he will publicly writhe in agony as he suffers the excruciating pain of being nailed to a cross. H knows he will be publicly humiliated by being stripped naked and left to urinate and defecate on himself while being mocked by the very enemies for whom he is dying. Disgrace.
of all, death means damnation. Jesus, the one and only son of our father in Heaven—the
same father who has loved him from all eternity and whom he likewise has loved—knows
that Abba, Father, will utterly abandon him. Jesus, the one and only sinless human
being, knows he will fully experience the God-forsakenness richly deserved by
all sinners. God-forsakenness: that’s what damnation means.
In Gethsemane, Jesus knows that death awaits him. Death: the end of physical life, public disgrace, damnation. And so he sorrows and prays.
But through his grief, our tears are dried. An old Southern Christian folk hymn asks, “what wondrous love is this?” This is a love so wondrous that, even if we feel we stand in the place of the psalmist, we are never God-forsaken. Jesus took that and took it away. Through the sacrifice of Jesus in our place and for our sake, we may know fully that God is for us, with us, and in us no matter what.
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