Psalm 88

O LORD, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you.

Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

But I cry to you for help, O LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.

You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.

I have never been so powerfully impacted as I was on the day when I first stood in the dungeon beneath the home of Caiaphas, the High Priest of Israel between 18-37 AD. I’d been bringing tour groups to Israel for several years, but a major renovation project had kept the site closed each time.

As we descended into the dungeon Freddie, our Palestinian guide, quietly took one of our number aside. When we were all crowded into the small room at the bottom of a steep stairwell some 15 feet below ground level, he informed us that the stairs had been added later. On the night of His arrest Jesus had been lowered by rope into this tiny room, also used as a cistern. He spent the night there, alone in the dark. At sunrise He would be taken to Pilate, and from there to Golgotha.

As we stood there crowded together, Freddie suddenly shut off the lights, plunging the room into total darkness. Then he had the person he had taken aside read Psalm 88 to us through the opening at the top of the dungeon. The shocked silence quickly gave away to unabashed weeping as we all experienced a little of what our Lord must have felt that night, the total isolation and despair of an unjustly condemned man.

Imagine that if you can. Innocent of any crime but already condemned to death. Nothing to look forward to but the torture they called a trial, scheduled for first light, and the agonizingly slow and painful death that would follow. The water in the bottom of the cistern prevents even the temporary respite that might come from sitting against the wall for a few minutes of fitful sleep. Nothing to do but stand in the cold water and wait, trying to prevent thoughts of what’s to come from driving you into hysteria. Who among us can even fathom such a thing?

If you’re a mere human with no hope of escape, as they thought He was, it would be bad enough. But suppose you’re the Son of God, with powers unimagined by your captors. Suppose you know that with a snap of your fingers you could be free, those who have imprisoned you suddenly bound without hope instead. What force would possibly be strong enough to hold you there, knowing what lies ahead?

It sounds so insufficient to say it, because we’ve never felt that force, but it was His love for us. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” He said. (John 15:13)

In those days the word friends applied to participants in a covenant relationship and the word love meant to be unconditionally given over to the object of one’s affection. It’s a love that hardly anyone has ever felt. Our self-centeredness makes it all but impossible.

Even Peter, after spending three years at the Lord’s side and experiencing first hand all the incredible events of His ministry, couldn’t muster up such a love for his Lord. At his restoration after the resurrection, he had to resort to the use of a conditional form of the word when asked, “Peter, do you love Me?” He knew the human weakness all too well, and his own failure when it had finally come time to stand and deliver.

Yet this is the way our Lord loves you and me. He, for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebr. 12:2) He, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:6-8)

And what was the joy set before Him? The chance to spend eternity with you and me. That’s love!