The power of the Psalms lies in their ability to liberate our inarticulate experiences. Many of the emotions we feel are held hostage by a world characterized by a denial of death and suffering, but the Psalms refuse such a denial. This collection of poetry represents the raw human refusal to deny the pain and disappointment that is so common to the human experience. Our world is one that has suppressed, numbed, and desensitized our humanity. It is in the metaphors and stanzas of inspired poetry in the Psalms that we find permission to stop censuring the deep complexities of life as it actually is and finally discover the hope of newness.
The psalms seem to oscillate between despair and hope. Some Psalms are celebratory and joyful, as if the poet couldn’t keep silent in his exultant gratitude and triumphant exuberance and can’t simply seem to find enough vocabulary to describe the wonder that is God. Some reach into the depths of the darkness of humanity and echo the ageless sorrow of the universe. Hebrew scholar Walter Brueggemann says that the Psalms are filled with images of place … that is, images if disorientation and reorientation (read this book!). Sometimes the Psalmist is ‘out of place,’ speaking from a state of exile, or from a place where things aren’t as they ought to be. Sometimes the Psalmist is in place, proclaiming reality in hopeful words that stand as a barrier against the sea of chaos, and gladly exulting in his/her status of position as the people of God. Prayers are different when they come from different ‘places.’
Place matters. There are the static prayers filled with language from the numbed reality of empire, and there are place-prayers, that fully acknowledge the place they’re coming from and aggressively refuse denial
The main metaphor the Psalms hold out for being out of place is the metaphor of the pit, the dungeon, the tomb, or the grave. The pit is a place that you throw people to “render them null and void.” Its where Joseph’s brothers threw him in order to render him powerless. The pit was used on Jeremiah by his enemies. Its a place where you put someone to deny them all the resources for life. The pit also means alienation from community. It is a place for people who have no place, who have lost all sense of dignity and control.
In Psalm 143 the poet cries out “answer me quickly, O Lord, do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down into the pit.”
In Psalm 88 the cries of the poet ring clear: “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.”
In Psalm 28, the cry resounds: “if you remain silent, I will be like those who go down to the pit.”
What does it mean to be like those who go down in the pit? The pit is a removal from life-as-you-know-it. The pit is the ultimate picture of being out-of-place. The pit is social ostracism. The pit is every deep place of depression and mental anguish. The pit is every moment of loneliness and despair. The pit is a place where not even worship can rise up to God … where you don’t even feel like you can sing anymore (Ps. 30:9). Its every season of life where you felt powerless or cheated.
Though the ancient poets write of the despair, darkness, and death that happens while we are in the pit, another strange thing happens with this image. They also write of a hope beyond the pit. Sure, the Psalms don’t pull any punches in acknolwedging the anguish of the pit, but it is the honest articulation of that very anguish that leads to the hope of restoration.
“He lifted me out of the pit! Out of the mud and mire! He gave me a firm place to stand!” Ps. 40:2
“Praise Yhwh! … who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion!” Ps. 103:4
Often times it is the memory of the depths of the pit that leads to the joy and thanksgiving once one is delivered from it. And it is often only the honest cries to God from the pits of life that begin the process of restoration. From within the pit, it is a metaphor of despair and death, but the vision of the Psalms is that often those very pits become images, chapters in our story that provide the highest ground for thanksgiving and true, lasting joy.