An Unwelcome Friend
Is there such a thing? The phrase sounds rather oxymoronic, “unwelcome friend.” But we all know in our hearts, I suppose, that such a word pairing actually expresses a curious aspect of reality. We have all had people in our lives who at one time or another may have seemed to be no friend to us, but at some time further on in our experience, a veil of sorts was lifted, and we came to see that the person that we thought was ill-disposed towards us, even perhaps harming us, was actually a hidden benefactor in ways that, at the time, we could not see. Think, for instance, of someone who saves you from a serious blunder in romance or business or some other risky enterprise.
The phrase of course could also be used metaphorically of things, such as safety devices on some kinds of equipment that might otherwise pose danger. I have a lawn tractor with a safety device that causes the engine to stall whenever the mower blade is engaged and I lift my weight off the driver’s seat. Honestly, it’s a bit obnoxious when I hit a bump that causes my weight to come off the seat, because the engine immediately wants to stall, not knowing that all 150 pounds of me will be back on the seat in half a moment’s time, if only the device would be patient and wait a fraction of a second. But better to deal with that little frustration than to risk an unhappy accident in the event that something really was amiss.
I have been meditating recently on Psalm 88, which is one of the least loved psalms in the entire Psalter. The more I have meditated on it, the more I have come to see it as an “unwelcome friend.” This psalm is little loved simply because it deals in a rather emotionally raw way with a subject that we don’t like very much, namely, suffering. Intense suffering. Seemingly interminable suffering. Suffering on the part of someone who wants to praise God (cf. v. 10), but feels that he is being crushed under God’s wrath (vv. 7,16). Other psalms also of course deal with suffering. But this one is doubly disliked for the reason that it never pivots toward hope. It is all darkness, so heavy and deep that not the slightest ray of light breaks in. It’s closing words are these: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.”
It is surpassingly strange, then, to come back and read the superscription of this psalm – every bit as much a part of the inspired text as the body of the psalm. Its first words are these: “A song.” The superscription goes on to say, “To the choirmaster.” This should bring us up short. If we read the body of the psalm by itself, we might be inclined to say that this psalm is intensely private – suitable at best for reading in the privacy of one’s room. But God himself says that no, this is to be sung. This is for the assembled congregation. Extraordinary.
You can imagine – if the Israelites had an old-fashioned “hymn sing” – someone calling out, “let’s sing #100!” From another corner comes, “let’s sing #91!” And from another, “let’s sing #23!” After a few moments of silence someone says, “let’s sing #88.” And the whole assembly groans. Why? Because this psalm is unwelcome.
But it is actually a friend. Why else is it here? Why else is it meant to be sung? Why is it to be sung in the assembly of God’s people? But if it is a friend, how is it a friend? Here are at least three ways to consider: 1) It keeps us from suffering alone. As we engage with this psalm together, it makes our suffering not just individual, but corporate. At any given time in a congregation of any size, someone is going to be suffering, perhaps deeply. Even if that suffering is not given specific and explicit public expression, having a psalm like this as part of our “repertoire” reminds us that this sort of experience is real and that we are to weep with those who weep. This is the work of a friend. 2) As it reminds us, it also warns us against presumption. Our own circumstances can change in a moment. Remember Job. A psalm like this exhorts us to be ready, should tragedy strike us. Not that anyone can stave off all the emotional and theological turmoil that actually comes when disaster strikes. But it is far better to know that it can happen to us too than to believe the fantasy that we will be untouched by the storms of life. 3) It shows us that others among the people of God have been here before us. Our suffering is not fundamentally unique, though it is as mysterious as the providence of God. It may seem unbearably deep, but it is not new among God’s people. There is comfort in that, if we will have it. We can know in our suffering that we have not actually been cast off.
So much of the music of the Church in America has become the sort of fare that one might expect from a motivational speaker. Of course, that should not be a surprise, because that is what much of our preaching is too. But this is neither good nor right. It fills us with spiritual opiates. And we are much the weaker for it. We don’t need more platitudes or feel-good theology. So long as we are in this broken world, we need unwelcome friends. We need psalm 88.