Fr. Wilbur David Ellsworth · February 25, 2011
This Psalm reflects the prayer of Christ in the garden who was not afraid to die but was terrified of death.
Psalm 87 in the Hebrew (Psalm 88 LXX)
O Lord God of my salvation, by day have I cried and by night before Thee.
Let my prayer come before Thee, bow down Thine ear unto my supplication,
For filled with evils is my soul, and my life unto hades hath drawn nigh.
I am counted with them that go down into the pit; I am become as a man without help, free among the dead,
Like the bodies of the slain that sleep in the grave, whom Thou rememberest no more, and they are cut off from Thy hand.
They laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness and in the shadow of death.
Against me is Thine anger made strong, and all Thy billows hast Thou brought upon me.
Thou hast removed my friends afar from me; they have made me an abomination unto themselves.
I have been delivered up, and have not come forth; mine eyes are grown weak from poverty.
I have cried unto thee, O Lord, the whole day long; I have stretched out my hands unto Thee.
Nay, for the dead wilt Thou work wonders? Or shall physicians raise them up that they may give thanks unto Thee?
Nay, shall any in the grave tell of Thy mercy, and of Thy truth in that destruction?
Nay, shall Thy wonders be known in that darkness, and Thy righteousness in that land that is forgotten?
But as for me, unto Thee, O Lord, have I cried; and in the morning shall my prayer come before Thee.
Wherefore, O Lord, dost Thou cast off my soul and turnest Thy face away from me?
A poor man am I, and in troubles from my youth; yea, having been exalted, I was humbled and brought to distress.
Thy furies have passed upon me, and Thy terrors have sorely troubled me.
They came round about me like water, all the day long they compassed me about together.
Thou hast removed afar from me friend and neighbour, and mine acquaintances because of my misery.
Psalm 87 is commonly regarded as both a dark and a difficult psalm. This creates a serious temptation to neglect it. However, the Orthodox Church resists this temptation by placing it among the six psalms that form the beginning of the Matins for Orthros service. The morning psalms were to be done with great care and received in profound quietness. There is a pious belief among some Orthodox that, at the last judgment, the guardian angel shall recite these psalms before the throne of God on behalf of the soul. As they are chanted in Orthros the priest quietly prays the morning prayers of intercession for the people.
This psalm reveals the great wisdom of interpreting all Old Testament scripture as a prophetic revelation of Christ. This christological key leads us to ask where this would have been expressed in Our Lord’s saving life, and the answer seems obvious. This is the deep prayer of Gethsemane, and it’s truth illuminates the words of Hebrews 2 that speak of the humanity of Our Lord Jesus who, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. We can see this prayer, then, as Christ Our Lord of life tasting death for us all.
Allow me one more reflection before we come to the psalm itself. Many have been troubled by the evident dread, or even horror, the Lord seemed to experience as he prayed in Gethsemane. Hebrews 5 remembers, ‘In the days of his flesh, when he offered up prayer and supplications with vehement cries and tears to him who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His godly fear.’ He cried out vehemently with tears in the spirit of godly fear. This seems puzzling when we think of people who say calmly, ‘I’m not afraid to die!’ Psalm 72 speaks with puzzlement about those who are ungodly, who make no sign of refusal in the time of their death. If even the ungodly can die with quiet dignity and courage, why didn’t the Lord? It would seem the reason is that the Lord wasn’t afraid to die, but He was horrified by death.
Dying is an act that ends, death is a state that persists. People usually deal with dying by convincing themselves that, if you have to die, it is best to do it with a strong view of what it means to be dead. Tragically, some of the most terrible lies we speak are said at funerals when we know that words of comfort are needed even if they aren’t true. Dying is something we do and have to get through it. Once a person is dead, dying is done.
This brings us to the heart of what God has done for us in bringing us salvation for, again, Hebrews 2 tells us that Our Lord, through death released those who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. This death is what John 3:16 calls ‘perishing’. The Greek word has in it a vision of being ruined, to lose what might have been, to be separated from what is normal. Death is the state of terrible loss, and what is lost is life. No man has ever lived who tasted life more than Our Lord. For Him life is the Father, knowing Him, loving Him, obeying Him in the bonds of the Holy Spirit. Even though He is called the Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief, He lived with indescribable joy. Wisdom for Him is godly fear, that is, the fear of losing this life of love, of peace and of joy. And that is exactly what going down into death meant to Our Lord.
Even as the psalms tell us, the Lord prayed three times for the cup to pass from Him, so three times Psalm 87 prays with crying, and the three cries cries so loud and agonized that the same word is used for the braying of a donkey.
The first cry is the near anticipation of tasting death. He tells His Father, the Lord of His own salvation, of the evils that are filling His soul and the realm of death is drawing closer. He feels the putrid shell of helplessness, one helpless among many who are forgotten and cut off from the Father’s hand. This realm is low and dark. There is a pervasive sense of anger and waves of God’s unwanted separation that sweep over Him. There are no friends, nor is there anything like friendship in death. One is an abomination to the other. And there is no way out, even though sight grows weary with searching in this taste of dreadful anticipation.
One phrase has been taken for liturgical use by the Church that constrains us from seeing the Lord of Glory as the unmitigated victor. He is described in the pit, ‘a man without help yet free among the dead.’ This heavenly Lord, sent on a mission that is impossible for any but God, draws near to the place of man’s eternal danger, and yet, even upon entering this dark prison, He is and ever shall be free among the dead. St Peter gave the Church the vision of our champion savior in his sermon at Pentecost when he declared in Acts 2, ‘the birth pains of death from which man can never find release in himself could not hold Him.’
The second loud cry, calling out to God, leads into four questions that describe the shape of death or, if you will, of hell. These questions rip off the face of the lies and trivializations of existence without the capacity to delight in the presence of God. These four questions suggest the shape of what it is to perish in death.
First, it is blindness to beauty or, to put it another way, it is to exist in profound spiritual boredom. Here’s the question — for the dead wilt Thou work wonders?
The second question reveals the quality of death as sickness towards praise. A weakness and a distaste for what is good and what is nourishing. Here is the question — shall physicians raise them up that they may give thanks to Thee?
The third quality of death is silence in meaninglessness. It is the word of vanity, of a meaninglessness that is like fog, possessing absolutely nothing to sense or to say about one’s own personal meaning. Here is the question — shall the grave tell of Thy mercy and of Thy truth in that destruction?
The last quality of death is exile. To exist in death is to recognize this is not home, and I have no home. I don’t belong here but I don’t belong anywhere. The psalm phrases it in this question — shall Thy wonders be known in that darkness, and Thy righteousness in that land that is forgotten?
This is why Our Lord Jesus was not afraid to die, but He was horrified to taste death. And so He cries the third cry, and it is the cry of the morning prayer. Each morning is a threshold to a new day. Our first thoughts, emotions, choices, shape the day before us. So, Our Lord prayed with one last question — wherefore O Lord dost Thou cast off my soul and turn away Thy face from me? Even as He goes down into the acrid taste of death He prays, and the Father hears Him, for whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
This desperate, dependent and reverent call concerned two crucial treasures in the Lord’s life — His own soul, and His Father’s face. His capacity to have communion, and His joy in that communion with His Father’s face, that is to say His Father’s person, He, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, becomes sin for us. He confesses His dependent poverty, His life of troubles, His being honored and then distressingly humbled, His experiencing the furies and terrors that come on one who identifies with sin, even the sin of others, sin that surrounds like the drowning water. This sin removes us from the face of God, from all that is friendship, all that is personal meaning and the knowing of person, all because of sin’s death—dealing misery.
Why, then, does the Church place this prayer before us every morning? It calls us to remember that salvation is a life and death matter. It recalls the words of Philaret of Moscow, ‘All creatures are balanced upon the creative word of God as if upon a bridge of diamond. Above them is the abyss of divine infinitude, below them, that of their own nothingness.’
Let us join Our Lord and His saints in our freedom from fearing to die, but let us live in godly fear of death. The martyrs followed Christ into death to give others life. Every morning we pray Psalm 87. We pray the wisdom of Our Lord God and savior Jesus Christ who, above all others, knows the difference between life and death. Each day may God grant us mercy to begin our day with the vision of the vesperal offering of Christ on Holy Friday so that you pray, we pray together, “Let my prayer arise as incense before Thee and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.”