Psalm 16: When existential questions disturb your sleep

Psalm 16: When existential questions disturb your sleep

Detail from Munch's The Scream (black & white lithograph) illustrating the angst between the lines of Psalm 16Psalm 16. A psalm about questions and answers.

Nightmares disturbed my sleep yesterday. I peeked into a closet and said: I want to die. My child went missing. A friend gave me a bicycle, but I couldn’t ride it home.

I woke to questions.

How do I learn what I’m supposed to do? Become my own person?  Face my secrets? Raise the next generation? Find a new purpose once they are grown?

Over morning coffee, I read the news. More nightmares. Then, more questions.

Why is there so much violence in the world? So much hate? Poverty? Suffering? Stupidity? Inefficiency? Posturing? Lying?

Psalm 16

I wish I shared the faith of Psalm 16’s author, who says:

Protect me, God. Yes, you God! It’s your name I call! You are my goodness, you are my support, you fill my cup. Even at times of midnight anxiety! I feel you in my whole body: at my right hand, in my muscles, in the lack of butterflies in my stomach. You will never abandon me to She’ol. If I can return to this centering practice for a few moments every day, I will feel that you, God, are showing me the right path, the way to live.The joy that radiates from your presence will be reflected in my own face. Your right hand will guide my right hand as I live into the world you have set before me. (Psalm 16, paraphrased).

Psalm 16 teaches a simple spiritual practice: Ask your existential questions. Invoke God’s presence in your thoughts and feelings. Breathe until divine presence fills you. Find your answers. Express your gratitude.

You can do this anytime. Even in the middle of the night, when you can’t sleep. When your gut feelings take over your mind. When your questions and uncertainties crush you. Even then. Breathe. Your prayer will answer itself.

Why? How? Because God will never abandon you to She’ol.


What is she’ol? In biblical Hebrew, it’s the underworld: where souls go after their bodies die. In modern Hebrew, it means, ֿֿ”Ask!”

She’ol is the realm of the unanswered question. Where your life hovers on hold. While you wait for your next assignment. When you can’t see what comes next.

God is in she’ol, too. Pay attention. You’ll see — says Psalm 16.

I’ve seen Psalm 16 read at a funeral, where it has a double message. (1) Don’t worry about the soul of your departed loved one. She’ol — the next world — is safe. God is there. (2) As you grieve, you will ask questions. About your loved one’s life. Your own life. The way forward. L’she’ol — to ask questions — is safe, too.

Thank you, Psalm 16. You haven’t answered my questions. But you have reassured me. I’ll follow your advice. Let the questions come. Feel into their open spaces. Maybe God is in those spaces — or is the space itself. Because, says Psalm 16,  God won’t abandon me in she’ol.

  1. My first thought was:

    . . . “That works, until it doesn’t”.

    Which sent me into the Wikipedia entry for “Dark Night of the Soul”. God may not abandon me in She’ol, but it can sure feel like He has.

    . Charles

  2. Thank you, Charles! Yes, that’s my experience, too. I would like to agree with Psalm 16, but am not quite there yet!

    1. Thanks, Julie! Philosopher Emanuel Levinas has a whole riff in one of his books about insomnia feeling like hovering over the abyss of non-Being.

    2. When Samuel has the witch of Endor bring up Samuel from She’ol (1 Samuel 28):

      Then Saul realized it was Samuel, and he bowed his face toward the ground and kneeled down. 15 Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”

      So maybe She’ol can be a good dream, instead of an unsettling one.

      . Charles

  3. If and only if, I concentrate on This moment and I open my heart to infinite love,
    then Psalm 16 speaks to me. Then, in this blessed moment, I abide in gratitude.

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