Hello Darkness

Crouched alone on the floor of the dim bathroom in his noisy college dorm, Paul Simon sought the solace of this only refuge available to him. And it was there, habitually on the tiles, that the words took shape in his mind, “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” Thus, the soul-arresting song “The Sound of Silence” was born.

In recent times, a theory has emerged that these iconic opening lyrics were a tribute to the songwriter’s best friend, Art Garfunkel. He gave much of his time and compassion to assisting a blind student and referred to himself by the nickname “darkness” as a way of meeting the young man in his world.

Simon never said so, but awareness of this must have lurked in the shadows of his bathroom sanctuary, and yet there was more than this as well. While he seems to have held to no faith, his upbringing and schooling were thoroughly Jewish. So then, what deep influence may this saturation in the Hebrew Old Testament have had in his musings?

Psalm 88 is considered the bleakest of them all for its “unrelieved gloom” and “hopeless sorrow” (Neale and Littledale). Charles Spurgeon called his monumental commentary on the Psalter “The Treasury of David”, but this offering of the Sons of Korah might initially seem devoid of worth, an empty chest.

In particular, the biblical preface credits a certain “Heman the Ezrahite” as the human author. He held a high position as an official musician and is associated with Samuel, David, and Solomon, together with key events in Israel’s history.

Heman was no one-hit-wonder, but Psalm 88 is all we have of his compositions, and it was written on the worst day of his life, a howling vision into the agony of his suffering. The last eclipsing line from this dear fading man is, “Darkness is my closest friend”, and it is here we find a resonance with Paul Simon’s opening words.

Both songs pivot on the idea of finding wisdom at the lowest point. This is such a rich and unique blessing that Heman is determined to lead us – and leave us – right there. For the Christian there is an insight into the character of God and His revelation in Jesus that cannot be found and experienced anywhere else.

Lying alone in the dull light of a hospital room, wrapped in total pain – mental and physical – I listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s first and greatest hit and read Psalm 88, again and again. They were like responsive choirs. From Simon’s shadows, he tells us:

And in the naked light, I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

Here is the human condition: each person in dreadful isolation, incapable of truly connecting, and yet together they “bowed and prayed” to the superficial and distracting “neon god they made”. This sign, paradoxically, points them away from itself as it forms the message, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.”

The song repeatedly led me back to Psalm 88, and to Heman’s realisation that the God to whom he cries out in verse 1 will only be met in the darkness of verse 18, where He whispers His mercies, when His sound is the exclusive one left, at last, against the silence.

Personal, family, medical, financial, professional, accidental disasters. What is the point of them all? The Gospel according to Heman is that they take us to a unique perspective – a position where only you have stood – and from that vantage point there is a facet, like that on a perfect diamond, a facet of God’s nature and comfort that could not be seen – and would remain unknown – from any other situation.

Is it worth it? Is He worth it? The man in Jesus’ one-line parable thought so:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matt. 13:45-46).

We yearn for connection. We ache for answers. We despair for hope. And there are unthinkable places, far more desolate than the graffitied “subway walls and tenement halls”, where we must be taken to learn that even here God is good.

None of this would carry any weight at all if it were not for the fact that Christ has been into the utter darkness of Calvary. Suffering what we deserve, He has been forsaken so that we need never be.

The famous counterpoint to Psalm 88 is the most reassuring Psalm 23. When God takes us into “the valley of the shadow of death”, we are still on “the paths of righteousness”, and still destined to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”.

The moment at which Psalm 23 turns profoundly personal and David addresses the Shepherd directly is at the blackest and most vulnerable. It is there he responds in the darkness, “For You are with me.”

– Andrew M Clarke