Psalm 88 – A Desperate Prayer from Deep Affliction
This psalm is titled A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. To the Chief Musician. Set to “Mahalath Leannoth.” A Contemplation of Heman the Ezrahite.
This psalm is A Song, yet a remarkably sad song, and is often regarded as the saddest psalm in the entire collection. Mahalath Leannoth seems to refer to the musical instrument upon which the song was composed. Psalm 53 also mentions the Mahalath.
Psalm 88 is one of the thirteen psalms called A Contemplation, which according to James Montgomery Boice might be better understood as “instruction.”
As for the author and singer of the psalm, Heman the Ezrahite, there are many mentions of a Heman in the days of David and Solomon. Assuming that they all refer to the same man, he was noted for:
· His great wisdom (1 Kings 4:31).
· His being a Kohathite, among the sons of Korah (1 Chronicles 6:33).
· His musical ability and service (1 Chronicles 6:33, 15:17-19, 16:41-42, 25:1; 2 Chronicles 5:12, 35:15).
· His many and exceptional sons and daughters (1 Chronicles 25:5-6).
· His service to the king (1 Chronicles 25:6).
The identity of the singer of this dark song helps us to understand it. It came from a wise, talented, accomplished, and blessed man.
“A doleful ditty, beginning and ending with complaints; and therefore sung in the primitive times, among other penitential psalms, as the public confession of persons excommunicated.” (John Trapp)
“In this Psalm, Heman makes a map of his life’s history, he puts down all the dark places through which he has traveled. He mentions his sins, his sorrows, his hopes (if he had any), his fears, his woes, and so on. Now, that is real prayer, laying your case before the Lord.” (Charles Spurgeon)
A. Prayer from the one under great affliction.
1. (1-2) Asking God to hear prayer in affliction.
O LORD, God of my salvation,
I have cried out day and night before You.
Let my prayer come before You;
Incline Your ear to my cry.
a. O LORD, God of my salvation: The opening line would lead us to expect a much more optimistic psalm. When the psalmist begins by extolling Yahweh as the God of my salvation, we expect that he experienced that rescue, that deliverance in the moment. This was not the case. This title was both in past remembrance and clinging to a future hope. It is one of the small glimmers of light in an otherwise dark psalm.
i. “The only ray of comfortable light which shines throughout the Psalm. The writer has salvation, he is sure of that, and God is the sole author of it. While a man can see God as his Saviour, it is not altogether midnight with him.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “To address God as the God of his salvation, to discern His hand in the infliction of sorrows, is the operation of true though feeble faith. ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him,’ is the very spirit of this psalm.” (Maclaren)
iii. “From beginning to end there is no trace of bitterness, no desire for revenge on enemies, no angry reflections on the goodness of God. Rather, the references to God reveal a remarkable sense of His grace and goodness.” (Morgan)
b. Let my prayer come before You: The prayer was passionate (cried out) and constant (day and night). The psalmist was desperate for God to bend toward Him to hear and answer his prayer.
i. I have cried out: “The prayer is a deeply piercing shout. Though rinnah may denote a shout of joy in other contexts (cf. 47:1; 105:43), it is here a loud cry for divine help. The psalmist shouts loudly to the Lord, hoping that he will hear.” (VanGemeren)
ii. No matter how deep and dark Heman’s affliction was, he could still talk to God about it. “Despair sometimes strikes men silent, and sometimes makes them eloquent.” (Maclaren)
iii. “He did not cast out brutish and wild complaints and moans in misery, as it is natural for people to do, but poured forth his soul into God’s blessed bosom, and now prayeth an answer.” (Trapp)
2. (3-5) The depth of affliction.
For my soul is full of troubles,
And my life draws near to the grave.
I am counted with those who go down to the pit;
I am like a man who has no strength,
Adrift among the dead,
Like the slain who lie in the grave,
Whom You remember no more,
And who are cut off from Your hand.
a. My soul is full of troubles: The agony was not superficial. It went down deep to the soul. It was inward in the soul and outward, threatening his physical life (my life draws near to the grave). Others expected the psalmist to die (I am counted with those who go down to the pit).
i. “The emotions and suffering expressed by the psalmist are close in spirit to those of Psalm 22. In the tradition of the church, these psalms were linked together in the Scripture reading on Good Friday.” (VanGemeren)
ii. My soul is full of troubles: “The psalmist has found the quickest argument before his God. There is nothing that so quickly makes the bell ring in heaven as the touch of a troubled hand.” (Meyer)
iii. “He had his house full and his hands full of sorrow; but, worse than that, he had his heart full of it. Trouble in the soul is the soul of trouble.” (Spurgeon)
b. Adrift among the dead: The psalmist was so weak and afflicted that he felt, and others regarded him, as practically dead already. Death seemed to pull on him as he was passively adrift and like the slain.
c. Whom You remember no more: The singer dreaded death, fearing that it would mean being cut off not only from earthly relationships, but also from his relationship with God.
i. As with Psalm 6 and other passages, it is wrong to take these agonized words as evidence that there is no life beyond death. The Old Testament has a shadowy understanding of the world beyond. Sometimes it shows a clear confidence (Job 19:25), and sometimes it has the uncertainty shown here.
ii. “Such thoughts are in startling contrast with the hopes that sparkle in some psalms (such as Psalm 16:10, etc.), and they show that clear, permanent assurance of future blessedness was not granted to the ancient Church. Nor could there be sober certainty of it until after Christ’s resurrection. But it is also to be noticed that this psalm neither affirms nor denies a future resurrection.” (Maclaren)
iii. The book of Psalms and the Old Testament in general do not present a comprehensive theology of the world beyond. The book of Psalms expresses the agony, fear, and uncertainty of death’s doorstep. The singers in the psalms often know they can remember God and give Him thanks now, but don’t have the same certainty about the world beyond.
iv. “At rare moments the Psalms have glimpses of rescue from Sheol, in terms that suggest resurrection, or a translation like that of Enoch or Elijah (cf. 16:10; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24).” (Kidner)
v. 2 Timothy 1:10 says that Jesus brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. The understanding of the after-life was murky at best in the Old Testament; but Jesus let us know more about heaven and hell than anyone else could. Jesus could do this because He had first-hand knowledge of the world beyond.
B. The Divine source of affliction.
1. (6-7) You, God, have brought me low.
You have laid me in the lowest pit,
In darkness, in the depths.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
And You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah
a. You have laid me in the lowest pit: Boldly, the psalmist tells God what he feels and experiences – that God Himself has caused His downfall, setting him in darkness, in the depths.
b. Your wrath lies heavy upon me: It seemed that the source of the affliction was the righteous wrath of God. The psalmist had a deep sense of his own sinfulness. Even as he felt himself sinking under all Your waves, he did not protest that God’s wrath was unfair.
i. “The wrath of God is the very hell of hell, and when it weighs upon the conscience a man feels a torment such as only that of damned spirits can exceed.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “Yet the most important similarity [with Job] is that God had caused Job’s suffering, if not directly, at least by permitting Satan to afflict him – Job was unable to imagine why – and this is what the psalmist is claiming too. These similarities are so great, including even certain echoes of language that Franz Delitzsch has suggested that Job and the psalm might even be by the same author, Heman the Ezrahite.” (Boice)
iii. Selah: “There was need to rest. Above the breakers the swimmer lifts his head and looks around him, breathing for a moment, until the next wave comes. Even lamentation must have its pauses.” (Spurgeon)
2. (8-9a) You, God, have made me alone.
You have put away my acquaintances far from me;
You have made me an abomination to them;
I am shut up, and I cannot get out;
My eye wastes away because of affliction.
a. You have put away my acquaintances far from me: In his affliction, his former friends wanted nothing to do with him. This also was seen as God’s doing.
i. “His situation resembles that of Job, as his friends did not understand him. More than that, our Lord’s suffering on earth was such that his own disciples forsook him (cf. Luke 23:49).” (VanGemeren)
ii. You have made me an abomination to them: “If taken literally, it points to some loathsome disease, which had long clung to him, and made even his friends shrink from companionship, and thus had condemned him to isolation. All these details suggest leprosy, which, if referred to here, is most probably to be taken, as sickness is in several psalms, as symbolic of affliction.” (Maclaren)
iii. “Even more telling than the metaphors of dungeons and deep waters is the remembered look on the faces of his fellow men, a revulsion which isolates him in the narrow prison of himself.” (Kidner)
b. I am shut up, and I cannot get out: Perhaps worst of all, the psalmist felt that there was no escape. Life was draining from him and if God did not respond, there seemed to be no remedy.
C. The urgent prayer from the afflicted one.
1. (9b-12) I need Your help in the land of the living.
LORD, I have called daily upon You;
I have stretched out my hands to You.
Will You work wonders for the dead?
Shall the dead arise and praise You? Selah
Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave?
Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction?
Shall Your wonders be known in the dark?
And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
a. I have called daily upon You: The psalmist reminded God of his constant prayer, made in the familiar Hebrew posture of stretched out hands to God.
b. Will You work wonders for the dead? Because the psalmist was uncertain of the world beyond, he diligently asked God to answer his prayer and meet his need soon, when he knew that he could receive God’s wonders and speak of the lovingkindness and faithfulness of God.
i. The way these verses refer to the world beyond is a good illustration of the uncertainty that the Old Testament writers often demonstrated regarding what lay beyond this life:
· The dead.
· The grave.
· The place of destruction.
· The dark.
· The land of forgetfulness.
ii. We know that the world beyond is not these things, but the psalmist did not yet have that revelation.
2. (13-15) I need You to break the silence.
But to You I have cried out, O LORD,
And in the morning my prayer comes before You.
LORD, why do You cast off my soul?
Why do You hide Your face from me?
I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth;
I suffer Your terrors;
I am distraught.
a. To You I have cried out: After a brief focus on the terror and uncertainty of the grave, the psalmist once again set his focus on the LORD. Like David, he sought God in the morning (Psalm 5:3, 55:17, 59:16).
i. In the morning: “Early, come to thee, before the ordinary time of morning prayer, or before the dawning of the day, or the rising of the sun. The sense is, Though I have hitherto got no answer to my prayers, yet I will not give over praying nor hoping for an answer.” (Poole)
ii. In the morning my prayer comes before You: “The secret of it is that with determination he keeps himself in touch with God, crying to Him, and going out to meet Him at the break of each new day.” (Morgan)
b. Why do You hide Your face from me? The sad idea from earlier in the psalm is repeated. The worst of the psalmist’s afflictions was the sense that God had in some way forsaken him, that his soul was cast off from God. He simply sang: I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught.
3. (16-18) I need You to rescue me from Your wrath.
Your fierce wrath has gone over me;
Your terrors have cut me off.
They came around me all day long like water;
They engulfed me altogether.
Loved one and friend You have put far from me,
And my acquaintances into darkness.
a. Your fierce wrath has gone over me: Continuing the thought from the previous lines, the psalmist understood that in some way God was the source of his present affliction. If he suffered terrors, he could say to God they were “Your terrors.” Even in his affliction, the psalmist believed in God. This was a crisis, but it was a crisis of faith, not of unbelief.
i. Your fierce wrath: “In Psalm 88:16 the word for wrath is in the plural, to express the manifold outbursts of that deadly indignation. The word means literally heat; and we may represent the psalmist’s thought as being that the wrath shoots forth many fierce tongues of licking flame, or, like a lava stream, pours out in many branches.” (Maclaren)
b. They engulfed me altogether: Afflicted and alone (loved one and friend You have put far from me), the psalmist felt overwhelmed, as if he were about to drown in his misery. The psalm here ends, with no answer but a continued cry to God, who alone can rescue from such distress and despair.
i. “The happy ending of most psalms of this kind is seen to be a bonus, not a due; its withholding is not a proof of either God’s displeasure or his defeat.” (Kidner)
c. And my acquaintances into darkness: Many take this phrase in a different sense, such as the NIV: the darkness is my closest friend. The agonized cry of this psalm, together with its absence of anger or bitterness against God, shows that there is a real sense in which the psalmist’s darkness has been a friend. It has – in a deep and even terrible way – brought him into closer trust and relationship with God.
i. When Paul Simon began the song Sound of Silence with the phrase, Hello darkness, my old friend, he was not the first to express the idea. This seems to be Heman’s sense. “‘And mine acquaintance into darkness,’ or better still, my acquaintance is darkness. I am familiar only with sadness, all else has vanished. I am a child crying alone in the dark. Will the heavenly Father leave his child there?” (Spurgeon)
ii. When we remember that Heman wrote this psalm, who lived a blessed life in many ways (see notes on this psalm’s title), we realize that God used even this painful season for good.
iii. “This supposedly Godforsaken author seems to have been one of the pioneers of the singing guilds set up by David, to which we owe the Korahite psalms (43-49; 84f.; 87f.), one of the richest veins in the Psalter. Burdened and despondent as he was, his existence was far from pointless. If it was a living death, in God’s hands it was to bear much fruit.” (Kidner)
iv. “We thank God that there is one such song as this, with its revelation of what results in character when a soul, in the midst of the most appalling suffering, still maintains the activity of practiced relationship with God. We have also met such souls, and their witness to the power of the Divine grace is more potent than any theoretical expositions.” (Morgan)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org