Psa 88:1 A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According to mahalath leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
In 1 Chron 6:33,37, Heman is identified as the leader of the Korahite guild.
This has been described as a ‘psalm without hope’. ‘Most pastors will have had to minister in such a situation, holding the hand of a dear fellow-believer sinking into seemingly comfortless sorrows and facing eternity without assurance. And most believers will have encountered – in lesser or greater degree – the dark valley which excludes sunlight and where Jesus and his love, the gospel and its assurances, heaven and its compensations all refer to someone else. The psalm tells us that unrelieved suffering may still be our lot. It reminds us that we are not in heaven yet but part of a groaning creation (Rom. 8:18-23). It sets before us a shining example of the faith that holds on and of resolute occupancy of the place of prayer. Here is one walking in darkness, without light, and trusting in the name of the Lord and leaning on his God (Isa. 50:10).’ (NBC)
‘In Psalm 88 the psalmist’s existence is about to cease. This is evidenced by the words used to denote death: “the pit” (vv. 4, 6); “the dead” (vv. 5, 10); “the grave” (vv. 5, 11); “the darkest depths” (v. 6); “the lowest pit” (v. 6); “Abaddon” (v. 11); “the place of darkness” (v. 12); “the land of oblivion” (v. 12); and “darkness” (v. 18). The psalmist says, “my life draws near to Sheol” (v. 3), the penumbral expanse of the netherworld. The psalmist then asks the rhetorical questions: “Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grace, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?” (vv. 10-12 NRSV). As with Psalm 6:4-6 the point is that one must be alive in order to praise God. The reference reveals a cognizance of the concept of an individual’s resurrection even though the questions are unanswered (cf. Psalm 7:15; 49:15).’ (EDBT)
As Mays remarks, there are no expressions of trust or of praise in this psalm, and only one petition (v2). The psalmist feel close to death, his friends are gone, and God seems absent.
‘The psalm reminds us how sad our understanding of death must be when imagination has only the end of life as its subject. It stands in contrast to the picture of the state of the dead who have died in the Lord drawn in the New Testament, where imagination has been given eschatological hope (see Revelation 14).’ (Mays)
The psalm is, as Spurgeon remarks, quite fragmentary, suggesting the incoherence that can accompany grief.
O LORD, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you.
The God who saves me – This is just about the only ray of sunlight in the entire psalm.
‘That little word “my” opens for a moment a space between the clouds through which the Sun of righteousness casts one solitary beam. Generally speaking, you will find that when the Psalm begins with lamentation, it ends with praise; like the sun, which, rising in clouds and mist, sets brightly, and darts forth its parting rays just before it goes down. But here the first gleam shoots across the sky just as the sun rises, and no sooner has the ray appeared, than thick clouds and darkness gather over it; the sun continues its course throughout the whole day enveloped in clouds; and sets at last in a thicker bank of them than it ever had around it during the day. “Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.” In what a dark cloud does the sun of Heman set!—(J.C. Philpot, quoted by Spurgeon)
Psa 88:2 May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry.
Despite God’s apparent indifference, our Lord in Lk 18:7f assures us that he hears such cries.
Virtually the only positive thing in this psalm is that the psalmist continues to pray.
Psa 88:3 For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave.
Psa 88:4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength.
‘I am as good as dead.’
Psa 88:5 I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
Psa 88:6 You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.
Psa 88:7 Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. Selah
Psa 88:8 You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape;
Psa 88:9 my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you.
Psa 88:10 Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Selah
As Kidner says, it is among the living that miracles are seen, God’s praises sung, his love declared, and his deliverance exhibited. It is characterised by inactivity, silence, severing of ties, corruption. Death is indeed an enemy – the ‘last enemy’, according to the NT. Faith must see beyond death to resurrection if there is to be any hope.
Psa 88:11 Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction?
Psa 88:12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
Psa 88:13 But I cry to you for help, O LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Psa 88:14 Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?
Psa 88:15 From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.
Psa 88:16 Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me.
God seems to be his bitter enemy. All his earthly friends have been taken (v18).
Psa 88:17 All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.
Psa 88:18 You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.
‘With darkness as its final word, what is the role of this psalm in Scripture? For the beginning of an answer we may note, first, its witness to the possibility of unrelieved suffering as a believer’s earthly lot. 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. Secondly, the psalm adds its voice to the ‘groaning in travail’ which forbids us to accept the present order as final. It is a sharp reminder that ‘we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies’ (Rom. 8:22f.). Thirdly, this author, like Job, does not give up. He completes his prayer, still in the dark and totally unrewarded. The taunt, ‘Does Job fear God for naught?’, is answered yet again. Fourthly, the author’s name allows us, with hindsight, to see that his rejection was only apparent (see the opening comments on the psalm). His existence was no mistake; there was a divine plan bigger than he knew, and a place in it reserved most carefully for him.’ (Kidner)
‘The psalm reminds us of the limits set for praying that is not based on the knowledge that God raised Messiah Jesus from the grave. This Old Testament prayer sounds like a cry to hear that good news as its answer.’ (Mays)