Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This is the saddest Psalm in the whole Psalter. It is a pathetic cry of hopeless despair in the midst of unrelieved suffering. In other Psalms the light breaks through the clouds at last: here the gloom is deepest at the close. It is characteristic that the last word is darkness.
Is the Psalmist describing his own personal experience, or does he speak in the name of the nation? There is much to be said for the view that the speaker is Israel in exile, “lamenting its exclusion from the light of its Lord’s Presence.” Possibly, as may be the case in Lamentations 3, the community identifies itself with the typical sufferer Job, and borrows his language to describe its sufferings. So the Psalm is interpreted in the Targum, which paraphrases Psalm 88:6, “Thou hast placed me in exile which is like the nether pit”; and in the Syriac Version, which prefixes the title, “Concerning the people which was in Babylon.”
But while the Psalm was doubtless so applied in liturgical use, there is nothing in it which demands the national interpretation, and much which it is most natural to regard as primarily personal; and it seems best to regard it as springing out of the personal experience of some heavily afflicted saint. He had been, it would seem, a victim of the painful and loathsome disease of leprosy from his childhood. Life had been for him a living death. He stood on the brink of the grave: nay, though still alive on earth, he seemed to have been plunged into the darkness of Sheol. Banished from society, he could have no part in the joys of life; excluded from the Temple, he could have no share in the worship which was the outward and visible sign of God’s covenant with His people. The wrath of God seemed to be resting upon him. Nor could he look forward to a life through death in which his soul “delivered from the burden of the flesh” would be “in joy and felicity.” Death, as it then seemed, must sever the covenant relation between God and His people. Sheol was the land of oblivion, where neither He remembered them, nor they remembered Him. Still less could he console himself with the hope of a joyful resurrection.
Such a Psalm brings home to us, as no other does, a sense of the shadow which rested upon the life of ancient Israel, and of the preciousness of the revelation of eternal life in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:14-15). It is moreover a noble example of a faith which trusts God utterly in spite of all discouragement, and cleaves to God most passionately when God seems to have withdrawn Himself most completely.
The Psalm presents many parallels with similar Psalms, with the Book of Lamentations, and with the Book of Job, with which the author must have been familiar, and from which he borrows language for the portraiture of his own sufferings. Who he was, it is idle to speculate. Uzziah in his leprosy, Hezekiah in his sickness, Jeremiah in his dungeon, have been suggested. Ingenious, but improbable, is the conjecture of Delitzsch, that Heman the Ezrahite, in conjunction with other sages of Solomon’s time, was the author of the Book of Job, and that in this Psalm he records his personal experiences, which are there expanded in a dramatic form.
The Psalm may be analysed as follows:
i. After an introductory invocation the Psalmist pleads the intensity of his sufferings, if so be he may move God to pity. He is at the point of death; nay already counted as a dead man; deserted by his friends; plunged as it were into the very depths of Sheol by the visitation of God’s wrath (Psalm 88:1-8).
ii. He has no hope in life. Yet he has continued instant in prayer. Can God display His power and love in the unseen world? Nay, that is incredible (Psalm 88:9-12).
iii. Still he casts himself upon God. Why does God reject him, and drive him to distraction by the terrors of His wrath, hemming him in and isolating him so that no ray of sympathy relieves the misery of his life (Psalm 88:13-18)?
The Psalm is appointed as a Proper Psalm for Good Friday, doubtless because the Ancient Fathers interpreted it, like Psalms 22, as the utterance of the suffering Christ.
The title is composite. The first half, A song, a Psalm of the sons of Korah, unless it is a mere accidental repetition of the title of Psalms 87, indicates that it was taken from the Korahite collection. The second half, For the Chief Musician; set to Mahalath Leannoth. Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite, gives the musical setting and traditional authorship. Leannoth may mean ‘for singing antiphonally’; but more probably Mahalath Leannoth, i.e. ‘sickness to afflict’ is the title of the melody to which the Psalm was to be sung, which may or may not have been identical with that called Mahalath in the title of Psalms 53. On Maschil see Introd. p. xix.
The designation of Heman and Ethan as Ezrahites in the titles of this and the following Psalm is perplexing.
(i) In 1 Kings 4:31, Ethan the Ezrahite, Heman, Calcol, and Darda are named as famous sages, whose wisdom was surpassed by that of Solomon. In 1 Chronicles 2:6, we have the same four names (for Dara is an obvious error of transcription for Darda) given as sons or descendants of Zerah. It is natural to infer that the patronymic Ezrahite means, as it may legitimately do, ‘of the family of Zerah.’ Heman and Ethan consequently belonged to the tribe of Judah. It is not stated whether the four sages of 1 Kings 4:31 were contemporary with Solomon or not. The comparison would be more forcible if they were the most famous sages of all past time known to the historian. But on the other hand it need not be supposed that they were literally sons of Zerah, for ‘sons’ in genealogical language frequently means ‘descendants,’ and in 1 Kings they (or at least the last three of them) are called ‘the sons of Mahol.’
(ii) In 1 Chronicles 15:17; 1 Chronicles 15:19 Heman and Ethan appear along with Asaph as leaders of the Temple music. Heman, who was a Korahite, represented the family of Kohath; Asaph that of Gershom; Ethan that of Merari. In 1 Chronicles 25:5 Heman is called “the king’s seer,” and from a comparison of 1 Chronicles 16:41-42; 1 Chronicles 25:1 ff. with 1 Chronicles 15:17; 1 Chronicles 15:19 it has been inferred that Ethan was also called Jeduthun.
It is certainly natural to suppose that the famous musicians are meant here, and that these Psalms were traditionally ascribed to them, or were in some way connected with the guilds or choirs which bore their names, as the Psalms of Asaph were connected with the guild or choir of Asaph. Accordingly various attempts have been made to explain how Levites could also be called Ezrahites. It has been conjectured that they were Judahites who had been adopted into the Levitical guild, or Levites, who as dwelling in the territory assigned to the family of Zerah were reckoned to belong to that family (cp. Jdg 17:7). But these conjectures are precarious, and it seems most probable that Heman and Ethan the musicians have been wrongly identified with their namesakes the famous sages.
A Song or Psalm for the sons of Korah, to the chief Musician upon Mahalath Leannoth, Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite. O LORD God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee:1. O Lord God &c.] Jehovah, the God of my salvation. Cp. Psalm 27:9.
I have cried day and night before thee] Parallels such as Psalm 22:2 suggest that this is the meaning intended, but it is difficult to extract it from the Heb. text, even if we assume that “the broken language corresponds to the weakness of the gasping sufferer” (Kay). An ingenious and plausible emendation removes the difficulty thus:
Jehovah my God, I have cried for help in the day time,
And in the night hath my crying been before thee.
Cp. Psalm 88:13; Psalm 30:2; Job 19:7; Psalm 42:8. Though God has forsaken him, he can still address Him as my God (Psalm 22:1). Like Job, he must appeal to God even when God seems wholly alienated from him.
1–8. The Psalmist appeals for a hearing, supporting his appeal by a pathetic description of the chastisements by which God has brought him to the very edge of the grave.
Let my prayer come before thee: incline thine ear unto my cry;2. come before thee] Enter into thy presence (R.V. from P.B.V.). Cp. Psalm 18:6; Psalm 79:11.
my prayer … my cry] Cp. Psalm 17:1; Psalm 61:1. The word for ‘cry’ denotes a shrill piercing cry, frequently of joy, but sometimes, as here, of supplication, “expressive of emotional excitement such as an Eastern scruples not to use in prayer” (Cheyne).
For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.3. For &c.] He pleads the urgency of his need as the ground for a hearing.
draweth nigh &c.] Hath drawn nigh unto Sheol, the gloomy nether world which is the abode of the departed. Cp. Psalm 6:5; Psalm 107:18.
I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength:4. He is regarded as a dying man. The pit is the grave or Sheol. Cp. Psalm 28:1; Psalm 143:7; Psalm 22:29; Proverbs 1:12.
that hath no strength] Like the feeble shadows of the dead. Or as R.V., that hath no help: cp. the cognate word in Psalm 22:19, rendered in R.V., O thou my succour.
Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand.5. Free among the dead] There can hardly be any allusion to Job 3:19, where the word is used of a welcome release from servitude, for it is a far-fetched interpretation to suppose that a new turn is given to the phrase and that it here means ‘dismissed against his will from the service of God.’ Render as R.V., cast off, or R.V. marg., cast away. A cognate word is used for ‘the house of separation’ in which Uzziah lived as a leper (2 Chronicles 26:21).
Another but doubtful translation is, My couch is among the dead: cp. Job 17:13.
the slain &c.] The slain in battle, whose corpses are flung into a nameless common grave. Cp. Ezekiel 32:24 ff.
whom thou rememberest no more] Sheol is the ‘land of oblivion,’ where men neither remember God (Psalm 6:5; Psalm 30:9) nor are remembered by Him. They are cut off from thy hand, severed from Thy gracious help and protection. Cp. Psalm 31:22; Lamentations 3:54; 2 Chronicles 26:21. On this gloomy view of the future state see Introd. pp. xciii ff.
Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.6. Thou hast laid me] God is treating him as though he were actually dead. The same word is used in the same connexion in Psalm 49:14.
in the lowest pit] The nether world in the depths of the earth. Cp. Psalm 86:13; Psalm 63:9; Lamentations 3:55. The Targum explains it allegorically of the Exile. “Thou hast placed me in exile which is like the nether pit.” in darkness] R.V. in dark places. So Sheol is described in Psalm 143:3; Lamentations 3:6. Cp. Job 10:21-22.
in the deeps] A word generally used of the depths of the sea: here metaphorically of the depths of misery (Psalm 69:15; cp. Lamentations 3:54), or as another synonym for Sheol, which was supposed to be situated below the sea. Cp. Psalm 71:20; Job 26:5.
The LXX and Syr. however read ‘shadow of death’ or ‘deep gloom’ (Psalm 44:19, note). This reading only implies a transposition of the consonants in the Heb. text, and is supported by the parallel passage in Job 10:21-22, which seems to be in the Psalmist’s mind.
Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves. Selah.7. Thy wrath &c.] Cp. Psalm 32:4; Psalm 38:2.
thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves] Cp. Psalm 42:7 for the metaphor.
Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me; thou hast made me an abomination unto them: I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.8. Like Job he is deserted even by his familiar friends (not merely acquaintance, as A.V.), and this is due to the act of God, Who has smitten him with a sickness which makes them loathe even the sight of him. Cp. Psalm 31:11; Job 19:13 ff., Job 19:19. He seems to describe himself as a leper like Job. Leprosy was a living death (Numbers 12:12): more than any other disease it was regarded as the direct ‘stroke’ of God (Job 19:21). The leper was cut off from all society and even from taking part in the public worship of God, and was compelled to live alone (Leviticus 13:46; 2 Chronicles 26:21). The reference is of course not to the temporary seclusion for the purpose of ascertaining whether a man was really a leper (Leviticus 13:4 ff.), but to the permanent separation from society, in which the leper was virtually a prisoner, not daring to expose himself to the public gaze (Job 31:34).
Possibly however the last line of the verse is not literal but metaphorical, describing the hopelessness of his condition as a prisoner who cannot escape. Cp. Job 3:23; Job 13:27; Job 19:8; Lamentations 3:7.
St Luke seems to allude to this verse in his narrative of the Crucifixion, ch. Luke 23:49.
Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction: LORD, I have called daily upon thee, I have stretched out my hands unto thee.9. Mine eye mourneth] R.V. wasteth away. The sunken, lacklustre eye is the sure sign of suffering. Cp. Psalm 6:7; Psalm 31:9; Job 17:7.
stretched out] R.V. spread forth, in the attitude of prayer. Cp. (though the word is different) Psalm 44:20; Psalm 143:6; Isaiah 1:15.
9–12. Again (cp. Psalm 88:1) he pleads the constancy of his prayers. His strength is failing. He will soon be dead; and in the grave he will be beyond the reach of God’s love and faithfulness. Cp. Job 10:20 ff; Job 17:11 ff.
Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee? Selah.10. This and the two following verses can hardly be, as some commentators suppose, the prayer to which he refers in Psalm 88:9. The connexion of thought seems to be this. He has prayed that God will shew him His marvellous lovingkindness, but he will soon be beyond the reach of it, for of course from his point of view there can be but one answer to the questions of Psalm 88:10-12, and that a negative one. In despair he asks;
Wilt thou do wonders for the dead?
Shall the shades arise and praise thee?
To do ‘wonders’ is the prerogative of God (Exodus 15:11; Psalm 77:11; Psalm 77:14): to give thanks to Him for them is the duty of man: but the Psalmist cannot believe that even God will work such a miracle that the dead shall arise and praise Him. Rephâîm, the Heb. word for ‘shades,’ denotes the dead as weak and nerveless ghosts. Arise might mean no more than ‘stand up,’ referring to what takes place in the unseen world, but the parallel of Isaiah 26:14 suggests that it is a resurrection of which the poet speaks as inconceivable. Cp. Job 14:12.
Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?11. To proclaim God’s lovingkindness and faithfulness is the delight of His people (Psalm 40:10; Psalm 92:2), but in the grave they will neither have cause nor power to do it. These two attributes, so often coupled together, are the keynote of Psalms 89.
‘Destruction,’ Heb. Abaddon, is almost a proper name for Sheol as the place of ruin: elsewhere only in the ‘Wisdom literature,’ Job 26:6; Job 28:22; Job 31:12; Proverbs 15:11; Proverbs 27:20. Cp. Revelation 9:11, where it is the name of “the angel of the abyss,” Gk. Apollyon, ‘the Destroyer.’
Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?12. Nay, God’s wonders will not even be known in Darkness, nor His righteousness, His faithfulness to His covenant (Psalm 71:2, and often), in the land of Oblivion: where men neither remember God (Psalm 6:5) nor are remembered by Him (Psalm 88:5); where thought feeling and action are at an end. See Ecclesiastes 9:5-6; Ecclesiastes 9:10; and even in Sir 17:27-28, Bar 2:17, we hear the echo of Isaiah 38:18 f.
But unto thee have I cried, O LORD; and in the morning shall my prayer prevent thee.13. But as for me, unto thee, Jehovah, have I cried for help,
And in the morning shall my prayer come before thee.
He contrasts himself with the dead, whose covenant relation with God is at an end. He at least can still pray, and in spite of all discouragement will not cease to pray.
Prevent = ‘go to meet,’ as in Psalm 59:10; Psalm 79:8. The first thought of each day shall be prayer. Cp. Psalm 5:3; Psalm 55:17.
13–18. Death brings no hope. Will not God then listen to his prayer and grant him some relief in his extremity of suffering and solitude?
LORD, why castest thou off my soul? why hidest thou thy face from me?14. Questions of surprise and expostulation. Cp. Psalm 74:1; Psalm 77:7. For the second line cp. Job 13:24; Psalm 13:1. God “shuts out his prayer,” Lamentations 3:8.
I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up: while I suffer thy terrors I am distracted.15. Will God have no pity upon one whose whole life has been spent at the point of death? Could this be said of Israel as a nation? ‘From youth’ is of course frequently used of the nation (Psalm 129:1-2; Jeremiah 32:30; &c.), but Israel’s existence had not been continuously wretched and precarious.
while I suffer &c.] I have borne thy terrors (till) I am distracted. Terrors is a favourite word with Job. The word rendered distracted occurs here only and is of doubtful meaning. Possibly it is a false reading for another word meaning faint or stupefied (Psalm 38:8).
Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; thy terrors have cut me off.16. The fiery streams of thy wrath have gone over me.
Cp. Psalm 42:7; but for waves he substitutes fiery wraths.
Thine alarms, a word found only in Job 6:4, have made an end of me (Lamentations 3:53).
They came round about me daily like water; they compassed me about together.17. They have surrounded me like water all the day long;
They have encompassed me about together.
The figure of Psalm 88:16 is continued. The flood of calamity threatens to engulf him, and there is none (Psalm 88:18) to stretch out a helping hand to the drowning man.
Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.18. Cp. Psalm 88:8; Psalm 38:11; Job 19:13.
and mine acquaintance into darkness] A difficult phrase. Another possible rendering is, my familiar friends are darkness: darkness takes the place of friends: cp. Job 17:14.
We take leave of this sad singer with his riddle unsolved, with no ray of light piercing the gloom; yet believing in the fact of God’s love though he can only see the signs of His wrath, appealing, like Job, to God, though God seems utterly hostile to him; assured that if he has any hope at all, it is in God alone. His faith has met its reward.