Psalm 88 A Song or Psalm for the Sons of Korah Hands Stretched out in Grief
James Montgomery Boice in volume two of his expositional commentary on the Psalms entitles Psalm eighty eight as “The Dark Night of the Soul”. He explains his reason for such an appropriate title:
'The powerful, descriptive phrase “dark night of the soul” is not much used today, but it was in the Middle Ages, where it was found in the writings of the European mystics. It is a translation of the title of a book by the Spanish monk St. John of the Cross known in English as The Ascent of Mount Carmel (1578-1580)'.
This Psalm, I would suggest, is somewhat elusive in that we do not know the circumstances or reasons which brought about such a lament that seems to be so individual in its experience and as the commentator Leupold says is ‘the gloomiest psalm found in the Scriptures’. Still, it is part of the inspired psalter and is therefore left on record for the benefit of subsequent generations of believers. Paul reminds us after quoting from the Psalms concerning Christ that ‘whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope’ (Rom 15:3).
The title of the Psalm informs us that it was ‘A Song or Psalm for the sons of Korah’ and again it is ‘to the chief Musician’ this time ‘upon Mahalath Leannoth, Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite’. ‘Mahalath Leannoth’ is only found here as a title in the Psalms though ‘Mahalath’ appears alone in the title of Psalm fifty three. It is ‘upon’ or ‘according to’ ‘Mahalath’ which is probably a musical term referring to either a tune or a stringed instrument or possibly a flute (Jer 48:36; Matt 9:13). ‘Leannoth’ represents a preposition attached to a verbal form which is actually one of four different Hebrew words spelled exactly the same way, but with four different meanings which are ‘to answer’, ‘to bow down’, ‘to be occupied with’ and ‘to sing’. One suggestion is that ‘Mahalath Leannoth’ refers to ‘possibly a tune’ called ‘The Suffering of Affliction’ (NIV) or another is that it means ‘on account of sickness, to humble oneself’. The commentators Keil and Delitzsch state: ‘A Psalm-song by the Korahites; to the Precentor, to be recited … after a sad manner (cf. 53:1) with muffled voice, a meditation by Heman the Ezrahite’ (Commentary on the Old Testament, Keil & Delitzsch). As a song it fits the category of a dirge, a mournful song or lamentation. Also it is one of thirteen ‘Maschil’ Psalms which either mean a Psalm giving instruction or imparting wisdom or a Psalm skilfully written. Its composer is said to be Heman the Ezrahite and if this is Heman of the sons of the Kohathites, a descendant of Korah (1 Chron 6:33-38; 15:17, 19) it would naturally be part of the Korahite Psalms collection. Ethan of the sons of Merari was also one of the chief Levitical singers (1 Chron 6:44-47) chosen by David along with Heman and Asaph of the sons of Gershom (1 Chron 6:39-43). Ethan is also known as Jeduthun (1 Chron 25:6; 2 Chron 5:12; Psa 39:1; 62:1; 77:1). Asaph’s name appears in Psalms seven three to eighty three. Psalm eighty nine names in its title ‘Ethan the Ezrahite’ which evidently connects him with ‘Heman the Ezrahite’ of this Psalm. What Ezrahite means or indicates seems uncertain though the Greek translation reads ‘Israelite’. Also we read that Solomon ‘was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations’ (1 Kgs 4:31). These four names are also mentioned together along with Zimri as sons of Zerah the son of Judah (1 Chron 2:6; Darda being spelled Dara). If the sages, Ethan the Ezrahite and Heman, mentioned in Kings are understood as the same men listed in the genealogy in Chronicles then, being descendants of Judah, it would indicate that they must be different men from the Heman and Ethan of the Levitical singers. Of course, it is also possible that the sages were the composers of these Psalms. But I leave it there. I’m sure your head is already beginning to spin!
The Psalm divides into two parts:
Vs 1-9 The Reason for His Prayer – What He is Suffering Vs 10-18 The Request of His Prayer – Why is He Suffering
Knowing that Heman the Ezrahite is the composer of this Psalm is one thing, understanding the context and circumstances of his experience that brought forth such a prayer is another. Let us look at a number of possible backgrounds for this Psalm which will help us understand not only what the psalmist prayed, but also why he prayed after such a manner.
John Nelson Darby gives, what we may call, a dispensational view of this Psalm. He suggests that the Psalm represents the voice and cry of the remnant of Israel under the punitive consequences of a broken law and therefore experiencing the judgment of Jehovah. He writes:
'Psalm 88 puts the remnant under the deep and dreadful sense of a broken law, and God's fierce wrath, which, in justice comes upon those who have done so. It is not now outward sorrows or oppression of enemies, but that which is far, far deeper between the soul and God. And though the judgments of God have brought him into lowliness … yet this was only a part of the trouble, viewing it as a full expression of God's wrath; but death and wrath are the true burden of the psalm — God's terrors on the soul. Nor is there, as a present thing, any comfort, or a prospect of deliverance as from human oppression however dark for faith. The psalm closes in distress; its dealings are wholly with God; and so God must be known, till grace is known. Israel under law must come under a sense of divine wrath for a broken law; it is right it should. But remark further, it is still a God with whom they are in relationship … "O Jehovah, God of my salvation!" is the address of this psalm. This gives it its weight and true character, and makes it much more terrible …
It is to be remarked that, even as to the direct subject of the psalm, the terrors have not been always on the sufferer. Afflicted and ready to die he had been; such had been his life; but now he felt his soul cast off, and lover and friend even, whom he previously had had, put far from him by the hand of God. So, indeed, it was with Christ. His disciples could not then continue with Him in His temptations. He bore witness to them, that till then they had; but now, sifted as wheat, desertion or denial was the part of the best of them. Such was our Saviour's portion: only that, unspared and then undelivered, He indeed drank the cup which shall make the remnant escape the death they are fearing. It may press upon them as a lesson to know righteousness and deliverance, but the cup of wrath they will not drink. They are heard and set free on the earth. This psalm then is wrath under law; the next [Psalm 89], mercy and favour in Christ, but as yet resting in promise. Actual deliverance is in the next book, by the full bringing in of Jehovah-Messiah for the world, and Israel's Sabbath' (Synopsis of the Books of the Bible Volume 2 Ezra to Malachi).
Book three of the Psalms does indeed see Israel as a ‘nation under wrath’ (Psa 74:1; 77:1-9; 79:5; 80:4-7; 85:4-5; 89:46) whose hope alone is in the LORD who judges them, but who also has promised covenant mercies through David (Isa 55:3) and his line which goes ultimately to Christ (Psa 78:65-72; 89:1-4, 19-37).
Considering the Psalm in this light is illuminating, while no doubt, forcing us to think a little deeper. Most writers do take the Psalm as a very individual, personal lament. Charles Haddon Spurgeon sees the Psalm as the prayer of a mentally as well as a physically afflicted soul. He writes: ‘Upon Mahalath Leannoth. This is translated by Alexander, “concerning afflictive sickness,” and if this be correct, it indicates the mental malady which occasioned this plaintive song’. Then he goes on to say in his comments on the Psalm:
‘All his life was going, his spiritual life declined, his mental life decayed, his bodily life flickered; he was nearer dead than alive. Some of us can enter into this experience, for many a time have we traversed this valley of death-shade, ay! And dwelt in it by the month together. Really to die and be with Christ will be a gala day's enjoyment compared with our misery when a worse than physical death has cast its dreadful shadow over us. Death would be welcomed as a relief by those whose depressed spirits make their existence a living death. Are good men ever permitted to suffer thus? Indeed they are; and some of them are even all their life-time subject to bondage … It is all very well for those who are in robust health and full of spirits to blame those whose lives are sicklied o'er with the pale east of melancholy, but the evil is as real as a gaping wound, and all the more hard to bear because it lies so much in the region of the soul that to the inexperienced it appears to be a mere matter of fancy and diseased imagination. Reader, never ridicule the nervous and hypochondriacal their pain is real; though much of the evil lies in the imagination, it is not imaginary’ (Treasury of David, C. H. Spurgeon).
There are those who suggest that the prayer is the prayer of a leper. William Scroggie writes:
‘From this language it is clear that his affliction is physical, for mental anguish, soul distress, would not make any one an abomination to his friends, nor necessarily isolate him from his acquaintance (8). What, then, is his affliction? Almost certainly it is leprosy; if that be assumed, every line of the Psalm becomes intelligible, but scarcely otherwise. Now as you read the Psalm again, see this poor man, banished from home and friends and the Temple worship, visibly corrupting, oppressed with a sense of God's anger (7, 16), and with no hope as he looks into the future (3-6); and can we imagine a more tragic case!’ (Guide to the Psalms, Volume 2, William G. Scroggie).
The psalmist writes as both a man drawing near to death and under wrath, yet there are at least two things absent that you would expect to be present in his lament. There is no confession of sin and there is no explanation for why he is under wrath. Indeed he himself is asking why the LORD has cast him off and is hiding his face (v 14). As others have pointed out, the writer of this Psalm seems Job like. Job laments that ‘the arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit: the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me’ (Job 6:4). Notice some of the things Job says in the bitterness of his circumstances:
‘For He breaketh me with a tempest, and multiplieth my wounds without cause. He will not suffer me to take my breath, but filleth me with bitterness’ (Job 9:17-18).
‘Neither is there any days-man betwixt us that might lay his hand upon us both. Let him take His rod away from me, and let not His fear terrify me: Then would I speak, and not fear Him; but it is not so with me’ (Job 9:33-35).
‘He hath also kindled his wrath against me, and He counteth me unto Him as one of His enemies. His troops come together, and raise up their way against me, and encamp round about my tabernacle. He hath put my brethren far from me, and mine acquaintance are verily estranged from me. My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me. They that dwell in mine house, and my maids, count me for a stranger: I am an alien in their sight. I called my servant, and he gave me no answer; I intreated him with my mouth. My breath is strange to my wife, though I intreated for the children's sake of mine own body. Yea, young children despised me; I arose, and they spake against me. All my inward friends abhorred me: and they whom I loved are turned against me’ (Job 19:11-19).
Remember, as we read the experience of Job we have the advantage of knowing the background story, Job didn’t. Yet through it all he protested his innocence of wrong doing in the face of the accusations of his friends and maintained his integrity before God. Job chapter thirty one, his final words of discoursing with his friends, can be called Job’s oath of innocence.
One other comparable prayer is that of King Hezekiah concerning his sickness (Isa 38:9-20).
It is important to keep in mind as we read and consider this Psalm that, as we have pointed out before, we are New Testament believers and the language of wrath in this Old Testament context is not applicable to those who stand in Christ. Certainly we can and do experience our Father’s corrective discipline (Heb 12:5-11), but we will never be under His punitive wrath.
All that said, we will consider some of the detail of the Psalm in a brief and summary manner.
Vs 1-9 The Reason for His Prayer – What He is Suffering
Prayer without Ceasing (vs 1-2) Actually the Psalm begins with hope. Whatever the writers experience he knows that his deliverance will come from God alone. His despair and darkness are so real, but not enough to make him either hopeless or to abandon God. He appeals to the LORD as the ‘God of my salvation’ and this he does continually and earnestly (v 1) with the intense desire that his prayer be noticed and heard (v 2). He has faith enough that he will yet be heard, He has not lost, despite all the darkness that surrounds him, even the glimmering light of hope. He was ‘down, but not out’. As the first Korahite Psalm says: ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise Him, Who is the health of my countenance, and my God’ (Psa 42:11) and it was David who rejoiced: ‘I waited patiently for the LORD; and He inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And He hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD’ (Psa 40:1-3).
There are those who once professed faith in Christ who felt that at critical times in their life and experience that ‘God didn’t show up’. He wasn’t there when they needed Him and so they abandoned the faith they claimed to have with the conclusion, God’s not for real. Perseverance is the mark of a true believer even in the difficult times. This is what characterizes the psalmist. The writer to the Hebrews reminds the once faithful, but now discouraged believers: ‘“Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him”. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul’ (Heb 10:38-39).
Job’s wife said to him “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God, and die”. Job never did. He answered her: “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this did not Job sin with his lips (Job 2:9-10). Often Job’s wife gets ‘bad press’. Job didn’t say she was a foolish woman, only that in what she said she was speaking like them. What seems to be forgotten about Job’s wife is that she too lost everything, including the husband she once knew.
An Overwhelmed Soul (vs 3-5) His soul is ‘full of’ or ‘overwhelmed with troubles’ and his life is ebbing away as he draws near to ‘the grave’ or the realm of death (v 3). He considers that he is going down into the ‘pit’ of death just like other men (v 4; Psa 28:1), who it would seem, knew not God and are remembered ‘no more’ being ‘cut off’ from the hand of God (v 5). No longer do they know His power and goodness which gives and sustains life (Acts 17:25, 28). His strength and vitality were gone (v 4) and, like a liberated slave, in death he would be ‘free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave’ (v 5). Death would bring freedom from his troubles, but to his mind not in any blessed way. Rather, he would be left like those slain and buried on a battlefield who are gone and forgotten, a statistic of war. This indicates, perhaps, that he saw his death as premature and that he was being taken before his time. Death to the mind of a Jew and according to the law was unclean, the condition of defilement (Num 19:11-14) and the realm where no praise to God is offered (v 10; Isa 38:18-19).
Darkness and Isolation (vs 6-9) He was in the depths of affliction and the dread of death, feeling that the pressure of wrath was bearing down upon him with the crashing of its waves bringing him only more suffering (vs 6-7). His grief is intensified by the loneliness and isolation because of what God has done. His wrath has caused him to be repulsive to his ‘acquaintance’ or his ‘closet friends’ (v 8). Moreover his eyes were ‘dim with grief’ (NIV). Not only had he wept, but the vitality of life was leaving him. Yet, despite all this he didn’t give up, but continued to call ‘daily’ and ‘stretched out’ his ‘hands’ to the LORD in his desperation.
Vs 10-18 The Request of His Prayer – Why is He Suffering
Only the Living can Praise (vs 10-13) The second part of the Psalm mirrors the first. If he has given his reasons for his lament, now he is requesting, appealing for answers both in deliverance (vs 10-13) and by way of explanation (v 14). He first asks ‘rhetorical questions’ of ‘shall’ or ‘will’ (vs 10-12). He is really asking can these things happen in death in ‘the land of forgetfulness’ (v 12). In raising these questions he is seeking to motivate God, so to speak; it is an appeal for His delivering mercy. The answers to what he asks is obvious from the questions, no the dead cannot praise God or perceive His goodness. In the psalmist thinking, if the LORD preserves him and raises him up, he can be a testimony to the mercy of the LORD and thus give Him glory.
Again for the third time he reminds the LORD of his cry and continual prayers (v 13). Not only does he pray daily, he says ‘in the morning shall my prayer prevent or come before Thee’. He began each day with hope even in his darkness.
The Burning Question – Why? (v 14) Many have asked it. Even the Lord Jesus in His ‘hour of deepest woe’ – “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Psa 22:1; Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34). The psalmist asks: “LORD, why castest Thou off my soul? Why hidest Thou Thy face from me?” This is probably the expression of lament more than the demand for an answer. It expresses the bewilderment even the frustration of his heart. The seeming silence of God was difficult in the midst of his pain that pierced his soul like iron.
Many a person thinks God is silent in relation to human experience and present history. We know He’s not. He has spoken fully and finally in His Son (Heb 1:2) and the message He has given in Him remains unchanged and is as relevant and as powerful as ever. God is speaking today by His Gospel of hope. One day the heavens will depart as a scroll and the mighty thunderings of judgment will be heard, seen and felt by a godless world (Rev 6:12-17). Then men will wish that God had remained ‘silent’. But, for the psalmist and often for the believer the trying circumstances of life wring out of our souls the question, why? The answer may elude us in this life, but one thing is sure God is always there for His people even when we don’t feel or sense Him. The hymn says:
When darkness seems to veil His face I rest on His unchanging grace In every high and stormy gale My anchor holds within the veil
A Lifelong Affliction (vs 15-18) It is evident from this last part of the Psalm that his distress intensifies. He repeats with greater force what he has said previously. He now adds that he has ‘been afflicted and ready to die from his youth up’ (v 15). This statement, to borrow a line from Spurgeon, may well be the ‘exaggeration of a depressed spirit’. However, whatever his problem, it was a lifelong issue that had taken its toll upon him emotionally and mentally. He was ‘distracted’ or in ‘despair’ (v 15) and now at this stage of his life he finds himself in ‘the eye of the storm’ of God’s wrath. As he repeats himself we sense the intensity of his emotions. ‘Wrath’ is now ‘fierce wrath’ and like Job (Job 6:4), the terrors of God have robbed and are robbing him of the joy and vitality of life, overwhelming him daily like flood waters (vs 16-17). He feels like a drowning man. And, in it all, so alone (v 18).
It may be that what the psalmist describes in relation to the wrath and terrors of God is how he interprets the severity of his physical condition, which whatever it was, has laid him to a state of equally traumatic mental and emotional suffering. At no point in this Psalm do we hear the voice of God nor the divine perspective on this individual’s situation, we only hear the psalmist. But, we know too that the LORD heard him as well and that is why he prayed.
In conclusion, there are perhaps a couple of positive things we may take away with us after our consideration of this difficult Psalm; one is, that prayer is always our recourse to God whatever our situation or circumstances. We must never lose heart or give up hope. The second is, whether or not God answers our prayers, we can be sure He hears them. In Psalm twenty two we read prophetically of Him who suffered beyond human comprehension: ‘For He hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath He hid His face from Him; but when He cried unto him, He heard’ (Psa 22:24).
Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the King James Version.