George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 3

Psalm 88

1. Titles

According to the analysis of Thirtle, Mahalath Leannoth belongs to Psalm 87.

Maschil signifies “understanding” or “instruction”. There are 13 “Maschil” psalms: 32, 42/43, 44, 45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88, 89, and 142. One of the New Testament equivalents of the Hebrew maschil is the Greek phroneo; and by far the most relevant passage is Philippians 2:5,8:

“Let this mind (phroneo) be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus; who... became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

Heman the Ezrahite was Samuel’s grandson (1 Chron. 6:33,34), and thus a Kohathite. He was a man of remarkable wisdom (1 Kings 4:31), and head of one of the three sections of the music of the sanctuary (1 Chron. 15:17,19; 16:41,42; 2 Chron. 5:12), and the father of a large and quite musical family (1 Chron. 25:1,4-6; 2 Chron. 29:14; 35:15). (Ezrahite is almost certainly equivalent to “Zerahite” — referring to a clan of Judah: 1 Chron. 2:6. This presents a slight genealogical difficulty, since Heman was plainly of the Levites. So either there was some sort of adoption in the picture, or — more probably — Heman was assigned as teacher and instructor to that section of the tribe of Judah.)

2. Structure

The psalm is one homogeneous expression of suffering and wretchedness, with only two brief gleams of light (vv. 1a, 13) in an unusually dark landscape. There are quite numerous connections — as might be expected in the circumstances — with the laments of Job (cp. v. 4 with Job 14:10; v. 6 with Job 10:21,22; v. 8 with Job 19:13-19; 20:10; 3:23; 13:27; v. 10 with Job 10:20-22; v. 15 with Job 17:1,11-16; 33:25; 36:14; and v. 18 with Job 17:9; 19:4). Also, there are considerable links with Psalms 22, 69, and 77.

3. Historical

It is suggested here that (like Psalm 86 and other previous psalms) this psalm is essentially one by David (vv. 1-13), to which has been added a short extension (vv. 14-18) by Hezekiah. This phenomenon, discernible in a number of psalms, is almost to be expected, because of the remarkable similarities of certain of the experiences of these two men of God.

a. David:
In Psalm 30 the suggestion is made that, at the time of God’s judgment on Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:6,7), during the transferal of the Ark to Zion (cp. Psa. 87, Par. 1), David also came under the displeasure of God and suffered a very serious illness (Psalms Studies, Psa. 30, notes). Probably it is this which is so agonizingly referred to in the present psalm; when studied against this background, these verses make a most moving lament.
b. Hezekiah:
This man also experienced a similar affliction. With a specific divine pronouncement: “Thou shalt die, and not live” (Isa. 38:1; 2 Kings 20:1), all hope should surely have been abandoned. But Hezekiah knew his God, and did not pray in vain. The isolation of v. 18 suggests the nature of his affliction — leprosy. And the encirclement (of enemies?) in v. 17 may be an allusion to the other great trial which came on the king, and his nation, at the same time as his sickness: i.e., the siege of Jerusalem by an Assyrian army.

The six questions of vv. 10-12 are the basis of Hezekiah’s prayer for recovery:

“For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth” (Isa. 38:18).

4. The Messiah

In deep darkness, and with hope well nigh gone, in desperate need of help, the Messiah pleads with an importunity that is uniquely powerful. Here we see — in shadowy form — the outlines of Gethsemane and Golgotha, and an unprecedented accumulation of sore trials.

O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee (22:1,2; 69:3). It is almost a paradox: Jesus, who is God’s salvation, also needs God’s salvation!
For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave (Sheol). I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength (Psa. 22:15): Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave (keber = sepulchre), whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness in the deeps. It would seem that death is very near, a grim horror, and apparently all is futile.
Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me. It must have been a very sickening experience when many disciples reacted with: “This is an hard saying: who can hear it?” and then went back and walked no more with him (John 6:60,66).

Thou hast made me an abomination unto them, who hitherto had been his close adherents! This was true of Judas, no doubt, when he concluded bitterly that his Master was a false Messiah (John 6:70,71; 13:18-30).
I have stretched out my hands unto thee, as Peter did in turn to Jesus himself when failing to walk on the waters of Galilee: Matt. 14:22-36 / Mark 6:45-56 / John 6:15-21; cp. v. 7 here (“Thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves”).
Shall the dead arise and praise thee? No, unless there be an acceptable, all-sufficient sacrifice. And the altar associations of Selah here (vv. 7,10) give assurance that this is truly a Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world.
Thy lovingkindness... thy faithfulness. These terms belong to God’s covenants of promise. Yet they are also linked here with “Destruction” (Hebrew Abaddon, and so in RSV), the name of Passover’s destroying angel (Exod. 12:23; Rev. 9:11; cp. Job 26:6; 28:22; 31:12; Prov. 15:11; 27:20).
In the morning shall my prayer prevent (come before: RSV) thee. A heartening phrase! There will be an awakening to praise and petition.
Why...? Faith often has to get by without a clear-cut answer. Did Jesus have a clear answer (Psa. 22:25-31)?

Why hidest thou thy face? The answer supplied by Isaiah (= the salvation of the Lord) was: because this was “a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:2,5). But there is no confession of sin by the speaker here; so was the sin that of others?
I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth. The answers to the Passover question: “What mean ye by this service?” (Exod. 12:26; Luke 2:46) had explained to the boy Jesus, even at the age of 12, the meaning of his life. Even as a boy, he knew that he had been born for the express purpose of dying!
Thy fierce wrath — with whom? with what? — goeth over me. Thy terrors have cut me off. The LXX uses almost the identical word as in John 13:21, when Jesus was “troubled in spirit”.
They came round about me daily. John quotes these very words concerning the Lord’s adversaries as their campaign against him mounted to a crisis (John 10:24; cp. Matt. 22:15,16,23,34,35). And later, when Jesus hung on the cross, the assembly of the wicked encircled and enclosed him (Psa. 22:16; Matt. 27:41; Mark 15:31).
Lover and friend hast thou put far from me (Psa. 38:11). Judas was estranged; others were overawed, or scared (Mark 15:40,41; Luke 23:49).

5. Other details

Free (forsaken: RSV) among the dead. The word is commonly used of freedom from bondage; or, in the context of death, as having all earthly ties abolished. But the s.w. also describes a leper’s house of isolation (2 Kings 15:5; cp. sense of vv. 8,18 here).

Whom thou rememberest no more. The writer for the moment feels like the dead whom God does not remember (i.e., Psa. 49:12,20; Isa. 26:14; Jer. 51:39,57), but he is in reality not like them at all! The word remember suggests God’s memorial — His Covenant Name.

And they are cut off from thy hand. That is, “from thy care” (NEB). The Hebrew is yod, which means the open hand, from which blessings are dispensed, as opposed to the closed fist (egroph) of anger (Exod. 21:18; Isa. 58:4).
I am shut up. The s.w. occurs in Lev. 13:4, regarding the leper. This is David! And Hezekiah! And Jesus (Isa. 53:3)!
What an accumulation of questions! And the answers? Always and for each, an emphatic “No!”
Shall the dead arise and praise thee? This “dead” (but not the word in v. 5 and v. 10a) is rephaim. The RV mg. and RSV, apparently following Gesenius, render this word by “shades” — suggestive of ghosts and disembodied spirits and the like! This is erroneous, as is John Thomas’ rendering of rephaim as “healed ones” (Anastasis, p. 44). The Rephaim were, in the first instance, an obscure race of Canaanites (Gen. 14:5; 15:20), who seem to have perished early on in Old Testament history (Deut. 3:11). By the distinct parallelism of Psa. 88:10-12, the word plainly signifies, not only those who are dead, but especially those who have no hope of any future life. What better name for such than that of an extinct tribe, whose memory is practically lost in the mists of antiquity. Evidently this is all that is intended by the Hebrew rephaim; such a definition is more or less in accordance with the other usages of the word (Job 26:5; Prov. 2:18; 9:18; 21:16; Isa. 14:9; 26:14,19).
Lovingkindness... faithfulness. See Psa. 89:1,2,5,8,14,24,33,49. Heman and Ethan were colleagues, and had the same speech. And they both treasured God’s Promise to the line of David. Though Heman in Psa. 88 speaks of despair, his story is not finished: Ethan in Psa. 89 supplies the joyous counterpoint.
So death is a land of dark, and a land of forgetfulness. What could be plainer? Compare Psa. 6:5; 104:33; 115:17; 146:3,4; Isa. 2:22; 38:18; Eccl. 9:5,6,10. Why do people not believe this?
I am distracted. The Hebrew is little used and thus uncertain; the RSV has “helpless”.
And mine acquaintance into darkness. NIV: “The darkness is my closest friend.”

6. Postscript

Perhaps the apostle Paul should have the last word in comment on this extraordinarily sad and negative psalm. For here was a man who suffered much, in many ways, and many times — even nearly to death (and finally, of course, he did lay down his life for his faith). Yet, no matter how much he had suffered, no matter how much it seemed that God had forsaken him, he could still say:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The ‘creation’ [by which he means the “New Creation” in Christ] waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the ‘creation’ was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the ‘creation’ itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole ‘creation’ has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies... And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose... If God is for us, who can be against us?... Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”

(Rom. 8:18-23,28,31,35,37-39, NIV).
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