understanding psalms 88

Psalms 88 is perhaps one of the darkest passages in the Bible. Unlike the psalms of despair by King David, this psalm does not break into praise and hope. It ends decisively and abruptly in abandoned hope. This is not a typical psalm.

Psa 88:1 A Song. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah. To the Chief Musician. Set to “Mahalath Leannoth.” a Contemplation of Heman the Ezrahite. O LORD, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before You.
Psa 88:2 Let my prayer come before You; Incline Your ear to my cry.

The Psalm is attributed to the Sons of Korah. Korah was an individual sucked alive to hell by God (Num 26:10). This judgment against Korah did not extend to his sons (Num 26:11). Korah’s descendants (of which Samuel was one) became prominent in singing during the reign of David (1Ch 15:19). This Psalm is probably by a son of Korah during the time of David, but with a Psalm of Moses (Psalm 90) in existence this psalm could have been created by a direct son of Korah as well.

The Psalm starts with the author setting up his history in his pleas to God. The author has been calling to God for some length of time previous to this psalm. This psalm is not a point event, but a systematic event in the life of the author. The author implores God to listen to his prayers, which are constant and sincere.

Psa 88:3 For my soul is full of troubles, And my life draws near to the grave.
Psa 88:4 I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength,
Psa 88:5 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.

The author believes he will soon die. This is a physical death that the author describes. The author says that he is “counted” among the dead. It seems that others also believed he was on the verge of death. The author never explains the exact details of the situation, but it is imminent and real. The author compares himself to the already dead. The dead are silent, so God does not listen to the dead. In the same sense, the author feels God is treating him as if he were part of the dead.

Psa 88:6 You have laid me in the lowest pit, In darkness, in the depths.
Psa 88:7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, And You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah
Psa 88:8 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;
Psa 88:9 My eye wastes away because of affliction. LORD, I have called daily upon You; I have stretched out my hands to You.

The author attributes his problems to God. To the author, God was punishing him for some unnamed reason. God has even gone so far as to turn the author’s friends against him. The author then begins bargaining with God:

Psa 88:10 Will You work wonders for the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise You? Selah
Psa 88:11 Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction?
Psa 88:12 Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

The author’s point is that if God lets him die, then God would be forgoing certain benefits. God will not be able to show the author God’s works. God would forgo the praise of the author. God would not benefit from the author’s recommendations of God to others about God’s love, faithfulness, power and righteousness (the author attacks every angle he can). God would be forgoing a strong advocate if God were to let the author die.

Psa 88:13 But to You I have cried out, O LORD, And in the morning my prayer comes before You.
Psa 88:14 LORD, why do You cast off my soul? Why do You hide Your face from me?
Psa 88:15 I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught.
Psa 88:16 Your fierce wrath has gone over me; Your terrors have cut me off.
Psa 88:17 They came around me all day long like water; They engulfed me altogether.
Psa 88:18 Loved one and friend You have put far from me, And my acquaintances into darkness.

The psalm ends on a negative note. The author prays fervently, but God does not listen. God is nowhere to be found, except in judgment on the author. The author compares his pain to waters covering his face and drowning him. It is a dark image.

The author ends the psalm by stating he is alone. Not only has God abandoned him, but God has also caused the author’s friends to abandon him as well. He is alone.

The author’s conception of God was that God could be moved. The author spends his time in earnest prayer attempting to move God to compassion. The author lays out skillful reasons for God to save him. The author even speaks of praising God’s faithfulness, even after severe abandonment. This was the reality of God to the author.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
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