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This psalm is altogether of a mournful and desponding character. The author is a sufferer; he is expecting to die; he fears to die; he longs to live; his mind is overwhelmed with gloom which does not seem to be irradiated by one ray of hope or consolation. It is, in this respect, unlike most of the psalms which relate to sickness, to sorrow, to suffering, for in those psalms generally there springs up, in answer to prayer, a gleam of hope - some cheerful view - some sustaining prospect; so that, though a psalm begins in despondency and gloom, it ends with joy and triumph. Compare, among others, Psalms 6:9-10; Psalms 7:17; Psalms 13:6; Psalms 42:8, Psalms 42:11; Psalms 56:11-13; Psalms 59:16; Psalms 69:34, Psalms 69:36. But in this psalm there is no relief; there is no comfort. As the Book of Psalms was designed to be useful in all ages, and to all classes of people, and as such a state of mind as that described in this psalm might occur again and often - it was proper that such a condition of utter despondency, even in a good man, should be described, in order that others might see that such feelings are not necessarily inconsistent with true religion, and do not prove that even such a sufferer is not a child of God. It is probable that this psalm was designed to illustrate what may occur when disease is such as to produce deep mental darkness and sorrow. And the Book of Psalms would have been incomplete for the use of the church, if there had not been at least one such psalm in the collection.
The psalm is said, in the title, to be “A Psalm or Song for (margin, of) the sons of Korah” - combining, in some way unknown to us, as several of the other psalms do, the properties of both a psalm and a song. The phrase, “for the sons of Korah,” means here, probably, that it was composed for their use, and not by them, unless “Heman the Ezrahite” was one of their number. On the phrase, “To the chief Musician,” see the notes at the title to Psalms 4:1-8. The words, “upon Mahalath Leannoth,” are of very uncertain signification. They are rendered by the Septuagint and the Vulgate “for Maeleth, to answer;” by Luther, “to sing, of the weakness of the miserable;” by Prof. Alexander, “concerning afflictive sickness.” The word “Mahalath” seems here to be a form of מחלה machăleh, which means properly, “sickness, disease.” It is rendered, with a slight variation in the pointing, “disease” in 2 Chronicles 21:15; Exodus 15:26; “infirmity,” in Proverbs 18:14; and “sickness” in Exodus 23:25; 1Ki 8:37; 2 Chronicles 6:28. It does not occur elsewhere, and would be properly rendered here, therefore, “disease, sickness, or infirmity.” The Hebrew which is rendered “Leannoth,” לענית le‛anoyth, is made up of a preposition (ל l) and a verb. The verb - ענה ‛ânâh - means:
(1) to chant or sing;
(2) to lift up the voice in any way - to begin to speak;
(3) to answer;
(4) to mean to say, to imply.
The verb also has another class of significations;
(a) to bestow labor upon,
(b) to suffer, to be afflicted, and might here refer to such affliction or trouble.
According to the former signification, which is probably the true one here, the allusion would be to something which was said or sung in respect to the sickness referred to; as, for example, a mournful melody composed for the occasion; and the purpose would be to express the feelings experienced in sickness. According to the other signification it would refer to affliction, and would be little more than a repetition of the idea implied in the word Mahalath. It seems to me, therefore, that there is a reference in the word “Leannoth” to something which was said or sung on that occasion; or to something which might be properly said or sung in reference to sickness. It is difficult to translate the phrase, but it might be somewhat literally rendered, “concerning sickness - to be said or sung;” that is, in reference to it. The word Maschil (see the notes at the title to Psalms 32:1-11) conveys the idea that it is a didactic or instructive psalm - suggesting appropriate thoughts for such a season. The psalm is ascribed to “Heman the Ezrahite.” The name Heman occurs in 1Ki 4:31; 1 Chronicles 2:6; 1Ch 6:33; 1 Chronicles 15:17, 1 Chronicles 15:19; 1Ch 16:42; 1 Chronicles 25:1, 1 Chronicles 25:4-6; 2Ch 5:12; 2 Chronicles 29:14; 2 Chronicles 35:15 - usually in connection with Ethan, as among those whom David placed over the music in the services of the sanctuary.
Nothing is known of the occasion on which the psalm was composed, except, as is probably indicated in the title, that it was in a time of sickness; and from the psalm itself we find that it was when the mind was enveloped in impenetrable darkness, with no comfort.
The psalm consists of two parts:
I. A description of the sick man’s suffering, Psalms 88:1-9. His soul was full of troubles, and he drew near to the grave, Psalms 88:3; he was, as it were, already dead, and like those laid in the deep grave, whom God had forgotten, Psalms 88:4-6; the wrath of God lay heavily on him, and all his waves went over him, Psalms 88:7; God had put away all his friends from him, and had left him to suffer alone, Psalms 88:8; his eye mourned by reason of his affliction, and he cried daily to God, Psalms 88:9.
II. His prayer for mercy and deliverance, Psalms 88:10-18. The reasons for the earnestness of the prayer, or the grounds of petition are,
(a) that the dead could not praise God, or see the wonders of his hand, Psalms 88:10-12;
(b) that the faithfulness and loving-kindness of God could not be shown in the grave, Psalms 88:11;
(c) that his troubles were deep and overwhelming, for God had cast off his soul, and had hid his face from him; he had been long afflicted; he was distracted with the terrors of God; the fierce wrath of God went over him; lover and friend and acquaintance had been put far from him, Psalms 88:13-18.
O Lord God of my salvation - On whom I depend for salvation; who alone canst save me. Luther renders this, “O God, my Saviour.”
I have cried day and night before thee - literally, “By day I cried; by night before thee;” that is, my prayer is constantly before thee. The meaning is, that there was no intermission to his prayers; he prayed all the while. This does not refer to the general habit of his life, but to the time of his sickness. He had prayed most earnestly and constantly that he might be delivered from sickness and from the dangers of death. He had, as yet, obtained no answer, and he now pours out, and records, a more earnest petition to God.
Let my prayer come before thee - As if there were something which hindered it, or which had obstructed the way to the throne of grace; as if God repelled it from him, and turned away his ear, and would not hear.
Incline thine ear unto my cry - See the notes at Psalms 5:1.
For my soul is full of troubles - I am full of trouble. The word rendered as “full” means properly to satiate as with food; that is, when as much had been taken as could be. So he says here, that this trouble was as great as he could bear; he could sustain no more. He had reached the utmost point of endurance; he had no power to bear anymore.
And my life draweth nigh unto the grave - Hebrew, to Sheol. Compare the notes at Isaiah 14:9; notes at Job 10:21-22. It may mean here either the grave, or the abode of the dead. He was about to die. Unless he found relief he must go down to the abodes of the dead. The Hebrew word rendered life is in the plural number, as in Genesis 2:7; Genesis 3:14, Genesis 3:17; Genesis 6:17; Genesis 7:15; et al. Why the plural was used as applicable to life cannot now be known with certainty. It may have been to accord with the fact that man has two kinds of life; the animal life - or life in common with the inferior creation; and intellectual, or higher life - the life of the soul. Compare the notes at 1 Thessalonians 5:23. The meaning here is, that he was about to die; or that his life or lives approached that state when the grave closes over us; the extinction of the mere animal life; and the separation of the soul - the immortal part - from the body.
I am counted with them that go down into the pit - I am so near to death that I may be reckoned already as among the dead. It is so manifest to others that I must die - that my disease is mortal - that they already speak of me as dead. The word “pit” here means the grave - the same as Sheol in the previous verse. It means properly
(1) a pit,
(2) a cistern, Genesis 37:20,
(3) a prison or dungeon, Isaiah 24:22,
(4) the grave, Psalms 28:1; Psalms 30:4; Isaiah 38:18.
I am as a man that hath no strength - Who has no power to resist disease, no vigor of constitution remaining; who must die.
Free among the dead - Luther renders this, “I lie forgotten among the dead.” DeWette renders it, “Pertaining to the dead - (den Todten angehorend) - stricken down, like the slain, I lie in the grave,” and explains it as meaning, “I am as good as dead.” The word rendered “free” - חפשׁי chophshı̂y - means properly, according to Gesenius (Lexicon),
(1) prostrate, weak, feeble;
(2) free, as opposed to a slave or a captive;
(3) free from public taxes or burdens.
The word is translated “free” in Exodus 21:2, Exodus 21:5,Exodus 21:26-27; Deuteronomy 15:12-13, Deuteronomy 15:18; 1 Samuel 17:25; Job 3:19; Job 39:5; Isaiah 58:6; Jeremiah 34:9-11, Jeremiah 34:14; and at liberty in Jeremiah 34:16. It occurs nowhere else except in this verse. In all these places (except in 1 Samuel 17:25, where it refers to a house or family made free, and Job 39:5, where it refers to the freedom of the wild ass), it denotes the freedom of one who had been a servant or slave. In Job 3:19, it has reference to the grave, and to the fact that the grave delivers a slave or servant from obligation to his master: “And the servant is free from his master.” This is the idea, I apprehend, here. It is not, as DeWette supposes, that he was weak and feeble, as the spirits of the departed are represented to be (compare the notes at Isaiah 14:9-11), but that the dead are made free from the burdens, the toils, the calamities, the servitudes of life; that they are like those who are emancipated from bondage (compare Job 7:1-2; Job 14:6); that death comes to discharge them, or to set them at liberty. So the psalmist applies the expression here to himself, as if he had already reached that point; as if it were so certain that he must die that he could speak of it as if it had occurred; as if he were actually in the condition of the dead. The idea is that he was to all appearance near the grave, and that there was no hope of his recovery. It is not here, however, the idea of release or emancipation which was mainly before his mind, or any idea of consolation as from that, but it is the idea of death - of hopeless disease that must end in death. This he expresses in the usual language; but it is evident that he did not admit any comfort into his mind from the idea of freedom in the grave.
Like the slain that lie in the grave - When slain in battle. They are free from the perils and the toils of life; they are emancipated from its cares and dangers. Death is freedom; and it is possible to derive solace from that idea of death, as Job did Job 3:19; but the psalmist here, as remarked above, did not so admit that idea into his mind as to be comforted by it.
Whom thou rememberest no more - As if they were forgotten by thee; as if they were no longer the object of thy care. They are suffered to lie and waste away, with no care on thy part to restore them to life, or to preserve them from offensiveness and decay. So the great, the beautiful, and the good lie neglected in the grave.
And they are cut off from thy hand - Margin, “by.” The Hebrew is literally “from thy hand,” but still the idea is that it was by the agency of God. They had been cut down, and were forgotten - as if God regarded them no more. So we shall all moulder in the grave - in that deep, dark, cold, silent, repulsive abode, as if even God had forgotten us.
Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit - That is, I am as if I were thus laid; the deep grave seems now to lie so certainly before me, that it may be spoken of as if it were already my abode. The words rendered “lowest pit” mean literally the pit under, or beneath. The reference is to the sepulchre, as in Psalms 88:4.
In darkness - The dark grave; the realms of the dead. See the notes at Job 10:21-22.
In the deeps - The caverns; the deep places of the earth or the sea. All these expressions are designed to convey the idea that he was near the grave; that there was no hope for him; that he must die. Perhaps also there is connected with this the idea of trouble, of anguish, of sorrow; of that mental darkness of which the grave was an image, and into which he was plunged by the prospect of death. The whole scene was a sad one, and he was overwhelmed with grief, and saw only the prospect of continued sorrow and gloom. Even a good man may be made afraid - may have his mind made sad and sorrowful - by the prospect of dying. See Isaiah 38:0. Death is naturally gloomy; and when the light of religion does not shine upon the soul, and its comforts do not fill the heart, it is but natural that the mind should be full of gloom.
Thy wrath lieth hard upon me - Presses me down; burdens me. The meaning is, that that which was the proper and usual expression of wrath or displeasure - to wit, bodily and mental suffering - pressed hard on him. and crushed him to the earth. These bodily sufferings he interpreted, in the sad and gloomy state of mind in which he was, as evidences of the divine displeasure against himself.
And thou hast afflicted me - Thou hast oppressed me, or broken me down.
With all thy waves - literally, “thy breakers;” that is, with expressions of wrath like the waves of the sea, which foam and break on the shore. Nothing could be a more striking image of wrath. Those “breakers” seem to be so furious and angry, they rush along with so much impetuosity, they are so mighty, they dash with such fury on the shore, that it seems as if nothing could stand before them. Yet they find a barrier such as we should little expect. The low and humble beach made of shifting sand, where there seems to be no stability, is an effectual barrier against all their rage; as the humble piety of the child of God, apparently without strength to resist calamity, bears all the beatings of affliction, and maintains its place as the heavy waves of sorrow roll upon it. On the meaning of the word used here, and on the idea expressed, see the notes at Psalms 42:7.
Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me - The same ground of complaint, or expression of the depth of affliction, occurs elsewhere, Psalms 31:11; Psalms 38:11; Psalms 69:8. See also Job 19:13-17.
Thou hast made me an abomination unto them - As something which they would avoid, or from which they would revolt and turn away - as we turn away from the body of a dead man, or from an offensive object. The word means properly an object to be detested or abominated, as things unclean, Genesis 43:32; or as idolatry, 1 Kings 14:24; 2Ki 16:3; 2 Kings 23:13.
I am shut up - As in prison; to wit, by disease, as when one is confined to his house.
And I cannot come forth - I cannot leave my couch, my room, my house. Compare Job 12:14.
Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction - I weep; my eye pours out tears. Literally, My eye pines away, or decays. Compare Job 16:20, note; Isaiah 38:3, note; Psalms 6:6, note.
Lord, I have called daily upon thee - That is, I have prayed earnestly and long, but I have received no answer.
I have stretched out my hands unto thee - I have spread out my hands in the attitude of prayer. The idea is that of earnest supplication.
Wilt thou show wonders to the dead? - The wonders - or the things suited to excite admiration - which the living behold. Shall the dead see those things which here tend to excite reverence for thee, and which lead people to worship thee? The idea is that the dead will be cut off from all the privileges which attend the living on earth; or, that those in the grave cannot contemplate the character and the greatness of God. He urges this as a reason why he should be rescued. The sentiment here is substantially the same as in Psalms 6:5. See the notes at that passage. Compare Isaiah 38:18.
Shall the dead arise and praise thee? - The original word, here rendered “the dead,” is Rephaim - רפאים rephâ'iym. On its meaning, see the notes at Isaiah 14:9. It means, properly, relaxed, languid, feeble, weak; and is then applied to the dead - the shades - the Manes - dwelling in the under-world in Sheol, or Hades, and supposed to be as shades or shadows, weak and feeble. The question here is not whether they would rise to live again, or appear in this world, but whether in Sheol they would rise up from their resting places, and praise God as men in vigor and in health can on the earth. The question has no reference to the future resurrection. It relates to the supposed dark, dismal, gloomy, inactive state of the dead.
Shall thy loving-kindness be declared in the grave? - Thy goodness; thy mercy. Shall anyone make it known there? shall it there be celebrated?
Or thy faithfulness in destruction? - In the place where destruction seems to reign; where human hopes perish; where the body moulders back to dust. Shall anyone there dwell on the fidelity - the truthfulness - of God, in such a way as to honor him? It is implied here that, according to the views then entertained of the state of the dead, those things would not occur. According to what is now made known to us of the unseen world it is true that the mercy of God will not be made known to the dead; that the Gospel will not be preached to them; that no messenger from God will convey to them the offers of salvation. Compare Luke 16:28-31.
Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? - In the dark world; in “the land of darkness and the shadow of death; a land of darkness, as darkness itself, and where the light is as darkness.” Job 10:21-22. “And thy righteousness.” The justice of thy character; or, the ways in which thou dost maintain and manifest thy righteous character.
In the land of forgetfulness - Of oblivion; where the memory has decayed, and where the remembrance of former things is blotted out. This is a part of the general description, illustrating the ideas then entertained of the state of the dead; that they would be weak and feeble; that they could see nothing; that even the memory would fail, and the recollection of former things pass from the mind. All these are images of the grave as it appears to man when he has not the clear and full light of revelation; and the grave is all this - a dark and cheerless abode - all abode of fearfulness and gloom - when the light of the great truths of the Gospel is not suffered to fall upon it. That the psalmist dreaded this is clear, for he had not yet the full light of revealed truth in regard to the grave, and it seemed to him to be a gloomy abode. That people without the Gospel ought to dread it, is clear, for when the grave is not illuminated with Christian truth and hope, it is a place from which man by nature shrinks back, and it is not wonderful that a wicked man dreads to die.
But unto thee have I cried, O Lord - I have earnestly prayed; I have sought thy gracious interposition.
And in the morning - That is, each morning; every day. My first business in the morning shall be prayer.
Shall my prayer prevent thee - Anticipate thee; go before thee: that is, it shall be early; so to speak even before thou dost awake to the employments of the day. The language is that which would be applicable to a case where one made an appeal to another for aid before he had arisen from his bed, or who came to him even while he was asleep - and who thus, with an earnest petition, anticipated his rising. Compare the notes at Job 3:12; compare Psalms 21:3; Psalms 59:10; Psalms 79:8; Psalms 119:148; Matthew 17:25; 1 Thessalonians 4:15.
Lord, why castest thou off my soul? - Why dost thou forsake or abandon me? Why is it that thou dost not interpose, since thou hast all power, and since thou art a God of mercy? Why dost thou not deliver me from my troubles? How often are good people constrained to ask this question! How often does this language express exactly what is passing in their minds! How difficult, too, it is to answer the question, and to see why that God who has all power, and who is infinitely benevolent, does not interpose to deliver his people in affliction! The answer to this question cannot be fully given in this world; there will be an answer furnished doubtless in the future life.
Why hidest thou thy face from me? - Why dost thou not lift up the light of thy countenance upon me, and show me thy favor? God seemed to turn away from him. He seemed unwilling even to look upon the sufferer. He permitted him to bear his sorrows, unpitied and alone.
I am afflicted and ready to die - I am so afflicted - so crushed with sorrow and trouble - that my strength is nearly gone, and I can endure it but a little longer.
From my youth up - That is, for a long time; so long, that the remembrance of it seems to go back to my very childhood. My whole life has been a life of trouble and sorrow, and I have not strength to bear it longer. It may have been literally true that the author of the psalm had been a man always afflicted; or, this may be the language of strong emotion, meaning that his sufferings had been of so long continuance that they seemed to him to have begun in his very boyhood.
While I suffer thy terrors - I bear those things which produce terror; or, which fill my mind with alarm; to wit, the fear of death, and the dread of the future world.
I am distracted - I cannot compose and control my mind; I cannot pursue any settled course of thought; I cannot confine my attention to anyone subject; I cannot reason calmly on the subject of affliction, on the divine government, on the ways of God. I am distracted with contending feelings, with my pain, and my doubts, and my fears - and I cannot think clearly of anything. Such is often the case in sickness; and consequently what we need, to prepare us for sickness, is a strong faith, built on a solid foundation while we are in health; such an intelligent and firm faith that when the hour of sickness shall come we shall have nothing else to do but to believe, and to take the comfort of believing. The bed of sickness is not the proper place to examine the evidences of religion; it is not the place to make preparation for death; not the proper place to become religious. Religion demands the best vigor of the intellect and the calmest state of the heart; and this great subject should be settled in our minds before we are sick - before we are laid on the bed of death.
Thy fierce wrath goeth over me - Like waters. See Psalms 88:7.
Thy terrors have cut me off - That is, I am as one already dead; I am so near to death that I may be spoken of as dead.
They came round about me daily like water - Margin, “as in” Hebrew, all the day. That is, his troubles seemed to be like the waves of the sea cohnstantly breaking on the shore. See Psalms 42:7.
They compassed me about together - My troubles did not come singly, so that I could meet them one at a time, but they seemed to have banded themselves together; they all came upon me at once.
Lover and friend hast thou put far from me - That is, Thou hast so afflicted me that they have forsaken me. Those who professed to love me, and whom I loved - those whom I regarded as my friends, and who seemed to be my friends - are now wholly turned away from me, and I am left to suffer alone. See the notes at Psalms 88:8.
And mine acquaintance into darkness - The Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate render this, “my acquaintance from my misery.” Luther, “Thou hast caused my friends and neighbors, and my kindred, to separate themselves far from me, on account of such misery.” The literal rendering would be, my acquaintances are darkness. This may mean either that they had so turned away that he could not see them, as if they were in the dark; or, that his familiars now - his companions - were dark and dismal objects - gloomy thoughts - sad forebodings. Perhaps the whole might be translated, “Far away from me hast thou put lover and friend - my acquaintances! All is darkness!” That is, When I think of any of them, all is darkness, sadness. My friends are not to be seen. They have vanished. I see no friends; I see only darkness and gloom. All have gone, leaving me alone in this condition of unpitied sorrow! This completes the picture of the suffering man; a man to whom all was dark, and who could find no consolation anywhere - in God; in his friends; in the grave; in the prospect of the future. There are such cases; and it was well that there was one such description in the sacred Scriptures of a good man thus suffering - to show us that when we thus feel, it should not be regarded as proof that we have no piety. Beneath all this, there may be true love to God; beyond all this, there may be a bright world to which the sufferer will come, and where he will forever dwell.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 88". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19