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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 88

Psalms 88

The Psalmist, in Psalms 88:1-2, prays suppliantly for help; grounds this prayer, Psalms 88:3-9, upon the fact that he is sunk in the deepest misery, and standing on the verge of complete destruction, at the gates of death; and intimates in Psalms 88:10-12 that God cannot possibly give over his own people to this. After a short effort at renewed prayer, there follows a representation of the sufferings of the Psalmist, and with this the whole terminates, Psalms 88:13-18.

The understanding of this Psalm is entirely dependant upon the correct view of its relation to Psalms 89. We shall therefore direct attention to this subject in the first instance. Several expositors have noticed that the two Psalms stand intimately connected together; [Note: Amyraldus on Psalms 89 : It is common to this Psalm with the last, that although each names its author in the title, these authors are both unknown, and besides in both Psalms there is contained a most vehement lamentation, accompanied with incredible ardour of soul.] no expositor, however, has sufficiently followed out the traces which have been discovered. We maintain that the two Psalms together, like Psalms 9 and Psalms 10, Psalms 42 and Psalms 43, and many other pairs of Psalms, form one whole consisting of two parts. 1. The Title of Psalms 88 furnishes more than one reason in favour of this. Its disproportionate length, so very striking, becomes explained at once as soon as it is viewed as belonging to one great whole. In the next place it is very striking that the last words of the title, “an instruction of Heman the Esrahite,” correspond exactly to the title of Psalms 89, “an instruction of Ethan the Esrahite.” By this we are unquestionably led to the idea that the above are the titles of the two parts respectively, and that the preceding portion of the title of Psalms 88 is the title of the whole. Finally, the שיר placed, as it were, at the top of the title, is perfectly decisive. We have, on a former occasion, shown that this word does not denote a poem generally, but a song, a song of praise, comp. at Psalms 42:8, Psalms 83 title. Now if we refer the title entirely to Psalms 88, it is impossible to tell what to make of it. The Psalmist is so completely unmanned by a sense of his misery, that he can scarcely adopt the language of prayer, and certainly not that of praise. On the other hand, if we refer the title to the whole of both Psalms, the term is quite appropriate. Psalms 89 begins, with manifest reference to the title, with the words, “I will sing the grace of God,” and bears from Psalms 89:1-38 throughout the character if a song of praise. [Note: Ven.: The subject matter of the Psalm, if you regard the largest portion of it, is the celebration of the grace and truth of God, especially in reference to the promise of the perpetuity of the kingdom of David.] This character belongs to the whole, as soon as it is recognised as a whole. The introductory and concluding portions, dark in themselves, are illuminated by of the light if a centre-sun. And the design of the whole then becomes manifest, namely, to give instruction how, in circumstances of great distress, to gain the victory over despair by praising God. 2. If we separate Psalms 88 from Psalms 89, it stands alone in the whole book of Psalms. All expositors remark with one voice, that such a comfortless complaint no where else occur throughout its entire compass. Stier, for example, says: “the most mournful of all the plaintive Psalms, yea so wholly plaintive, without any ground of hope, that nothing like it is found in the whole Scriptures.” The fact is all the more striking, that the Psalm begins with the words, “O Lord, thou the God of my salvation,” after which one certainly might expect anything else rather than a mere description of trouble, in which the darkness is thickest at the close, contrary to the usual practice, for in all other cases the sun breaks through the clouds at the end, if it had not done so before:—the peculiar feature of this Psalm is that it ends entirely in night. The importance of these facts is obvious from the circumstance that Muntinghe has been led by them to adopt the idea that the Psalm is merely a fragment of a larger one—an idea utterly destitute of probability; for we have no such thing as fragments either in the book of Psalms or indeed within the whole compass of the literature of the Old Testament. As soon as the connection between Psalms 88 and Psalms 89 is acknowledged, the difficulty disappears. The Psalmist might, in this case, give free scope in the first part to his pain and lamentation, in obedience to an irresistible impulse of human nature, knowing that in the second part the rising sun of consolation would dispel all this darkness. 3. The concluding portion of Psalms 89, Psalms 89:38-51, strikingly agrees with Psalms 88. The situation is the same, that, viz., of one who had speedy destruction before his eyes, who stood at the gates of death. The complaint is as deep and painful here as it is there. Psalms 89:47-48, ought especially to be compared with Psalms 88:10 to Psalms 12:4. If we consider both Psalms as one, we obtain, by counting the rich title of Psalms 88, the significant number seventy.

It may be urged against the unity of both Psalms, that in Psalms 88 it is a private individual who speaks, but in Psalms 89 it is the people, or, according to the idea of others, an oppressed king of the family of David; that in Psalms 89 the sufferings distinctly arise from enemies, which in Psalms 88, even although the assertion of some, “that the Psalmist is ill of a mortal disease,” and the assertion of others, “that he is languishing in prison,” be rejected, as arbitrary and unfounded, the description of the sufferings is of such a kind that it would apply in general to any great distress. But these remarks, in so far as they are founded in truth, agree perfectly well with the view given above as to the unity of the two Psalms—a unity which is not indivisible, but is made up of two parts;—and are consistent with the contents of the titles. The author has constructed the first part of the double whole in such a way, that it may not only serve a sorely oppressed people, but also every individual saint may find in it an adequate expression of his own feelings—an arrangement which is exceedingly natural, inasmuch as in seasons of public distress the individual is too often little else than an image of the whole, and which has many analogies on its side, especially in the prophecies and lamentations of Jeremiah, in reading which one feels often inclined to ask whether the prophet means himself or the people. The Psalmist therefore has carefully avoided everything which referred definitely and exclusively to the people, and in like manner everything which might lead to any particular kind of trouble. There does not occur, however, any thing (and only this would be decisive against the units) which in any measure contradicts the reference to the whole community;—in Psalms 88:8, to which reference has been made, the acquaintances are neighbouring nations. After this, as soon as the people only speaks in Psalms 89, every objection is removed. And that it is the people that speaks there, and not the anointed, is clear as day. The promise is there in Psalms 89:20 ss. directed, not as in the fundamental passage 2 Samuel 7 to David, but to the people. The complaint as to difference between that promise and present experience, is raised, not on behalf of David, but on behalf of the people. The difficulty is this, that the divine favour which, according to the Word of God, the people should have enjoyed through the family of David, had been withdrawn. David, and his Son, the anointed, are throughout spoken of in the third person; the people unquestionably comes forward as different in Psalms 89:17-18, Psalms 89:50.

If we adopt the unity of the two Psalms, it becomes no very difficult latter to assign the date of the composition of the whole. It cannot have been composed earlier than the times immediately preceding the Babylonish captivity: for the people stand here at the very brink of a precipice. It is even better to refer to the time of Zedekiah, than, with Venema, to the time immediately after the death of Josiah. The Psalm must have been composed before the captivity: for there is no trace of the destruction of the city and temple, which could scarcely have been omitted if it had taken place; the kingdom of David is in a state of depression, and verging towards extreme old age, but still it exists (comp. especially Psalms 89:45 and Psalms 89:51), and the prayer of the Psalmist is, that the Lord would deliver it from impending destruction; according to Psalms 89:43, the anointed of the Lord still carried on wars, although unfortunate ones. Assumptions such as those; which refer the composition of the Psalm to the times of the Maccabees, render it necessary to have recourse to the desperate expedient of understanding the expressions, “David,” “his son,” “the anointed of the Lord,” as meaning, not the royal family of David, but the royal nation—an assertion which does not require one word to be thrown away upon it.

The Title runs: A Song of Praise, a Psalm by the Sons of Korah. To the Chief Musician, upon the distress of oppression.

An Instruction by Heman, the Esrahite.

The expression, “to the Chief Musician,” amounts to a notice that we have before us a proper church-song. The על מחלת לענות has been already explained at Psalms 14, vol. i. p. 206. That “of the sickness” is to be interpreted of sickness in a figurative sense as equivalent to severe suffering—a sense in which the word is frequently used, as, for example, Isaiah 1:5; Psalms 53 Title—is evident from the term which is appended as an explanation, לענות , denoting the afflicting cause: comp. Psalms 88:8, Psalms 88:15, Psalms 90:15, Psalms 102:23, Psalms 119:75, or that in which the distress consists of it. If we connect these words with the שיר of the beginning we have a description of the design of the Psalm: to comfort, in severe suffering, by the praise of God. Let us now direct our attention to the special title of Psalms 88. It bears the name of Instruction or a didactic Psalm (at Psalms 32 Title), and the Psalm gives direction not to allow our sorrows to prey upon ourselves, but to pour them out before God—the A B C of all sufferers. If they follow this direction, they may be again spoken with. He who has learned to complain to God, will soon learn to hope in God. As the authors of the whole Psalm had already been said to be the Sons of Korah (comp. at Psalms 42), it is obvious that Heman the Esrahite, who is named here, and Etham the Esrahite, who is named in Psalms 89 should not be considered as the proper authors of the parts marked by their name, but as men into whose mouths the contents of these parts were put. The ל is here, as in other passages, the ל auctoris; but it denotes the imaginary, and not the real author—a sense in which it may, naturally be understood in those cases in which the real author had either been named or otherwise indicated, as in Psalms 86. The reasons which induced the Sons of Korah to introduce these names of Heman and Etham need not remain doubtful. There is no doubt that these two men were the famous musicians of the time of David, who are so often named next after Asaph. Etham is the same as Jeduthun, who is in several passages named in an exactly similar relation as third next to Asaph and Heman. The attempt which Berthold makes in his Intro. iii. p. 1975 ss. to prove them different persons, strikes in the opposite direction. Etham is probably the proper noun, and Jeduthun (the praise-man, comp. להודות in 1 Chronicles 16:41, 1 Chronicles 25:3, Ges. on the word), an ideal name, devised by David,—and hence we may explain the variety in the form: comp. Psalms 39 Title. These men were not at all ordinary musicians: they were also, what they must have been to enable them to be founders of the sacred music, divinely inspired sages. In 1 Kings 4:31, it is said of Solomon: “And he was wiser than all men, than Etham the Esrahite, and Heman, and Kalkol, and Dardah,” and in 1 Chronicles 25:5, Heman is called “the king’s seer in the words of God.” Both, however, were not composers of Psalms. The Sons of Korah were at this time desirous, on the one hand, of honouring their own poem, and of strengthening its impression by prefixing to it the names of these celebrated men next after their own, and, on the other hand, of perpetuating the memory of these men, who appeared to such disadvantage, compared with their “brother” ( 1 Chronicles 6:24) Asaph, who is so often named in the titles of the Psalms;—they wished “to raise up seed” to the childless and sages. In doing so, they had the example of David before their eyes, who, in Psalms 39 Title, had named Jeduthun for the purpose of honouring him, and handing his name down to posterity, not indeed as the author, but as the chief musician (comp. at the passage), and also the example of their ancestors, who had on several occasions sung from the soul of David: comp. for example, Psalms 43, Psalms 84, Psalms 86.

Heman is here, and Ethan in Psalms 89, called the Esrahite. We learn the import of the term in 1 Chronicles 2:5, “and the sons of Serah: Simri, and Ethan, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darah” (we have the same names in 1 Kings 5:11, with the unimportant difference of Dardah instead of Darah). The א is hence an Al. prothet., and Ethan and Heman were named Esrahites, because they belonged to the family of Serah, the son of Judah, which they adorned by their famous names. It is certain that they were not the descendants of Serah, the son of Judah. The whole music connected with the worship of God in David’s time, and in later periods, was in the hands of Levites; and this every child knew, so that nobody could think of tracing the descent of the famous chief musicians of David to the tribe of Judah. Heman, according to the express and well-defined intimations given in 1 Chronicles 6:18 ss., 1 Chronicles 15:27, was a Levite of the family of the Kohathites, the grandchild of Samuel, whose spirit passed over to the “seer in the words of God,” through his son Joel; Ethan, according to 1 Chronicles 6:29-32 (comp. 1 Chronicles 15:17, 1 Chronicles 15:19) was a Levite of the family of the Merarites, a son of Kisis, 1 Chronicles 6:29, or, according to another form of the name of Kusaja, 1 Chronicles 15:17, [Note: In 1 Kings 5:11, Ethan and Heman are called sons of Machol. There is, however, no contradiction between this and the notice given in Chron. Machol is not a proper name; it never occurs as such; we must translate: sons of the dance; Hiller: Skilful in leading down the sacred dance: comp. “daughters of music,” Ecclesiastes 12:4.] as Asaph, according to 1 Chronicles 6:24-28, was a Levite of the family of the Gershonites. Hence Heman and Ethan could have been reckoned as belonging to the family of Serah, only in the sense that they dwelt in this family, as “strangers and sojourners” (comp. Judges 17:7), and were incorporated with it, as citizens. And there are not wanting examples of Levites being spoken of as belonging to the family of which, in their capacity as citizens, they formed part. Thus Samuel the Levite, 1 Samuel 1:1, is called an Ephraimite; and, in Judges 17:7, there follows immediately after the words “of the family of Judah,” the remark, “who was a Levite, and he sojourned there;” comp. Beitr. P. iii. p. 60. Heman and Ethan were hence adopted sons of Serah, who brought their father, however, more honour than did all his real children. From the above induction it is clear, that Movers on Chron. p. 237, was too precipitate in finding the accounts of Heman and Ethan to be contradictory accounts, which are quite consistent with each other, when rightly understood, and that Keil on Chron. p, 164, and Gesen. in his Thes. under Heman, were, in like, too precipitate in denying the identity of the persons in the different passages.

The Psalmist has satisfied himself with including the whole within the remarkable number 70, and giving to each separate part an artificial arrangement, in which the numbers seven and ten play the chief parts. Thus the main division in Psalms 88 consists of seven verses, which are divided into a four and a three, ver Psalms 88:3-9, and Psalms 88:10-12.

Verses 1-2

Ver. 1. Lord God, my saviour, I cry in the day time, in the night before thee. Ver. 2. Let my prayer come before thee, incline thine ear to my cry,

On the “my salvation-God,” Calvin: “In thus addressing God he lays bridle and bit on the excess of his pain, he shuts the door of despair, and strengthens himself to carry the cross.” The extremely concise character of the second half of the verse is explained by the circumstance, that the words are numbered for the purpose of intimating beforehand the 7, as the signature of the whole Psalm. The two clauses are to be supplemented from each other; in the first, before thee; and in the second, I cry. The fundamental passage is Psalms 22:2: “My God, I cry in the day time and thou answerest not, and in the night season and I am not silenced.” According to this passage the יום here must stand for יומם , or ביום . It certainly does not occur thus in any other passage, but there are many analogies in its favour, and the short form might the more readily be used here as בלילה , follows. Forced translations, such as “at the time when I am during the night before thee,” are foundered by the fact that יום , in parallel in לילה can only mean day, [Note: On “before thee” Calvin: “Nor is the particle, before thee, superfluous; all men alike complain in their grief; but this is far from pouring out their groans in the presence of God: nay, they must seek some hiding-place where they may murmur against God, and find fault with his severity; others utter openly their clamorous words. Hence we see what a rare virtue it is to place God before us, and to direct to him our prayers.”] and that the Psalmist, according to Psalms 88:13, prays in the morning.

Verses 3-9

The Palmist grounds, in Psalms 88:3-9, his petition that he may be finally heard in the prayer which he unceasingly addresses to God, without having hitherto obtained any answer, upon the greatness of his distress. Ver. 3. For my soul is filled with suffering and my life is near to sheol. Ver. 4. I am reckoned with them that go down to the grave, I am as a man to whom there is no strength. Ver. 5. Among the dead free, like the slain, who lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more, and they are cut off from thy hand. Ver. 6. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in dark places, in deeps. Ver. 7. Thy wrath lieth upon me, and thou host afflicted me with all thy waves. Selah. Ver. 8. Thou hast removed my acquaintances from me, I am shut up and do not go out. Ver. 9. Mine eye languisheth because of misery, I cry to thee, O Lord, every day, I stretch out to thee my hands.

Instead of “my life stretches to sheol,” in Psalms 88:3, Psalms 107:18, has “to the gates of death.”

The first clause of Psalms 88:4 is from Psalms 28:1, with the change of נמשלתי into נחשבתי . With them, i.e., as them, or like them. The men without strength (not is strength, for to whom there is no strength), are, according to the connection, the dead. It is only on this interpretation that we can explain the as. The Psalmist was already without strength; but he is rather exactly like a dead than like a living man on the brink of the grave.

In “free among the dead,” in Psalms 88:5, the Psalmist overlooks the small difference which still exists between him and the dead, and reckons himself among the latter, as he does also in Psalms 88:6; Psalms 88:4, and the remaining portion of Psalms 88:5, shew that the sense is, “already as good as dead, and, therefore, free from thee.” Freedom, in connection with earthly relations, is, generally speaking, a great good. Yet, with good human masters, there have been cases in which the slave did not choose to avail himself of the freedom to which the divine law entitled him; comp. Deuteronomy 15:16, “I will not go out from thee, because I love thine house, and I am happy with thee.” But, with the heavenly master, freedom is pre-eminently an evil; to be the servant of God is the highest happiness; comp. Psalms 86:16. For his service is joy, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light, his commandments are more precious than gold, yea, than much fine gold, are sweeter than honey and the honey comb (comp. the praise of the divine commandments in Psalms 19); and, what is of special consequence here, God gives to his servants a great reward, Psalms 19:12; he not only demands service from them, he also cares for them with tender fatherly love, feeds them at his table, and holds his protecting hand over them; comp. Psalms 23. Over against these rich blessings, which the service of God brings with it, there is the mere naked freedom remaining for those who have been removed from the service of God—a poor thing. Allusion is made, as is obvious, to Job 3:19, “And the servant is (there in the world of spirits) free from his master;” it may be a fortunate thing to become free from an earthly master, but to be free from the heavenly master is assuredly misery. Great difficulty has been experienced in interpreting the words before us. Hence have proceeded such translations as: among the dead is my couch, or among the dead I am sick, weak, or laid prostrate. The etymology is decidedly against this: the sense of freedom is the fundamental and the only sense of the root חפש in Hebrew (Hävernick on Ezekiel 27:20). In Ezek., in the above mentioned place בגדי חפש is “glorious coverings;” comp. 1 Samuel 17:25, where חפשי , which generally denotes not the “set free,” but the “free man,” signifies a “free lord;” magnificence cannot be wanting. In 2 Kings 15:5, 2 Chronicles 26:21, חפשית בית or חפשות is a house of freedom, a house where the lepers dwelt, those who were likened to the dead, struck off from the roll of the servants of God. This is manifest from the remark which follows in Chron.: “for he, Uzziah, was cut off from the house of the Lord,” had lost his place there where all the servants of the Lord dwell (comp. at Psalms 84 and the parallel passages), in consequence of which Uzziah lost his command over his fellow-servants, which was handed over to his son Jotham. This strikingly harmonious parallel passage furnishes the second proof in favour of the above translation. The third lies in the expression, “those whom thou rememberest no more, and who are cut off from thy hand,” which agrees remarkably well with the first clause as understood by us, and serves to explain it exactly as in the above quoted passage of Chron., “to dwell in the house of freedom,” is explained by “to be cut off from the house of the Lord.” The comparison with the dead is followed by that with the slain, because the Psalmist was threatened with violent deprivation of life. “To be cut off from the hand of God,” his helping and protecting hand, is to be made away with in a violent manner, in consequence of violent destruction to be no longer the object of God’s helping grace; compare at the parallel passage, Psalms 31:22, “I am cut off from thine eyes,” cut off, and consequently withdrawn from thy gracious look. We have already, at Psalms 7:5, adverted to the idea which lies at the foundation of the whole verse that the dead are no longer the objects of the loving care of God. In Old Testament times it had a mournful truth. The darkness of the intermediate state previous to the appearing of Christ, had not yet been illuminated by the morning of divine grace—the paradise of which the Lord spoke to the thief was first opened up at his death—the intermediate state under the Old Testament was indeed not distinctly known as such; the clear view of the resurrection was first opened up by him who is the resurrection and the life. It was under the New Testament that it was first said of the grave: “It is to me a chamber where I lie on roses, because by thy death I conquer death and the grave.” The servants of God at that time could not but shudder when they stood immediately over the abyss of death and looked into the utter darkness, “the darkness of death without order.”— The grave of deep places, in Psalms 88:6, is sheol, deep under the earth, compare on בור of sheol at Psalms 28:1, the “lower places of the earth,” in parallel with “sheol,” in Psalms 63:9, Ezekiel 26:20, and “the lowest hell” in Psalms 86:13. The “dark places” are as usually (compare at Psalms 74:20) the dark places of sheol. The Psalmist, a living corpse, is as good as brought to that place. On מצלות , in other passages מצוּ לות water-deeps, compare at Psalms 69:2.

The “waves” in Psalms 88:7 are the tumultuous sea-waves of trouble and pain, compare at the fundamental passage, Psalms 42:7. The משבריך is the acc. according to thy waves—with them. The Selah is appended to ענית , in order to give prominence to that word which is intended to explain the title לענות . The want of the suffix, otherwise strange, may also be accounted for by a reference to this explanation.

The complaint of the estrangement of acquaintances and friends in consequence of suffering, Psalms 88:8, meets us frequently in the Psalms, compare at Psalms 27:10; Psalms 38:11; Psalms 69:8, ( Job 19:13). What is true of personal is also true of national relations; like causes produce like effects. The expression, “thou hast made me an abomination to them” (the plural has an intensive force—as it were a whole assemblage of abomination) alludes to Genesis 43:32, Genesis 46:34, (compare Exodus 8:22), according to which Israel was an abomination to the Egyptians, and therefore contains a slight intimation of a national reference. The last words, “I am shut up and do not go out,” must necessarily be considered as referring to the acquaintances, and cannot be viewed in connection with a reference to Lamentations 3:7, Lamentations 3:9, “shut up by misfortune, I can find no way of escape,” but “shut up by public reproach, which keeps me in the house like a prisoner, I do not go out, I stir not from the door,” with reference to Psalms 31:11, “they who see me in the street flee from me,” and especially to Job 31:34, where Job is expressing his willingness to suffer in case of his guilt what he must now suffer unwillingly, says, “I should be afraid before a great multitude, and the contempt of families should terrify me, and I will be silent and not go out of doors.”

On דאב in Psalms 88:9, compare Deut. 27:65. Instead of “the eye,” Luther without any reason has the “person,” compare at Psalms 6:7; Psalms 69:3. On “I stretch out my hands,” Arnd: I sigh with my heart, pray with my mouth, and supplicate with my hand, like a child which stretches out both its hands to its mother.”

Verses 10-12

Ver. 10-12. The Psalmist, who is now within one single step of death, represents to God, that if he delay any longer to help him, he will deprive himself of the possibility of manifesting his glory to which his very being prompts him, and of the praise of his own people, which is very pleasant to him, compare at Psalms 6:5. For it is to the living only and not to the dead that he can shew wonders; and it is the living only that can praise him:—“Make haste therefore and help me, ere I go to the land of darkness when shall be lost to thee.

Ver. 10. Wilt thou then do wonders to the dead, or will shadows stand up and praise thee. Selah. Ver. 11. Will thy mercy be recounted in the grave, thy faithfulnes in destruction. Ver. 12. Will thy wonders be known in darkness, and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness.”

That God cannot shew wonders to the dead ( Psalms 88:10) is a strong reason why he should, while his people are still in life, manifest on their behalf his wondrous power. The existence of the Christian church furnishes a mighty proof that he has done this; the maintenance of Israel in a time when everything seemed to proclaim entire destruction, proceeds on the supposition that he does this. The פלא stands collectively, compare at Psalms 77:11. The mention of wonders points to the national reference of the Psalm. The Rephaim were a Canaanitish giant-race, whose name was applied to the shades of the lower world. Contact with these is something terrible for the living; the spirits of the deceased are represented to the imagination as possessed of a gigantic form, compare 1 Samuel 28:13, where the witch of Endor, on the appearance of Samuel, says, “I behold gods ascending out of the earth.” Beitr. p. 261. Against other attempted derivations it may be urged that they do not explain the fact, that this term applied to the dead is only used in poetry; that it is in the highest degree improbable that a word written exactly similar should have two derivations and significations; and רפא signifies to heal and nothing else, and that it is altogether foreign to the Hebrew to consider Rephaim a term applied to the shades as bearing an agreeable sense. The קום , is not to be considered as signifying to raise again from the dead, (that would be contradictory to the true doctrines, which is never done in the Old Testament) but to rise up, compare Psalms 78:6. The language refers to what takes place in death, not after death. The יודוך also could scarcely want the copulative. The Selah gives God as it were time to weigh the weighty reason, and then the development follows.

In the grave and in destruction, Psalms 88:11,—in the place of destruction, sheol, the mercy and the faithfulness of God could not be praised so much as by his own people on earth, when he manifests these graces in delivering them from impending death (compare at Psalms 30:9), partly because of the want of opportunity for its manifestation, and partly because of the want of ability to praise him.

The “land of forgetfulness” in Psalms 88:12, is not the land where one is forgotten ( Psalms 30:12), but the land where one forgets, Luther: “where one remembers nothing,” compare Ecclesiastes 9:5, Ecclesiastes 9:6-10, “there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave.” God does no wonderful works to the dead, because they would not be known by them. The great wonder of the resurrection is not excluded, because the language used applies only to those wonders which are performed to such as remain in a state of death. And that the Psalmist does not acknowledge this, is not to be explained by “the difference between seasons of faith and despondency in the human soul which is found existing even in the present day.” For it is a didactic poem that we have here before us. Such a poem may descend very low to suffering; but it must always remain above it.

Verses 13-18

Ver. 13. The Psalmist, in Psalms 88:13, prepares for prayer, makes even an effort at it in Psalms 88:14, and soon sinks back, Psalms 88:15-18, into lamentation, which reaches its summit in the last words.

Ver. 13. But I cry to thee, O Lord, and in the morning my prayer shall anticipate thee. Ver. 14. Why, O Lord, dost thou cast of my soul, hidest thy face from me. Ver. 15. I am miserable and ready to expire from my youth. I bear thy terrors. I will despair. Ver. 16. Thy wrath goes over me, thy terrors annihilate me. Ver. 17. They surround me like water the whole day, they are round me altogether. Ver. 18. Thou hast removed from me friend and neighbour, mine acquaintances—the place of darkness.—”In the morning,” in Psalms 88:13, denotes the great earnestness in prayer: comp. at Psalms 5:3, Psalms 57:8. The קדם is to surprise, comp. at Psalms 21:3.

On Psalms 88:18, Calvin: “Although these lamentations at first sight exhibit expressions of pain without any consolation, they nevertheless contain tacit prayers. For he does not proudly contend with God, but mournfully desires some remedy to his calamities.” On “why dost thou cast off,” (comp. Psalms 42:2), Arnd: “Thus it is when the cross lasts long, conflicts arise about casting off. But there is no casting off; there is only a waiting for the hour of help, the hour of the Lord.”

In Psalms 88:15 th, there is no reason for departing from the usual sense of נער youth. (Luther falsely: that I am thus cast off). When a great affliction befalls us, we cannot regard it as standing alone, we look upon it as the last step of a ladder, which we began to ascend as soon as we came into the world, so when we meet with any great deliverance, we think upon all the mercies which we have experienced from our youth. In the funeral hymn: “And now I have ended life’s hard course,” we read: “In every ear from tender youth, I have learned how hard’s the road to heaven.” Israel, who must first occur to our thoughts, says, in. Psalms 129:1, in language which corresponds exactly to the clause before us,” “they have oft oppressed me from my youth up.” The oppression in Egypt befell Israel in his youth (comp. Hosea 11:1) in consequence of which he was brought to the very verge of destruction, so that he might with truth say, “I am miserable and ready to expire from my youth,” just as the antitype, the Lord who was born in a stable (= Egypt), was soon sought after by Herod (= Pharaoh) that he might be put to death, and as exposed to the danger of his life on many occasions on the part of his enemies. The terrors of God are the terrors which he sends. The אפונה is from פנן , to despair, to expire. The form has its usual sense. The Psalmist is so far gone that he resolves to give himself over to despair, to give up that opposition to it which he cannot any longer maintain.

In Psalms 88:16, the form צִ מּ ְ תֻ תוּ נִ י , which nowhere else occurs, is formed out of the Piel, which occurs elsewhere, by the Psalmist himself, for the purpose of alluding to the צמיתות of Leviticus 25:23, “the land shall not be sold for annihilation (so that the right of the possessor shall not be wholly annihilated) for the land is mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” God appears—this is the force of the allusion—to be failing, contrary to his own law, inasmuch as he is completely alienating his property, so that the possibility of redemption is, excluded. [Note: Ewald takes another view: he, however, has nothing except a false rendering of Hosea 4:18 to refer to in support of his view of the import of the form. That passage should be translated: they love, “give ye” as a description of their insatiable avarice, which always puts “give” into their mouth.]

In Psalms 88:18, the usual translation is: my acquaintances are darkness, i.e., have disappeared. But we must rather, with J. D. Michaelis and others, explain: my companions—the place of darkness i.e., the dark kingdom of the dead is instead of all my companions, has come near to me, while they have gone back. The following considerations may be adduced in support of this:—מחשךְ? signifies always, even in Isaiah 29:15, Isaiah 42:16, not darkness, but a dark place, and it occurs in this sense, and is even applied to the darkness of sheol in Psalms 88:6; according to the usual translation, the verse does not close with a thought of sufficient strength, but with merely a flat repetition of Psalms 88:8, whereas, according to our translation, the Psalm ends with an energetic expression of its main thought—the immediate vicinity of death; the darkness is thickest at the end, just as it is in the morning before the rising of the sun; and, finally, there is a strikingly parallel passage in Job 17:14, “I call the grave my father, and the worm my mother and sister.”

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 88". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-88.html.