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Bible Commentaries

Parker's The People's Bible

Psalms 88

Verses 1-18

The Land of Forgetfulness

Psalms 88:0

"Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?" ( Psa 88:12 ).

This psalm is very mournful. The Psalmist is in great fear and sorrow. He has been crying day and night before God time out of mind. He is afraid that his prayer will never get to heaven; it will be lost somewhere in the darkness. By day his soul is full of troubles, and his life draws nigh unto the grave. He is a man who is marked for the pit. His strength has utterly given way; he is sure that he is going into the grave to be numbered with those who are remembered no more. He says that God has laid him in the lowest pit in darkness, in the deeps. He says that God's wrath lies hard upon him. He tells God that he has no more waves in all his great sea that he can roll over the head that is bowed down in loss, and shame, and grief. Then he begins to ask questions. He wonders what will happen: "Wilt thou show wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee? Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction? Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?" This was a conception of the under-world. It was all darkness, all night, all silence, all deprivation. There was no immortality in the thought, no kind, blue, gentle heaven bending over the imagination of the people who formed that conception of the under-world; and they themselves had not dared even to fancy a heaven. There is a fabled river in ancient mythology called Lethe, simply meaning forgetfulness. The idea of the fabulist was that whoever drank water out of that river instantly forgot everything that had happened; all the past was a forgotten dream. Nay, more than this, consciousness itself was not left after the Lethal water was taken. The man who drank one draught of the water of Lethe, oblivion, was not aware of his own existence; that draught had utterly extinguished him. Men have often longed for a draught of that water; men have sighed for the land of forgetfulness; souls, harps on which music was meant to be played, have desired with unspeakable earnestness to be allowed to die, to forget, to be forgotten.

In some aspects, the land of forgetfulness is a desirable land. There are moments when we want to enter it and be enfranchised in it for ever. We could lie down with the dead, not with dead bodies only, that is nothing; the flesh is not the man: but there are moments of despair, spiritual chagrin, and self-detestation, when we could wish to be utterly blotted out and to be as if we had never been. We want to forget; memory is a tormenting friend; we have tried many a draught and many opiates if haply we might tempt the brain into final and everlasting sleep. What are these images that fill the air? What are these voices that rend the air? What are these touches that make us alive all over with life that overflows: keen, sensitive, agonised life? What is it that makes our life occasionally one burning pain? Surely God would not thus pursue and afflict us and throw us down if he meant that we were to end our existence in the grave. Is he not speaking to us that he may awaken our better nature? Is he not calling us to spiritual consideration? Is he not determined to torment us into goodness if he cannot lure us into the reverence that precedes loving surrender of soul to his will? How many men would gladly enter the land of forgetfulness? Things done forty years ago may not look at us with very vivid eyes, but they stir. A stirring frightens us more than a good straight defiant look would do. There is a silence that is terrible; there is a motion that means so much more than itself; it is suggestive that the judgment is coming, the penalty is impending, the end is near. There are things that other people have done to us that we long to forget; if we could wholly forget them life would be sweeter, friendship would be dearer, the outlook would be altogether more inviting. What is it that makes the land of forgetfulness a land in poetry, a land inaccessible? Is there no potion that the soul may take? there are potions that the body may drink, but we do not want to drink our bodies into some lower level and some baser consciousness; we are inquiring now about soul-potions, drinks that affect the mind, draughts that lull the soul.

There are other aspects in which the land of forgetfulness is an attainable land. We can so live as to be forgotten. Men can live backwards. Men can be dead whilst they are alive, and forgotten while they are present to the very eyes. What is there to remember about them? Beginning as ciphers they have continued as ciphers; they have never done anything for the world, or for any individual in the world. Where are the parts of character on which we can lay hold and say, By these we shall remember you evermore? What miracles are possible to man! He can so live as never to speak a word the world will care to remember; no sentence of his will ever be quoted; no beauteous sentiment ever escaped his lips; never was there a picture upon his face, never did morning gleam in his eyes, never did music engage his voice. We can so live as to be forgotten at our own fireside. There is nothing done that could be remembered. No child ever said, He brought me a toy, he made me glad, he played with me. No sorrowing heart can say, He was so gentle; if he did not pray aloud, his very breathing was praying; when he looked it was a benediction; his very speech had music in it So when there is a funeral it is not a mere putting away of the body, it is an obliteration of the whole identity. There is nothing missed, there is no sense of loss, the air is not vacant; the very solitude has a grim hospitality of its own. How are we going to live? When we die are people to say, We have lost something; we have lost life, we have lost leadership, we have lost companionship, we have lost the touch that made us strong, we have lost the music that sanctified silence and made the house a church all the week long: what is it that has gone? Then will come the loved name. Not the moment of weakness will be remembered when you shrunk into insignificance, and were frail and humble in your own sight, but some point of strength will be remembered in that glowing life of yours, and that point of strength will be the remembered picture, and it shall be spoken of, the quality of your character, the generosity of your hands, the largeness and lovingness of your hearts, long as memory retains and discharges her happy function. What is it that some men want to make them more conscious of life and more conscious of responsibility? Why do not all men seek to do something as well as receive something? We ought not to be mere receptacles, we ought to be fountains as well as reservoirs, always giving out some new stream of sacred water, always offering the world some larger and purer benefaction. The world is made up to us of ones and twos.

We know nothing about the millions. There are forty million people say in the island; we do not know them, they are not even moving figures before our eyes, for we can only see a few at a time, and the most of the millions we shall never see at all. It is this man, this woman, this child, this friend, this association, this comparatively little sphere that makes our earth heaven. Why not then be so good within it as to fill it with endeavour if not with success? If you will make up your minds to be remembered at home all the rest will take care of itself. There are some remembered at home whom crushed hearts would gladly forget. It is possible for you so to use your own child that that child will come in its old age to hate your name, and to say, Let that name never be mentioned in my hearing! You can live so if you like. Have faith in the man who is well-remembered at home. What do his chief associates say about him? Not, what do the newspapers say about him, or strangers, or paid critics, or hireling scribes, or indifferent observers; but what do they say about him who eat bread with him, who know him all the day, who see him in spring, in summer, in autumn, in winter, in health, in disease, on the mountain-top and on the level: what is their account of him? Do they long for him, miss him, wish for him, look out of the window and say, Oh that I could see him! for then would the house be glad? That is the only fame really worth living for; that is a sacred reputation: let all the rest take care of itself. We are thus narrowed down, focalised, so that one other life makes all the millions tolerable, one point of sympathy links us to the universe. Live richly, live tenderly, live so that souls will yearn for you when your turn comes to pass out of sight.

The land of forgetfulness is therefore in some aspects a desirable land, in other aspects an attainable land, but thirdly, it is in fact an impossible land. Effects follow causes: deeds grow consequences. Whilst, however, there is a sense in which a man may die and be forgotten, yet there is another sense in which his evil lives after him, and creates for him new epitaphs every day deepening in their malediction. The wine you drank in order to put the evil deed out of your mind will turn cold within you, and losing its heat you will lose the obliviousness which it momentarily gave you: so curious is nature in her working that the very momentary obliviousness shall kindle into larger, quicker vividness the very thing which you thought you had lost in intoxication. The children are to live after you, and you may be putting a most horrible stamp upon them, or you may be putting upon them a most beautiful signal and making them rich with sacred, tuneful, elevating memories, the very mention of which shall lift them above all care and solicitude and give them a new hunger towards the heavens. Every man is a minister, a preacher; every man is numbered among the clergy of God, revealing God, lifting up his own family into better life, if so be he will obey his function, the call of God.

Looking at the matter from a Christian standpoint, we have this gospel preached to us, namely, that evil can be forgotten. The Lord said he would forget; Omnipotence would find no place in all its infinity for sin. Thy sins and thine iniquities shall be remembered no more for ever: I will cast them behind me. Where is that land the land that lies behind infinity? But sin cannot be forgotten until it is forgiven. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. Do not imagine that forgetfulness is an intellectual feat on the part of God. Never suppose that for some psychological reason impenetrable to our inquiry the Lord has contrived to forget that he ever made a world. The Lord forgets nothing: but after a process known to us by the sweet name "forgiveness" there comes the state in the divine mind which is known by the human word "forgotten." Sometimes we say we can forgive but never forget. Then we cannot forgive; and if we cannot forgive we cannot pray; if we cannot forgive we cannot believe. Forgiveness is the true orthodoxy. Largeness, sensitiveness, responsiveness of heart, slavery to love, that is orthodoxy. Consider this: if we do not forgive one another, God will not forgive us, and if God does not forgive us he cannot forget our sin, and if he cannot forget our sin he must punish it: and when God punishes, what imagination of man can conceive the quality, the extent, and the duration of that penalty? God never forgets man's humblest service. There is no law by which that service can be blotted but. God is not unrighteous to forget your work of faith and labour of love. He remembers what the workers themselves have forgotten; he will tell them at the last what they have done, and they will say, Lord, when? when? We have no recollection of this having taken place. Then he will remind them when it was all done. And he also remembers what is not done: Ye did not.... Ye came not.... Ye visited me not. And then will come the question, When, Lord? Oh, tell us when! when? We never saw thee sick, or in prison, and did not come unto thee; we never saw thee an hungred or athirst and did not minister unto thee: when, Lord, did all this occur? And he will say when. Neglected opportunities are aggravated sins. You might have helped that man and did not; that is set down against you in Christ's book. The man asked you for a cup of cold water, and you shut the door in his face: it is written down in the books. Your own flesh and blood came to you and asked for help, and you refused it: it is written down. You have ministered to those who were destitute, afflicted, tormented; you have opened your doors and said, Come in, and said it in such a gentle voice that the very saying of it was itself a pledge of security: it is all written. No man can give a cup of cold water to a disciple in Christ's name without that cup of cold water being spoken of by the Lord himself; and if anybody should break one box of nard and pour it upon the Lord's head, that shall be told in all the languages of time and in all the nations of the earth, a perpetual, a fragrant memorial.

Let us forget all unkindness, incivility, discourtesy. Let us forget our good deeds. That will be one great step towards the land of heaven. There are some who remember every good deed they ever did, and therefore they never did anything worth doing. No man has ever done anything for God if he has kept account of it. It may be difficult to teach this lesson, and to drive it home; but so long as a man can tell you when he gave pounds and shillings, and when he rendered service, and to what inconvenience he put himself, all that he did is blotted out. The value of our greatest deeds is in their unconsciousness. The rose does not say, I emitted so much fragrance yesterday and so much the day before. The rose knows nothing about it; it lives to make the air around it fragrant. Thus ought souls to live, not knowing how long they have preached, how much they have done, what the extent of their good deeds has been. They know nothing about it; they are absorbed in love; they are borne away by the divine inspiration, and whilst anything remains they suppose that nothing has been given. Do not have a dramatic land of forgetfulness, do not create some momentary oblivion, and think that you have done everything because you have stored your past within its dreary clouds. Be frank with yourselves: write down all your evil deeds and humble yourself to every man you have wronged. If you have done any man wrong, the humblest servant in your employment, go and tell him and beg his pardon. If you have kept back one solitary penny of the price pay it with interest and beg the pardon of the man you have wronged. If you have spoken unkindly to your dearest friend, spend the remainder of your life in speaking sweetly. If you have been caught in anything that is of the nature of wrong, betake yourselves to the Cross, the Saviour's Cross, the Cross of sacrifice, the altar of pardon, and there talk out the matter with the offended Lord. We say good-bye to thee, 1889, so far as Sabbath-days are concerned. We thought to have used thee better; thou didst come to us as a white spotless sheet of paper from heaven, and we meant to write thee all over with bars of music, vows of loyalty to Christ, with purposes and endeavours such as the Cross itself would approve. Here and there we find some good writing. There the Lord helped us in very deed. But so much of the writing is poor; there are so many erasures and interlineations and marginal notes, we cannot read it; we do not want to read it, it hurts our eyes. That paper is storied with falsehood, meanness, broken vows, and many evil things. Lord, grant us another scroll 1890 let us have it, and help this poor stumbling hand to do better. For Christ's sake we ask thee for that scroll and for that better hand. Amen.


Almighty God, we bless thee that, though we are always dying, yet we cannot die: thou hast given us immortality in our Lord Jesus Christ, and though the flesh must fall into the grave, yet shall our spirits rise and praise thee in other worlds, duration without end. This is our hope, and sometimes it is our agony, for are we not now in the wilderness? are not the enemies abundant? do they not come upon us at unexpected times? and is not our immortality somewhile threatened by foes we cannot repel? Sometimes we long to escape these narrow boundaries of time and these limitations of sense, that we may enter into the complete liberty, the glorious freedom, of the sinless kingdom. Give us patience, help us to wait as men who would gladly go but are remaining here to do the Lord's will. Save us from all repining discontentment and bitterness of soul, give unto us the deep rest of faith, the sweet and tender peace of assured acceptance with God. In all things fill us with the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ: he is thy Son, he is the living Vine; may we be in that living Vine as living branches, bringing forth much fruit, so that thou mayest be satisfied. We bless thee for all thy care: we cannot tell where it begins, we know not where it ends; we cannot lay a line upon the measure thereof, nor can we count its innumerable instances. Behold our life is a witness of thy care, and we daily testify to the presence of thy Spirit in our life, working out for us ways we could not have carved for ourselves and giving Us solutions infinitely beyond our own sagacity. Let thy word dwell in us richly; a living word, a word so deep, so high, so full of music and all hopeful voices, a word that is a word of light, illuminating the darkness and making all things beautiful. Sanctify to us our sorrows: may our tears be the showers that water the roots of our joys; may we know that thou dost not willingly afflict the children of men; teach us the mission and the power of discipline; may we remember that we are the creatures, not the creators, of the universe, and, being such, may we humbly bow and yield to thee the homage of loving trust, knowing that thou doest all things well. Turn our hair white with age, break down our backs with heavy burdens and lame us in every limb we have; take the roof from above our heads and the bread from our tables and the water out of the channel that flows by the house-side but take not thy Holy Spirit from us. The Lord bless the little children here and at home: set a child in the midst of us to teach us the mystery of thy kingdom, and rebuke us in all our greatness and pride and ability and cleverness teach us that our hope and our heaven are to be found in the meekness and charity and nobleness and self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ, in whose great, sweet Name we pray. Amen.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 88". Parker's The People's Bible. 1885-95.