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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Psalms 88

Verses 1-2


This psalm is the saddest psalm in the entire book of Psalms. Other psalms can be sad and gloomy, yet are mixed with faith confidence and ultimately hope and victory. Psalm 88, however, is somber from beginning to end. The last word of this psalm is “darkness” (Psalms 88:18). The only ray of hope in this psalm is the Person to Whom the psalmist addresses in this psalm: the “LORD, the God of my salvation” Psalms 88:1. Here we find a reference to the name Jesus, which means ‘the LORD is salvation’.

The psalm is the prayer of a man who suffers incessantly. He complains about the terrible, harsh oppression that brings him to the brink of death. Yet day and night he called upon the LORD. In the application of this psalm to Christ, we see the suffering He underwent because of the curse of the law. In the application to the believers, both of Israel and the church, we see the suffering that is necessary to be purified and come to glory.

The suffering of the psalm is applicable to the suffering of the remnant in the end times, just before the coming of the Lord Jesus. The remnant will suffer so greatly during the great tribulation that it will seem to them as if there is no end to their need, and that darkness will win out over light. The psalm also reminds us of the suffering of the Lord Jesus. Through His suffering He could become the spring of living water. This is “maskil” or “teaching” from the maskilim (Psalms 88:1).

By virtue of His suffering, the joy of the city of God can be there with all who are in it (Psalms 87:7). All who are in it, Jew and Gentile, and share in the blessing, have been removed from the power of the devil and are counted among that city.

Call For Hearing

This psalm is called “a Song” (Psalms 88:1). The song is not, however, as it usually is, a song of praise, but a song of lamentation, in which sadness and despair are sung. According to the meaning of “according to Mahalath Leannoth” – the meaning follows below – we may take it to mean that the song is sung by a downcast with weak, gloomy, melancholy voice, with a tone of minor.

For “a Psalm of the sons of Korah” see at Psalm 42:1.

For “for the choir director” see at Psalm 4:1.

The song is sung “according to Mahalath Leannoth”, showing that it is a lament. The word mahalath occurs only in Psalm 53 (Psalms 53:1). “Mahalath” means ‘sickness’ or ‘suffering’. “Leannoth” means ‘humiliation’. It refers to ‘humiliation through suffering’ as the necessary way to glory and blessing – the spring of living water.

This points first of all to the humiliation of Christ through suffering on the cross of Calvary, as the basis for all the blessings of the remnant (Psalms 87:7). The rock had to be beaten if He were to become for us a spring of living water (Luke 24:26).

Secondly, it points to the path of suffering that Israel had to go through, the purging of the remnant, through Assyria, the disciplining rod of God (Isaiah 10:5; cf. Deuteronomy 28:49-Philemon :; Joel 2:1-2 Chronicles :) in order to arrive at the glorious redemption. Compare the way Joseph’s brothers had to go, the prison, in order to come to restoration. For us, too, it is true that we suffer first with Christ and then are glorified with Him (Romans 8:17).

This psalm is “a maskil”, “a teaching”. See further at Psalm 32:1.

The psalm is a maskil “of Heman the Ezrahite”. It is the only psalm by him in Psalms. Heman is an understanding, a Levite, a Korahite, a singer, a son of Joel and a grandson of Samuel (1 Kings 4:31; 1 Chronicles 15:17; 1 Chronicles 15:19; 1 Samuel 8:1-Exodus :). He is included in the tribe of Judah. He is also called “the king’s seer to exalt him according to the words of God” (1 Chronicles 25:5).

The psalmist in his deep distress turns to the “LORD”, whom he calls “God of my salvation” (Psalms 88:1; Psalms 27:9). The last straw, the only ray of hope in this otherwise gloomy psalm of suffering is that he knows God as the God of his salvation. Satisfied with perils of death, the psalmist seeks refuge in God. Surrounded by dangers and enemies, he looks upward. “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come?”

Then he looks even higher to heaven and confesses: “My help [comes] from the LORD” (Psalms 121:1-Exodus :). Therefore he turns to Him. In the midst of need, faith holds fast to the God Who has promised to deliver. At the same time, it makes his situation even darker, because the God Whom he knows does not answer. This is a dramatic perception.

He addresses God and cries out before Him “by day and in the night”. This “cried out” – literally “shouted” – indicates a penetrating and powerful prayer from a heart that is overcome by the heaviness of the need. Literally it says: “By day I cry out, and in the night [I come] to You.” The need is so great that he comes to God day and night, without ceasing, and cries out before Him. As soon as he wakes up in the morning, he begins again to pray and plead (Psalms 88:13; cf. Psalms 50:15).

But God seems to pay no attention to him. The Lord Jesus also “offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears” to God (Hebrews 5:7). That is in Gethsemane, in anticipation of suffering for sin. He knows what it is to have a deeply burdened heart and can therefore sympathize with the remnant and all who feel this way. With Him, however, there is not the hopelessness that characterizes the prayer here. He cries out in the full knowledge that God hears him.

Heman urges the God of his salvation to hear his prayer before Him, that is, in His presence (Psalms 88:2; cf. Psalms 27:8). For it seems that the door to God is closed, that his prayer does not penetrate to Him. God does not seem to be listening, but he does not give up and asks Him, “incline Your ear to my cry”. Here he uses that strong word “cry” again. He knows that God is there, although He seems to have withdrawn from him.

Verses 3-9

The Extend of the Affliction

Heman goes on to tell God why he calls to Him, which we see by the word “for” (Psalms 88:3). He is not satisfied with the good that God has promised to those who serve Him, but with “troubles”. “Enough” means: nothing more can be added; he has reached the breaking point. To emphasize this we are given a list of synonyms in these verses to describe how the water has come to his lips. He is not connected to life, but to death. He is, as it were, alive dead. Through all the affliction his “life has drawn near to Sheol”.

He is already “reckoned among those who go down to the pit” (Psalms 88:4). He sees himself as doomed. This is the perspective that he also has in mind according to those around him: not life, but the pit, the grave, death. His fate is like that of all people whose life is over. There is no strength in him to resist this descent. He has “become like a man without strength”. Affliction has robbed him of his strength and made him powerless – literally deadly tired.

That he says of himself that he is “forsaken among the dead” (Psalms 88:5) – literally free among the dead – means that he is free from the disciplining hand of God like all the other dead. This thought is confirmed by the second sentence of this verse. He sees himself “like the slain who lie in the grave”. ‘Slain’ brings to mind those who have died in war. By this he means a mass grave where he is not given a tomb and cannot be identified. He has become an anonymous victim, a number. The psalmist here means a senseless death, a dishonorable death.

He adds that God no longer thinks about them, that God no longer has any concern for them as the living. “They are cut off from Your hand.” With a dead person God can no longer deal as He does with a living one. Of course He also has authority over the dead, but this is about His dealings with people living on earth. For the New Testament believer it is different. He knows that after his death he will praise the Lord in paradise.

He tells God that He has “put” him “in the lowest pit” (Psalms 88:6). Putting into a pit is done to a wicked person (Psalms 94:13), for the greatest wicked person the deepest (lowest) pit is dug. The complaint of Psalms 88:3-Numbers : now turns into an accusation against God. ‘You have done this, You have rejected and forsaken me.’ In doing so he acknowledges God’s dealings with him. In the same way, further on in the psalm, he attributes everything to God’s actions. He always says what God does to him.

This action does weigh very heavily on him. He describes the lowest pit as “dark places” and “depths”. It is, as it were, a superlative of the realm of the dead, the deepest realm of the dead (cf. Psalms 86:13). We would say in ordinary language, not just dead, but ‘stone dead’. All around him is darkness. He cannot look upwards, to the light, because he is so deeply mired in afflicted.

He tells God that His wrath “has rested upon” him (Psalms 88:7). “Rested upon” is literally “rests on” in the sense of “crushing”. The meaning is: ‘Your wrath/grimness/poison crushes me’. It is as if God’s grimness is put to rest by crushing him, that much he feels himself the target of that grimness.

He is “afflicted” with all God’s waves. This reminds one of the Lord Jesus, but His suffering goes far beyond that. On the cross, in the three hours of darkness, He received all the waves of God’s wrath upon Him because of the sins of His own that were laid upon Him. That is not the case with Heman. The waves of affliction come upon him alone and affect him alone. It is God’s discipline or education to draw His own to Himself. Heman here is a type of the remnant of Israel in the end times. This is the teaching that the maskilim will receive and pass on to others.

This distress also concerns his loneliness and rejection by his “acquaintances” (Psalms 88:8; Psalms 88:18). This is what Job also experienced (Job 19:13-2 Chronicles :). He tells God that He has “removed” them far from him. And as if that weren’t bad enough, He has also made him “an object of loathing to them”. Not only has he been abandoned, but his acquaintances give him a wide berth. To them he is like a leper, someone with a contagious, stinking disease, from whom one must stay away (cf. Leviticus 13:46). We also see this with the Lord Jesus (Psalms 102:7).

Thus the psalmist is “shut up” in his own situation. This is the condition of a leper (Leviticus 13:46). We would say today – we write April 2020, during the corona crisis – ‘he is quarantined’. In his affliction he is also isolated in solitude. Heman himself has no strength to get out of his affliction and suffering. Around him there is no one to look after him and give him any help or comfort. He feels like Job, who complains that God has blocked his way and therefore he cannot come to the light (Job 3:23).

His eye, which looks out to God for deliverance from his affliction, “has wasted away because of affliction” (Psalms 88:9). He is spiritually in dull affliction. He cries “every day” to the “LORD”, the God of the covenant. Surely God will not forget that He made a covenant with His people, to which he belongs, to bless them, will He? Heman, as a picture of total helplessness, spreads out his hands to Him. To whom else can he spread out his hands? He knows that only God can help him. If only God will take his spread out hand, he will be set free.

Verses 10-12


Heman goes on to ask the LORD a number of questions. These are questions that impose themselves on him while he is on the verge of death. They are questions about the praise of God that is not done by the dead, but by the living (cf. Isaiah 38:18-Psalms :). They are not questions of unbelief, but questions that arise from a limited knowledge of God as a result of extreme affliction and despair, which obscures the view of Him and His actions. There is also faith in them.

His first question echoes the idea that God can “perform wonders for the dead” (Psalms 88:10). In his second question, he says it more specifically and asks if those who have died would rise to praise Him. Among Old Testament believers there is the idea that praise, – and the LORD is enthroned upon the praises of Israel (Psalms 22:3) – is only possible through living people (Psalms 6:5; cf. Psalms 30:9; Psalms 115:17).

The condition of those who have died is hidden from them. They connect the praise of God and the speaking of His lovingkindness with life on earth (Psalms 88:11). That can be before their death and in the resurrection after their death. Of the situation “in the grave” and “in Abaddon”, which refers to the body, they have no understanding. [Note: The Lord Jesus did go to the grave, but His body did not see decay (Psalms 16:10; Acts 2:24-Daniel :).

Therefore Heman wishes that God would deliver him out of his affliction. How then will he tell of His lovingkindness and faithfulness! We know that the faithful who have fallen asleep in Christ are with Christ, are with Him in paradise, where they praise and glorify Him continually (Luke 23:43; Philippians 1:23).

For the Old Testament believer, death is associated with “darkness” (Psalms 88:12). No light is present. Only in the light are God’s wonders known. For him, death is being “in the land of forgetfulness”. The land of oblivion is the land where the dead are no longer thought of. Righteousness is not made known there.

The New Testament believer lives in the light and in full remembrance of the righteousness of God which he has received through faith in Christ. He will daily praise God for it and make known its wonder in the darkness of the world in which he lives. If he has died and is with the Lord, it will be by virtue of that righteousness. That will be the occasion for praising Him eternally.

Verses 13-18


With the word “but” (Psalms 88:13) Heman indicates the contrast with the hereafter. After his questions about the hereafter and his depiction of the situation there, he lets it be known by his calling that he is still in the land of the living. In the realm of the dead is silence, darkness and oblivion, but he is not silent. He cries out to the LORD, for he is still in affliction.

The psalmist’s prayer is now not about the question of salvation, but about why he is still in affliction. He does not understand the ways of God. His ways are so high, he cannot understand them. The psalmist and later, in the end times, the remnant and the maskilim wrestle with this question.

In the New Testament the believer in faith, having come to know the love of God in the Lord Jesus, can say: “We know that to those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). He can say: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

He has already said that he calls to God “by day and in the night” (Psalms 88:1) and that he calls to God “every day” (Psalms 88:9). Now he says that his prayer “in the morning” “comes before” God. This is a wonderful way for him to indicate that he wants to have an encounter with God in his prayer, early in the morning, right after he wakes up. He continues to pray even though he gets no answer.

He feels rejected by the LORD (Psalms 88:14). But “why” does He reject him, he asks. He sees no reason why He has rejected him, yet He has done it. Heman continues to plead with the LORD, even though he feels rejected. Because he keeps pressing, but God doesn’t answer, he asks his second ‘why question’. That is why God hides His face from him. He doesn’t understand it all. He loves God and wants to be in His presence, but God does not let Himself be found.

This fills him with despair (Psalms 88:15). We see the same struggle in Job. He is in such a miserable state. “From” his “youth on” he has had to deal with suffering as a committed believer (cf. Psalms 129:1). He is familiar with it. From his youth he has put his trust in the LORD and has never been ashamed of it (cf. Psalms 71:5), but now this trust does not seem to be working.

He does not bear God’s favor, but suffers His terrors. Thereby he is “overcome”, or: embarrassed. He does not know what to do anymore. There is no question of rebellion, but he no longer understands. How can it be that God, whom he loves so much, behaves toward him as if He were his enemy (cf. Job 30:21).

The affliction in which Heman finds himself, he experiences as the “burning anger” of God passing over him (Psalms 88:16). They are God’s “terrors”, terrors that emanate from God. How will he be able to resist them, it is impossible. The only effect they have is that they “destroy” him. God’s terrors mean death for him.

They surround him without a moment’s pause “like water all day long” (Psalms 88:17). He cannot catch his breath and is in danger of drowning in it. “They have encompassed” him, “altogether”. They are like an army that God has set up against him and whose every soldier, without exception, has the arrow pointed at him. So did Job express himself about the terrors that had come upon him (Job 6:4; Job 27:20).

Heman concludes his instruction by pointing out once more the great loneliness into which God has brought him (Psalms 88:18; Psalms 88:8). God hides Himself from him and He has also “removed” his “lover and friend” far from him. He is all alone in his suffering. His “acquaintances” are not in darkness, but they “are darkness”.

The last word of Heman is ‘darkness’. With this, the psalm seems to have reached an absolute and hopeless low point. Many psalms go from darkness to light. That is not the case here. Yet the end does not speak of despair. Heman has turned to God. God will answer his cry. He will do so in His time. When it is new moon, when the moon no longer shows a single ray of light, when there is deep darkness, this is at the same time the start of the run to the full moon.

Thus it may be in the life of a believer that all hope of salvation is gone. However, this does not mean that all prayers have been in vain. Sometimes we have to reach such a low point to come to complete surrender and resignation. Then we see that God is going to work.

Ultimately, the psalmist will have to learn that Christ’s path to glory is through suffering. This is why the Lord announced His suffering three times (Luke 9:22-Daniel :; Luke 9:43-Romans :Luke 18:31-Nahum :) and taught the Emmaus disciples: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:26). A similar lesson must be learned by the remnant; a similar lesson must be learned by us today (Romans 8:17).

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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Psalms 88". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniƫl', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.