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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical

Psalms 88

Verses 1-18

Psalms 88:0

A song or Psalm for the sons of Korah, to the chief Musician upon Mahalath Leannoth, Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite

2          O Lord God of my salvation,

I have cried day and night before thee:

3     Let my prayer come before thee:

Incline thine ear unto my cry:

4     For my soul is full of troubles:

And my life draweth nigh unto the grave.

5     I am counted with them that go down into the pit;

I am as a man that hath no strength.

6     Free among the dead,

Like the slain that lie in the grave,
Whom thou rememberest no more:
And they are cut off from thy hand.

7     Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit,

In darkness, in the deeps.

8     Thy wrath lieth hard upon me,

And thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves. Selah.

9     Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me;

Thou hast made me an abomination unto them:

I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.

10     Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction:

Lord, I have called daily upon thee,

I have stretched out my hands unto thee.

11     Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead?

Shall the dead arise and praise thee? Selah.

12     Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave?

Or thy faithfulness in destruction?

13     Shall thy wonders be known in the dark?

And thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

14     But unto thee have I cried, O Lord;

And in the morning shall my prayer prevent thee.

15     Lord, why castest thou off my soul?

Why hidest thou thy face from me?

16     I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up:

While I suffer my terrors I am distracted.

17     Thy fierce wrath goeth over me,

Thy terrors have cut me off.

18     They came round about me daily like water;

They compassed me about together.

19     Lover and friend hast thou put far from me,

And mine acquaintance into darkness.


Contents and Composition. The superscription is a double one, the two parts of which are mutually contradictory, for Heman the Ezrahite was no Korahite. See Introd. § 2. The first part seems to have been inserted after the other, since the direction, “to the leader” is elsewhere found at the end. The explanation: to be performed mournfully with subdued voice, (Delitzsch) agrees with the mournful contents, whose tone is even more gloomy than that of Psalms 67:0. It is only the exclamation: Jehovah, God of my help, or of my salvation (Psalms 88:2 a) which shows that the last cord, uniting the suppliant to God, even if worn down to the last thread, is not entirely severed. All that follows is a complaint as though from the depths of hell. (Lamentations 3:55). For it is a lamentation which after long and painful suffering under the oppression of the weight of God’s anger, sees nothing before it but death and hell (Flaminius, Hupfeld). The prayer of anguish arises from the greatness of the distress (Psalms 88:2-4), which has brought the sufferer near to death (Psalms 88:5-6), and is the effect of God’s wrath (Psalms 88:7-8), and has cast him out from his acquaintance as an object of abhorrence (Psalms 88:9-10). There then follows a succession of lamentations as to the condition after death (Psalms 88:11-13), in connection with which is uttered the question which agitates him most deeply, why God should then turn away from him in the midst of his supplications (Psalms 88:14-15). A return is then made to the lamentations over his miseries, which surround him like billows and darkness (Psalms 88:16-18).

It is not, however, to be inferred from this that the conclusion of the Psalm has been lost (Muntinghe, Olshausen), or that it is to be united to the following so as to form one composition (Hengstenberg). Expressions of hope are not uttered, because the suppliant had not yet reached the victorious issue of the conflict. There is still less ground for putting these words in the mouth of the Messiah (the ancients). Nor is the particular kind of calamity here deplored definitely indicated, whether sickness (Aben Ezra, Ewald), or a particular form, leprosy (Venema, Köster, Delitzsch), or imprisonment (Venema as an alternative, Hitzig). And yet the expressions indicate personal experiences, thus opposing the notion that they form a national psalm of complaint of the period of the Babylonish Exile (Syriac, Rosenmüller, De Wette), or on account of its long continuance (Chald., the Rabbins) or of the approach of that catastrophe (Hengst.). Nor should any more weight be attached to the attempt to connect the Psalm with the prophet Jeremiah when in the pit (Venema) or during the captivity, Psalms 86:0 being assigned to the same author and period. Nor is it more probable that the composition was contemporaneous with that of the Book of Sirach (Hitzig), or with the plague in the time of Hezekiah (J. D. Michaelis), or with the leprosy of King Uzziah (Iken), or of Job, (Köster, Delitzsch). Yet it must be admitted, that we hear resounding through this psalm tones which are familiar in others, while some expressions are most strikingly similar to phrases and words occurring in the book of Job, and that the Ezrahite Heman was among the wise men of the age of Solomon (1 Kings 5:11).

[Hengstenberg has advanced and defended at length the hypothesis alluded to above, that this Psalm and the following one constitute one double psalm. To this he was led by the length of the title, its composite appearance, and the title “song” prefixed. The supposition at first appears to be reasonable, but the conjectures and assumptions which it needs for support give it, when examined, a different appearance. For each of these psalms has a complete title, assigning it to an author different from the other. Hengstenberg, therefore, is led to assume that these so called authors were not the composers, but that the Korahites affixed their names to psalms of their own composition, in order to give weight to them, and also to honor the memory of the ostensible authors themselves. But apart from the above objection, there is this other, that the psalms are not only different in tone and feeling, but are evidently also distinct compositions; for, while the former records individual feelings, the latter records national ones. It would certainly have been much more natural to have combined the two titles. The idea of an actual Korahite authorship might not then be readily suggested, but an intimation of the unity of design would be given, which other circumstances certainly do not indicate. But it is not necessary to maintain that the superscription of this Psalm is not genuine, for there is no difficulty in supposing that after its composition by Heman the Ezrahite of the tribe of Judah (not the Korahite), for (ל) the Korahites, it was committed to their especial charge for its musical performance, or that it was in some other way connected with that body of singers, so as to form a part of their special literature.—The opinion of Delitzsch as to the authorship seems to me to be the most probable. Unless Heman was a Korahite adopted by an Ezrahite, as Hengst. supposes, which seems very unlikely, it is certain that the author was the wise man of that name at Solomon’s court. The date is, thus fixed also. For a full view of the expressions in the psalm resembling passages in the Book of Job, which is now almost proved to belong to the same period, see besides Delitzsch on this Psalm, the introduction to his Comm. on Job and his article Hiob in Herzog’s Real-Encykl.—Among Anglo-American commentators, the view of Hengstenberg as to the form of the Psalm is considered probable by Alexander. For the opinion of the latter as to the date of composition, see the introduction to Psalms 89:0. Wordsworth believes that this and the next psalm form a pair. He regards both as referring to some great affliction of David, probably the rebellion of his son Absalom. Perowne says that all the conjectures as to the author and the circumstances under which he wrote are worth nothing. And yet he claims in his critical note that Heman the Ezrahite was also the Levitical singer. Why then, on this supposition, might he not have been one of the Korahites, and the genuineness of the whole title, which Perowne denies, be thus established? In view of this coincidence, the anomalous position of לַמְנַצֵּחַ would not be sufficient to prove the spuriousness of either part. But the hypothesis given above affords a more satisfactory explanation.—J. F. M.].

Psalms 88:2. In the day of my crying. [E. V. I have cried day]. As יֹומָם is not used, but יֹום, closely connected by Makkeph with the following word, there cannot be two parallel clauses: In the day have I cried, in the night am I before thee. Nor is it necessary to alter the division of the verse and render: O God of my salvation, on the day when I cried. Nor can we strike out יֹּום as a later gloss (Hupfeld). Instead of a contrast between day and night, it is allowable to consider the former as an indefinite mark of time (Hitzig, Del.) as in Psalms 56:4; Psalms 78:42; cf. Psalms 18:1. [Dr. Moll accordingly renders: In the day of my crying—in the night before thee, let my prayer come, etc. The rendering of the Engl. Vers. is defective from a false arrangement. The following extract from Hengstenberg seems to present the true view: “The two clauses are to be supplemented from each other; in the first, before thee: 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 am not silenced.’ According to this passage the יֹום must here stand for יֹומָם or בְּיֹום It certainly does not occur in any other passage, but there are many analogies in its favor, and the short form might the more readily be used here, as בלילה follows.” The true rendering is therefore: “In the day-time I cry, in the night before Thee.” The Makkeph does not affect the connection of the words.—J. F. M.].

Psalms 88:6. My couch (is) among the dead. [E. V. Free among the dead.] This rendering is in accordance with Ezekiel 27:20, comp. Job 17:13 (Hitzig, Ewald, Böttcher, Köster and Maurer), following a kindred verb in Arabic meaning, to be stretched out (Iken, J. D. Mich.). It is possible also to view it as an adjective: prostrate (De Wette, Hupfeld), or according to another derivation: free, at large (Sept., Symmachus and other versions); not abandoned, neglected, (Luther, Venema and others), or shut out from human society and the enjoyments of this life (Geier, Clericus, Stier), but released from the performance of legal duties as one defunctus (Job 3:19; Job 39:5; Romans 7:2), from the primary idea of release from a master, Exodus 21:3; Deuteronomy 15:12; Jeremiah 34:9. (Chald., Isaaki, Aben Ezra, Calvin, J. H. Michaelis, Hengst., Del., Hupfeld as an alternative). But against these derivations, there is especially the term applied to a hospital for lepers in 2 Kings 15:5. [Delitzsch: “In this passage (2 Kings 15:5) the place to which the leprous king withdrew might mean a house for the convalescent as well as the sick, a sans souci as well as a lazaretto.” The common rendering as given in our version, as followed by most, and as explained above, is probably the most correct.—J. F. M.].

Psalms 88:8-9. The words, “all thy waves” need not be separated from the following so that the verb be understood from the preceding clause (De Dieu), and the remaining words of the verse be construed as a relative clause by asyndeton (Hupfeld), according to which we would have the rendering: by which thou hast afflicted me. As the suffix is absent, it is, of course, not to be translated; with all thy waves thou afflictest me (Symmachus and the most). The accusative precedes the verb. [“All Thy waves Thou dost press down” (upon me). For the thought and fundamental passage see Psalms 42:8.—J. F. M.]. So all the ancient translators but Symmachus, Aben Ezra, Ewald, Delitzsch. There is no ground for a substitution of צִוִּיתָ for עַנִּיתָ (Olshausen). Psalms 88:9 c. need not be understood of imprisonment (Symmachus, Luther. Hitzig), or the seclusion of a leper (Del.). Still less, as the expression is passive, is it to be regarded as describing the condition of a man who withdraws of his own accord from mankind, who shuts himself up in his house, and will not show himself in public, whether from shame, or in order not to excite abhorrence (Clericus, Ewald, Hengst., Hitzig). It is quite sufficient to regard it as a figurative and biblical conception of distress, as a prison from which no way of escape is to be found, Lamentations 3:7; Lamentations 3:9; Job 3:23 and frequently (most).

Psalms 88:11. The designation of the dead as רְפָאִים, is not the name of the Rephaim, a race of Canaanitish giants, transferred to the departed, as appearing to the imagination in gigantic forms, 1 Samuel 28:13 (Hengst.). It comes from a root which expresses what is weak and languid, and at the same time stretched out and long-extended, and which can accordingly be employed to describe the shadowy forms of the under world as well as the giants and heroes of the olden time. There is no reference here as there is in Isaiah 26:14 to a rising from the grave, or simply (Hengst., Hupfeld) to a rising from the recumbent position which results from prostration. For the expression includes the thought of a return to life, and therefore that of a reappearance, at all events, in the under world, which is here characterized (Psalms 88:12) as destruction, (Abaddon) as in Job 26:6; Job 28:22; Proverbs 15:11; Proverbs 27:20, as darkness, Psalms 88:13, (comp. Psalms 88:7), and as the land of forgetfulness. These last words must be taken in a double sense: that God ceases to think of the dead (Psalms 88:6), for they are forgotten (Psalms 31:13), and that in the dead memory is extinct (Psalms 6:6; Psalms 30:10, et al.,Ecclesiastes 9:5-6; Ecclesiastes 9:10), for they forget.

Psalms 88:16 ff. In Psalms 88:16 we should perhaps read אָפוּגָה (Olsh., Hupf.) instead of אָפוּנָה. For the former indicates the cessation of physical and mental life, torpor, stupor (Psalms 38:12). The latter does not occur elsewhere, and is not quite satisfactorily explained from the Arabic as mental weakness, helplessness. The optative is used to express inner necessity. [I am distracted (and cannot regain my powers). in the first member of the verse the rendering of the E. V. would be improved by substituting the words “dying away,” instead of “ready to die.” The former expresses better the force of continuance conveyed by the active participle, and describes better the condition of the sufferer.—J. F. M.] In Psalms 88:17 the form צִמְתֻתוּנִי occurs, which is neither to be corrected according to Psalms 119:139 (Hitzig), nor to be regarded as a monstrosity, an impossible form (Olsh., Hupfeld), but is an intensive form, employed intentionally (Del.), similar to those in Hosea 4:18; Psalms 149:6 (Ewald), with a play upon Leviticus 25:23 (Hengst.). The rendering of Heidenheim is probably correct: their terrors have made me inalienably their own. [Delitzsch expresses the design of the form well: vernicht—nichtigt. Our version retains the rendering which it usually gives to this word: hath cut me off. The idea is that of utter destruction.—J.F. M.] The last sentence of the Psalm could mean: my trusted friends are darkness, that is, an object which is not seen, Job 12:25 (Hitzig), therefore: invisible (Chald., the Rabbins, and most expositors). But the explanation according to Job 17:14; Job 19:14; Isaiah 53:3; Proverbs 7:4, is more expressive, namely: that darkness has become his companion, in the place of his former companions, (Geier, J. H. Mich., Schnurrer, Hengst., Hupfeld, Del.). “With this cry the harp drops from the poet’s hand. He is silent and waits until God shall solve the enigma of his suffering:” (Del.).


1. Members of the Church of God have not only to share here below the troubles and trials of this earthly life; they may also, by repeated sorrows, by an accumulation of afflictions, by an ever-rising deluge of cares, become outwardly and inwardly so distressed that they are utterly without prospect of escape. Avoided by their acquaintances, forsaken by their friends, abandoned by all the world, tortured in body, tempted in spirit, with nothing but darkness about their souls, they are driven to the verge of despair, and have before their eyes nothing but death, heart-rending destruction, and utter ruin. They should remember this, partly as a warning against security, when they are surrounded with peace and joy and prosperity, partly as a support for their souls in the hour of suffering and temptation.
2. For there is this difference between the people of God in their sorrows and other sufferers, that the former are united to the living God as the God of their help and salvation, by a tie which no temporal suffering, no earthly calamity, no outward power in the world can break, which, in a word, cannot be destroyed from without, but only loosed from within. But this cannot happen as long as the tempted one can pray, and raise his petition, not merely as a cry of anguish, by which, day and night, he makes his distress known unto God, but as an expression of his belief that God alone is his Helper and Saviour. “In so naming God, he puts a bridle and bit upon the attacks of insupportable pain, shuts the door in the face of despair, and strengthens himself to endure his cross.” (Calvin.)
3. As long as the assurance of immortality was not held fast by the soul, and the resurrection of the dead was not revealed to the Church, so long were death and the under-world not only the last but also the worst of enemies. And therefore in those times of old the prayers of believers were not poured forth for worldly treasures, earthly good, and carnal delight, but for the preservation and improvement of life, during their earthly pilgrimage, and for the manifestation of God’s glory within the sphere of the temporal, since they knew not how man could praise Him after death. The deliverance of the believer’s life, therefore, and the preservation of Israel, were not matters of individual interest and selfish desire; but the perpetuity of the Church in the world, and the salvation of the believer, were bound up with a righteous concern for God’s honor and His acknowledgment among men. “Although at first sight these complaints seem to evince suffering deprived of any consolation, yet they contain subdued tones of prayer. For the Psalmist addresses no proud recriminations to God, but, while he complains, asks for a remedy to heal his sorrows.” (Calvin).


A pious man may lose everything, and yet be not lost.—How difficult soever it may be not to cease praying when God vouchsafes no answer, it is yet the best safeguard against despair.—Men may be overburdened with sorrow, and yet more still be laid upon them.—Where do we have our lasting residence after death? And what becomes of us then?—There is no greater calamity than the sense of abandonment by God.—Well for him, whose fear of death increases his fear of God.—The conflict of suffering in the case of a pious sufferer a wrestling in prayer with the prospect of the final victory of faith.—The night of trouble may be very dark, but as long as the man, who is pressed down by the chastening hand of God, can rise at once again to prayer, his lamp is not yet gone out.—Though the hand of God lie ever so heavily upon us, yet, as long as we can invoke God as our Saviour, we can never lose our last hope, or fail of help at last.—Death seems to many to be a deliverer, but it brings into still more dreadful straits those who will feel themselves shut out from the hand of God.

Starke: To cry and moan night and day racks body and soul; but remember, when thus oppressed, that God who brings down to hell, brings up again.—Grievous temptations are not to be viewed as tokens of God’s anger, but of His mercy.—Now is the time to pray. In hell it will be too late.—There is a difference between the anxious fear of believers in suffering, and the despair of the ungodly: the former cry to God in their fear; the latter cast all hope away, nor seek any help in God.—It is a double suffering, when a child of God is outwardly tormented, and has nothing but children of darkness around him, who aggravate by actions and words his inward suffering.

Arndt: How God brings, in this life, His children down to hell, and takes away all comfort from them, before He raises them to heaven, and satisfies them with eternal consolation.—None belong to the ranks of the saints in heaven, who on earth have not fought under the banner of the cross of Christ.—Frisch: The night of anguish is the time to pray. Prayer drives away distress from the heart, and God comes and takes its place.—Scriver: Temptations of the soul are the greatest affliction; for then the mind feels its darkness, the will seeks languidly after God, and is utterly dismayed, and the memory can give neither joy nor comfort. Instead of these the feeling of God’s anger overspreads the soul.—Tholuck: The darker the night of sorrow is, and the more its veil overspreads the sight, the more worthy of honor is that faith, which in the midst of the darkness does not cease to pray.—Guenther: It must be with us sinners as gloomy as this; no less strongly must we feel the depth of our ruin, no less truly recognize that God’s wrath, in the eternal death of our soul, is the due desert of our sin, before we can grasp in firm faith the hand of our Saviour who comes to redeem us.—Diedrich: It is indeed something great that we, in all distresses, have free access to the supreme, eternal, and only blessed God. Let no depth of suffering then keep us away from Him.—Taube: The midnight of distress is the soul’s time of trial.—That may be called faithful continuance in prayer, which, though the anguish of the soul lasts far into the night and returns with the morning, sends forth with every new day, the old complaint to the heart of God.

[Calvin: All men complain in their grief, but this is far from pouring out their woes in the presence of God; nay, they must seek some hiding-place, where they may murmur at 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.

Matth. Henry: Nothing grieves a child of God so much as His hiding His face from him; nor is there anything he so much dreads as God’s casting off his soul.—If the sun be clouded, that darkens the earth; but if the sun should abandon the earth and quite cast it off, what a dungeon would it be!—God often prevents our prayers with His mercies; let us prevent His mercies with our prayers.

Scott: If we are free from such dreadful trials, let us bless the Lord for it, and sympathize with and pray for our afflicted and tempted brethren.

Bishop Horne: In the solitary and awful hour of our departure hence, let us remember to think on the desertion, the death, the burial, and the resurrection of our Redeemer.

Barnes: It is well that there is one such description in Scripture 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.—J. F. M.]

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Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 88". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". 1857-84.