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Bible Commentaries

Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary

Psalms 88

Verses 1-18


Superscription.—“A Song or Psalm,” i.e., combining the properties of both a Psalm and a song. “For the sons of Korah,” see Introduction to Psalms 42:0. “The expression, ‘To the Chief Musician,’ amounts to a notice that we have before us a proper Church song.” “Upon Mahalath Leannoth.” On “Mahalath,” see Introduction to Psalms 53:0. “ ‘Leannoth’ is variously rendered, according as it is derived from עָנָה, to suffer, be afflicted, or from עָנָה, to chant, sing. Gesenius, De Wette, Dr. Davies, and others take the latter view; while Mudge, Hengstenberg, Alexander, and others take the former. Mudge translates, to create dejection; Alexander renders, mahalath leannoth, concerning afflictive sickness; Hengstenberg reads, upon the distress of oppression. The Septuagint (ἀποκριθήναι) and the Vulgate (respondendum) indicate a responsive song, and Houbigant translates the words in question, for the choirs that they may answer. Many etymologists consider the primary idea of עָנָה, to sing, that of answering. The tone of the Psalm in question, however, being decidedly that of sadness and dejection, it appears more probable that leannoth denotes the strictly elegiac character of the performance, and the whole title may read therefore, ‘A Song or Psalm for the sons of Korah, to the chief musician upon the flutes (or the hollow instruments) to afflict (or cause dejection) a didactic Psalm of Heman, the Ezrahite.’ ”—(F. G. Hibbard.)Maschil,” an instruction, a didactic Psalm. “Of Heman the Ezrahite.” It is generally held that tins Heman is the son of Joel, and grandson of Samuel the prophet, a Kohathite, one of the famous musicians of the time of David, who is several times spoken of in connection with Asaph and Ethan or Jeduthun, 1 Chronicles 6:33; 1 Chronicles 15:17-19; 1 Chronicles 25:1; 1 Chronicles 25:3. “Ethan is the same as Jeduthun,” says Hengstenberg. But Lord A. C. Hervey in Smith’s Diet, of the Bible says, “Whether or no this Heman (i.e., the above-mentioned) is the person to whom the 88th Psalm is ascribed, is doubtful. The chief reason for supposing him to be the same is, that as other Psalms are ascribed to Asaph and Jeduthun, so it is likely that this one should be to Heman the singer. But on the other hand he is there called ‘the Ezrahite;’ and the 89th Psalm is ascribed to ‘Ethan the Ezrahite.’ But since Heman and Ethan are described in 1 Chronicles 2:6, as ‘sons of Zerah,’ it is in the highest degree probable that Ezrahite means ‘of the family of Zerah,’ and consequently that Heman of the 88th Psalm is different from Heman, the singer, the Kohathite. In 1 Kings 4:31, again we have mention, as of the wisest of mankind, of Ethan the Ezrahite, Heman, Chalcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol, a list corresponding with the names of the sons of Zerah, in 1 Chronicles 2:6. The inference from which is, that there was a Heman, different from Heman the singer, of the family of Zerah the son of Judah, and that he is distinguished from Heman the singer, the Levite, by being called the Ezrahite.… If Heman the Kohathite, or his, father, had married an heiress of the house of Zerah, as the sons of Hakkoz did of the house of Barzillai, and was so reckoned in the genealogy of Zerah, then all the notices of Heman might point to the same person, and the musical skill of David’s chief musician, and the wisdom of David’s seer, and the genius of the author of the 88th Psalm, concurring in the same individual, would make him fit to be joined with those other worthies whose wisdom was only exceeded by that of Solomon. But it is impossible to assert that this was the case.”

There is nothing in the Psalm which marks clearly the time and occasion of its composition. The Psalm is very mournful and desponding in its character. There are other Psalms which are the utterance of the troubled heart, but they have in them some rays of light, some gleam of hope. But in this the darkness is unrelieved. It is, says Stier, “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.”


(Psalms 88:1-9)

I. A great depth of affliction. In a very expressive manner the Psalmist sets forth his distresses.

1 His troubles were spiritual. “My soul is full of troubles.” The Psalmist was probably suffering from some severe and painful physical disease. He was certainly suffering in spirit. There is no trouble so sore and hard to bear as trouble in the soul. “The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?” The poet’s mind was troubled, his heart was sorrowful, he seems almost in despair. The severest anguish is not that of the body, but that of the spirit. When cherished hopes are blighted, and fond and worthy ambitions are destroyed, and those we trusted prove untrue, and those we love are summoned away leaving us to tread life’s pilgrimage without them, and our sins arise against us so many in number, so enormous in guilt, and God seems to have forsaken us, or to be smiting us in His wrath,—who shall describe the anguish of such experiences? Yet good men sometimes pass through them.

2. His troubles were many. “My soul is full of troubles.” He enumerates some of the many troubles with which his soul was full. His acquaintances were removed from him, he was afflicted and ready to die, and God was pursuing him as with the breakers of an angry sea. He was satiated with sorrows. The utmost limit of his endurance he seemed to have reached. The cup of his distresses would not contain one drop more.

3. His troubles were bringing him speedily to death. He uses various expressions setting forth this idea. “My life draweth nigh unto the grave,” unto Sheol, the abode of the dead. He felt that unless he obtained speedy relief he must die. “I am counted with them that go down unto the pit. I am as a man that hath no strength.” He was so near death, his case seemed so hopeless, that men reckoned him among the dead. And his strength had departed from him. “Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom Thou rememberest no more.” There is a passage in Job (Job 3:17-19) which will help us to elucidate the first clause. “There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest; there the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor; the small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master.” The dead are emancipated from the cares and sorrows, the toils and burdens of life. “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.” … The idea which lies at the foundation of the whole verse is this, “that the dead are no longer the objects of the loving care of God.” Life and immortality were not brought to light in the days of the Psalmist as they are in the Gospel. Men shuddered at, and shrank from, that “land of darkness as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death without any order, and where the light is darkness.” “Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.” “The lowest pit” is Sheol, deep under the earth. All these expressions are intended to set forth the idea that the Psalmist was on the very verge of the grave, that he was already as one dead, and that hope had almost or altogether forsaken him. Or, if it be held that the language is to be figuratively understood, then we have before us a good man in the most appalling trouble; the darkness which envelops his spirit is like that of the grave itself, his anguish is unsupportable, his griefs are overwhelming, and he is brought to the last extremity.

4. His troubles isolated him from human society. “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.” In time of suffering and sorrow the presence and sympathy of a friend are very precious and helpful. But the poet in his great affliction was forsaken by his friends. Such desertions are among the sharpest sorrows of life. It would seem as though the Psalmist was either suffering from some infectious or defiling disease, or from the attacks of slander. Men shrank from him with loathing. In the Hebrew the word which is translated “abomination” is in the plural. Men regarded him as though he were an assemblage of abominations, or one great mass of abominations. Hengstenberg interprets “I am shut up, and I cannot come forth,” as “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.” Slander has been truly called “the foulest whelp of sin.” And “the worthiest people are the most injured by slander, as we usually find that to be the best fruit which the birds have been pecking at.” Human friendships, or the things which so often degrade the high and holy name, are most unreliable and unsatisfactory things. True friendships are as rare as they are precious. Prosperity attracts to us a large number of so-called friends, but adversity tests them, and sometimes all fail in the trial, as did those of the Psalmist. His acquaintance all forsook him, and regarded him with abhorrence or loathing.

5. His trouble was from the hand of God. It seemed to the Psalmist that all his distresses came to him from the hand of God. “Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit,” &c. “Thou hast afflicted,” &c. “Thou hast put away,” &c. When faith is in lively exercise it is a relief in trouble to know that the trouble comes from God. Then the tried saint softly sings,

“It is Thy hand, my God;
My sorrow comes from Thee:

I bow beneath Thy chastening rod,

Tis love that bruises me.
My God, Thy name is love,
A Father’s hand is Thine;

With tearful eyes I look above,

And cry,—Thy will be mine I
I know Thy will is right,
Though it may seem severe;

Thy path is still unsullied light,

Though dark it may appear.”—Darby.

But not thus did the matter present itself to the mind of the Psalmist. That his troubles were from the hand of God seemed to him a sore aggravation of those troubles. Evil from so good a hand appeared quite intolerable to him. So deep was his depression, that while feeling acutely the adversity, he could not perceive any of its “sweet uses.” The bitterness of his draught he realised completely; its medicinal properties he entirely lost sight of. Everything seemed to aggravate his misery.

6. His trouble was an expression of the wrath of God. “Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and Thou hast afflicted me with all Thy waves.” So far was the Psalmist from regarding his distresses as coming from the chastening hand of a Father, that he looked upon them as punishments from the hand of an angry God. Like a huge and insupportable burden, God’s wrath was crushing him to the earth; and as the breakers of the stormy ocean dash in thunder and fury upon the shore, so God in anger seemed to be afflicting the Psalmist. We have, indeed, a great depth of affliction here. The deep darkness of this picture of distress has not often been equalled in the history of suffering humanity. Before leaving this part of our subject we shall do well to lay to heart two facts.

(1) That the best of men in this life are exposed to severe sufferings and trials. Suffering is not necessarily a sign of the Divine displeasure. “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth,” &c.

(2) That the best of men in this life are liable to misinterpret the meaning of suffering. Under the burden of severe distresses “even the children of God’s love may sometimes apprehend themselves children of wrath, and no outward trouble can lie so hard upon them as that apprehension.”

II. A great urgency of prayer. “O Lord God of my salvation, I hare cried,” &c. His prayer was—

1. Directed to God. “I have cried day and night before Thee: let my prayer come before Thee,” &c. With steady aim he directed his complaints and petitions to God. His appeal was intended to reach the ear, and move the heart, of God. The notice or approbation of men the Psalmist neither sought nor wanted; but his heart was set on obtaining the regard of God. He is the Hearer and Answerer of prayer. “He is, and He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” Moreover, the Psalmist sought the Lord as the God of his salvation. There is a tone of confidence in the address. Bad as things are with him, he is not without hope. He looks for salvation, and he looks for it to God. This is the only cheerful beam which shines in the Psalm.

2. Earnest. “I have cried,” &c. “I have stretched out my hands unto Thee.” The Psalmist’s application to God was not a half-hearted, listless thing. He uttered an earnest “cry” for help, and “stretched out his hands” in fervent prayer. Jeremy Taylor says: “When, in order to your hopes of obtaining a great blessing, you reckon up your prayers with which you have solicited your suit in the court of heaven, you must reckon, not by the number of the collects, but by your sighs and passions, by the vehemence of your desires and the fervour of your spirit, the apprehension of your need and the consequent prosecution of your supply.”

3. Unceasing. “I have cried day and night before Thee. I have called daily upon Thee.” Without intermission he sought the Lord in prayer. His afflictions prevented him from resting, and in his unrest he constantly sought God in supplication. “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint.” “Praying always with all prayer,” &c. “Pray without ceasing.” Such importunity, as the expression of earnest desire, is well-pleasing to God. Yet the author of this Psalm was like the Psalmist David in this respect, that for a time there seemed to be “neither voice nor any to answer, nor any that regarded;” and he might have adopted his words, “O my God, I cry in the day time, and Thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.” For a time no answer came to his earnest and unceasing cry. Yet God will speedily “avenge His own elect, who cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them.”

CONCLUSION. Let the distressed child of God be encouraged to persevere in prayer. In His own wise and good time the Lord will appear for thee, and “turn the shadow of death into morning,” and change thy mournful complaint into a joyful Psalm.


(Psalms 88:10-18)

From complaint and prayer the Psalmist proceeds to very forcible expostulation with the Lord God. And in this expostulation he reveals—

I. His extreme distress. He speaks of himself as,

1. Cast off by God. “Lord, why castest Thou off my soul? Why hidest Thou Thy face from me?” Through suffering and sorrow he was unable to see the face of God. The tears of his distress had for the time blinded his eyes, so that he was unable to recognise the gracious presence of God. But He had not cast off his soul. “For the Lord will not cast off His people, neither will He forsake His inheritance.” The mists and clouds which obscure the sun, and give to us dark and cheerless November days arise from the earth. The sun shines ever. And the hiding of God’s face from His people is by reason of their sins, and sorrows, and sufferings. His faithfulness and love are unchangeable. Nevertheless, when His people feel abandoned by Him, unspeakably sore is their suffering.

2. Almost deprived of reason. “I am distracted.” Pain and sorrow, doubt and fear, had so wrought upon him that he was unable to think or reason calmly. His suffering and anxiety and grief seemed to have disturbed the balance of his mind. Calmness he could not command. He was trembling on the brink of madness. As we know, there have been instances in which extreme suffering has led to insanity, and great spiritual depression and anxieties have issued in mental derangement. The Psalmist felt himself to be in danger of this.

3. Terrified by the wrath of God. “I suffer Thy terrors,” &c. The idea that God was pursuing him in wrath with His plagues is a deep conviction with him. That wrath seems to burn fiercely against him, and he cannot escape from it. Or, like an angry sea, it surrounds him, and its wild billows course over and beat upon him. Alas! for the child of God passing through experiences like unto these! Yet the Psalmist is not the only one who has travelled through this dark, distressing, dangerous valley. We rejoice, however, to know that One, whose “form is like the Son of God,” walketh with them, though they see Him not. While He is with them no real evil shall befall them.

II. His misconception of God. “Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; Thy terrors have cut me off.” What he regarded as the “fierce wrath” of God, was the loving though severe discipline of a wise and kind Father. When he thought that God had cast off his soul, God was educating and enriching his soul by means of suffering. When to him all things appeared sadly and sternly against him, God was causing all things to work together for his good. A sense of sin, and much and severe suffering, led him to misconceive the character and dealings of God. He spake hastily and unadvisedly as to God’s “fierce wrath.” God does not pour forth His fury upon His people. If He chasten us sorely, it is not in anger, but in love that He does so. It is the consciousness of sin and unscriptural theological notions that lead us in suffering to behold an angry God.

III. His nearness to death. “Wilt Thou show wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise Thee?” &c. “I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up.” In these verses, the Psalmist speaks of himself as almost dead, as on the very brink of the grave, as swiftly passing into the land of darkness and forgetfulness. He does this as a reason why God should speedily appear for his help. If deliverance came not quickly, he would be beyond the reach of it. (On his nearness to death, see our remarks in the preceding sketch.)

IV. His belief that there are duties and privileges, the discharge and enjoyment of which are limited to the present life. “Wilt Thou show wonders to the dead?” &c. (Psalms 88:10-12). These verses have a despondent if not a despairing accent. Yet it would be rash to affirm that the Poet had no faith in a future life, or that he regarded death as the extinction of being. But to him Sheol was a dark and gloomy realm, where God’s wonders were not made known, where His praise was not celebrated, where remembrance had ceased, and where destruction seemed supreme. Such seem to have been the ideas which he then entertained of the state of the dead. In that day life and immortality were not revealed as they now are in the Gospel. The great truth for us to seize is this, that there are duties to be done now which cannot be done beyond this life, and privileges to be enjoyed now which probably cannot be enjoyed when we have passed hence and are no more seen. This is true,

1. Of our own salvation. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” There is nothing in the Scriptures to warrant the belief that God will show the wonders of His saving power to the dead—

“There are no acts of pardon past
In the cold grave to which we haste;”

wherefore, “seek ye the Lord while He may be found,” &c.

2. Of many ministries to others. It is our privilege now to lead the lost to the Saviour, to reclaim the wanderer, and raise the fallen, to comfort the sorrowful, and succour the distressed. Such Christ-like ministries are probably confined to this present world and life. Wherefore, “whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for,” &c.

V. His faith in God. This is manifest—

1. In His expostulations, and especially in that of the fourteenth verse, “Lord, why castest Thou off my soul? why hidest Thou Thy face from me?” In these and in his other inquiries the Psalmist manifests his faith in

(1) the faithfulness, and

(2) the righteousness of God. Was He not a covenant-keeping God? Was He not righteous in all His ways? “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

2. In his prayers. The Psalmist would not have cried to God in prayer, and resolved to have anticipated Him in the morning with his supplications, if he had not believed in—

(1) The accessibility of God. Though on the brink of the grave, he knew that he could draw near to the mercy-seat of God.

(2) The power of God to save him. Extreme as his case was, he knew that the God of his salvation was able to meet and master it. He is “mighty to save.” He saves “unto the uttermost.”

(3) The mercy of God. Though it seemed that His fierce wrath was going over him, yet he knew that there was mercy in the Divine heart, or he would not have cried unto Him. Sad as was the case of the Psalmist, it might have been worse; for his faith had not utterly failed him. He still turned in prayer to the Lord as the God of his salvation.

CONCLUSION.—Let great sufferers and despondent souls take encouragement even from this most pensive of all the pensive Psalms. It teaches us that in the deepest distress and the greatest extremity—

1. The Lord is still the God of our salvation.

2. The way is still open to the throne of grace.

3. While faith and prayer are not utterly extinguished our case may be extreme, but it is not desperate. From above, the Lord saith, “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.”

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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 88". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.