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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 88

Verses 1-18

Psalms 88:1-18

A PSALM which begins with "God of my salvation" and ends with "darkness" is an anomaly. All but unbroken gloom broods over it, and is densest at its close. The psalmist is so "weighed upon by sore distress," that he has neither definite petition for deliverance nor hope. His cry to God is only a long-drawn complaint, which brings no respite from his pains nor brightening of his spirit. But yet to address God as the God of his salvation, to discern His hand in the infliction of sorrows, is the operation of true though feeble faith. "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him," is the very spirit of this psalm. It stands alone in the Psalter, which would be incomplete as a mirror of phases of devout experience, unless it had one psalm expressing trust which has ceased to ask or hope for the removal of life-long griefs, but still clasps God’s hand even in the "darkness." Such experience is comparatively rare, and is meant to be risen above. Therefore this psalm stands alone. But it is not unexampled, and all moods of the devout life would not find lyrical expression in the book unless this deep note was once sounded.

It is useless to inquire what was the psalmist’s affliction. His language seems to point to physical disease of long continuance and ever threatening a fatal termination; but in all probability sickness is a symbol here, as so often. What racked his sensitive spirit matters little. The cry which his pains evoked is what we are concerned with. There is little trace of strophical arrangement, and commentators differ much in their disposition of the parts of the psalm. But we venture to suggest a principle of division which has not been observed, in the threefold recurrence of "I cry" or "I call," accompanied in each case by direct address to Jehovah. The resulting division into three parts gives, first, the psalmist’s description of his hopeless condition as, in effect, already dead (Psalms 88:1-8); second, an expostulation with God on the ground that, if the psalmist is actually numbered with the dead, he can no more be the object of Divine help, nor bring God praise (Psalms 88:9-12); and, third, a repetition of the thoughts of the first part with slight variation and addition (Psalms 88:13-18).

The central portion of the first division is occupied with an expansion of the thought that the psalmist is already as good as dead (Psalms 88:3-6). The condition of the dead is drawn with a powerful hand and the picture is full of solemn grandeur and hopelessness. It is preceded in Psalms 88:1-2, by an invocation which has many parallels in the psalms, but which here is peculiarly striking. This saddest of them all has for its first words the Name Which ought to banish sadness. He who can call on Jehovah as the God of his salvation possesses a charm which has power to still agitation, and to flush despair with some light of hope as from an unrisen sun. But this poet feels no warmth from the beams, and the mists surge up, if not to hide the light, yet to obscure it. All the more admirable, then, the persistence of his cry; and all the more precious the lesson that Faith is not to let present experience limit its conceptions. God is none the less the God of salvation and none the less to be believed to be so though no consciousness of His saving power blesses the heart at the moment.

Psalms 88:1 b is obscure. Psalms 22:2 and other places suggest that the juxtaposition of day and night is meant to express the continuity of the psalmist’s prayer; but, as the text now stands, the first part of the clause can only mean "In the time (day) when I cry," and the second has to be supplemented so as to read "[My cry comes] before Thee." This gives a poor meaning, and there is probability in the slight emendation on the word for day; which is required in order to make it an adverb of time equivalent to "In the day," as in the passage already quoted. Another emendation, adopted by Graetz, Bickell, and Cheyne, changes "God of" into "my God," and "my salvation" into "I cry" (the same word as in Psalms 88:13), and attaches "by day" to the first clause. The result is, -

Jehovah, my God,

I cry to Thee by day,

I call in the night before Thee.

The changes are very slight and easy, and the effect of them is satisfactory: The meaning of the verse is obvious, whether the emendation is accepted or not. The gain from the proposed change is dearly purchased by the loss of that solitary expression of hope in the name of "God of my salvation," the one star which gleams for a moment through a rift in the blackness.

With "For" in Psalms 88:3 the psalmist begins the dreary description of his affliction, the desperate and all but deadly character of which he spreads before God as a reason for hearing his prayer. Despair sometimes strikes men dumb, and sometimes makes them eloquent. The sorrow which has a voice is less crushing than that which is tongueless. This overcharged heart finds relief in self-pitying depicting of its burdens, and in the exercise of a gloomy imagination, which draws out in detail the picture of the feebleness, the recumbent stillness, the seclusion and darkness of the dead. They have "no strength." Their vital force has ebbed away, and they are but as weak shadows, having an impotent existence, which does not deserve to be called life. The remarkable expression of Psalms 88:5 "free among the dead," is to be interpreted in the light of Job 3:19, which counts it as one blessing of the grave, that "there the servant is free from his master." But the psalmist thinks that that "freedom" is loathsome, not desirable, for it means removal from the stir of a life, the heaviest duties and cares of which are better than the torpid immunity from these, which makes the state of the dead a dreary monotony. They lie stretched out and motionless. No ripple of cheerful activity stirs that stagnant sea. One unvarying attitude is theirs. It is not the stillness of rest which prepares for work, but of incapacity of action or of change. They are forgotten by Him who remembers all that are. They are parted from the guiding and blessing influence of the Hand that upholds all being. In some strange fashion they are and yet are not. Their death has a simulacrum of life. Their shadowy life is death. Being and non-being may both be predicated of them. The psalmist speaks in riddles; and the contradictions in his speech reflect his dim knowledge of that place of darkness. He looks into its gloomy depths, and he sees little but gloom. It needed the resurrection of Jesus to flood these depths with light, and to show that the life beyond may be fuller of bright activity than life here-a state in which vital strength is increased beyond all earthly experience, and wherein God’s all-quickening hand grasps more closely, and communicates richer gifts than are attainable in that death which sense calls life.

Psalms 88:7 traces the psalmist’s sorrows to God. It breathes not complaint but submission, or, at least, recognition of His hand; and they who, in the very paroxysm of their pains, can say, "It is the Lord," are not far from saying, "Let Him do what seemeth Him good," nor from the peace that comes from a compliant will. The recognition implies, too, consciousness of sin which has deserved the "wrath" of God, and in such consciousness lies the germ of blessing. Sensitive nerves may quiver, as they feel the dreadful weight with which that wrath presses down on them, as if to crush them; but if the man lies still, and lets the pressure do its work, it will not force out his life, but only his evil, as foul water is squeezed from cloth. Psalms 88:7 b is rendered by Delitzsch "And Thy billows Thou pressest down," which gives a vivid picture; but "billows" is scarcely the word to use for the downward rushing waters of a cataract, and the ordinary rendering, adopted above, requires only natural supplements.

Psalms 88:8 approaches nearer to a specification of the psalmist’s affliction. If taken literally, it points to some loathsome disease, which had long clung to him, and made even his, friends shrink from companionship, and thus had condemned him to isolation. All these details suggest leprosy, which, if referred to here, is most probably to be taken, as sickness is in several psalms, as symbolic of affliction. The desertion by friends is a common feature in the psalmist’s complaints. The seclusion as in a prison house is, no doubt, appropriate to the leper’s condition, but may also simply refer to the loneliness and compulsory inaction arising from heavy trials. At all events, the psalmist is flung back friendless on himself, and hemmed in, so that he cannot expatiate in the joyous bustle of life. Blessed are they who, when thus situated, can betake themselves to God, and find that He does not turn away! The consciousness of His loving presence has. not yet lighted the psalmist’s soul; but the clear acknowledgment that it is God who has put the sweetness of earthly companionship beyond his reach is, at least, the beginning of the happier experience, that God never makes a solitude round a soul without desiring to fill it with Himself.

If the recurring cry to Jehovah in Psalms 88:9 is taken, as we have suggested it should be, as marking a new turn in the thoughts, the second part of the psalm will include Psalms 88:9-12. Psalms 88:10-12 are apparently the daily prayer referred to in Psalms 88:9. They appeal to God to preserve the psalmist from the state of death, which he has just depicted himself as having in effect already entered, by the consideration which is urged in other psalms as a reason for Divine intervention {Psalms 6:5; Psalms 30:9, etc.} -namely, that His power had no field for its manifestation in the grave, and that He could draw no revenue of praise from the pale lips that lay silent there. The conception of the state of the dead is even more dreary than that in Psalms 88:4-5. They are "shades," which word conveys the idea of relaxed feebleness. Their dwelling is Abaddon-i.e., "destruction,"-"darkness," "the land of forgetfulness" whose inhabitants remember not, nor are remembered, either by God or man. In that cheerless region God had no opportunity to show His wonders of delivering mercy, for monotonous immobility was stamped upon it, and out of that realm of silence no glad songs of praise could sound. Such thoughts are in startling contrast with the hopes that sparkle in some psalms (such as Psalms 16:10, etc.), and they show that clear, permanent assurance of future blessedness was net granted to the ancient Church. Nor could there be sober certainty of it until after Christ’s resurrection. But it is also to be noticed that this psalm neither affirms nor denies a future resurrection. It does affirm continuous personal existence after death, of however thin and shadowy a sort. It is not concerned with what may lie far ahead, but is speaking of the present state of the dead, as it was conceived of, at the then stage of revelation, by a devout soul, in its hours of despondency.

The last part (Psalms 88:13-18) is marked, like the two preceding, by the repetition of the name of Jehovah, and of the allusion to the psalmist’s continual prayer. It is remarkable, and perhaps significant, that the time of prayer should here be "the morning," whereas in Psalms 88:1 it was, according to Delitzsch, the night, or, according to the other rendering, day and night. The psalmist had asked in Psalms 88:2 that his prayer might enter into God’s presence; he now vows that it will come to meet Him. Possibly some lightening of his burden may be hinted at by the reference to the time of his petition. Morning is the hour of hope, of new vigour, of a fresh beginning, which may not be only a prolongation of dreary yesterdays. But if there is any such alleviation, it is only for a moment, and then the cloud settles down still more heavily. But one thing the psalmist has won by his cry. He now longs to know the reason for his affliction. He is confident that God is righteous when He afflicts, and, heavy as his sorrow is, he has passed beyond mere complaint concerning it, to the wish to understand it. The consciousness that it is chastisement, occasioned by his own evil, and meant to purge that evil away, is present, in a rudimentary form at least in that cry, "Why castest Thou off my soul?" If sorrow has brought a man to offer that prayer, it has done its work, and will cease before long, or, if it lasts, will be easier to bear, when its meaning and purpose are clear. But the psalmist rises to such a height but for a moment, though his momentary attaining it gives promise that he will, by degrees, be able to remain there permanently. It is significant that the only direct naming of Jehovah, in addition to the three which accompany the references to his prayers, is associated with this petition for enlightenment. The singer presses close to God in his faith that His hardest blows are not struck at random, and that His administration has for its basis, not caprice but reason, moved by love and righteousness.

Such a cry is never offered in vain, even though it should be followed, as it is here, by plaintive reiterations of the sufferer’s pains. These are now little more than a summary of the first part. The same idea of being in effect dead even while alive is repeated in Psalms 88:15, in which the psalmist wails that from youth he had been but a dying man, so close to him had death seemed, or so death-like bad been his life. He has borne God’s terrors till be is distracted. The word rendered "I am distracted" is only used here, and consequently is obscure. Hupfeld and others deny that it is a word at all (he calls it an "Unwort"), and would read another which means to become torpid. The existing text is defended by Delitzsch and others, who take the word to mean to be weakened in mind or bewildered. The meaning of the whole seems to be as rendered above. But it might also be translated, as by Cheyne, "I bear Thy terrors, my senses must fail." In Psalms 88:16 the word for wrath is in the plural, to express the manifold outbursts of that deadly indignation. The word means literally heat; and we may represent the psalmist’s thought as being that the wrath shoots forth many fierce tongues of licking flame, or, like a lava stream, pours out in many branches. The word rendered "Cut me off" is anomalous, and is variously translated annihilate, extinguish, or as above. The wrath which was a fiery flame in Psalms 88:16 is an overwhelming flood in Psalms 88:17. The complaint of Psalms 88:8 recurs in Psalms 88:18, in still more tragic form. All human sympathy and help are far away, and the psalmist’s only familiar friend is darkness. There is an infinitude of despair in that sad irony. But there is a gleam of hope, though faint and far, like faint daylight seen from the innermost recesses of a dark tunnel, in his recognition that his dismal solitude is the work of God’s hand; for, if God has made a heart or a life empty of human love, it is that He may Himself fill it with His own sweet and all-compensating presence.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 88". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".