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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Psalms 88

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

The dismal complaint of this psalm has nothing to equal it in the entire Psalter, or to compare with it for sadness in the Old Testament, except Ecclesiastes and Lamentations of Jeremiah. It would be difficult to discover its claim to be classed as a Maschil, or instructive psalm, unless in view of its warning tone, considered as the lament of one suffering under the weight of retributive providence. Except Psalms 88:1; Psalms 88:13, no definite indication of hope or faith appears; yet, from the very fact of such complaint and supplication, faith is implied. The complaint must not be considered personal; the author speaks in behalf of the people. He suffers with them, but it is their affliction which is set forth. The psalm has been regarded as standing in intimate relation to Psalms 89:0, to Psalms 89:38-51 of which it bears resemblance, and Hengstenberg regards them as parts of one whole; but in other respects the strong faith of the latter stands in marked contrast with the unrelieved despondency of the one before us. Psalms 88:0 develops the complaint, while the second part, (Psalms 89:0,) brings forth the prayer of an oppressed but hopeful people. The internal evidence of both points us to the captivity, and Psalms 88:0, probably to the imprisonment of Jehoiachin, as the date and occasion of its origin. Jeremiah 22:23-30, (where Jehoiachin is called Coniah,) and Jer 52:31-34 ; 2 Kings 24:8-16. In Psalms 88:1-2 the psalmist pours forth an earnest cry for help; Psalms 88:3-9 describe his miserable condition, on which he grounds his supplication; Psalms 88:10-12 are a still further ground of plea, as showing that the glory of God can be better served in his salvation than in his destruction: Psalms 88:13 revives the prayer, which, with a description of his wretched state, continues to the end.

TITLE: The inscription is exuberant. The words שׁור מזמור , ( shir mizmor,) song-psalm, here as elsewhere, are difficult. They cannot make a simple tautology; and if they are a musical designation, perhaps the song denotes vocal, and the psalm, ( mizmor,) instrumental, performance.

Mahalath Gesenius, on a comparison of the Ethiopic, makes it a lyre, guitar, to be accompanied by the voice; but Furst, more simple, (though the words are from different roots,) derives it from the city of Abel-Meholah, (see Judges 7:22; 1 Kings 4:12; 1 Kings 19:16,) where it is supposed the musical choir lived. But whatever its derivation, the term had come to designate a musical mode, or instrument, as in Psalms 53:0, title, the only place of its occurrence elsewhere.

Leannoth Literally, To afflict, or cause affliction. Mudge: “To create dejection, to raise a pensive gloom or melancholy in the mind,” to which the whole psalm is adapted. The Septuagint reads, To answer, or, For responsive strains, αποκριθηναι , as in 1 Samuel 18:6-7, “the women answered one another as they played, and said,” etc. Hammond thinks the psalm should be divided into two parts: part first, Psalms 88:1-8; part second, Psalms 88:9-18: and that the responses were not in alternate lines or verses, but from the parts. Thus, the first voice giving Psalms 88:1, is answered by Psalms 88:9; Psalms 88:3, by Psalms 88:10, etc. But though this would give great effect to the execution, the former sense is better sustained. The Maschil, or causing to understand, must refer to the warning tone of the psalm from one who is suffering under the divine displeasure. His example is a beacon light to others.

Heman the Ezrahite, who stands as the author in the title, and “Ethan the Ezrahite” in title of Psalms 89:0, are not the same as the Heman and Ethan, Levites, mentioned in 1 Chronicles 6:33; 1 Chronicles 6:44. Their being Ezrahites or Zarhites that is, sons of Ezra or Zerah (for the aleph [ א ] in the name is prosthetic, or simply prefixed to Zerah, making it Ezrah, without at all affecting the identity of the name, which occurs indifferently in either form,) determines them to be a family of the tribe of Judah, called Ezrahites (1 Kings 4:31, of Hebrews text, Psalms 5:11,) and Zarhites, or “sons of Zerah.” 1 Chronicles 2:6. It was a wellknown patronymic in the tribe of Judah, (see Numbers 26:13; Numbers 26:20; Joshua 7:17-18; 1 Chronicles 27:11; 1 Chronicles 27:13,) but no such genealogical designation is given to the Ethan and Heman of the tribe of Levi. Of the Ezrahite or Zarhite family, Ethan and Heman were celebrated by being classed with the five wise men who were excelled in wisdom only by Solomon. 1 Kings 4:31. It would be natural for the authors, or subsequent compiler, of Psalms 88, 89 to identify them with their honourable ancestry, and add the sanction of their family renown to their productions. They appear nowhere else in the psalms, and of their history nothing further than the above references is given in the sacred annals. These circumstances of kindred ancestry of the authors of these two psalms, and their renown for wisdom, as we have seen in the references, though not proving the absolute unity of the psalms, as Hengstenberg has argued, may account for their marked resemblance. The authors being probably allied to the court of the kings of Judah would naturally enter into the great depth of the national catastrophe. The strong pleading of the covenant of David, (Psalms 89:19-37,) also coincides with this view.

Verse 1

1. O Lord God of my salvation A genuine outburst of holy trust in the faithfulness of God; but the sunshine is soon lost amid the blackest clouds.

Day and night Unceasingly and for a long time. So David, Psalms 22:2

Verse 2

2. Let my prayer come before thee My prayer shall come before thee. The future tense and declarative form of the verb indicate faith and purpose in the suppliant to seek help only and continually in God.

Verse 3

3. For my soul is full of troubles Life can endure no more. From this to Psalms 88:9, the author urges his great distress as an argument for the divine interposition.

My life draweth nigh unto the grave My life reacheth to, or toucheth, sheol. This proximity to death is called “gates of death,” Psalms 9:13; Psalms 107:18

Verse 4

4. I am counted I am already reckoned among the dead. The pit Another word for grave, and equal to sheol, Psalms 88:3. See Psalms 88:6.

As a man that hath no strength Literally, As a strong man, or warrior, without strength.

Verse 5

5. Free among the dead If הפשׁי , ( haphshee,) is to be translated free, as in the common version, which is its prevailing sense; it must here denote freedom “from the cares and oppression of life,” and so Dr. Robinson.

Thus it is used, Job 3:19, “There [in death] the servant is free from the master.” This sense also would suit to the political condition of the author. Death would free him from the Chaldean yoke. But this is not in harmony with the connexion or scope. Better to translate prostrate among the dead. Furst: “My couch is among the dead.” Gesenius: “Among the dead I am laid prostrate.” The next clause explains it.

Like the slain that lie in the grave Like those killed in battle who lie down in the grave. The expression is very strong. It is not merely to die, nor to be buried, but to be in sheol among the spirits of the departed. So the same verb, to lie, signifies, (Genesis 47:30,) “I will lie with my fathers.”

Whom thou rememberest no more That is, with a view to treat them as living men upon the earth. The word remember is never used in the metaphysical sense of simply recalling past impressions or ideas, but always in the ethical sense that is, with the adsignification of the object or purpose of remembering.

From thy hand By thy hand. So Exodus 2:23:

“Sighed by reason of the bondage.” Hebrew, Sighed from, that is, from the effects of, their bondage. In the text the reference is to those who are dead from from the effects of God’s hand by reason of his judgments.

Verse 6

6. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit In Psalms 88:4-5, he was already in the pit and in sheol. Here, in the “lowest” or deepest pit.

In darkness The pit is so deep that the daylight is shut out.

In the deeps The depths of the ocean are intended, (as in Nehemiah 9:11; Job 41:31; Psalms 107:24,) to the Hebrew always a mystery and a terror. But the psalmist might have comforted himself by the promise of Psalms 68:22. Compare “lowest sheol” and “lower parts of the earth.” Psalm 67:9; Psalms 86:13

Verse 7

7. Thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves The figure of the deeps, Psalms 88:6, is brought forward. He is in the boiling depths of the ocean, and a heavy tempest is raging over him. See Jonah 2:3; Psalms 42:7

Verse 8

8. Mine acquaintance The neighbouring nations. The psalmist is speaking from the soul of his people. The social aspect of his sufferings now appears.

An abomination unto them Abominations, the plural form, is intensive an assemblage of abominations. The hatred and loathing contempt of the neighbouring nations developed fearfully against the Hebrews at the time of their fall by the Chaldeans. See Psalms 137:7; Ezekiel 26:2; Zephaniah 2:8-9; Lamentations 3:14.

I am shut up, and I cannot come forth An unquestionable description of prison life, fitly applying to King Jehoiachin, who passed thirty-six years of the captivity in a Babylonian prison. 2Ki 24:12 ; 2 Kings 24:15; 2 Kings 25:27-30; Jeremiah 52:31-34. See Lamentations 3:6-9

Verse 9

9. Mine eye mourneth… I have called daily… I have stretched out my hands My eye, voice, and hands give expression daily of my suffering and peril, and plead for me. Thus far the psalmist’s prayer is grounded on his miserable state, but now he introduces another argument, and pleads that God will be glorified more in his salvation than in his death.

Verse 10

10. Wilt thou show wonders to the dead A wonder, singular, a token, a proof of saving power and favour. God’s “wonders,” for the edification of living men, are shown to the living, not to the dead. Why, then, should he be left to die?

Shall the dead arise and praise thee The “dead,” here, does not refer to dead bodies, but to disembodied spirits, or, as the ancient idea was, the shades or manes of the dead; and the rising must not be understood of a resurrection of the body, but of the rising up, as from a recumbent posture, of the shades or spirits of the departed in their abode in sheol. רפאים , ( rephaim,) here translated dead, is a different word from “dead” in the previous clause, and is the term for giants, (as Genesis 14:5; Deuteronomy 2:11; Deuteronomy 2:20,) and the climax seems to require the sense of mighty dead, or shades of the mighty, as in Isaiah 14:9: “Sheol… raiseth for thee the mighty dead, all the great chiefs of the earth.” Lowth. These spirits were living, but had no sensible connexion with this world. The sense, therefore, is this: “Wilt thou produce a wonder to the dead? Shall the [spirits of the] mighty dead rise up [in their abode in sheol] and praise thee?” Nothing could make it more clear that the Hebrews considered living men to be debarred all direct intercommunion with the dead, so that the latter could not rise up and declare to the living what are the divine dispensations to them, and thus cause their experiences to become salutary to the living. And hence the argument all along implies, that if help were not quickly shown to the suppliant psalmist, while yet numbered with the living, the moral effect of his deliverance would be lost, and God would not be glorified by it. As to the supposed adverse bearing of this and other texts on the belief of man’s immortality, see on Psalms 115:17, and the references there made. We say with Bishop Alexander: “How could Christianity, all quivering with the hopes and fears of another life, have issued from Judaism, if Judaism had possessed nothing of the kind?”

Verse 11

11. Destruction The Hebrew word is simply parallel to grave in the previous line; equal to sheol, place of the dead. There is no allusion whatever to annihilation. These poetical descriptions must always be construed phenomenally, as they appear to the eye with reference to living men, never in the abstract or metaphysical sense.

Verse 12

12. The dark Same as “grave.” So αδης , hades, (answering everywhere to שׁאול , sheol,) is compounded of α , privative, ( not,) and ειδω , ( to see,) not to see, unseen, and means the world I do not see, the unseen world. The same is called darkness in the text.

Land of forgetfulness So called because the dead, after a few generations, are generally forgotten from the records of the living. This is true to fact in all ages with the masses of mankind. And is not death, in its physical aspect, still viewed, under the Christian religion, in the same chilling and gloomy light? Even the Saviour said: “The night cometh, when no man can work.” John 9:4. To the instincts of our nature death must ever be saddening and abhorrent. Its terrors are swallowed up only through faith and hope in the infinite “beyond” a moral victory over what is still, per se, an unchanged natural evil. “The psalter would be incomplete without expressions of the sadness which comes with the prospect of death.” Bishop Alexander. Without this a great moral lesson would be lost, and the Bible would be untrue to itself and to nature.

Verse 13

13. Unto thee have I cried Here faith rallies and reasserts herself, as in Psalms 88:1. No relief has yet come, but the psalmist gives himself to prayer, which itself implies hope.

Verse 14

14. Lord, why Still the mystery returns to perplex. Why should God thus, by delay, seem to choose his destruction rather than his salvation?

Verse 15

15. Ready to die from my youth up Literally, Dying from my youth. So repeated and terrible were the chastisements of God for disobedience, from the days of Moses till now, that, comparatively, the nation had lived a dying life. What an experience for a professed worshipper of God, whether Jew or Christian!

Verse 16

16. Cut me off Thy terrible judgments have severed me from the living.

Verse 17

17. They came round… like water The figure again changes. The psalmist is enclosed in a flood, and whelmed, as in Psalms 88:6-7

Verse 18

18. Lover and friend The removal of these may well form the climax of his misery. All lost; not even the sympathy of friendship left to alleviate the horror of his despair.

Mine acquaintance into darkness Hebrew, My acquaintances… darkness. “Into,” is not in the text. The idea is, not that God had put his acquaintances (plural) “into” darkness, but that with darkness, henceforth, should be his intimate and only companionship. The complaint has now reached its climax, as in Job 17:14: “I called to corruption, Thou art my father; to the worm, Thou art my mother and my sister.” Such complaints, like Ecclesiastes, seem designed to suggest what human sorrow is, and must be, apart from the hope of divine favour and eternal life. See Psalms 143:3; Lamentations 3:6.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Psalms 88". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.