Psalm 88

A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. To the Chief Musician. Set to “Mahalath Leannoth.” A Contemplation of Heman the Ezrahite.

1 O Lord, God of my salvation,
I have cried out day and night before You.

2 Let my prayer come before You;
Incline Your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of troubles,
And my life draws near to the grave.

4 I am counted with those who go down to the pit;
I am like a man who has no strength,

5 Adrift among the dead,
Like the slain who lie in the grave,
Whom You remember no more,
And who are cut off from Your hand.

You have laid me in the lowest pit,
In darkness, in the depths.

7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
And You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah

8 You have put away my acquaintances far from me;
You have made me an abomination to them;
I am shut up, and I cannot get out;

My eye wastes away because of affliction.
Lord, I have called daily upon You;
I have stretched out my hands to You.

10 Will You work wonders for the dead?
Shall the dead arise and praise You? Selah

11 Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave?
Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction?

12 Shall Your wonders be known in the dark?
And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

13 But to You I have cried out, O Lord,
And in the morning my prayer comes before You.

14 Lord, why do You cast off my soul?
Why do You hide Your face from me?

15 I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth;
I suffer Your terrors;
I am distraught.

16 Your fierce wrath has gone over me;
Your terrors have cut me off.

17 They came around me all day long like water;
They engulfed me altogether.

18 Loved one and friend You have put far from me,
And my acquaintances into darkness.

This psalm is accompanied by the concise instruction “according to Mahalat (“Sickness,” “Entreaty,” or “Pardon”) Le-annot (“for singing loudly” as in vs. 1 and 13). It is attributed to the sons (i.e., descendants) of Korah and, in particular, to Heman the Ezrahite, who, according to 1 Chronicles 6:33-37 and 15:17-19 was a descendant of Korah appointed by David as one of three Levitical sings “of the first rank” (the others being Ethan, whose psalm immediately follows this one, and Asaph, whose psalms [77-83] are presented at the beginning of this Third Book). — Wechsler, page 214.

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That this psalm is, first of all, a response to God’s chastisement is evident from what the psalmist says in verses 6-8 (as throughout the entirety of the third section), in which he attributes the severe distress he is experiencing directly to God, employing expressions that are the same or similar to those used elsewhere to describe divine chastisement. … As a consequence of God’s chastisement the psalmist here laments the loss of his vitality—both his physical strength (v.4) as well as his emotional strength (v.9— i.e., his grief is so intense that his tears are “used up”). — Wechsler, page 214-215.

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In [verses 10-12] the psalmist laments the fact that, lest God’s chastisement is lifted, he will die from his affliction and be incapable (until his day of resurrection) to worship God through praise. The psalmist refers specifically to those characteristics that most characterize and undergird God’s consistent paternal interaction with Israel, including His chastising of them and lifting of that chastisement (what the psalmist here implores)—to wit: His wonders, His lovingkindness, His faithfulness, and His righteousness. — Wechsler, page 215.

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The psalmist laments, finally [in verses 13-18] what is to him the most distressing of all the consequences of God’s chastisement—to wit: his sense of discord in his relationship with God. This is not to say the psalmist believes that, because of the sin(s) for which he is being chastised, his relationship with God has been severed or annulled, but rather, and more precisely, that the proper (i.e., healthy, unhindered) experience of that relationship has been diminished or “blocked.” The psalmist’s reference to God “rejecting” him (v.14) is thus not intended as an actual statement of fact, but as an expression representing the tortured depth of his feelings at the time. — Wechsler, page 215-216.

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my acquaintances into darkness (v.18) — literally “my friends are darkness,” i.e. there is nothing to be seen but darkness and hopelessness where he might reasonably and rightly expect light and relief. Aptly, but dreadfully, the last word of the psalm is “darkness,” and yet therein lies its wonder—the wonder of triumphant faith, that a man should see no light at all but yet go on supplicating in fervent, trustful, ceaseless prayer. — Guthrie, page 506.

Williams’ take:

As Jonah was three days and three nights in the power of death, and shut up in the dark prison of the sea monster, so was the Greater than Jonah three days and three nights in the dominion of death, and shut up in the darkness of the abyss (Matthew 12:40-41). And as Jonah trusted and prayed and believed for deliverance, so did the Messiah. And as the Holy Spirit has given to the world the words of Jonah’s prayer, so has He given in this Psalm the words of Messiah’s prayer. …

Just as He trusted God during His lifetime, and when hanging on the cross, so He trusted Him when imprisoned in Sheol. Confessing that He was shut up there and could not come forth (v.8), yet He believed that God would surely deliver Him (v.1); and He looked forward in faith to the resurrection of the third morning (v.13).

This Psalm is unique in that it does not end in a burst of sunshine, as usual, but in deepest night. It does not record suffering from the hand of man, but from the hand of God. There is faith and hope in the Psalm, but no comfort. …

Hebrews 5:7 states that [Messiah] was saved out of the death-world because of His [godly fear], i.e., because of His reverent submission to death, as ordained for Him by God. This Psalm illustrates that [godly fear] which that Scripture praises. — Williams, page 368.

I think William’s view makes sense—as opposed to a psalm about a little-known Levite who was being punished for some sin (although that could be the immediate historical context).

Meyer, surprisingly, agrees with Williams:

It is the most mournful of all the plaintive Psalms; yea, so wholly plaintive, without any ground of hope that noting like it is found in the whole Scriptures. That fact is all the more striking, that the Psalm begins with the words, “O Lord God of my salvation,” after which the darkness grows continually thicker to the close. Surely in its deepest meaning, this Psalm is applicable only to the Prince of Sufferers. — Meyers, page 108.

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