Psalms 88 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This is the saddest Psalm in the whole Psalter. It is a pathetic cry of hopeless despair in the midst of unrelieved suffering. In other Psalms the light breaks through the clouds at last: here the gloom is deepest at the close. It is characteristic that the last word is darkness.
Is the Psalmist describing his own personal experience, or does he speak in the name of the nation? There is much to be said for the view that the speaker is Israel in exile, “lamenting its exclusion from the light of its Lord’s Presence.” Possibly, as may be the case in Lamentations 3, the community identifies itself with the typical sufferer Job, and borrows his language to describe its sufferings. So the Psalm is interpreted in the Targum, which paraphrases Psa 88:6, “Thou hast placed me in exile which is like the nether pit”; and in the Syriac Version, which prefixes the title, “Concerning the people which was in Babylon.”
But while the Psalm was doubtless so applied in liturgical use, there is nothing in it which demands the national interpretation, and much which it is most natural to regard as primarily personal; and it seems best to regard it as springing out of the personal experience of some heavily afflicted saint. He had been, it would seem, a victim of the painful and loathsome disease of leprosy from his childhood. Life had been for him a living death. He stood on the brink of the grave: nay, though still alive on earth, he seemed to have been plunged into the darkness of Sheol. Banished from society, he could have no part in the joys of life; excluded from the Temple, he could have no share in the worship which was the outward and visible sign of God’s covenant with His people. The wrath of God seemed to be resting upon him. Nor could he look forward to a life through death in which his soul “delivered from the burden of the flesh” would be “in joy and felicity.” Death, as it then seemed, must sever the covenant relation between God and His people. Sheol was the land of oblivion, where neither He remembered them, nor they remembered Him. Still less could he console himself with the hope of a joyful resurrection.
Such a Psalm brings home to us, as no other does, a sense of the shadow which rested upon the life of ancient Israel, and of the preciousness of the revelation of eternal life in Jesus Christ (Heb 2:14-15). It is moreover a noble example of a faith which trusts God utterly in spite of all discouragement, and cleaves to God most passionately when God seems to have withdrawn Himself most completely.
The Psalm presents many parallels with similar Psalms, with the Book of Lamentations, and with the Book of Job, with which the author must have been familiar, and from which he borrows language for the portraiture of his own sufferings. Who he was, it is idle to speculate. Uzziah in his leprosy, Hezekiah in his sickness, Jeremiah in his dungeon, have been suggested. Ingenious, but improbable, is the conjecture of Delitzsch, that Heman the Ezrahite, in conjunction with other sages of Solomon’s time, was the author of the Book of Job, and that in this Psalm he records his personal experiences, which are there expanded in a dramatic form.
The Psalm may be analysed as follows:
i. After an introductory invocation the Psalmist pleads the intensity of his sufferings, if so be he may move God to pity. He is at the point of death; nay already counted as a dead man; deserted by his friends; plunged as it were into the very depths of Sheol by the visitation of God’s wrath (Psa 88:1-8).
ii. He has no hope in life. Yet he has continued instant in prayer. Can God display His power and love in the unseen world? Nay, that is incredible (Psa 88:9-12).
iii. Still he casts himself upon God. Why does God reject him, and drive him to distraction by the terrors of His wrath, hemming him in and isolating him so that no ray of sympathy relieves the misery of his life (Psa 88:13-18)?
The Psalm is appointed as a Proper Psalm for Good Friday, doubtless because the Ancient Fathers interpreted it, like Psalms 22, as the utterance of the suffering Christ.
The title is composite. The first half, A song, a Psalm of the sons of Korah, unless it is a mere accidental repetition of the title of Psalms 87, indicates that it was taken from the Korahite collection. The second half, For the Chief Musician; set to Mahalath Leannoth. Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite, gives the musical setting and traditional authorship. Leannoth may mean ‘for singing antiphonally’; but more probably Mahalath Leannoth, i.e. ‘sickness to afflict’ is the title of the melody to which the Psalm was to be sung, which may or may not have been identical with that called Mahalath in the title of Psalms 53. On Maschil see Introd. p. xix.
The designation of Heman and Ethan as Ezrahites in the titles of this and the following Psalm is perplexing.
(i) In 1Ki 4:31, Ethan the Ezrahite, Heman, Calcol, and Darda are named as famous sages, whose wisdom was surpassed by that of Solomon. In 1Ch 2:6, we have the same four names (for Dara is an obvious error of transcription for Darda) given as sons or descendants of Zerah. It is natural to infer that the patronymic Ezrahite means, as it may legitimately do, ‘of the family of Zerah.’ Heman and Ethan consequently belonged to the tribe of Judah. It is not stated whether the four sages of 1Ki 4:31 were contemporary with Solomon or not. The comparison would be more forcible if they were the most famous sages of all past time known to the historian. But on the other hand it need not be supposed that they were literally sons of Zerah, for ‘sons’ in genealogical language frequently means ‘descendants,’ and in 1 Kings they (or at least the last three of them) are called ‘the sons of Mahol.’
(ii) In 1Ch 15:17; 1Ch 15:19 Heman and Ethan appear along with Asaph as leaders of the Temple music. Heman, who was a Korahite, represented the family of Kohath; Asaph that of Gershom; Ethan that of Merari. In 1Ch 25:5 Heman is called “the king’s seer,” and from a comparison of 1Ch 16:41-42 ; 1Ch 25:1 ff. with 1Ch 15:17; 1Ch 15:19 it has been inferred that Ethan was also called Jeduthun.
It is certainly natural to suppose that the famous musicians are meant here, and that these Psalms were traditionally ascribed to them, or were in some way connected with the guilds or choirs which bore their names, as the Psalms of Asaph were connected with the guild or choir of Asaph. Accordingly various attempts have been made to explain how Levites could also be called Ezrahites. It has been conjectured that they were Judahites who had been adopted into the Levitical guild, or Levites, who as dwelling in the territory assigned to the family of Zerah were reckoned to belong to that family (cp. Jdg 17:7). But these conjectures are precarious, and it seems most probable that Heman and Ethan the musicians have been wrongly identified with their namesakes the famous sages.
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The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".