NATIONAL LAMENT DURING THE EXTREME DISTRESS OF THE EXILE;
THE SORROWFUL PRAYER OF A DYING LEPER;
THE SADDEST PSALM IN THE PSALTER
We have given three headings of this psalm because of our uncertainty concerning which is correct. Briggs advocated the first of these;F1 Kittel suggested the second;F2 and Kirkpatrick gave us the third.F3
Certainly, the near hopeless tone of the psalm would apply equally well to the emotions of one fatally ill with leprosy, or to the almost total despair of the children of Israel during the times of their sojourn as captives in Babylon.
Having once visited a leper colony in the Far East, this writer prefers the second of these chapter headings, at the same time admitting the inability to prove that this choice is correct. Certain passages in the psalm itself seem to be best explained by the tragic situation of the leper.
A Song, a Psalm of the sons of Korah; for the Chief Musician; set to Mahalath Leannoth. Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite.
An alternative reading on "Leannoth" here is "for singing." The unusual interest in this superscription is that the authorship has a double assignment: "of the sons of Korah," and "of Heman." This was satisfactorily explained by Leupold who pointed out that, "Heman was the author; and he belonged to the guild of singers called the `Sons of Korah.'"F4 Heman is mentioned in 1 Chr. 6:13; 15:17; 25:4-6).
The paragraphing we follow here is that of Maclaren.F5
THE PSALMIST'S CRY TO GOD
Oh Jehovah, the God of my salvation,
I have cried day and night before thee.
Let my prayer enter into thy presence;
Incline thine ear unto my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles,
And my life draweth nigh unto Sheol.
I am reckoned with them that go down into the pit;
I am as a man that hath no help,
Cast off among the dead,
Like the slain that lie in the grave,
Whom thou rememberest no more,
And they are cut off from thy hand.
Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit,
In dark places in the deeps.
Thy wrath lieth hard upon me,
And thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves.
Thou hast put mine acquaintance far from me;
Thou hast made me an abomination unto them:
I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.
Mine eye wasteth away by reason of affliction."
We have never read a passage describing the approach of death any more impressive than this one. "Sheol" (Psalms 88:3); "the pit" (Psalms 88:4); "among the dead" (Psalms 88:5); "the grave" (Psalms 88:5); "the lowest pit" (Psalms 88:6); "dark places" (Psalms 88:7); and "the deeps" (Psalms 88:7) are seven synonyms for the realm of the dead, or Hades; and the mind of the psalmist seems utterly overcome with the gloom of approaching death.
O Jehovah, the God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee. Let my prayer enter into thy presence; Incline thine ear unto my cry. For my soul is full of troubles, And my life draweth nigh unto Sheol. I am reckoned with them that go down into the pit; I am as a man that hath no help, Cast off among the dead, Like the slain that lie in the grave, Whom thou rememberest no more, And they are cut off from thy hand. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, In dark places, in the deeps. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, And thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves. [Selah Thou hast put mine acquaintance far from me; Thou hast made me an abomination unto them: I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.
(Psalms 88:1). Surely this is an exclamation of faith in God, and the very fact of the psalmist's turning to God in prayer is an indelible mark of trust and devotion.
I am reckoned with them that go down into the pit
(Psalms 88:4). The psalmist here says that people have already written him off as a dead man. In the sixty-four years of the ministry of this writer, he has often called upon terminally ill persons who had indeed been accounted as already dead by members of their family and the community. This psalmist was in such a tragic condition.
Whom thou rememberest no more. cut off from thy hand
(Psalms 88:5). The attitude here is that even God will remember him no more when death comes, and that God Himself will not do anything for him in the grave. The vast difference between the near-hopelessness of the Old Testament saint and the New Testament believer in Christ is dramatically emphasized by such statements as these.
Thy wrath lieth hard upon me
(Psalms 88:7). Although the psalmist ascribes his condition to the wrath of God, he makes no mention of sins and does not ask forgiveness.
Thou hast put mine acquaintance far from me. made me an abomination unto them
(Psalms 88:8). This is one of the lines in the psalm that seems to picture the repulsiveness of lepers. When this writer visited a leper compound near Pusan, Korea, in 1953, it exhibited the most repulsive and pitiful spectacle of human misery and wretchedness that the mind can imagine. One looked in horror upon wretched human bodies with lips, eyelids, nose, ears, fingers, etc. missing because of disease, the horrible odor of the compound, the terribly inadequate tent-shacks built by the lepers themselves from cardboard, tin, brush, scrap lumber, anything, and the water supply nothing but a polluted ditch nearby. The food supply was from an occasional garbage truck that dumped all kinds of waste near the camp. The soul-chilling memory of that experience still remains with this writer almost forty years afterward!
Did any of the inmates of that "compound" have loved ones who visited them? My host chaplain assured me that they were already accounted as dead by both family and the community. The verses of this psalm bring vividly to memory what was seen in that dreadful "compound."
I am shut up, and cannot come forth
(Psalms 88:8). These words have been interpreted to mean that the psalmist was a leper, and therefore cut off from society and the public worship of God (Leviticus 13:1-8,45-46).F6
Mine eye wasteth away by reason of affliction
(Ps. 88:9a). This also describes what happens in the disease of leprosy. The loss of eyelids exposes the eye, not only to all kinds of atmospheric debris, but also to harsh sunlight with the eventual loss or drastic reduction of eyesight.
THE CRY REPEATED; HELP! BEFORE TOO LATE
I have called daily upon thee, O Jehovah;
I have spread forth my hands unto thee.
Wilt thou show wonders to the dead?
Shall they that are deceased arise and praise thee?
Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave?
Or thy faithfulness in Destruction?
Shall thy wonders be known in the dark?
And thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?"
The string of questions here are presumed by the psalmist to call for negative answers; and the thought seems to be, "Hurry up and help me, God, before it is too late."
Again, in this section, the gathering darkness of approaching death dominates it. Note the additional synonyms for death: "the dead" (Psalms 88:10); "the deceased" (Psalms 88:10); "the grave" (Psalms 88:11); "Destruction" (Psalms 88:1); "the dark" (Psalms 88:12); "the land of forgetfulness" (Psalms 88:12). " Destruction" is translated "Abaddon" in some versions.
We agree that hardly anything could be more sad than this psalm. One's heart instinctively goes out to a fellow-human sufferer who seems to have no hope whatever of recovery.
THE CRY REPEATED; MORE DETAILS OF SORROW
But unto thee, O Jehovah, have I cried;
And in the morning shall my prayer come before thee.
Jehovah, why casteth thou off my soul?
Why hidest thou thy face from me?
I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up:
While I suffer thy terrors I am distracted.
Thy fierce wrath is gone over me;
They terrors have cut me off.
They came round about me like water all the day long;
They compassed me about together.
Lover and friend hast thou put far from me,
And mine acquaintance unto darkness."
But unto thee, O Jehovah, have I cried; And in the morning shall my prayer come before thee. Jehovah, why castest thou off my soul? Why hidest thou thy face from me? I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up: While I suffer thy terrors I am distracted. Thy fierce wrath is gone over me; Thy terrors have cut me off. They came round about me like water all the day long; They compassed me about together. Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, And mine acquaintance into darkness.
(Psalms 88:13). Although the psalmist's distress has reached critical proportions, his faith in God greets each new day with prayer, in spite of the fact that he is perplexed by God's purposes as seen in his life.F7 He could not understand the reason for his wretched condition; and it was a mystery to him why he should have been required to pass through such terrible experiences; but he kept on praying every day! That is the glory of this ancient Saint. What a contrast is he with those persons who, signally blessed of God, and passing through life with large measures of success, and with practically no suffering of any kind, but who never worship God and never pray!
Why hidest thou thy face?
(Psalms 88:14). The most sorrowful thing about this psalm is that the psalmist has no sense of feeling that God has answered his prayers, or even heard them. No assurance, comfort, and encouragement of any kind have come to him. He feels utterly cut off from every blessing of God.
In whatever direction the psalmist looks, he sees only blackness and despair. "Looking backward at the past, he sees nothing but ill health and ill fortune (Psalms 88:15). Looking unto God he is terrified (Ps. 88:15b-17). Looking for human comfort, he can see no one at all (Psalms 88:18)."F8
Lover and friend hast thou put far from me
(Psalms 88:18). This is another line that would be extremely difficult to apply to the nation of Israel; but it seems appropriate enough if referred to the desertion of a leper by his family and friends.
And mine acquaintance into darkness
(Psalms 88:18). Baigent noted that we should read this as, Darkness is my one companion left.F9
(Psalms 88:18). What an awful word with which to close a psalm; and yet it is admittedly very apt and appropriate for a psalm like this.
"Herein lies the wonder of this psalmist's triumphant faith. That a man should see no light at all and yet go right on supplicating God in fervent, ceaseless prayer that is an unqualified marvel. Truly, this Old Testament saint can be our master and teacher."F10
Kidner addressed the question of, "What, really, is the roll of this psalm in Scripture?"F11 and we are indebted to him for some of the thoughts we have paraphrased here in our own efforts to assess the meaning of this psalm for Christians today.
(1) This psalm reveals the truth that Christians may sometimes be subjected to the most unrelenting and terrible misfortunes in passing through this earthly life. It happened to Job; it happened to this psalmist; and it can happen to any child of God.
What a joyful thing it is that, unlike the pitiful sufferer here, the Christian today has the advantage of the blessed hope of the resurrection "in Christ" and the hope of eternal glory in heaven.
(2) There is the lesson of this psalm that no matter how discouraging and terrible one's lot in life may be, he should not fail to lay the matter before the Lord in prayer. God always answers the prayers of his saints, even if their specific requests must be denied, as in the case of Paul's "thorn in the flesh."
(3) Our lives upon earth are only a moment compared to the ceaseless ages of eternity; and our attitude during the very worst of experiences should be the same as that of Job, who cried, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him" (Job 13:15).
Footnotes for Psalms 88
1: International Critical Commentary, Vol. II, p. 244.
2: Kittel, quoted in H. C. Leupold, p. 627.
3: Quoted by Baigent in The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 662.
4: H. C. Leupold, p. 628.
5: Alexander Maclaren, Vol. II, p. 477.
6: The Layman's Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, p. 125.
7: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 506.
8: Derek Kidner, Vol. II, p. 218.
9: The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 662.
10: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 506.
11: Derek Kidner, op. cit., p. 319.