Psalms 88


The earnest prayer of a person in deep distress, abandoned by

his friends and neighbours, and apparently forsaken of God,



Perhaps the title of this Psalm, which is difficult enough,

might be thus translated: "A Poem to be sung to the conqueror, by

the sons of Korah, responsively, in behalf of a distressed person;

to give instruction to Heman the Ezrahite." Kennicott says this

Psalm has three titles, but the last only belongs to it; and

supposes it to be the prayer of a person shut up in a separate

house, because of the leprosy, who seems to have been in the last

stages of that distemper; this disease, under the Mosaic

dispensation, being supposed to come from the immediate stroke of

God. Calmet supposes it to refer to the captivity; the Israelitish

nation being represented here under the figure of a person greatly

afflicted through the whole course of his life. By some Heman is

supposed to have been the author; but who he was is not easy to be

determined. Heman and Ethan whose names are separately prefixed to

this and the following Psalm, are mentioned as the grandsons of

Judah by his daughter-in-law Tamar, 1Ch 2:6, for they were the

sons of Zerah, his immediate son by the above. "And Tamar, his

daughter-in-law, bare him Pharez and Zerah," 1Ch 2:4. "And the

sons of Zerah Zimri, and Ethan, and Heman, and Calcol, and Dara,

(or Darda,") 1Ch 2:6. If these were the same persons mentioned

1Ki 4:31, they were

eminent in wisdom; for it is there said that Solomon's wisdom

"excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and

all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan

the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of

Mahol," 1Ki 4:30, 31. Probably

Zerah was also called Mahol. If the Psalms in question were

written by these men, they are the oldest poetical compositions

extant; and the most ancient part of Divine revelation, as these

persons lived at least one hundred and seventy years before Moses.

This may be true of the seventy-eighth Psalm; but certainly not of

the following, as it speaks of transactions that took place long

afterwards, at least as late as the days of David, who is

particularly mentioned in it. Were we sure of Heman as the author,

there would be no difficulty in applying the whole of the Psalm to

the state of the Hebrews in Egypt, persecuted and oppressed by

Pharaoh. But to seek or labour to reconcile matters contained in

the titles to the Psalms, is treating them with too much respect,

as many of them are wrongly placed, and none of them Divinely


Verse 1. O Lord God of my salvation] This is only the

continuation of prayers and supplications already often sent up

to the throne of grace.

Verse 2. Let my prayer come before thee] It is weak and

helpless, though fervent and sincere: take all hinderances out of

its way, and let it have a free passage to thy throne. One of the

finest thoughts in the Iliad of Homer concerns prayer; I shall

transcribe a principal part of this incomparable

passage-incomparable when we consider its origin:-














Iliad., ix. 498-510.

Prayers are Jove's daughters; wrinkled, lame, slant-eyed,

Which, though far distant, yet with constant pace

Follow offence. Offence, robust of limb,

And treading firm the ground, outstrips them all,

And over all the earth, before them runs

Hurtful to man: they, following, heal the hurt.

Received respectfully when they approach,

They yield us aid, and listen when we pray.

But if we slight, and with obdurate heart

Resist them, to Saturnian Jove they cry.

Against, us supplicating, that offence

May cleave to us for vengeance of the wrong.

Thou, therefore, O Achilles! honour yield

To Jove's own daughters, vanquished as the brave

Have ofttimes been, by honour paid to thee.


On this allegory the translator makes the following remarks:

"Wrinkled, because the countenance of a man, driven to prayer by

a consciousness of guilt, is sorrowful and dejected. Lame, because

it is a remedy to which men recur late, and with reluctance.

Slant-eyed, either because in that state of humiliation they

fear to lift up their eyes to heaven, or are employed in taking a

retrospect of their past misconduct. The whole allegory,

considering when and where it was composed, forms a very striking


Prayer to God for mercy must have the qualifications marked

above. Prayer comes from God. He desires to save us: this desire

is impressed on our hearts by his Spirit, and reflected back to

himself. Thus says the allegory, "Prayers are the daughters of

Jupiter." But they are lame, as reflected light is much less

intense and vivid than light direct. The desire of the heart is

afraid to go into the presence of God, because the man knows,

feels, that he has sinned against goodness and mercy. They are

wrinkled-dried up and withered, with incessant longing: even the

tears that refresh the soul are dried up and exhausted. They are

slant-eyed; look aside through shame and confusion; dare not

look God in the face. But transgression is strong, bold, impudent,

and destructive: it treads with a firm step over the earth,

bringing down curses on mankind. Prayer and repentance follow, but

generally at a distance. The heart, being hardened by the

deceitfulness of sin does not speedily relent. They, however,

follow: and when, with humility and contrition, they approach

the throne of grace, they are respectfully received. God

acknowledges them as his offspring, and heals the wounds made by

transgression. If the heart remain obdurate, and the man will not

humble himself before his God, then his transgression cleaves to

him, and the heartless, lifeless prayers which he may offer in

that state, presuming on God's mercy, will turn against him; and

to such a one the sacrificial death and mediation of Christ are in

vain. And this will be the case especially with the person who,

having received an offence from another, refuses to forgive. This

latter circumstance is that to which the poet particularly refers.

See the whole passage, with its context.

Verse 4. I am counted with them, &c.] I am as good as dead;

nearly destitute of life and hope.

Verse 5. Free among the dead] bammethim chophshi, I

rather think, means stripped among the dead. Both the fourth and

fifth verses seem to allude to a field of battle: the slain and

the wounded, are found scattered over the plain; the spoilers come

among them, and strip, not only the dead, but those also who

appear to be mortally wounded, and cannot recover, and are so

feeble as not to be able to resist. Hence the psalmist says, "I am

counted with them that go down into the pit; I am as a man that

hath no strength," Ps 88:4. And I am stripped among the dead,

like the mortally wounded ( chalalim) that lie in the grave.

"Free among the dead," inter mortuos liber, has been applied by

the fathers to our Lord's voluntary death: all others were obliged

to die, he alone gave up his life, and could take it again,

Joh 10:18. He went into the grave, and came out when he

chose. The dead are bound in the grave; he was free, and not

obliged to continue in that state as they were.

They are cut off from thy hand.] An allusion to the roll in

which the general has the names of all that compose his army under

their respective officers. And when one is killed, he is erased

from this register, and remembered no more, as belonging to the

army; but his name is entered among those who are dead, in a

separate book. This latter is termed the black book, or the book

of death; the other is called the book of life, or the book where

the living are enrolled. From this circumstance, expressed in

different parts of the sacred writings, the doctrine of

unconditional reprobation and election has been derived. How


Verse 7. Thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves.] The figures

in this verse seem to be taken from a tempest at sea. The storm is

fierce, and the waves cover the ship.

Verse 8. Thou hast made me an abomination] This verse has been

supposed to express the state of a leper, who, because of the

infectious nature of his disease, is separated from his family-is

abominable to all, and at last shut up in a separate house,

whence he does not come out to mingle with society.

Verse 10. Wilt thou show wonders to the dead!] methim, dead


Shall the dead] rephaim, "the manes or departed


Arise and praise thee?] Any more in this life? The

interrogations in this and the two following verses imply the

strongest negations.

Verse 11. Or thy faithfulness in destruction?] Faithfulness in

God refers as well to his fulfilling his threatenings as to his

keeping his promises. The wicked are threatened with such

punishments as their crimes have deserved; but annihilation is

no punishment. God therefore does not intend to annihilate the

wicked; their destruction cannot declare the faithfulness of God.

Verse 12. The land of forgetfulness?] The place of separate

spirits, or the invisible world. The heathens had some notion of

this state. They feigned a river in the invisible world, called

Lethe, ληθη, which signifies oblivion, and that those who drank

of it remembered no more any thing relative to their former state.

----------Animae, quibus altera fato

Corpora debentur, lethaei ad fluminis undam

Securos latices et longa oblivia potant.

VIRG. AEn. vi. 713.

To all those souls who round the river wait

New mortal bodies are decreed by fate;

To yon dark stream the gliding ghosts repair,

And quaff deep draughts of long oblivion there.

Verse 13. Shall my prayer prevent thee.] It shall get before

thee; I will not wait till the accustomed time to offer my morning

sacrifice, I shall call on thee long before others come to offer

their devotions.

Verse 14. Why castest thou off my soul?] Instead of my soul,

several of the ancient Versions have my prayer. Why dost thou

refuse to hear me, and thus abandon me to death?

Verse 15. From my youth up.] I have always been a child of

sorrow, afflicted in my body, and distressed in my mind. There are

still found in the Church of God persons in similar circumstances;

persons who are continually mourning for themselves and for the

desolations of Zion. A disposition of this kind is sure to produce

an unhealthy body; and indeed a weak constitution may often

produce an enfeebled mind; but where the terrors of the Lord

prevail, there is neither health of body nor peace of mind.

Verse 16. Thy fierce wrath goeth over me.] It is a mighty flood

by which I am overwhelmed.

Verse 17. They came round about me daily like water] Besides his

spiritual conflicts, he had many enemies to grapple with. The

waves of God's displeasure broke over him, and his enemies came

around him like water, increasing more and more, rising higher and

higher, till he was at last on the point of being submerged in the


Verse 18. Lover and friend] I have no comfort, and neither

friend nor neighbour to sympathize with me.

Mine acquaintance into darkness.] All have forsaken me; or

meyuddai machsach, "Darkness is my companion." Perhaps

he may refer to the death of his acquaintances; all were gone;

there was none left to console him! That man has a dismal lot who

has outlived all his old friends and acquaintances; well may such

complain. In the removal of their friends they see little else

than the triumphs of death. Khosroo, an eminent Persian poet,

handles this painful subject with great delicacy and beauty in the

following lines:-





Ruftem sauee khuteereh bekerestem bezar

Az Hijereh Doostan ke aseer fana shudend:

Guftem Eeshah Kuja shudend? ve Khatyr

Dad az sada jouab Eeshan Kuja!

"Weeping, I passed the place where lay my friends

Captured by death; in accents wild I cried,

Where are they? And stern Fate, by Echoes voice,

Returned in solemn sound the sad Where are they?"

J. B. C.


There are four parts in this Psalm:-

I. A petition, Ps 88:1, 2.

II. The cause of this petition, his misery, which he describes,

Ps 88:3-9.

III. The effects produced by this miserable condition: 1. A

special prayer, Ps 88:10-12; 2. An expostulation with God for

deliverance, Ps 88:10-12.

IV. A grievous complaint, Ps 88:14-18.

The psalmist offers his petition; but before he begins, he lays

down four arguments why it should be admitted,-

1. His confidence and reliance on God: "O Lord God of my


2. His earnestness to prevail: "I have cried."

3. His assiduity: "Day and night."

4. His sincerity: "I have cried before thee."

And then he tenders his request for audience: "Let my prayer

come before thee, incline thine ear unto my cry."

II. And then next he sets forth the pitiful condition he was in,

that hereby he might move God to take compassion, which he

amplifies several ways:-

1. From the weight and variety of his troubles; many they were,

and pressed him to death. "For my soul is full of troubles, and my

life draweth nigh to the grave."

2. From the danger of death in which he was.

Which is illustrated by three degrees:-

1. That he was moribundus, dying, no hope of life in him even by

the estimate of all men: "I am counted with them that go down to

the pit; I am as a man that hath no strength."

2. That he was plane mortuus, nearly dead; but as a dead man,

"free among the dead;" freed from all the business of this life;

as far separate from them as a dead man.

3. Yea, dead and buried: "Like the slain that lie in the grave,

whom thou rememberedst no more;" i.e., to care for in this life;

and "they are cut off from thy hand," i.e., thy providence, thy

custody, as touching matter of this life.

And yet he farther amplifies his sad condition by two


1. Of a man in some deep dark dungeon: "Thou hast laid me in the

lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps;" as was Jeremiah,

Ps 37:15, 16; 38:6.

2. Of a man in a wreck at sea, that is compassed with the waves,

to which he compares God's anger: "Thy wrath lieth hard upon me.

and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves." One wave impels

another. The recurrence of his troubles was perpetual; one no

sooner gone but another succeeded.

And, to add to this his sorrow, his friends, whose visits in

extremity used to alleviate the grief of a troubled soul, even

these proved perfidious, and came not to him; he had no comfort

with them; which was also God's doing, and thus augmented his


The auxesis or augmentation is here very elegant:

1. "Thou hast put away mine acquaintance from me." THOU.

2. "Thou hast made me an abomination to them." No less; an


3. "I am shut up, I cannot come forth." As a man in prison, I

cannot come at them, and they will not come to me.

III. The effect of which grievous affliction was threefold: 1.

An internal grief and wasting of the body; 2. An ardent affection

in God; and 3. An expostulation with God.

1. "My eye mourns by reason of affliction." An evidence that I

am troubled and grieved to the heart, that my eye droops and

fails; for when the animal and vital spirits suffer a decay, the

eye will quickly, by her dimness, deadness, and dulness, discover


2. It produced an ardent affection, a continuance and assiduity

in prayer, which is here made evident by the adjuncts.

1. His voice: "I have called daily upon thee." It was, 1. A cry;

2. It was continual.

2. By the extension of his hands: "I have stretched out my hands

to thee." Men used to do so when they expected help; when they

looked to receive; whence we sometimes say Lend me thy hand.

3. The third effect was, an expostulation with God, in which he

presseth to spare his life from the inconvenience that might

thereby happen, viz., that he should be disabled to praise God and

celebrate his name, as he was bound and desired to do, among the

living: an argument used before, Ps 6:3. This argument, though it

savours too much of human frailty, yet he thought by it to move

God, who above all things is jealous of his own glory, which by

his death he imagines will suffer loss; and therefore he asks,-

1. "Wilt thou show wonders among the dead?" That is, thy desire

is to set forth thy honour, which cannot be done if I go to the

grave, except by some miracle I should be raised from thence.

2. "Shall the dead arise again and praise thee?" It is the

living that shall show forth thy praise, thy power, and goodness;

thy fidelity in keeping thy promises to the sons of men. The dead,

as dead, cannot do this; and they return not from the grave,

except by miracle.

3. "Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave, or thy

faithfulness in destruction? shall thy wonders be known in the

dark, or thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?' Such is

the grave, a place of oblivion; for Abraham is ignorant of us. The

goodness and faithfulness of God, which he makes known to us in

this life, are not known nor can be declared by the dead: the

living see them; they have experience of them; and therefore he

desires that his life may be spared to that end, lest if he die

now that faculty should be taken from him; he should no longer be

able to resound the praise of God, which is the end for which men

ought to desire life.

IV. He returns to his complaint; and again repeats what he had

said before, and almost in the same words, and gives three


1. In his prayer: "But unto thee have I cried, O Lord; and in

the morning shall my prayer prevent thee." He prayed earnestly,

early, not drowsily; for he did prevent God: he prayed, and would

continue in prayer; and yet all in vain.

2. For God seems to be inexorable, of which he complains: "Lord,

why castest thou off my soul? why hidest thou thy face from me?"

Even the best of God's servants have sometimes been brought to

that strait, that they have not had a clear sense of God's favour,

but conceived themselves neglected and deserted by him, and


His second instance is, his present affliction, mentioned

before, Ps 88:4-7: "I am afflicted and ready to die," which he

here exaggerates:-

1. From the time and continuance of it; for he had borne it

"even from his youth up."

2. From the cause. It did not proceed from any outward or human

cause; that might have been borne and helped: but it was an

affliction sent from God: "Thy terrors have I suffered;" it came

from a sense of God's wrath.

3. From an uncomfortable effect. It wrought in this soul

amazement, unrest, a perpetual trouble and astonishment: "Thy

terrors have I suffered with a troubled mind: "I am distracted

with them."

He amplifies this wrath by the former similes, Ps 88:7; waves

and water.

1. "Thy fierce wrath goes over me;" as waves over a man's head

at sea. "Thy terrors have cut me off," as a weaver's thrum.

2. "They came round about me like water; daily like water."

3. "They compassed me about together," as if they conspired my

ruin: "all thy waves," Ps 88:7.

His third instance, which is the same, Ps 88:8. The

perfidiousness and desertion of friends: a loving friend is some

comfort in distress; but this he found not: "Lover and friend hast

thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness." They

appear no more to me to give me any counsel, help, or comfort,

than if they were hidden in perpetual darkness. His case,

therefore, was most deplorable.

Copyright information for Clarke