Scriptures

Psalm 88

Introduction

This psalm of Heman, is a psalm of lament where he feels there is no end to his suffering. He appears to be suffering from some kind of disease, probably leprosy, which he’s had since he was young and has come to the conclusion that he would die from this disease.

Heading

‘A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According to mahalath leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.’

Although the headings aren’t inspired by God, they are important because they give us some understanding about the Psalm and they help us to see why it was written. The headings usually tell us four things.

1. Who wrote them, probably wrote them or possibly wrote them.

2. Information about the historical background to the Psalm. Why it was written.

3. They tell us of the tune the Psalm was written to.

4. How it was used.

The heading tells us that this was written for the director of music. Some commentators believe that ‘director or music’ is God Himself and others believe that it is a song leader who led choirs or musicians, 1 Chronicles 6:33 / 1 Chronicles 16:17 / 1 Chronicles 25:6.

The sons of Korah were Levites, from the family of Kohath, who by the time of David, served in the musical aspect of the temple worship, 1 Chronicles 9:19 / 1 Chronicles 26:1 / 1 Chronicles 26:19 / 2 Chronicles 20:19. It was David who originally organised the temple singers, 1 Chronicles 15:17 / 1 Chronicles 16:41-42 / 1 Chronicles 25:4-5.

Korah is probably most famous for his lead in the rebellion against Moses during the wilderness days of the Exodus, Numbers 16 / Jude 11. God judged Korah and his leaders and they all died, but the sons of Korah remained, Numbers 26:9-11. It’s possible they were so grateful for this mercy that they became prominent in Israel for praising God.

Psalm 53 also mentions the Mahalath, but no one really knows what the words, ‘Mahalath Leannoth’ mean, although some commentators suggest it refers to the musical instrument upon which the song was composed.

Other commentators believe it’s speaking of some kind disease like leprosy, which would fit with the psalm, 2 Chronicles 21:15 / Exodus 15:26 / Proverbs 18:14 / Exodus 23:25 / 1 Kings 8:37 / 2 Chronicles 6:28.

No one really knows what the word ‘maskil’ means, some believe it’s a musical term or a literary term. The word is used thirteen times throughout the Psalms, Psalm 32 / Psalm 42 / Psalm 44 / Psalm 45 / Psalm 52 / Psalm 53 / Psalm 54 / Psalm 55 / Psalm 74 / Psalm 78 / Psalm 88 / Psalm 89 / Psalm 142. The word is also used in Amos 5:13.

Heman is mentioned many times during the times of David and Solomon, 1 Kings 4:31 / 1 Chronicles 6:33 / 1 Chronicles 15:17-19 / 1 Chronicles 16:41-42 / 1 Chronicles 25:1 / 1 Chronicles 25:5-6 / 2 Chronicles 5:12 / 2 Chronicles 35:15.

‘LORD, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.’ Psalm 88:1-7

Heman begins by saying that God is the one who saves and he cries out to God constantly in prayer for deliverance day and night. He prays that God will hear his prayer, his cries, which tells us how desperate he is for deliverance, Psalm 5:1.

He is feeling overwhelmed with his troubles and concludes that he was near death and he had resigned himself to death, Isaiah 14:9 / Job 10:21-22. He feels he is counted among those who go down to the pit, that is, his friends expect him to die anytime soon, Job 3:19 / Psalm 22.

It’s clear that Heman feels like he’s in a dark place mentally and spiritually, he’s weak and fears being set apart with the dead who lie in the grave.

In other words, he fears that his death will not only separate him from all his earthly relationships but also separate him from his relationship with God, that is, God will remember him no more and he will be cut off from God’s care, Job 19:25 / Psalm 6 / Psalm 16:10.

He feel that God has put him in the lowest pit and the darkest depths, that is, he feels that it was God who brought all this upon him, Job 10:21-22. He feels it is because of God’s wrath that he’s suffering, he felt he has sinned in some way.

We’re not to think that God gave him this disease to make him suffer like he was. God has allowed him to suffer the difficulty of living in a world with a physical body that is subject to suffering.

God is good, but He allows the natural processes of life to transpire. We live in a fallen world, one from which God will eventually deliver the righteous.

Coffman, in his commentary says the following.

‘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.’

The realm of the dead is Sheol and there are, in fact three Biblical words, the meanings of which are often confused because people tend to use them very loosely. Two of the words are in the New Testament are Greek words. The Third word, is an Old Testament Hebrew word.

For instance, in the New Testament we have the following.
1. ‘Gehenna’, which occurs 12 times, and, in the Authorised Version, it’s always translated ‘hell’.

2. ‘Hades’, which occurs 10 times, and which is also always translated, ‘hell’.

3. The third word is the word ‘Sheol’, found in the Old Testament, and which sometimes is erroneously said to be the word that corresponds to ‘Gehenna’.

You clearly see the confusion that has been created about the meaning of this word when you understand that, in the Authorised Version, out of the 65 instances it occurs, 31 times it has been translated ‘hell’ and 34 times it has been translated ‘the grave’!

Now, although the word ‘Sheol’ literally means ‘The Place of the Dead’, you don’t need much intelligence to recognise that ‘Hell’ and the ‘Grave’ aren’t the same place! When a body is placed in the grave, it hasn’t been consigned to ‘Hell’!

But there is a history behind this inconsistent rendering of the word ‘Sheol’. Whilst the translators of the Authorised Version believed ‘Hell’ to be the place of punishment for the wicked, they withdrew from the idea of saying that good people also go to ‘Sheol’, and so in passages that related to the death of good people, they decided to translate ‘Sheol’ as ‘the grave’!

However, in Hebrew theology and, in Old Testament teaching, ‘Sheol’ is described as the place to which all the dead go, both good and bad. It’s defined as ‘the place of departed souls’.

In the account of King Saul’s visit to the medium at Endor, the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel is recorded as saying to Saul, ‘Tomorrow, you and your sons shall be with me’. 1 Samuel 28:19.

Even the Oxford Dictionary is close to the truth as far as the meaning of the word is concerned. It says that ‘Sheol’ is, ‘The abode of the dead’.

Furthermore, in the Old Testament, ‘Sheol’ is described as a gloomy place, in which an individual is farther away from God than he was during his lifetime. We are told that, ‘the living know that they will die, but the dead do not to know anything,’ Ecclesiastes 9:5, and, according to Psalm 115:17, ‘The dead do not praise Yahweh, nor any who go down into silence.’

We must remember the thought of eternal life and eternal damnation wasn’t really taught in the Old Testament, the thoughts of going heaven or hell and living forever only came into light when Christ came, 2 Timothy 1:10.

You may notice at the end of verse seven, some translations have the word, ‘selah’, although no-one really knows what this word means, it’s likely it means to pause. It’s a time to stop and reflect upon what has just been said.

We can almost imagine Heman pausing for a breath as he contemplates his future.

‘You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you. Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?’ Psalm 88:8-12

In the midst of Heman’s suffering, his friends appear to have abounded him and once again he thinks that God was the cause of this. He feels that God has made his friends see him as repulsive, Job 19:13-17 / Psalm 31:11 / Psalm 38:11 / Psalm 69:8.

His friends wanted to avoid being around him, Luke 23:49, as they saw him as someone unclean, Genesis 43:32. He feels trapped in his own home, Job 12:14, which suggests he was a leper, who was cut off from society, Leviticus 13:1-8 / Leviticus 13:45-46.

His eyes are dim from all the crying he has been doing, Job 16:20 / Psalm 6:6 / Isaiah 38:3. Once again Heman tells us that he constantly cried out to God in prayer for deliverance, every day.

We must remember the thought of eternal life and eternal damnation wasn’t really taught in the Old Testament, the thoughts of going heaven or hell and living forever only came into light when Christ came, 2 Timothy 1:10.

Heman is desperate and desperate for answers, notice all the questions which Heman asks God, the answer to all of these is question is, no.

Do you show your wonders to the dead? No, Psalm 6:5 / Isaiah 38:18. Do their spirits rise up and praise you? No, Isaiah 14:9. Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? No, Luke 16:28-31. Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?’ No, Job 10:21-22.

You may notice at the end of verse ten, some translations have the word, ‘selah’, although no-one really knows what this word means, it’s likely it means to pause. It’s a time to stop and reflect upon what has just been said.

We can almost imagine Heman pausing for a breath as he contemplates the answer to these questions.

Coffman, in his commentary says the following.

‘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.’

‘But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken from me friend and neighbour—darkness is my closest friend.’ Psalm 88:13-18

After reflecting on how despaired he was for God to deliver him from his suffering, Heman once again focuses on the Lord to help him, Psalm 5:3 / Psalm 55:17 / Psalm 59:16.

Just before he gets out of bed, he begins every day with a prayer to God, expecting that God will answer his prayer, Job 3:12 / Psalm 21:3 / Psalm 59:10 / Psalm 79:8 / Psalm 119:148 / Matthew 17:25 / 1 Thessalonians 4:15.

As it is with most people who are suffering terribly, Heman felt that God was rejecting him and had abandoned him. He’s been suffering since he was young and been close to death on many occasions.

He feels it was God who was causing his terrors, that is, his suffering, and God was the reason for his despair. He feels he is on the receiving end of God’s wrath and it was God who was destroying him.

He feels overwhelmed in his suffering and thought he was would drown in his sorrow, Psalm 42:7. He feels that is was God who as to blame for his friends and neighbours deserting him and so, he was left to suffer alone, Psalm 88:8. As a result, he felt that the only friend he had left was darkness, that is, now help or hope for the future.

The illness that he suffered was from his youth and though he had no friends, he prayed that God not turn from him. At this time in his life he felt that all the agony that came with his illness hadn’t climaxed with his impending death.

Although we’re not told if God did help him and deliver him from his suffering, it’s clear, despite being angry with God and seeking answers to his questions, that his faith was totally reliant upon God.

Conclusion

Heman was suffering greatly because of his leprosy, and as a result, he became angry with God and wanted answers to his questions. As Christians, we too may go through times when we’re suffering when we get angry with God and ask Him, why?

Getting angry with God and asking Him deep and difficult questions is a real human response to suffering. But unlike Heman, we know that we can suffer with patience, Romans 12:12, we can suffer in the hope of the resurrection, Romans 6:5, and we can suffer in the hope of eternal life, Romans 8:24-25.

Like Heman, we must also pray to God when we’re suffering, and trust that He knows what’s best for us, 2 Corinthians 12:8-10. Are more importantly, we must remember that our suffering is only temporary, Job 13:15, our suffering is nothing compared to eternal life, Romans 8:18.

Go To Psalm 89

DAILY BIBLE VERSE

"No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it."

1 Corinthians 10:13

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