Psalm 88 – “Distress and Darkness, Gloom and Anguish”
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. A song. A psalm of the Korachites. For the leader. On mahalat le’annot.1 A maskil2 of Heman the Ezrahite.
2. O LORD, God of my deliverance, daily I cry out at night in front of You.
3. Let my prayer come before Your face3; incline Your ear to my cry.
4. For my soul is sated with evils; my life has arrived at the brink of Sheol.
5. I am reckoned with those who go down into the Pit; I am become like a man without strength,
6. loosed2 among the dead, like slain corpses lying in the grave whom You remember no more, for they are cut off from Your hand.
7. You make me be at the bottom of the Pit, in utter4 darkness, in the depths.
8. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and so all Your waves; You cause affliction. Selah.
9. You have distanced from me my companions; You make me an utter4 abhorrence to them; I am imprisoned, unable to get out.
10. My eyes throb from affliction; I call to You, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to You.
11. Will You work wonders for the dead? Will the shades rise to praise You? Selah.
12 Will Your steadfast love be recounted in the grave, Your faithfulness in Perdition?
13. Will Your wonders be made known in the Dark, Your righteous beneficence in the land of oblivion?
14. As for me, to You, O LORD, I cry out, and in the morning my prayer greets You.
15. Why, O LORD, do You rebuff my soul, do You hide Your face from me?
16. Afflicted and dying from my youth, I suffer Your terrors 5-wherever I turn-5.
17. Your fury overwhelms me; Your dread assaults destroy me.
18. They swirl around me like waters all day long; they encircle me totally.
19. You have distanced from me loving friend and neighbor, my companions. Darkness.
1. Hebrew uncertain. Some connect the title to the subject of the psalm, relating the two terms to the Hebrew words “illness” and “affliction.”
2. Hebrew uncertain.
3. That is, “before you.” This literal translation reflects same root, “face,” verse 15.
4. “Utter” is the implication of the plural form of the noun that follows.
5. Hebrew uncertain. Ibn Ezra: “I am fearful.”
The Saddest of Psalms
The title of this commentary, taken from Isaiah (), is a reflection of what Kilpatrick calls “the saddest psalm in the whole Psalter.” There is near unanimity among interpreters on this judgment. Meltzer states that Psalm 88 has “no light, no spark of hope, one dark bitter total complaint.” Certainly many psalms reflect a torn soul, even great suffering and desperation. Uniquely, however, in Psalm 88 there is no hope, no pledge of sacrifice or vows, no reference to adversaries, no detailed request (beyond the demand for God’s attention) and no prayer for reversal, expected reversal, or even mention of reversal.
Here is a call to God that begins and ends in darkness, with no relief in sight. Obsessively taken with death, which is constantly so near as to be palpable, the speaker moves into anger. Death is the problem, and “near-death” is not a description of past experience, but of his life, day by day. The plethora and variety of references make the suffering too strong to be a metaphor for any other core problem. There are numerous similarities here to other psalms that talk of illness, some to Lamentations, and many to Job (cf. 6:4, 13:24, 14:12, 17:13, 19:13, 26:6). Although no illness is detailed (the speaker dwells on death, not any malady), the similarities to Job and the social isolation lead many to suggest that the illness here is leprosy.
The Poetry of Tragedy
Psalm 88 is punctuated by three references to prayers, in verses 2–3, 10, and 14. Some interpreters propose that these three references begin the three sections of the Psalm, but the unique and uniform format of verses 11–13 makes it more appropriate to see those verses as an independent unit. The reference to prayer therefore would be the enclosure of the first section (vv. 1–10), the rhetorical questions would constitute the second section (vv. 11–13), and the third reference to prayer would open but not close the final section.
The isolated middle section hammers home its point through rhetorical questions. I discuss it further below, when dealing with the subject of death.
This poet uses synonyms more often than repetition to make his point. This then highlights the two terms, which are, nevertheless, repeated three times: “darkness” (vv. 7, 13, 19) and “affliction” (vv. 10, 13, 16). (The latter term, "affliction," 'oni, is further emphasized by being part of two subsequent wordplays: in v. 10, “my eyes... affliction” is ‘eini…’oni; and in v. 16, “afflicted... I” is ‘oni -ani.” The title verse might also refer to affliction, as pointed out in the note.)
Of particular interest is the emphasis on darkness. The end of this psalm is strikingly unique. Recalling again the "distancing" and "companions" from verse 9, the speaker is overwhelmed by the depressing tide of despair. He cannot continue (as he did with a request in verse 10).. The psalm ends with a single word, “darkness.” It hints at both depression and death, and implies that there is no more to say. The expected final reference to prayer, which was the enclosure of the first section and the opening of the third, is simply not there. Many psalms end with a final prayer. This psalm ends with an implied impossibility of prayer. The final word is chilling.
In the worst and deepest of ironies, it seems to be death that defines this speaker’s life. The plethora of terms for the underworld, the shadowy nonexistence that follows life, is overwhelming: Sheol, the Pit, darkness, death, grave, perdition, and oblivion. The metaphors for death are even more numerous. In addition to arrival at this variously termed underworld, these include “loosed among the dead,” remembered no more, cut off, overwhelmed by waves, and verbs such as “overwhelmed,” “destroy,” “swirl,” and “encircle.”
The biblical view of post-death is an existence of sorts, not a matter of reward and punishment, but almost a non-life far beneath the surface. Many sections of the Bible cite this semi-existence, where man cannot praise God. In Psalm 88, the rhetorical questions of the middle section recall that message and also articulate the brutal claim that even God has no access to those who live in the Pit and has no effect on them. The point is made most emphatically, as Broyles points out, by listing the loving qualities that God exhibits toward his faithful, “steadfast love,” “faithfulness,” “wonders,” and “righteous beneficence,” which are unavailable to what is left of the living in the netherworld.
“Darkness” is a most appropriate metaphor. Schaefer insightfully points out that the Bible (and creation) begins with light; Psalm 88 ends with darkness.
As I noted above, God essentially has no access to those in the nether-world of after-life.
The speaker makes every effort, starting with verse 7, to make it clear that God is directly the source of his troubles. From that verse on, in the Hebrew there are 23 references to “You” or “Your.” The accusation is manifest.
Indeed, there are few expressions in Psalms that read so differently after a first reading than the opening “O LORD, God of my deliverance.” After all the accusation, and the ringing dramatic conclusion, “Darkness,” the opening words of Psalm 88 turn out to be far beyond irony and bitterness. After reading the whole psalm, they seem to be in opposition to everything that follows.
Nevertheless, the lingering puzzlement of Psalm 88 is that it remains an address to God, so that clearly the speaker is still within the community of worshippers and loyalists. That, then, is the portrait that the poet bequeaths to future readers.
* * * * * *
Concerning the ascription, there are varied biblical references to “Heman.” I Kings includes his name as one of four famous sages. I Chronicles 2:6 evidently lists the same four names as descendants of Zerah (which would make him part of the tribe of
). I Chronicles , 19, however, cites this name as a leader of Judah music, part of the Levite tribe, which befits the present reference to the Korachites. I Chronicles 25:5 calls him “the king’s seer.” There is no obvious line of connection. Little more can be said than that the name is certainly connected to a tradition of wisdom and choir performance. It is possible that the ascription mixes references to two different individuals. Temple
There may be puns on the two names in the title in verse 19, "you distanced" (hirchakta) echoing Korach, and "from me"(mimeni) echoing Heman.
It is of note that the Church prescribed this psalm for Good Friday, implying an appropriate description of Jesus’ suffering on the cross.
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Jerusalem Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(א) שִׁיר מִזְמוֹר לִבְנֵי קֹרַח לַמְנַצֵּחַ עַל מָחֲלַת לְעַנּוֹת מַשְׂכִּיל לְהֵימָן הָאֶזְרָחִי:
(ב) יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי יְשׁוּעָתִי יוֹם צָעַקְתִּי בַלַּיְלָה נֶגְדֶּךָ:
(ג) תָּבוֹא לְפָנֶיךָ תְּפִלָּתִי הַטֵּה אָזְנְךָ לְרִנָּתִי:
(ד) כִּי שָׂבְעָה בְרָעוֹת נַפְשִׁי וְחַיַּי לִשְׁאוֹל הִגִּיעוּ:
(ה) נֶחְשַׁבְתִּי עִם יוֹרְדֵי בוֹר הָיִיתִי כְּגֶבֶר אֵין אֱיָל:
(ו) בַּמֵּתִים חָפְשִׁי כְּמוֹ חֲלָלִים שֹׁכְבֵי קֶבֶר אֲשֶׁר לֹא זְכַרְתָּם עוֹד וְהֵמָּה מִיָּדְךָ נִגְזָרוּ:
(ז) שַׁתַּנִי בְּבוֹר תַּחְתִּיּוֹת בְּמַחֲשַׁכִּים בִּמְצֹלוֹת:
(ח) עָלַי סָמְכָה חֲמָתֶךָ וְכָל מִשְׁבָּרֶיךָ עִנִּיתָ סֶּלָה:
(ט) הִרְחַקְתָּ מְיֻדָּעַי מִמֶּנִּי שַׁתַּנִי תוֹעֵבוֹת לָמוֹ כָּלֻא וְלֹא אֵצֵא:
(י) עֵינִי דָאֲבָה מִנִּי עֹנִי קְרָאתִיךָ יְהֹוָה בְּכָל יוֹם שִׁטַּחְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ כַפָּי:
(יא) הֲלַמֵּתִים תַּעֲשֶׂה פֶּלֶא אִם רְפָאִים יָקוּמוּ יוֹדוּךָ סֶּלָה:
(יב) הַיְסֻפַּר בַּקֶּבֶר חַסְדֶּךָ אֱמוּנָתְךָ בָּאֲבַדּוֹן:
(יג) הֲיִוָּדַע בַּחֹשֶׁךְ פִּלְאֶךָ וְצִדְקָתְךָ בְּאֶרֶץ נְשִׁיָּה:
(יד) וַאֲנִי אֵלֶיךָ יְהֹוָה שִׁוַּעְתִּי וּבַבֹּקֶר תְּפִלָּתִי תְקַדְּמֶךָּ:
(טו) לָמָה יְהֹוָה תִּזְנַח נַפְשִׁי תַּסְתִּיר פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי:
(טז) עָנִי אֲנִי וְגֹוֵעַ מִנֹּעַר נָשָׂאתִי אֵמֶיךָ אָפוּנָה:
(יז) עָלַי עָבְרוּ חֲרוֹנֶיךָ בִּעוּתֶיךָ צִמְּתֻתוּנִי:
(יח) סַבּוּנִי כַמַּיִם כָּל הַיּוֹם הִקִּיפוּ עָלַי יָחַד:
(יט) הִרְחַקְתָּ מִמֶּנִּי אֹהֵב וָרֵעַ מְיֻדָּעַי מַחְשָׁךְ: