Theme: A Prayer to the God Who Saves
From this psalm, we see that life does not always have happy endings. Nevertheless, we can trust God in the midst of great sorrow and suffering because of what he tells us about himself in his Word, and that he promises to work in the lives of those whom he loves.
Scripture: Psalm 88:1-18
The only hopeful line in this prayer is the first, which reads, “O LORD, the God who saves me.” This is not to be dismissed lightly, for no person who knows that God is his Savior can ever utterly despair. However, the line is used as a mere address, a designation, and the psalm immediately passes to the fact that the writer has been crying to God “day and night,” that is, unrelentingly and (as becomes apparent very quickly) without an answer. The writer has also been calling to God for a very long time—he has been afflicted from his youth (v. 15)—but God has not removed the cause of his suffering.
Does this, the next to the last of the Korahite psalms, echo the first, that is, Psalm 42? It may. Psalm 42 is not nearly as sad as this gloomy composition. But verse 3 of that psalm says, “My tears have been my food, day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
We cannot fault the psalmist for failing to cling to promises he did not have. But also, we cannot help remembering how Jesus insisted that in spite of God’s seeming indifference he actually does hear prayer and will act “quickly.” He made this point in the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge, who concluded that although he did not care for justice he would see that the widow got justice so she would not wear him out with her coming. Jesus said, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keер putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:7, 8). The problem is merely that God’s timing differs from our own.
The coloring of this psalm seems to grow darker as it moves along, and it obviously does so here. For what is staring the writer in the face is death’s dark shadow (vv. 3-5). Notice how the darkness builds. First, the writer’s “soul is full of trouble.” Next, he is “drawing near the grave,” that is, dying. Third, he is “counted among” that dead, “those who go down to the pit,” perhaps even by his friends. Fourth, he is “without strength.” Finally, he is even “… 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” (v. 5)
In this last sentence the psalmist sees himself almost being laid out in the mortuary or charnel house, and his most faith-destroying terror is that in that place God, who lives for the living, will “remember [him] no more.” Speaking of verse 5 particularly, Marvin Tate says, “The description of the dead [in v. 5b, c, d] is the central focus of the first part of the psalm” (verses 1-9).1
In his perceptive book Reflections on the Psalms, the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis has a chapter on “Death in the Psalms” in which he faces the apparent Jewish lack of faith in a blessed afterlife for those who are God’s. They spoke of the grave as Sheol, the actual word behind the psalmisťs word “grave” in verse 3. Lewis wrote
They speak of Sheol (or “hell” or “the pit”) very much as a man speaks of “death” or “the grave” who has no belief in any sort of future state whatever—a man to whom the dead are simply dead, nothing, and there’s no more to be said.
In many passages this is quite clear, even in our translation, to every attentive reader. The clearest of all is the cry in [Psalm] 89:46: “O remember how short my time is: why hast thou made all men for nought?” We all come to nothing in the end. Therefore “every man living is altogether vanity” (39:6). Wise and foolish have the same fate (49:10). Once dead, a man worships God no more: “Shall the dust give thanks unto thee?” (30:10); “for in death no man remembereth thee” (6:5). Death is “the land” where, not only worldly things, but all things, “are forgotten” (88:12).2
This is exactly how the psalmist is speaking, perhaps more than he might otherwise have done were it not for his depression. We cannot think this way, because we stand on this side of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and know his promises concerning heaven. However, we also remember that Psalm 88 is not the only reflection on death to be found in the Old Testament or even in the book of Psalms. David looked at death’s shadow and said, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psa. 23:4). And again, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (v. 6).
God has never left his people entirely without hope, even though that hope was dimmer in the Old Testament period than it can be today. God tests our faith, but he does not leave it without a sure foundation in his Word.
1Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, Psalms 51-100, p. 403.
2C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), p. 38.
Why is acknowledging God as Savior a good starting place?
What did Jesus tell the widow in Luke 18:7, 8? What is meant?
What does the psalmist fear in verse 5?
In contrast to the psalmist, how did David view death in Psalm 23? What is different about the Christian’s view of death?
What can be learned by noting the increased intensity of the passage?
Reflection: When have you felt like the psalmist? How is the Lord carrying you through it? What does he promise in his Word to do for you? What lessons might he have for you to learn that will work out for your good?