Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
“If you listen,” says Lord Bacon, “to David’s harp, you will hear as many hearse-like airs as carols.” But even among these this psalm stands alone and peculiar for the sadness of its tragic tone. From beginning to end—with the one exception of the word “salvation” in the first line—there is nothing to relieve its monotony of grief. If this wail of sorrow is the expression of individual suffering there is no particular interest in ascertaining its date, unless we could also fix on its author. Uzziah when in “the separate house” of leprosy” (see Note on Psalm 88:5), Hezekiah in his sickroom, Jeremiah in his pit, Job on his dunghill, have each in turn been suggested. But the very fact that the tone of the psalm suits any one of these as well, and no better, than another, warns us of the uselessness of such suggestions.
Indeed it is extremely doubtful whether the psalm is a picture of individual sorrow at all, and not rather a figurative description of national trouble. There is a want of distinctness in the cause of the mourning. The battle-field, sickness, flood, imprisonment, each in turn is employed to represent it; and while at one time speaking of himself as at the point of death (Psalm 88:3), the poet goes on now to picture himself as actually in the grave, in sheôl itself. The expression in Psalm 88:15, “from my youth up,” is not in any way against the reference of the psalm to the community. (See Psalm 129:1, where it is expressly said “Israel may use the expression.) The poetical form is almost regular.
Title.—See titles, Psalms 42, 48
Upon Mahalath Leannoth.—See title, Psalms 53, where “Mahalath” occurs alone. Render, Upon the sickness of distress, i.e., upon a sickening distress, and understand it, as in other cases, as the name of a tune or first words of a hymn associated with music suitable to this melancholy effusion.
For “Maschil” see title, Psalms 32.
This long inscription is really made up of two: “A song or psalm for the sons of Korah,” and “To the chief musician,” &c
A Song or Psalm for the sons of Korah, to the chief Musician upon Mahalath Leannoth, Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite. O LORD God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee:
For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.(3) Grave.—Sheôl. Here, as in Psalm 6:4-5; Psalm 33:19; Isaiah 38:10-11, there comes into prominence the thought that death severs the covenant relation with God, and so presents an irresistible reason why prayer should be heard now before it is too late.
I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength:(4) As a man . . .—Rather, like a hero whose strength is gone.
Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand.(5) Free among the dead . . .—So the old versions without exception, taking chaphshî as an adjective, as in Job 3:19 (where used of an emancipated slave); 1Samuel 17:25 (free from public burdens). So of the separate house for lepers, who were cut off from society (2Kings 15:5). Hence some refer the psalm to Uzziah. The Targum explains, “freed from legal duties.” But plainly the meaning is here exactly that of defunctus. The verse offers an instance of introverted parallelism, and this clause answers to “they are cut off from thy hand.” Gesenius, however, makes the Hebrew word a noun (comp. Ezekiel 27:20), and renders, among the dead is my couch.
Whom thou.—The dead are “clean forgotten, out of mind” even to God.
From thy hand—i.e., from the guiding, helping hand which, though stretched out for living men, does not reach to the grave.
Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.(6) Lowest pit.—See Note, Psalm 86:13.
Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves. Selah.(7) And thou hast afflicted.—Literally, And thou hast pressed (me) down with all thy breakers, supplying the object, and taking the accusative in the text as the instrument, as in Psalm 102:23, where the same verb is used (Authorised Version, “weakened”).
Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me; thou hast made me an abomination unto them: I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.(8) I am shut up.—Not necessarily an actual imprisonment or incarceration on account of leprosy, but another figurative way of describing great trouble. Job 19:8 seems to have been before the poet.
Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction: LORD, I have called daily upon thee, I have stretched out my hands unto thee.(9) Mourneth.—Rather, fadeth, or pineth. So a Latin poet of the effects of weeping:—
“Mæsta neque assiduo tabescere lumina fletu.
Cessarent, tristique imbre madere genæ.”
CATULLUS: xxviii. 55.
Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee? Selah.(10-12) These verses probably contain the prayer tittered with the “stretched-out hands.”
(10) Shall the dead arise? . . .—These words are not to be taken in the sense of a final resurrection as we understand it. The hope of this had hardly yet dawned on Israel. The underworld is imagined as a vast sepulchre in which the dead lie, each in his place, silent and motionless, and the poet asks how they can rise there to utter the praise of God who has forgotten them (Psalm 88:5). That this is meant, and not a coming forth again into a land of living interests, is shown in the next two verses. (See Notes.)
Dead.—Heb., rephaîm, a word applied also to the gigantic races of Palestine (Deuteronomy 2:11; Deuteronomy 2:20, &c.), but here evidently (as also in Proverbs 2:18; Proverbs 9:18; Proverbs 21:16; Isaiah 14:9; Isaiah 26:19) meaning the dead.
All the passages cited confirm the impression got from this psalm of the Hebrew conception of the state of the dead. They were languid, sickly shapes, lying supine, cut off from all the hopes and interests of the upper air, and even oblivious of them all, but retaining so much of sensation as to render them conscious of the gloomy monotony of death. (Comp. Isaiah 38:18; Ecclesiasticus 17:27-28; Baruch 2:17.)
Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?(11, 12) In these verses appear three prominent features of the Hebrew conception of the underworld. It is a place of “destruction” (comp. Job 26:6; Job 28:22), of “darkness” (comp. Psalm 88:6), and of “forgetfulness,” which may imply not only that the dead are forgotten, both of God and men (comp. Psalm 31:12 with Psalm 88:5), but that they themselves have, to borrow the heathen figure, drunk of the water of Lethe. (Comp. Psalm 6:5; Psalm 30:9, and for both ideas combined Ecclesiastes 9:5-10.)
(11) Lovingkindness.—Better here, covenant grace. The grave knew nothing of this. Death severed the covenant relationship. So “faithfulness,” “wonders,” “righteousness” are all used in their limited sense as determined by the covenant.
But unto thee have I cried, O LORD; and in the morning shall my prayer prevent thee.(13) But unto Thee . . .—Better, But as for me, I, &c. The pronoun is emphatic. The speaker has not gone down to the land where all is silent and forgotten, and can therefore still cry to God, and send his prayer to meet (prevent, i.e. go to meet; see Psalm 17:13) the Divine Being who still has an interest in him. And this makes the expostulation of the next verses still stronger. Why, since the sufferer is still alive, is he forsaken, or seemingly forsaken, by the God of that covenant in which he still abides?
LORD, why castest thou off my soul? why hidest thou thy face from me?(14) Castest thou off.—The idea is that of throwing away something with loathing. (Comp. Psalm 43:2.)
I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up: while I suffer thy terrors I am distracted.(15) Terrors.—Another of the many expressions which connect this psalm with the book of Job. (See Job 6:4; Job 9:34, &c.)
Distracted.—The Hebrew word is peculiar to the place. The ancient versions all agree in taking it as a verb, and rendering it by some general term denoting “trouble.” But the context evidently requires a stronger word, and possibly connecting with a cognate word meaning “wheel,” we may get, “I turn giddy.” A change of a stroke in one letter would give “I grow frigid.” (Comp. Psalm 38:8.)
Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; thy terrors have cut me off.(16) Have cut me off.—Or, extinguished me. The form of the verb is very peculiar, and is variously explained. All that is certain is that it is intensive, expressing the hopeless and continued state of prostration of the sufferer. The LXX., “have frightened.”
They came round about me daily like water; they compassed me about together.(17) They—i.e., the terrors or horrors, now likened to a flood, a figure of frequent occurrence. (See Psalm 18:16, &c.)
Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.(18) And mine acquaintance into darkness.—This is an erroneous rendering. Rather, My acquaintance is darkness, or, darkness is my friend, having taken the place of those removed. The feeling resembles Job 17:14; or we may illustrate by Tennyson’s lines:—
“O sorrow, wilt thou live with me,
No casual mistress, but a wife,
My bosom friend, and half my life?
As I confess it needs must be.”