Psalm 88 — Facing Death
Psalm 88:1-18 NIV
O Lord, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before You.
The Psalmist was Heman, and he cried out to God day and night. Heman was a contemporary of Ethan the Ezrahite, who lived during David and Solomon’s reign.
Israel enjoyed only a short period of peace, during Solomon’s reign. After Solomon, Israel went through turbulent periods of ups and downs and was eventually conquered by foreign empires. The spiritual decline during Solomon’s rule (1 Kings 11) could have been one of the reasons for Heman’s daily cries to God.
Heman started the psalm, “O Lord, the God who saves me”. In Hebrew poetry, the emphasis or conclusion is typically stated at the beginning (unlike English writings). So this was the emphasis of Heman’s psalm.
We too may cry out to God day and night when we are in trouble. Starting off our prayers by recognizing that God saves us because of His love anchors our trust in Him as we pour out our hearts to Him.
This is a very sad and gloomy psalm, but is made with a firm belief in God. Praying to God with faith in His love helps us to deal with even the gravest of emotions.
May my prayer come before You; turn Your ear to my cry.
Cry out to God for His listening ears. How much do we yearn for God to listen to us? There are a couple of ways of crying to God. We may cry with an angry attitude, with sadness, or with a heart craving and longing for the hearer, like a child to his parent. The Psalmist was certainly not crying to God with anger. He was crying with sadness of course, and his tone reflected a heart that longed for God to listen to him.
For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave.
The Psalmist was troubled as he knew he was about to die. We will find towards the end of this psalm that his loved ones have died. He had been afflicted since his youth and had been close to death too. He was in a crisis.
We may experience physical or spiritual crises of different kinds too. Our soul will be troubled and we need to turn to God.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man 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.
It was not clear what Heman was going through, but he sounded like he was on death row, waiting for his death. He had no strength to prevent his pending fate, which from his description sounded like it would be a violent one. We do not know if the description was supposed to be taken literally or figuratively, but we can certainly sense his despair.
Heman felt that God no longer remembered or cared for him, which was of course not true. As Jesus approached death on the cross, he too cried to God and asked why God had forsaken him.
In saying that God has put him in the lowest pit, it showed that he knew it was God who allowed or even intended it. This can be read as blaming God for what happened to him. Or it can be the firm knowledge that God is in control (not man) and that because it is God, he can be confident.
When we stop thinking of our troubles as circumstantial or manmade, and remember that God is in control and allows it, we will trust that God has his reasons. We will also have lesser hatred towards our enemies.
Your wrath lies heavily upon me; You have overwhelmed me with all Your waves. Selah
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, O Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to You.
Heman felt the wrath of God. We were supposed to face it for our sins, but it was taken by Jesus. Remember what Jesus went through to save us. We can take comfort that God understands our sufferings. Any wrath we face can’t be worse than what Jesus went through for us.
Heman felt lost as his closest friends turned repulsive to him. They could have allied with his enemies and turned against him. Can we feel how discouraged Heman was? Have we been in similar situations? Heman was left with one friend whom he cried out to every day — the friend is God.
God knows how we feel, and He has given us the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, and to comfort us. How has our relationship with the Holy Spirit been? Do we speak to our Holy Spirit daily? When we don’t speak to God who lives in us during good times, would we even speak to Him when we are in deep trouble? God has been gracious to me countless times. He caught my attention and directed me to His words that save me.
Do You show Your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise You? Selah
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?
But I cry to You for help, O Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before You.
Heman wondered if God would still show His wonders when he has died. Will God show His faithfulness? Heman prayed for God to do so. His prayer revealed that even when there were things he did not know or understand, he would place his trust in God.
We’ve of course learnt that God will show His wonders to the dead and the dead will rise up on Judgement Day. God can show His wonders even in the “place of darkness” because He reigns over everything. Like Heman, let’s place our faith in God. He can reach us when no one else can, and we will all rise up after we’ve died.
Heman’s faith comforted him during his deep sorrow. Our faith will comfort us too.
Why, O Lord, do You reject me and hide Your face from me?
From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered 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 my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.
Looking at Heman’s life, we feel sorry for him. Perhaps, the time when David selected him to be one of the Temple Musicians (1 Chronicles 6:33) could have been one of his very few high points in life. He was also renowned for his wisdom, only lower than Solomon (1 Kings 4:31). He felt overwhelmed by his problems and felt that God had rejected him.
It is understandable that we will feel rejected by God when we go through crises. Why does God want this psalm to be in the Bible? Perhaps He wants us to know that He understands when we feel rejected by Him? We may feel that God has rejected us, but that does not mean it is true. We know God loves us. If God rejects us, would He let Jesus die on the cross to save us? God continues to care for us.
Heman ended his psalm in a very bleak way: “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.” How would you want to end you prayer?
This is the darkest psalm in the book of Psalm. There was a sense of surrender to God as Heman counted the last days of his life. His lowest point certainly sounded very bad, but he was resilient and remained faithful in his prayers to God. Like Heman, we’ve had some high points and low points. Don't give up praying.
Andy is the head of compliance for an international bank and is happily married, with three daughters. He became a disciple of Christ three decades ago, and studies God's Word passionately. He desires to be constantly led by the Spirit. Andy joined the Central Christian Church in 1990.