Perhaps originally an individual lament by Heman, the Psalm became part of the repertoire of Israel’s communal worship at the temple. The faithful community sang and prayed these words. These words were not hidden in a corner, but heralded in the temple courts as the congregation of Israel worshiped God. Though they may have begun as a personal testimony, they became the community’s voice as well.
But the words are startling to many contemporary believers. It is almost unimaginable that any believer should pray these words much less that a worshiping community recite and sing them in their assembly.
Unlike other laments, Psalm 88 has no explicit praise, no commitment to trust, and no explicit hope that God will answer. It only has one petition, and it does not request healing, resolution, or redemption. It only asks God to listen (88:2)! The Psalmist wants to be heard, which is one of the great needs human beings have. We want to be heard, and most of all we want God to hear our hurts, pains, and concerns.
While Psalm 88 is traumatic for many believers, it is a prayer that arises from trauma. Perhaps that trauma was a long, chronic illness; one that has afflicted Heman from his youth. He has often lingered near the grave, on the edge of death. The prayer is the testimony of a dying person.
Three times–and this makes a nice structural division of the Psalm into three parts–the Psalmist cries out to God:
- Yahweh, I cry out to you (1-2), and Heman gives his reasons (3-9a)
- Yahweh, I cry out to you (9bc), and Heman questions God (10-12)
- Yahweh, I cry out to you (13), and Heman describes his lot (14-18)
Each time, however, Heman uses a different word for “cry out.” These terms overlap in their semantic meaning, but the emphasis is slightly different. As a structural key to the Psalm, we might see shifting (or developing) moods in the different verbs. The first has the sense of crying out for help in the midst of some kind of distress; it is an outcry, an emotionally charged plea for help. The second has the sense of proclaim or call, which perhaps reflects a public pleading for help as if it is a pleading in court. The third is a plea, perhaps couched in deep saddness, for deliverance.
I see movement in the three sections of the Psalm. Heman begins with an emotionally-charged plea for help where he details the tragic circumstances of his life, and then publicly questions God about death and divine faithfulness. In the final section, emotionally spent, Heman–with a sense of melancholy–faces the reality of the situation where darkness is his constant companion (88:18). We move from shock to anger, and from anger to resignation, but there is no deliverance in sight.
The shock is that God has not answered despite the persistent prayer of one who has served God faithfully for years (Heman is one of the Levitical musicians or singers–he is part of the temple musical complex). Rather than deliverance, which one might expect from the God of the Exodus, he has found himself near death as if God has abandoned him and cut him off from God’s protective care. This abandonment extends to his friends who regard him as “a thing of horror.”
Heman is alone. There is no community, and there is no salvation or healing. This has nothing to do with his prayer life–he prays every day, morning and night. This has nothing to do with his service–he is a committed member of the praise team! This has nothing to do with his confession–he knows Yahweh and speaks the name of God in his prayers. Consequently, Heman is bewildered, confused, and perplexed. This does not make sense.
The Psalmist is shocked that God has not answered. He is shocked that God lies behind his condition, and his prayer is filled with accusation. God is responsible for his situation! That itself is a shock.
This shock turns to questioning, perhaps even anger (88:9b-12). The questions are probably arguments, but also rhetorical. Perhaps he knows the answer to them (do they assume a negative answer?), but perhaps they are more open-ended, a kind of grasping for hope in the midst of despair. Whatever the case, this prayer-warrior is bold and addresses the covenant God (Yahweh) with direct questions. He wrestles with God.
The questions contrast death and the character of Yahweh.
Does God work wonders for the dead?
Do the dead ones stand up to praise God?
Is steadfast love declared in the grave?
Is divine faithfulness declared in Abaddon?
Are divine wonders recognized in the darkness?
Is divine deliverance recognized where people are forgotten?
This is a dispute with God about death. What good is death? What good is there in Heman’s potential death? What does God gain from death?
The questions affirm life. This is where God’s steadfast love and deliverance are remembered and praised. This is the arena of God’s redemptive work, and it is where Yahweh loves and communes with the people of God. The living praise God.
As Andrew Peterson sings in “Come Back Soon,” “Every death is a question mark.” Every death raises questions about God’s character, about the meaning of life, and about the praise of God.
Heman feels these questions. Perhaps the dead do praise God, but Heman does not know this or at least he is uncertain about it. In fact, his argument is that it is better for him to live and give testimony about God’s deliverance in the land of the living than to die and praise God (if he can) where the living will not hear. The steadfast love of God is about life, not death, and Heman appeals to this in anger and frustration.
This anger, I think, turns to melancholy or sadness. It still questions, “Why do you hide your face from me?” But resignation is present to some degree–the reality has set in, and no deliverance seems near. Instead, he feels assaulted and overwhelmed by a flood of terror. God has not released him from death, and God’s “terrors” have frightened his friends and neighbors. He is alone, and only darkness is his companion. Darkness is the last Hebrew word in the psalm.
His prayer asks, “Why?” Sometimes one hears that sufferers should not ask why, but sufferers in the Psalms did, and Jesus even quoted one on the cross (“why have you forsaken me?”). “Why?” is a perfectly legitimate question but without satisfying answers. Heman does not know the answer, and neither do we. Nevertheless, we still ask. There is something deeply emotive about asking that question. We vent even as we inquire. We yearn for meaning and purpose even if we don’t see any possible meaning or purpose that could be given to some of our experiences.
“Why?” is the voice of despair, even anger. It is, however, primarily a way to cope. To ask–to voice the question–is to act, and to act is to search for meaning. Ultimately, we give the question to God who alone can answer it. But sufferers must lay it in God’s lap and ask! There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, there is something (spiritually) therapeutic about it.
In the midst of suffering–a chronic illness, the loss of death, or whatever it may be–we are first shocked, then we become angry, and then we feel the overwhelming torture of sadness or depression. This is the process of Psalm 88. There is nothing inappropriate about it. Indeed, Psalm 88 leads the congregation of Israel through that very process. It is important for healing, growth, and renewal.
But are there signs of renewal here?
Heman is overwhelmed with darkness. Even in that darkness, however, he has a glimer of hope though it is faint.
- He continues to pray, day and night, unceasingly and persistently. He is still speaking to God; he has not given upon on God.
- He calls God by the covenant name, “Yahweh.”
- He approaches God as an intimate, that is, he questions God and boldly places his heart before God.
- He knows the story of God’s covenant love, faithfulness, and past wonders, and he relies on those stories for the hope of deliverance.
- He addresses God, in the first line of the Psalm, as the one who is able to deliver, “the God of my salvation.”
- The prayer evidences an intensity and depth of relationship with God; Heman still trusts God and prays boldly.
And yet, there is only one petition in the whole prayer: “incline your ear to my cry.” This is a different word for “cry” than the verbs present in verses 1, 9a, and 13. This word involves groaning, distress, and agony.
Heman is in agony, and all he wants–as far as this prayer is concerned–is for God to listen. Sometimes that is all we want from anybody….somebody to listen. Perhaps God answered Heman’s prayer when the whole congregation prayed with him in song and music.
Perhaps that happens even today when we are willing to listen to each other’s agony, and then darkness is no longer our closest companion.