God of my salvation

By Stephen Green

Psalm 88: A Song or Psalm for the sons of Korah, to the chief Musician upon Mahalath Leannoth, Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite.

1 O LORD God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee:

2 Let my prayer come before thee: incline thine ear unto my cry;

3 For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.

4 I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength:

5 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.

6 Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.

7 Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves. Selah.

8 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.

9 Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction: LORD, I have called daily upon thee, I have stretched out my hands unto thee.

10 Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee? Selah.

11 Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?

12 Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

13 But unto thee have I cried, O LORD; and in the morning shall my prayer prevent thee.

14 LORD, why castest thou off my soul? why hidest thou thy face from me?

15 I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up: while I suffer thy terrors I am distracted.

16 Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; thy terrors have cut me off.

17 They came round about me daily like water; they compassed me about together.

18 Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.

On first sight, Psalm 88 seems overcome with sorrow.  There appears to be little or nothing to lift us up.  It can be regarded as the gloomiest psalm in the book.  The writer is expressing the very depths of despair.

MOURNING AND WOE

Matthew Henry wrote: ‘This psalm is a lamentation, one of the most melancholy of all the psalms; and it does not conclude, as usually the melancholy psalms do, with the least intimation of comfort or joy, but, from first to last, it is mourning and woe.’

The word ‘mahalath’ in the dedication refers to a lute.  It was also, strangely enough, the name of one of the wives of Esau (Gen 28:9) and a granddaughter of David (2Chr 11:18).  The word ‘leannoth’ apparently points to some kind of instrument unknown. However, the whole phrase ‘Mahalath Leannoth’ has by others been rendered, “On the sickness of affliction: a lesson.”

A ‘Maschil’ is instructive, so the whole phrase may mean “concerning afflictive sickness – a didactic psalm”. Verses 3 and 4 indicate that Heman, the writer, is indeed afflicted with some disease and that he fears for his life.  In the alternative, he has placed himself into the mind of someone suffering.  I suggest the latter because Heman is well spoken of in scripture and apparently blessed by God in every department of his life.

HEMAN THE MUSICIAN

1Kings 4:30-31 states that only Solomon exceeded the wisdom possessed by Heman and his brothers.  In 1Chr 6:33 he is stated to be a singer, in 1Chr 15:19 a percussionist, in 1Chr 16:42 and 1Chr 25:5 a trumpeter and in 1Chr 25:1 and 2Chr 5:12 a string-player.  He was in other words an accomplished musician.  What a delight it would have been to hear him play and sing.

In 1st Chronicles 16 we read of Zadok the priest and his brethren the priests offering the daily sacrifice ‘according to all that is written in the law of the LORD’ to an accompaniment of praise from Heman:

1Chr 16:41 And with them Heman and Jeduthun, and the rest that were chosen, who were expressed by name, to give thanks to the LORD, because his mercy endureth for ever;

The Psalm has a highly organised structure.  It begins with nine verses of content.  These are followed by a three-verse bridge or interlude.  The word ‘Selah’ at the end of verse 10 may be a musical or liturgical term or a notation for reflection.  No-one amongst the Hebrew scholars really knows.  But if ‘Selah’ does mean ‘play some music’ or ‘reflect upon this’ it seems appropriately placed.  The final six verses repeat and develop the sentiments of the opening nine verses.  The word ‘prevent’ in verse 13 means ‘come before’ as I shall explain in a moment.

WHAT IS THIS MASCHIL TEACHING?

If I have been putting off addressing the content of the Psalm, I should now buckle down and see what lessons it holds for us.  It is a Maschil; it is intended to teach us something.

Warren E. Berkley, on the website www.bible.ca, suggests that the writer is describing suffering from sin.  To say this he leans on two presuppositions.  The first is that, along with the comforters of Job, he contends that God punishes the wicked and that therefore anyone suffering must be in sin.

Now, it is good to examine ourselves if we are afflicted.  Any calamity would send the Puritans to their knees, seeking the Lord to see if they had transgressed, to seek his face, to repent if necessary and to come into a greater intimacy with the Almighty.

But the book of Job shows that while God does bless the righteous and afflict the wicked, suffering is not always the result of sin.

The second presupposition for Mr Berkley’s contention is that the two references to ‘my soul’ in the psalm refer to the innermost being.  He writes: ‘”My soul is full of troubles.” This points to internal, spiritual trouble; turmoil of spirit having immediate impact on the inner man.’  He goes on: ‘This leads me to believe Psalms (sic) 88 was written by one suffering under the guilt and bondage of his own sin.’

THE MEANING OF ‘NEPHESH’ OR ‘SOUL’

I am not so sure about that, so let us look at the two verses again:

3 For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.

14 LORD, why castest thou off my soul? why hidest thou thy face from me?

The Hebrew word ‘nephesh’ translated as ‘soul’ in the King James Bible does not mean what we think it means.  It does not  mean some inner spiritual core, it means our living, breathing existence.  Aninals in the Old Testament have ‘nephesh’.

When David says ‘they seek after my soul’ in Psalms 35, 40, 54, 63, 70 and 71 he is not saying his enemies want to steal his eternal destiny.  They are looking to kill him.  Christians today spiritualise too much.  They adopt almost a Gnostic attitude that everything spiritual is good and that everything material is beneath contempt.  That is not Hebrew thought at all.

THE WHOLE OF LIFE

The Bible teaches that God is involved with the whole of life.  He is interested in the total well-being of our human existence.  That is why he sent Joseph to Egypt.  That is why the book of Ecclesiates teaches us to enjoy the fruit of our labour at the end of each day.  That is why God became one of us.  That is why our gracious Lord’s immediate response to the widow of Nain was not to ask her if she was saved, but to raise her son.

That is why, although Jesus said in response to Thomas’s question ‘How can we know the way?’ I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6), he also said of food, drink, clothing and shelter, ‘your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things’ (Matt 6:32)

Our Lord did not then say ‘seek ye only the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; for the other things do not matter’.  Rather:

Matt 6:33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Psalm 88 is Hebrew poetry and most of the verses express synonymous thoughts.  Heman puts it one way, then another way.  Hebrew poetry rhymes thoughts, not sounds.  This is why its beauty translates so easily into any language.

So the two ideas of verse 3 are the same: ‘my soul is full of troubles’; ‘my life draweth nigh unto the grave’.  And the two ideas in verse 14 rhyme as well: ‘LORD, why castest thou off my soul?’;  ‘why hidest thou thy face from me?’.

WE CAN PRAY THIS PSALM

One thing this psalm can teach us is that there is nothing wrong with having such feelings as are expressed in it – at least for a time.  We can pray this psalm if it expresses what we see as our portion at a particular moment.

Psalm 30:5 For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

But, it may be objected, the writer has been crying to God incessantly.  He has been crying out for so long it seems he has always been doing it (‘from my youth up’).  Nevertheless, despite what Matthew Henry said, it is not quite mourning and woe from first to last.  There is that glimmer of hope at the very start:

1 O LORD God of my salvation, …

And it is repeated in verse 13:

13 But unto thee have I cried, O LORD; and in the morning shall my prayer prevent thee.

Again, the word translated ‘prevent’ is the Hebrew ‘qâdam’, which means ‘come  before’, anticipate or hasten.  The man in the psalm will not stop crying out to God.  First thing in the morning he will be incessant in his praise and his supplications.  He will stay importunate in prayer just like the widow of Luke 18.

GOD’S ATTRIBUTES EXPRESSED

As J C Philpot pointed out, although God seemed far from him, yet in the three-verse bridge ‘we find mention made of four things on the part of God: “wonders”, “lovingkindness”, “faithfulness”, and “righteousness”. These were four attributes of the blessed Jehovah which the eyes of Heman had been opened to see, and which the heart of Heman had been wrought upon to feel’.  To which we may add the “praise” of verse 10 which man offers up to God, even when all seems to be going bad:

Psalm 42:11 Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.

I mentioned the book of Job above and there are intense parallels with the suffering expressed in Psalm 88 and the sufferings of Job.  The feelings of desolation, of estrangement from friends and family, of a lack of strength, of the wrath of God overwhelming, of God being distant and casting us off.  And yet, in the midst of it all, Job said:

Job 13:15 Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him:

JEREMIAH FELT THE SAME

You may be reminded as I was of Jeremiah’s complaint poured out in his Lamentations.  He and the remaining people of Jerusalem had watched as the courts of the city, its temple, its walls and even their homes, were destroyed.  This was the result of Judah’s sin, but Jeremiah himself had not been party to it.  Indeed he had prophesied strongly against it.  Many of the people and even the princes had been with him.  Not all had sinned, but the destruction had come upon them all.

Jeremiah cried out:

Lamentations 1:12 Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.

But then, in the midst of it all:

Lamentations 3:21 This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. 22 It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. 23 They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. 24 The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. 25 The LORD is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. 26 It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD.

THE ROCK OF MY SALVATION

We all know the hymn.  But back to Psalm 88.  Many speak of ‘moving’ from the troubles of Romans 7 to the freedom of Romans 8.  Whether we can ever do better than the Apostle Paul and totally escape our sin nature, the idea surely contains the truth that passages of scripture should not be read in isolation.

It must be the same here.  Yes, we expect every psalm to be self-contained and to end on a note of hope.  No, Psalm 88 does not do that.  But the one that follows it does, and it is another Maschil, written by Heman’s brother Ethan.  In fact, Psalm 89 concludes Book III of the Psalter.  Ethan is also mentioned in 1Kings 4:31 as a man of great wisdom.  Like Heman, he wrote one psalm.

I have a strong feeling that we are meant to read Psalm 88 and Psalm 89 together and that the brothers intended the first to set out a catalogue of despair to which the second could respond and that together they will teach us what we need to know about seeking the Lord in a time of trouble.

Psalm 89 is fifty-two verses long and much of it is about David, but here are some of its encouraging verses to cheer you up after the misery of Psalm 88.  As Pastor S. M. Lockridge famously preached on our Lord’s Crucifixion and Resurrection, ‘It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming’!:

Psalm 89:1 Maschil of Ethan the Ezrahite. I will sing of the mercies of the LORD for ever: with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.

2 For I have said, Mercy shall be built up for ever: thy faithfulness shalt thou establish in the very heavens.

8 O LORD God of hosts, who is a strong LORD like unto thee? or to thy faithfulness round about thee?

14 Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face.

15 Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound: they shall walk, O LORD, in the light of thy countenance.

20 I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him: 21 With whom my hand shall be established: mine arm also shall strengthen him. 22 The enemy shall not exact upon him; nor the son of wickedness afflict him. 23 And I will beat down his foes before his face, and plague them that hate him. 24 But my faithfulness and my mercy shall be with him: and in my name shall his horn be exalted. 25 I will set his hand also in the sea, and his right hand in the rivers. 26 He shall cry unto me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.

52 Blessed be the LORD for evermore. Amen, and Amen.

I pray each one of our members and readers will never lose trust and hope, that we shall stay instant in prayer, that the joy of Psalm 89 will replace the gloom of Psalm 88 and that God’s presence and blessing will be our portion.

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2 comments

  1. Rox

    You find it strange that one of David’s grand-daughters should be called Mahalath, because it also meant “lute” ! Why strange ?

    David is well known to have been fond of music, and if this name was available, the parents might very well have chosen it to please the old man.

    In a later century in Europe, they might have gone for Viola, Violetta, Pandora, or Celeste. Not strange at all.

    1. Stephen

      You are right, and perhaps that should have been ‘co-incidentally’. I hope you read the whole article and didn’t get thrown by that throwaway line, Rox!

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