“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.
Heman the Ezrahite—i.e., of the family of Zerah, the letters having been transposed; not the Heman of 1 Chronicles 6:33, but of 1 Kings 4:31; 1 Chronicles 2:6.
This long inscription is really made up of two: “A song or psalm for the sons of Korah,” and “To the chief musician,” &c
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.
“Mæsta neque assiduo tabescere lumina fletu.
Cessarent, tristique imbre madere genæ.”
CATULLUS: xxviii. 55.
(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.)
(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.
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.)
“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.”