Treasury of David
SUBJECT AND DIVISION.
This Psalm is fragmentary, and the only division of any service to us would be that suggested by Albert Barnes, viz.—A description of the sick man's sufferings (Psalm 88:1-9), and a prayer for mercy and deliverance (Psalm 88:10-18). We shall, however, consider each verse separately, and so exhibit the better the incoherence of the author's grief. The reader had better first peruse the Psalm as a whole.
Verse 1. O Lord God of my salvation.
This is a hopeful title by which to address the Lord, and it has about it the only ray of comfortable light which shines throughout the Psalm. The writer has salvation, he is sure of that, and God is the sole author of it. While a man can see God as his Savior, it is not altogether midnight with him. While the living God can be spoken of as the life of our salvation, our hope will not quite expire. It is one of the characteristics of true faith that she turns to Jehovah, the saving God, when all other confidences have proved liars unto her.
I have cried day and night before you.
His distress had not blown out the sparks of his prayer—but quickened them into a greater ardency, until they burned perpetually like a furnace at full blast. His prayer was personal—whoever had not prayed, he had done so; it was intensely earnest, so that it was correctly described as a cry, such as children utter to move the pity of their parents; and it was unceasing, neither the business of the day nor the weariness of the night had silenced it: surely such entreaties could not be in vain.
Perhaps, if Heman's pain had not been incessant, his supplications might have been intermittent; it is a good thing that sickness will not let us rest if we spend our restlessness in prayer.
Day and night are both suitable to prayer; it is no work of darkness, therefore let us go with Daniel and pray when men can see us; yet, since supplication needs no light, let us accompany Jacob and wrestle at Jabbok until the day breaks. Evil is transformed to good when it drives us to prayer.
One expression of the text is worthy of special note; "before you" is a remarkable intimation that the Psalmist's cries had an aim and a direction towards the Lord, and were not the mere clamors of nature—but the groanings of a gracious heart towards Jehovah, the God of salvation. Of what use are arrows shot into the air? The archer's business is to look well at the mark he drives at. Prayers must be directed to Heaven with earnest care. So thought Heman—his cries were all meant for the heart of his God. He had no eye to onlookers as Pharisees have—but all his prayers were before his God.
Verse 2. Let my prayer come before you.
Admit it to an audience; let it speak with you. Though it be my prayer, and therefore very imperfect—yet deny it not your gracious consideration.
Incline your ear unto my cry.
It is not music save to the ear of mercy—yet be not vexed with its discord, though it be but a cry, for it is the most natural expression of my soul's anguish.
When my heart speaks, let your ear hear.
There may be obstacles which impede the upward flight of our prayers—let us entreat the Lord to remove them; and as there may also be offences which prevent the Lord from giving favorable regard to our requests—let us implore him to put these out of the way. He who has prayed day and night cannot bear to lose all his labor. Only those who are indifferent in prayer will be indifferent about the outcome of prayer.
Verse 3. For my soul is full of troubles.
I am satiated and nauseated with them. Like a vessel full to the brim with vinegar, my heart is filled up with adversity until it can hold no more. He had his house full and his hands full of sorrow; but, worse than that, he had his heart full of it. Trouble in the soul, is the soul of trouble. A little soul trouble is painful; what must it be to be satiated with it? And how much worse still to have your prayers return empty when your soul remains full of grief.
And my life draws near unto the grave.
He felt as if he must die, indeed he thought himself half dead already. All his life was going, his spiritual life declined, his mental life decayed, his bodily life flickered; he was nearer dead than alive. Some of us can enter into this experience, for many a time have we traversed this valley of death-shade, yes and dwelt in it by the month together.
Really to die and be with Christ will be a gala day's enjoyment compared with our misery when a worse than physical death has cast its dreadful shadow over us. Death would be welcomed as a relief by those whose depressed spirits make their existence a living death. Are godly men ever permitted to suffer thus? Indeed they are; and some of them are even all their life time subject to bondage.
O Lord, Be pleased to set free your prisoners of hope! Let, none of your mourners imagine that a strange thing has happened unto him—but rather rejoice as he sees the footprints of brethren who have trodden this desert before.
Verse 4. I am counted with them that go down into the pit.
My weakness is so great that both by myself and others I am considered as good as dead. If those about me have not ordered my coffin they have at least conversed about my sepulcher, discussed my estate, and reckoned their share of it. Many a man has been buried before he was dead, and the only mourning over him has been because he refused to fulfill the greedy expectations of his hypocritical relatives by going down to the pit at once. It has come to this with some afflicted believers, that their hungry heirs think they have lived too long.
I am as a man who has no strength.
I have but the name to live; my constitution is broken up; I can scarce crawl about my sick room, my mind is even weaker than my body, and my faith weakest of all. The sons and daughters of sorrow will need but little explanation of these sentences, they are to such tried ones as household words.
Verse 5. I am set apart among the dead.
Unbound from all that links a man with life, familiar with death's door, a freeman of the city of the sepulcher, I seem no more one of earth's drudges—but begin to anticipate the rest of the tomb. It is a sad case when our only hope lies in the direction of death, our only liberty of spirit amid the congenial horrors of corruption.
Like the slain that lie in the grave, whom you remember no more.
He felt as if he were as utterly forgotten as those whose carcasses are left to rot on the battlefield. As when a soldier, mortally wounded, bleeds unheeded amid the heaps of slain, and remains to his last expiring groan unpitied and unsuccoured, so did Heman sigh out his soul in loneliest sorrow, feeling as if even God himself had quite forgotten him.
How low the spirits of good and brave men will sometimes sink. Under the influence of certain disorders everything will wear a somber aspect, and the heart will dive into the profoundest deeps of misery.
It is all very well for those who are in robust health and full of spirits to blame those whose lives are sicklied over with the pale cast of melancholy—but the evil is as real as a gaping wound, and all the more hard to bear because it lies so much in the region of the soul that to the inexperienced it appears to be a mere matter of diseased imagination.
Reader, never ridicule the nervous and depressed, their pain is real; though much of the evil lies in the imagination, it is not imaginary.
And they are cut off from your hand.
Poor Heman felt as if God himself had put him away, smitten him and laid him among the corpses of those executed by divine justice. He mourned that the hand of the Lord had gone out against him, and that lie was divided from the great author of his life. This is the essence of wormwood. Man's blows are trifles—but God's smitings are terrible to a gracious heart. To feel utterly forsaken of the Lord and cast away as though hopelessly corrupt is the very climax of heart desolation.
Verse 6. You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.
What a collection of forcible metaphors, each one expressive of the utmost grief. Heman compared his forlorn condition to an imprisonment in a subterranean dungeon, to confinement in the realms of the dead, and to a plunge into the abyss. None of the similes are strained.
The mind can descend far lower than the body, for it has bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more—but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour. It is grievous to the good man to see the Lord whom he loves laying him in the sepulcher of despondency; piling nightshade upon him, putting out all his candles, and heaping over him solid masses of sorrow. Evil from so good a hand seems evil indeed, and yet if faith could but be allowed to speak she would remind the depressed spirit that it is better to fall into the hand of the Lord than into the hands of man, and moreover she would tell the despondent heart that God never placed a Joseph in a pit without drawing him up again to fill a throne; that he never caused a horror of great darkness to fall upon an Abraham without revealing his covenant to him; and never cast even a Jonah into the deeps without preparing the means to land him safely on dry land.
Alas, when under deep depression the mind forgets all this, and is only conscious of its unutterable misery; the man sees the lion but not the honey in its carcass, he feels the thorns but he cannot smell the roses which adorn them.
He who now feebly expounds these words knows within himself more than he would care or dare to tell of the abysses of inward anguish. He has sailed round the Cape of Storms, and has drifted along by the dreary headlands of despair. He has groaned out with one of old, "My bones are pierced in me in the night season; and my sinews take no rest. I go morning without the sun. Terrors are turned upon me, they pursue my soul as the wind."
Those who know this bitterness by experience will sympathize—but from others it would be idle to expect pity, nor would their pity be worth the having if it could be obtained. It is an unspeakable consolation that our Lord Jesus knows this experience right well, having, with the exception of the sin of it, felt it all and more than all in Gethsemane when he was exceeding sorrowful even unto death.
Verse 7. Your wrath lies hard upon me.
Dreadful plight this, the worst in which a man can be found. Wrath is heavy in itself; God's wrath is crushing beyond conception, and when that presses hard the soul is oppressed indeed. The wrath of God is the very Hell of Hell, and when it weighs upon the conscience a man feels a torment such as only that of damned spirits can exceed. Joy or peace, or even numbness of indifference, there can be none to one who is loaded with this most tremendous of burdens.
And you have afflicted me with all your waves.
Or all your breakers. He pictures God's wrath as breaking over him like those waves of the sea which swell, and rage, and dash with fury upon the shore. How could his frail barque hope to survive those cruel breakers, white like the hungry teeth of death. Seas of affliction seemed to rush in upon him with all the force of omnipotence. He felt himself to be oppressed and afflicted like Israel in Egypt, when they cried by reason of their afflictions. It appeared impossible for him to suffer more, he had exhausted the methods of adversity and endured all its waves.
So have we imagined, and yet it is not really quite so bad. The worst case might be worse, there are alleviations to every woe; God has other and more terrible waves which, if he chose to let them forth, would sweep us into the infernal abyss, whence hope has long since been banished.
There was need to rest. Above the breakers the swimmer lifts his head and looks around him, breathing for a moment, until the next wave comes. Even lamentation must have its pauses. Nights are broken up into watches, and even so mourning has its intervals. Such sorrowful music is a great strain both on voices and instruments, and it is well to give the singers the relief of silence for a while.
Verse 8. You have put away my acquaintance far from me.
If ever we need friends it is in the dreary hour of despondency and the weary time of bodily sickness; therefore does the sufferer complain because divine providence had removed his friends.
Perhaps his disease was infectious or defiling, so that he was legally separated from his fellow men; perhaps their fears kept them away from his plague stricken house, or else his good name had become so injured that they naturally avoided him. Most friends require but small excuse for turning their backs on the afflicted. The swallows offer no apology for leaving us to winter by ourselves. Yet it is a piercing pain which arises from the desertion of dear associates; it is a wound which festers and refuses to be healed.
You have made me an abomination unto them.
They turned from him as though he had become loathsome and contaminating, and this because of something which the Lord had done to him; therefore, he brings his complaint to the prime mover in his trouble. He who is still flattered by the companions of his pleasure can little guess the wretchedness which will be his portion should he become poor, or slanderously accused—for then one by one the parasites of his prosperity will go their way and leave him to his fate, not without cutting remarks on their part to increase his misery.
Men have not so much power to bless by friendship, as to curse by treachery. Earth's poisons are more deadly than her medicines are healing. The mass of men who gather around a man and flatter him are like tame leopards; when they lick his hand it is well for him to remember that with equal gusto they would drink his blood. "Cursed is he who trusts in man."
I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.
He was a prisoner in his room, and felt like a leper in the lazaretto, or a condemned criminal in his cell. His mind, too, was bound as with fetters of iron; he felt no liberty of hope, he could take no flights of joy. When God shuts friends out, and shuts us in to pine away alone, it is no wonder if we water our couch with tears.
Verse 9. my eye mourns by reason of affliction.
He wept his eyes out. He exhausted the lachrymal glands, he wore away the sight itself. Tears in showers are a blessing, and work our good; but in floods they become destructive and injurious.
Lord, I have called daily upon you.
His tears wetted his prayers—but did not damp then fervor. He prayed still, though no answer came to dry his eyes. Nothing can make a true believer cease praying; it is a part of his nature, and pray he must.
I have stretched out my hands unto you.
He used the appropriate posture of a supplicant, of his own accord. Men need no posture maker, or master of the ceremonies, when they are eagerly pleading for mercy, nature suggests to them attitudes both natural and correct. As a little child stretches out its hands to its mother while it cries, so did this afflicted child of God. He prayed all over, his eyes wept, his voice cried, his hands were outstretched, and his heart broken. This was prayer indeed.
Verse 10. Will you show wonders to the dead?
Why then allow me to die? While I live you can in me display the glories of your grace—but when I have passed into the unknown land, how can you illustrate in me your love? If I perish you will lose a worshiper who both reverenced, and in his own experience illustrated, the wonders of your character and acts.
This is good pleading, and therefore he repeats it. Shall the dead arise and praise you? He is thinking only of the present, and not of the last great day, and he urges that the Lord would have one the less to praise him among the sons of men. Shadows take no part in the quires of the Sabbath, ghosts sing no joyous Psalms, sepulchers and vaults send forth no notes of thanksgiving. True the souls of departed saints render glory to God—but the dejected Psalmist's thoughts do not mount to Heaven but survey the gloomy grave: he stays on this side of eternity, where in the grave he sees no wonders and hears no songs.
At the mouth of the tomb he sits down to meditate, and then returns to his theme.
Verse 11. Shall your loving-kindness be declared in the grave?
Your tender goodness—who shall testify concerning it in that cold abode where the worm and corruption hold their riot? The living may write "meditations among the Tombs"—but the dead know nothing, and therefore can declare nothing.
Or your faithfulness in destruction?
If the Lord suffered his servant to die before the divine promise was fulfilled, it would be quite impossible for his faithfulness to be proclaimed. The poet is dealing with this life only, and looking at the matter from the point of view afforded by time and the present race of men; if a believer were deserted and permitted to die in despair, there could come no voice from his grave to inform mankind that the Lord had rectified his wrongs and relieved him of his trials; no songs would leap up from the cold sod to hymn the truth and goodness of the Lord; but as far as men are concerned, a voice which loved to magnify the grace of God would be silenced, and a loving witness for the Lord removed from the sphere of testimony.
Verse 12. Shall your wonders be known in the dark?
If not here permitted to prove their goodness of Jehovah, how could the singer do so in the land of darkness and death shade? Could his tongue, when turned into a clod, charm the dull cold ear of death? Is not a living dog better than a dead lion, and a living believer of more value to the cause of God on earth than all the departed put together?
And your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
What shall be told concerning you in the regions of oblivion? Where memory and love are lost, and men are alike unknowing and unknown, forgetful and forgotten, what witness to the divine holiness can be borne? The whole argument amounts to this—if the believer dies unblessed, how will God's honor be preserved? Who will bear witness to his truth and righteousness?
Verse 13. But unto you have I cried, O LORD.
I have continued to pray for help to you, O Jehovah, the living God, even though you have so long delayed to answer. A true born child of God may be known by his continuing to cry; a hypocrite is great at a spurt—but the genuine believer holds on until he wins his suit.
And in the morning shall my prayer comes before you.
He meant to plead on yet, and to increase his earnestness. He intended to be up early, to anticipate the day light, and begin to pray before the sun was up. If the Lord is pleased to delay, he has a right to do as he wills—but we must not therefore become tardy in supplication. If we count the Lord slack concerning his promise we must only be the more eager to outrun him, lest sinful sloth on our part should hinder the blessing.
"Let prayer and holy hymn
Perfume the morning air;
Before the world with smoke is dim
Bestir your soul to prayer."
"While flowers are wet with dew
Lament your sins with tears,
And before the sun shines forth anew
Tell to your Lord your fears."
Verse 14. O LORD, why have you cast off my soul?
Have you not aforetime chosen me, will you now reject me? Shall your elect ones become your reprobates? Do you, like changeable men, give a writing of divorcement to those whom your love has espoused? Can your beloveds become your cast offs? Why hide you your face from me? Will you not so much as look upon me? Can you not afford me a solitary smile? Why this severity to one who has in brighter days basked in the light of your favor?
We may put these questions to the Lord, nay, we ought to do so. It is not undue familiarity—but holy boldness. It may help us to remove the evil which provokes the Lord to jealousy, if we seriously beg him to show us why he contends with us. He cannot act towards us in other than a right and gracious manner, therefore for every stroke of his rod there is a sufficient reason in the judgment of his loving heart; let us try to learn that reason and profit by it.
Verse 15. I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up.
His affliction had now lasted so long that he could hardly remember when it commenced; it seemed to him as if he had been at death's door ever since he was a child. This was no doubt an exaggeration of a depressed spirit, and yet perhaps Heman may have been born under the cypress, and have been all his days afflicted with some chronic disease or bodily infirmity. There are holy men and women whose lives are a long apprenticeship to sickness, and these deserve both our sympathy and our reverence—our reverence we have ventured to say, for since the Savior became the acquaintance of grief, sorrow has become honorable in believers' eyes. A life-long sickness may by divine grace prove to be a life-long blessing. Better suffer from childhood to old age than to be let alone to find pleasure in sin.
While I suffer your terrors I am distracted.
Long use had not blunted the edge of sorrow, God's terrors had not lost their terror; rather had they become more overwhelming and had driven the man to despair. He was unable to collect his thoughts, he was so tossed about that he could not judge and weigh his own condition in a calm and rational manner. Sickness alone will thus distract the mind; and when a sense of divine anger is added thereto, it is not to be wondered at if reason finds it hard to hold the reins.
How near akin to madness soul depression sometimes may be, it is not our province to decide; but we speak what we do know when we say that a feather weight might be sufficient to turn the scale at times. Thank God O tempted ones who yet retain your reason! Thank him that the devil himself cannot add that feather while the Lord stands by to adjust all things.
Even though we have grazed upon the rock of utter distraction, we bless the infinitely gracious Steersman that the vessel is seaworthy yet, and answers to her helm: tempest tossed from the hour of her launch even to this hour—yet she mounts the waves and defies the hurricane.
Verse 16. Your fierce wrath goes over me.
What an expression, "fierce wrath", and it is a man of God who feels it! Do we seek an explanation? It seemed so to him—but "things are not what they seem." No punitive anger ever falls upon the saved one, for Jesus shields him from it all; but a father's anger may fall upon his dearest child, none the less but all the more, because he loves it. Since Jesus bore my guilt as my substitute, my Judge cannot punish me—but my Father can and will correct me. In this sense the Father may even manifest "fierce wrath" to his erring child, and under a sense of it that dear broken down one may be laid in the dust and covered with wretchedness, and yet for all that he may be accepted and beloved of the Lord all the while.
Heman represents God's wrath as breaking over him as waves over a wreck. Your terrors have cut me off. They have made me a marked man, they have made me feel like a leper separated from the congregation of your people, and they have caused others to look upon me as no better than dead. Blessed be God this is the sufferer's idea and not the very truth, for the Lord will neither cast off nor cut off his people—but will visit his mourners with choice refreshments.
Verse 17. They came round about me daily like water.
My troubles, and your chastisement poured in upon me, penetrating everywhere, and drowning all. Such is the permeating and pervading power of spiritual distress, there is no shutting it out; it soaks into the soul like the dew into Gideon's fleece; it sucks the spirit down as the quicksand swallows the ship; it overwhelms it as the deluge submerged the green earth.
They compassed me about together.
Griefs hemmed him in. He was like the deer in the hunt, when the dogs are all around and at his throat. Poor soul! and yet he was a man greatly beloved of Heaven!
Verse 18. Lover and friend have you put far from me.
Even when they are near me bodily, they are so unable to swim with me in such deep waters, that they stand like men far away on the shore while I am buffeted with the billows; but, alas, they shun me, the dearest lover of all is afraid of such a distracted one, and those who took counsel with me avoid me now!
The Lord Jesus knew the meaning of this in all its wormwood and gall when in his passion. In dreadful loneliness he trod the winepress, and all his garments were stained with the red blood of those sour grapes. Lonely sorrow falls to the lot of not a few; let them not repine—but enter herein into close communion with that dearest lover and friend who is never far from his tried ones.
And my acquaintance into darkness.
Or better still, my acquaintance is darkness. I am familiar only with sadness, all else has vanished. I am a child crying alone in the dark. Will the heavenly Father leave his child there? Here he breaks off, and anything more from us would only spoil the abruptness of the unexpected FINIS.
(We have not attempted to interpret this Psalm concerning our Lord—but we fully believe that where the members are, the Head is to be seen preeminently. To have given a double exposition under each verse would have been difficult and confusing; we have therefore left the Messianic references to be pointed out in the Notes, where, if God the Holy Spirit be pleased to illustrate the page, we have gathered up more than enough to lead each devout reader to behold Jesus, the man of sorrows and the acquaintance of grief.)