Saturday, October 26, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 88

Psalm 88 is actually quite a depressing psalm, at least at first glance. The psalmist, who is identified in the inscription as Heman the Ezrahite, feels like his life is falling apart. The whole world is crashing in on him. He is living in darkness, and he feels as though he is close to death, like God has forsaken him and is pouring wave after wave of terrors over him. He senses the heavy hand of God's wrath, and he sorrows over it. It almost seems as though God has cast him off. His companions, too, are far from him. They have forsaken him and shunned him; he has no support in the world. 

This is a dire situation, but Heman is a wise man. In the midst of such trials, fear, and sorrow, he could choose to do several things. He could become angry and resentful, cursing God and people. But he doesn't. He could fall into despair and become suicidal. But he doesn't. He could give up on trying to do good and live like a heathen, thinking only of eating, drinking, and being merry, no matter what the cost. But he doesn't.

What Heman does is turn to God and ask for help. That's what this psalm is, a cry for God's help. Heman begins with a prayer: "O Lord, God of my salvation, when at night I cry out in Your presence, let my prayer come before You; incline Your ear to my cry" (verses 1-2). Take note of a few things about these two verses. First, Heman is claiming God as his own. No matter how much he suffers, God is still his God. He is still in a relationship with Him. Further, God is the God of his salvation. The Hebrew word for "salvation" is yeshuah. We've seen this one before. It is the Hebrew version of Jesus' name. Heman, of course, did not know that, but the Holy Spirit Who was inspiring him did. In any case, Heman believes that God can save him and deliver him from all his misery. Third, Heman realizes that he is in God's presence. God may seem far away, but He isn't. He is right next to Heman, and Heman has access to Him. He begs God to listen to him, and since he keeps right on speaking, he seems confident that God will and does hear.

In the next few verses, Heman pours out his troubles. He sets them all before God with a sincere and open heart. He holds nothing back, not even his feelings that all the things that are going wrong in his life are caused by God. "For my soul is full of troubles," he moans, "and my life draws near to Sheol" (verse 3). All he feels is pain and anxiety and distress, so much so that he feels as though he is drawing near to death, to that shadowy underworld of Sheol where the Israelites believed that the souls of the dead lingered. Remember that Heaven was not yet open, for Jesus had not yet died and rose again to save people from their sins and bring them into eternal life in God's presence. So the Isrealites didn't have much to look forward to after death. It was a gloomy state, and the psalmist feels like he is fast approaching it.

He also feels like God has forsaken him and allowed him to go off to meet his fate, to lie among the dead with no help and to be remembered no more (verses 5-6). He is cut off from God, and worse yet, he feels like God is angry with him. "Your wrath lies heavy upon me," he tells God, "and You overwhelm me with all Your waves" (verse 7). It seems as though he could drown in his misery, as troubles and pain crash down upon him one after another continuously, like waves breaking upon the shore. 

What's more, he has no one to comfort him. "You have caused my companions to shun me," he says to God, "You have made me a thing of horror to them" (verse 8). Everyone is gone. He can turn no where for help and solace. He feels trapped, closed in, alone. 

Yet he continues to call on God. "Every day I call upon You, O Lord; I spread out my hands to You (verse 9). He cries out for God's help, stretching out his arms like a child reaches toward a parent when he pleads for comfort and consolation. He asks God some questions. Do the dead praise You, Lord? Do they declare Your love and faithfulness? Do they proclaim Your wonders? Do they announce Your salvation (verses 10-12)? No, he implies, they do not, but I do. Even in his pain and fear, he does all of these. He praises God and speaks of God's amazing attributes and the marvels He has worked for His people. He remains faithful to God.

In verse 13, he prays once again. “But I, O Lord, cry out to You; in the morning my prayer comes before You.” The Hebrew for “cry out” is shava, and it literally means to cry or shout for help. In the first verse, the psalmist recalls that he cries out at night. Here he cries out in the morning. His prayer is constant, day and night. 

Again, he questions God, wondering why God has cast him off and hidden Himself (verse 14). He feels horrible, he again complains, as though he is almost dead. Overwhelmed by God's wrath, he feels as though a flood is closing in on him (verses 15-17). What's more, he says again, he has been abandoned by his human companions (verse 18). 

The psalm ends right here in the midst of Heman's lament. It does not reach resolution, and we can only hope that Heman eventually found peace. Perhaps the Holy Spirit left us hanging so that we might question ourselves and our lives. Do we bring our troubles to God? Do we maintain a relationship with Him even when everything seems to be going wrong? Do we pray even when we feel like God is angry with us? Do we cry out to God day and night, asking for help? God is waiting for us in the best of times and the worst of times. We all need to imitate Heman and bring all our distress to Him.

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