For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 88.
Psalm 88 is notorious because it is a completely negative Psalm. The Psalmist says nothing positive or hopeful. The
Psalmist feels that he is near death, or even experiencing death, and
he characterizes death as a state of alienation from God----where God
does not regard the dead, and the dead do not praise God.
While the Psalmist does not feel that God is heeding him----even in the
morning, which in the Psalms and the Hebrew Bible is often a time of
divine deliverance----he still thinks that God is paying attention to
him, for he believes that his suffering is due to God's wrath upon him.
The Psalmist also feels abandoned by his friends and acquaintances.
that I appreciate about many of the laments in the Psalms is that they
carry a message that we can call on God, even if we are alone and nobody
else likes us. In this day and age, communitarianism is becoming the
norm within the Christian religion, and, while community is important,
the stress on communitarianism tends to send the message that those who
have problems fitting into a community are displeasing to God. But the
Psalms of lament convey another message: that God loves us, even if
others do not. But does Psalm 88 convey that message, when it is
completely negative? I think so, for the Psalmist still
believes that calling out to God is worth the effort, even if God does
not appear to be listening to him. As long as there is a God, there is
Unless one is dead, right? That's why I
have a hard time getting my mind around the disbelief in a rigorous
afterlife in ancient Israelite thought. So death, according to
Psalm 88, is a time when people are ignored by God and tend to ignore
God by not giving God praise. There is even a statement in the Talmud
that the dead are free from the obligations of the Torah! Even if the
Psalmist was hoping that God would deliver him from a premature death,
the fact is that he would die eventually. Even if God were to
heal him of his disease and allow him to live to a ripe old age, the
Psalmist would at some point die and become independent of God. It
sounds rather hopeless, to tell you the truth!
One commentary I read treated Psalm 88 as a foil for the hope in a resurrection that is in the New Testament,
and that makes a degree of sense: Hebrews 2:15 talks about people being
in bondage due to their fear of death, and how Jesus delivers them from
that. In the Hebrew Bible, however, what would be the purpose of a
religious life, if we were all heading towards a state of alienation
from God? I suppose that the Book of Ecclesiastes wrestles with that
question: it says that we should enjoy life and serve God while we can,
and yet it also appears to hold out some hope that the spirit of human
beings will go to God at death.
Not surprisingly, there were
Jewish interpretations that sought to uncover some hope in Psalm 88.
The Targum actually calls Psalm 88 a Psalm of praise. And Rabbi
Samson Raphael Hirsch interprets v 1 to mean that the Jews in exile
suffer during the day, but during the night they come before God and
study the Torah, and are thereby refreshed. I doubt that Psalm
88:1 is saying such a thing, but I do identify with what Rabbi Hirsch
is getting at: that we can endure a harsh situation by setting our minds
on what is positive and edifying. Or at least we can try!
But, in my opinion, the lesson of Psalm 88 is that God will listen to us, even if we have nothing positive to say. I can also identify with the Psalmist's desire to avoid death, which is a state of alienation from God. Who would want to be in a state of isolation, where one is not cared for by God, and one does not care for God?