The Expository Files


God Is Still God

Psalm 88

It has been observed in Bible resource books and commentaries, that the 88th Psalm is the most mournful of all the psalms.

Barnes Commentary:
This psalm is altogether of a mournful and desponding character. The author is a sufferer; he is expecting to die; he fears to die; he longs to live; his mind is overwhelmed with gloom which does not seem to be irradiated by one ray of hope or consolation.

Adam Clarke:
The earnest prayer of a person in deep distress, abandoned by his friends and neighbors, and apparently forsaken of God, 1-18.

Matthew Henry:
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.

Pulpit Commentary:
This is the darkest, saddest psalm of all the Psalms.

These conclusions do not represent just the first impression of these scholars. After much thought and study of Psalms 88, the typical commentary appraisal is it is entirely negative, totally given to the expression of grief and despair.

True (if you haven't already, read it now), it seems to be a picture of un-alleviated misery, seldom found anywhere in the Scriptures. Often, in the book of Psalms, you will be able to find hope even in between statements of despair. In many of the Psalms there is lamentation and negative emotions honestly expressed, yet they are resolved by some statement of hope and trust. Not in Psalms 88, we may immediately conclude.

In Psalms 88, from verse 1 to the end of the chapter expresses the emotions of one who is writing from the pit, deep in despair. Even after you grant the writer literary license to use exaggerated poetic language, this poem cannot be lifted to any level of joy it seems. It is a continuous, bitter expression of one living deep in despair, sometimes with language that may seem to border on reproach against God.

The study of this may in some ways be unpleasant but like all Scripture, there can be a positive result for us, as we explore the text and apply the message.

The more I read Psalms 88, the greater my conviction, this was written by someone suffering from their own sin. {I'm going to show you how I arrived at this conclusion.} First, let's deal with this briefly.

The heading above verse 1 associates this passage with the sons of Korah, and a contemplation of a man called "Heman the Ezrahite." Beyond this identification, we have no definite history to connect to the Psalm. There is no circumstance written elsewhere that sheds light on this that I am aware of. The sons of Korah were those descended from Korah - according to 2 Chron. 20:19, involved in musical composition.

One of them was Heman, who according to 1 Chron. 6:33; 15:17, was a grandson of Samuel. He was named as a "seer" in 2 Chron. 29:14,30, and apparently took a leading part in worship services. All of this is interesting - but fails to provide specific insight that would help us with Psalms 88.

That means our work in Psalms 88 depends mostly on the words - the content of the chapter, plus - the general Bible principles we take with us into the study of any passage. We take with us into this study what we have learned in Bible study outside of Psalms 88. What we know about God. What we know about humans. What we know about sin.

We take all that truth with us into Psalms 88, hopefully, to determine the meaning and message. So let me say again - my conclusion is, Psalms 88 was written by someone suffering from his own sin.

Notice, several statements in the passage and their accumulated impact:

In Verse 1, the writer addresses Deity: "O Lord, God of my salvation." Whoever the writer was; whatever the personal context, the first thought in the opening sentence of the poem affirms two things: The writer needs salvation. The writer knows that only God can save him. Do not overlook the personal way this is expressed: The "God of my salvation." What has been called "the saddest of all the psalms," begins with this word of trust and hope; even if it be the only such statement in the chapter - The "God of my salvation."

Next, I want us to look in verse 3, at the writer's grievance: "My soul is full of troubles." In this expression there is no complaint about some physical affection; and there is no claim that unforeseen circumstances are to blame. No direct evidence of being a victim of injustice.

"My soul is full of troubles." This points to internal, spiritual trouble; turmoil of spirit having immediate impact on the inner man. In verse 5, the writer is "adrift among the dead." Now remember, we take with us into this study everything we have learned from the Bible outside of Psalms 88 - what we know about God, about man, about sin!

What is it that would cause someone's soul to be full of troubles and adrift among the dead? I know of only one thing: Sin! When Paul wrote to the Ephesians about what the gospel saved them from, he said, before they obeyed the gospel they were "dead in trespasses and sins," (Eph. 2:1). This leads me to believe Psalms 88 was written by one suffering under the guilt and bondage of his own sin - thus, "adrift among the dead." If I'm right about this by his choices to disobey God, he finds himself "adrift among" those who are spiritually dead.

Verse 7: "your wrath lies heavy upon me." Let's ask ourselves - What is the wrath of God against? Is the wrath of God arbitrarily? Is the wrath of God unjust? For the answer, look at Romans 1:18 - "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness."

If you are suffering with some physical infirmity it cannot be affirmed that the cause is the wrath of God. If you are suffering as a victim, or suffering for righteousness' sake - It cannot be argued, the cause is the wrath of God. But, if you are violating God's law; if you are living in sin, doing the devil's will, the wrath of God lies heavy upon you. Col. 3:6 teaches, the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience.

Verse 14a: "Why do you cast off my soul?" Why would God cast off a soul? Given all we know of God, we do not believe He would cast off a soul arbitrarily. But God has said He will not overlook; He will not endorse or fellowship that which is evil. Hab. 1:13 teaches his eyes are too pure to look on evil, and He "cannot tolerate wrong."

Then, also in verse 14: "Why do You hide Your face from me?" Again our question remains: Why would God hide His face from someone? Turn over to Isaiah 59:1,2. Isaiah is telling the people, why they no longer enjoy the favor of God.

"Behold, the LORD's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear." (ESV, Isa. 59:1,2)

God will hide His face from the sinner! Do you see why I believe this was written by one suffering from his own sin?

I'm looking at each description of despair. I'm attempting to understand each phrase in harmony with everything else the Bible says about God, man and sin. And I'm giving force to the accumulated impact of all these phrases, set into the literary context of this poem. The writer's perspective is - One suffering from his own sin.

What this teaches us should be obvious: The Bible teaches there is no problem that could invade your life worse than sin! No illness or injury is as bad as sin. No suffering caused by injustice can bring into your life, the ruin sin can bring. There is no financial tragedy; there is no unforeseen tragedy as terrible as sin! Let me take you back into some of these statements in Psalms 88: Verse 4: "...a man who has no strength..." Verse 6: "...laid down in the lowest pit..." Also in verse 6: " darkness," (a common figure depicting evil or sin).

Verse 8: " abomination..."

Verse 15: "...I am distraught..."

Verse 16: "...your fierce wrath
has gone over me..."

I read these statements and ask myself - What could cause this utter misery. And the only answer I can give is - Sin! The writer's perspective is - One suffering from his own sin.

Back into the chapter, let me take us to verse 8, where the sinner says about his condition: "...I am shut up, and I cannot get out..." Here is something basic we must learn about sin. The Bible teaches - Sin is a personal problem we cannot solve on our own! We cannot save ourselves from sin on our own; through our own resolve and resources. This is the point made by Paul several times.

Titus 3:5 - "not by works of righteousness which we
have done."

In 2 Tim. 1:9 - "not according to our works."

Or in Eph. 2 - "not of works," and "not of yourselves."

Once we begin to live outside of God's will - in that disobedience and the guilt of sin, we cannot fix that problem on our own! Thus the sinner says: "I am shut up, and I cannot get out." So my understanding is, Psalms 88 is designed to vividly show us the despair of one who lives in sin. The profound misery of the guilt of sin. Utterly forsaken; cut off; engulfed in darkness. "I am shut up, and I cannot get out."

Is it true, there is no hope in the passage?

Where is the hope? There seems to be such stress on the sorrow; such un-alleviated misery, no positive note can be found. I quoted Barnes earlier, who said "This psalm is altogether of a mournful and desponding character."

I disagree; perhaps I disagree with most commentators in regard to this text. I think hope can be found in Psalms 88. Hope is discovered in one simple truth - God is still God!

Let us not overlook the first verse. Observe how the psalm begins, by addressing the Lord, "God of my salvation." As bad as life was for the sinner God was still God, and the sinner was addressing God; crying out to Him, "day and night!"

Arguments can be made as to how close the sinner was to full repentance. But there is no question: he acknowledged the Lord as the God of his salvation, and he cried out to Him day and night.

Then, let me take us to verses 10-12, where you'll find a series of questions. Whatever literary interpretation one might assign to the questions, they strongly imply the truth about who God is.

"Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?"
(Psa. 88:10-12)

Let me say again, whatever literary interpretation one might give to the questions and their intent in the emotions of the writer, they strongly imply the truth about who God is.


God is able to work wonders.

He can raise the dead.

He is worthy of praise.

God has this quality - Lovingkindness.

God is faithful, and God is righteous!

In whatever state of despair the writer might be describing, he denies none of these truths about who God is! Remember - the writer begins with the affirmation that God is the God of His salvation. The writer suffers from the guilt of his own sin. But he knows who God is, and even in his despair -maintains clear concepts of who God is.

All of which leads me to this point for us today Who God is, does not change! We change. We sin; hopefully we repent; those are changes. Sin is a change in the wrong direction. Repentance, change in the right direction. We change. But before we sin, after we sin; whether we repent or not - - God is still God; and He is the God of our salvation.

I'd like for us to notice one more thing in Psalms 88. Given the assumption, that the writer is suffering from his own sin, it is noteworthy - enough awareness of God remained for him to call upon God. In verse 1: "I have cried out day and night before You." In verse 2: "Let my prayer come before You; Incline Your ear to my cry." Whatever the writer's state of mind - he knew enough of God, to continue his struggle toward the God of his salvation.


There is no kind of suffering equal to the ravages of sin. No physical problem; no financial problem; no lost relationship; no tragedy or fear of unforeseen trouble. There is nothing as bad as sin.

We cannot rescue ourselves from the peril of sin. It is not in man that walks, to direct his own steps (Jer. 10:23). We must look to God - regarding Him as the God of our salvation, willing to accept what He offers in Christ.

Today, to all who live in sin, God remains the God of our salvation. The story of the salvation He provides today is - the gospel.

The best way I know to end this study is to call to our attention the gospel of Christ. You do not have to live in sin. You have to recognize that you have sinned. But the message of the gospel is you do not have to live in sin!

Nobody needs to experience the misery described in Psalms 88. If you know who Christ is, what He did - and you believe in Him - no reason to live in the deep pit of sin; no reason to let disobedience to God ruin your life. If you are willing to act on your belief in Christ - in obedience to the gospel - you can be raised from that ugly pit out of sin, and into Christ.

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 14.7; July 2007