Psalm 88:1-18 A Lament By Heman
Psalm 88:1-18 My Hero
Psalm 88 is acknowledged to be the saddest psalm in the Psalter. You’ve been warned. It was written by Heman. And I know your response. Which Heman? Heman, the son of Joel, who was a temple musician during the reign of David (1 Chron. 6:33, 37; 15:17; 16:41–42; 2 Chron. 35:15) or Heman, the son of Mahol, a wise one during the reign of King Solomon (1 Kings 4:31; 1 Chron. 15:19; 16:41-42; 25:1, 6)? My answer is I don’t know and neither does anyone else, I don’t think. But it was Heman, who if he suffered as bad as he says he did, he was a quite a “he” man because he survived. He is a model to us of courage and perseverance.
McGee calls this psalm, “It is the darkest wail of woe in the Book of Psalms.” It begins with a statement that he, Heman, has “cried out by day and in the night” (v. 1). I hope whenever we are in great pain that we go to the Lord with such earnestness. That is the kind of prayer the Lord hears (v. 2, cf. James 5:17-18).
Heman had been close to death (vv. 3-6, “Sheol,” holding tank of the dead in the OT). Jonah felt the same way as Heman when he was in the great fish (cf. Jonah 2:1-6).
Heman thought he was bearing God’s wrath (v. 7). Don’t we usually feel that way when we are down? We must have done something to incur God’s anger (cf. v. 16a). But that’s not always the case. And isn’t it always the case that when we are most depressed, we feel like we don’t have any friends (v. 8, cf. entire book of Job, Job and his “friends,”Ps. 38:11; 41:9; 55:13 ).
Heman is so depressed that he can’t even see straight (v. 9). But just like Jonah, he turned to the Lord in his distress (v. 9c). Do you?
David made the same appeal to God as did Heman in verse 10 (cf. Ps. 6:5, 30:9). The dead can’t praise God, so why not let me live? Good logic. Heman wouldn’t be able to show forth God’s glory from the pit (vv. 11-12). Abaddon is “the place of destruction.” The word comes from a root meaning of “to perish,” or “to die.” No one would want to end up there. It is death on steroids. Can you really put death on steroids? If you could, it would be Abaddon. Siri keeps trying to change Abaddon to Abandon. Maybe she’s on to something.
Heman is diligent in prayer. He prays first thing when he arises (v. 13). Siri keeps trying to change the name Heman to Human. Maybe she’s on to something again. Has Siri ever done a Bible commentary?
Heman feels rejected by God and it is like God has turned His face away from him (v. 14). Someone has coined an expression for that feeling, “The Heavens are like brass.” Well, it was Moses actually (cf. Deuteronomy 28:23).
Heman already feels like he has been “destroyed” (v. 16b). He feels already like he is in Abaddon. He has been sick for a long time, ever since his youth (v. 15). He’s felt like he was going to die and had suffered God’s “terrors.” I have felt “overcome.” Billy Graham said that he liked to read the psalms because no matter how bad he felt, it seemed the psalmist felt worse. Are you cheered by this psalm for the same reasons? I am.
Water in Scripture is often symbolic of chaos. Heman can’t make sense of his life. It’s like chaos has washed over him and swallowed him up (v. 17). That is the time we really need to cling to the promises of Scripture in faith!
Heman feels like he has no friends at all. I believe God sometimes can remove everything from us that would get between us and Him, even our closest friends or even family members (cf. Ps. 41:9, Matt. 12:46-50). He is a jealous God (cf. Exod. 20:5; 34:14). He wants you all to Himself.
Heman closes with the word “darkness” as in the NASB. Perhaps, NIV is correct in rendering the last line, “darkness is my closest friend.” Did Simon and Garfunkel steal this, “Hello, darkness my old friend.” They may have. Have you ever felt like everything and everyone around you is darkness? That is called a “Dark Night of the Soul” by medieval mystics. I experienced years of this kind of darkness. It is a time to prove to God that you can trust Him by faith alone. After all, Jesus is the One who said to Doubting Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29, also see 1 Pet. 1:8).
Are you like those who just mope like Eeyore? Or can you believe in the midst of pain and suffering and darkness like Heman (see Flying On Instruments)?
Many only see misery in this poem. I find it to be heartening. Heman is truly a he-man (compare him to Samson, e.g. Judg. 14-16). He is my hero, an example of perseverance in the face of extreme suffering. He is a model for all of us. Being a Christian is not always a bed of roses or a bowl of strawberries. I believe those who are suffering with the Lord’s approval can find much solace and encouragement in this psalm (cf. 1 Pet. 3:17; 4:19; 5:10).
If you are trusting God for something and waiting and waiting, it can make you feel sick (v. 12a, cf. Ps. 25:5; 62:1, 5; 69:3, 6). But remember that there is often a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (v. 12b) that will make you feel alive again (cf. Ps. 1:1-3; John 10:10). Keep trusting Him with all your heart and He will show you what to do (cf. Prov. 3:5-6).
I sometimes get Siri to read J. Vernon McGee’s commentaries to me. She has less of an accent. But she pronounces “ignorance” as “ig-norance.” It changes the meaning. (She is a genius.) If you ignore the Word, you will be judged by it (cf. John 12:48). But if we are truly disciples, we will study and apply the Scripture (cf. John 8:31-32). The end result will be rewards at the Bema Seat Judgment (v. 13b, cf. Rom. 14:10, 1 Cor. 3:10-15, 2 Cor. 5:10, Bema Me Up Scotty!).
Those who know the Bible and teach it, being subservient to the Holy Spirit, will be “a fountain of life” to their hearers (v. 14a). Conversely, if you are teaching and people aren’t being blessed, you should go back to the drawing board and see what you’re doing wrong. Blessing can also amount to ticking off people who don’t want to hear the Word, by the way.
True Bible teachers lead others to eternal life as well as a deeper spiritual life on earth. Those who “ignore” them will end up in eternal death. There is no middle ground. We are all immortal. The difference is our destination and the kind of rewards we receive.