Psalm 88: For My Soul Is Full of Troubles

Psalm 88 is the last psalm directly attributed to the Sons of Korah (one additional psalm, Psalm 106, which is formally anonymous, is indirectly attributed to them by their instruction of the psalm to army of Judah in the days of Jehoshaphat).  This psalm is the only known psalm in the Bible directly attributed to Heman the Ezrahite [1], the son of Joel and the grandson of Samuel the judge and prophet of Israel.

Before I discuss the psalm in detail I would like to comment that this particular psalm is of great personal relevance and importance to me.  In my first Bible, I wrote by hand in the Table of Contents the place of one chapter in the Bible–Psalm 88.  Even as a young person at about the age of 11 or 12, this particular psalm spoke to me in a way that no other chapter of the Bible did personally.  Though I cannot call this chapter of the Bible a personal favorite of mine, it is a psalm I have related to for almost my entire life, and one I have long recognized as speaking to my own personal emotional state.  Therefore, before I begin, I thought it worthwhile to comment upon the fact that this psalm has meant a great deal personally, and is indeed largely responsible for my own interest in the Sons of Korah to begin with as I sought to better understand the fascinating and mysterious author of this deeply mournful and depressive psalm.

Psalm 88 is nearly unique in scripture in being a psalm of lament and complaint without any sense of positive resolution.  It is one of only a few psalms in which there is no change in mood from lament to praise.  Instead, the mood never shifts from a deeply felt and longstanding sorrow, with a seemingly unanswered request to God for relief from affliction and suffering.  This consistency in tone and approach is a major element of this psalm that will be discussed at greater depth later, but it is important to recognize that this psalm is a very distinctive one from the start.

For My Soul Is Full of Troubles

The first half of Psalm 88 sets the tone for the psalm as a whole as well as its approach, as Psalm 88:1-9a read as follows:  “O Lord, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before You.  Let my prayer come before You; incline Your ear to my cry.  For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to the grave.  I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength, adrift among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more, and who are cut off from Your hand.  You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths.  Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and You have afflicted me with all Your waves [Selah].  You have put away my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an abomination to them; I am shut up, and I cannot get out; my eye wastes away because of affliction.”

For anyone who has struggled with chronic depression, this psalm is almost clinical in its description of the symptoms of that terrible disease.  For example, Heman speaks of crying out night and day without a response, wondering if God has ignored or forgotten him like the slain in the grave.  This is also true in Heman wondering why God is angry with him to have cursed him so.  Additionally, the frequent comparison of the state of Heman to a dead man–being counted among the dead, like the slain in the grave, in the lowest pit–is itself symbolic of the focus on death that is especially common among those with chronic depression pondering on whether life is worth living at all.  The comparison of the waves of sadness to the waves of the ocean, as well as comparing his state to darkness is another aspect of chronic depression in its cyclical aspects, with the general feeling of being in darkness and despair combined with periodic acute suffering.  The fact that Heman complains about being without strength as well shows that the depression has robbed him of his resilience and strength.  Heman even comments on the physical suffering–the eye wasting away (possibly related to either the weeping, the eye strain, or the ferocious and constant headaches that often result from chronic stress and depression).  Another aspect of depression is the isolation felt by people who are deeply depressed and the fact that people tend to stay away because they think it might be contagious–aspects Heman writes eloquently about as someone who knows the gloomy terrain of chronic depression personally.

Indeed, in the complaint about friends and acquaintances being put away and sorrow being like the waves of the ocean, Psalm 88 is much like Psalm 42 and 43 [2], only even more depressing because it lacks the beautiful imagery of the deer longing and panting for water and instead is grimly focused on laying out in clinical, agonizing detail the symptoms of chronic depression.  Intriguingly enough, the concern about friends and acquaintances finding the depressed believer to be an abomination was also a concern of Job’s (see Job 19:13, 19), and was also a problem Jeremiah faced (see Lamentations 3:7).  Job and Jeremiah, of course, are two of the Bible’s most profound poets and authors of suffering, and Heman’s eloquence here brings him in that noble, if grim, company of notably vocal biblical authors about depression.

Will You Work Wonders For The Dead?

Psalm 88:9b-18 mostly continues the tone and approach of the first half of the psalm, as follows:  “Lord, I have called daily upon you; I have stretched out my hands to You.  Will You work wonders for the dead?  Shall the dead arise and praise You?  [Selah]  Shall your lovingkindness be declared in the grave?  Or your faithfulness in the place of destruction?  Shall your wonders be known in the dark?  And your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?  But to You I have cried out, O Lord, and in the morning my prayer comes before You.  Lord, why do you cast off my soul?  Why do You hide Your face from me?  I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer your terrors; I am distraught.  Your fierce wrath has gone over me; Your terrors have cut me off.  They came around me all day long like water; they engulfed me altogether.  Loved one and friend You have put far from me, and my acquaintances into darkness.”

There are many aspects of the depression that are repeated or elaborated upon–Heman repeats the concern about being dead, the grim sense of mortality he has known from his youth (which accounts both for his diagnosis as suffering from chronic depression as the reason why this psalm appealed to me as a preteen).  Heman also repeats the concern about his friends and loved ones being cast away into darkness, separated from him by the gulf of depression and the distance from other people that leads to.  Heman additionally complains about nightmares and the frustration of praying day after day for relief with none provided.

There is series of questions, though, that help to provide some kind of purpose for Psalm 88 in an ironic fashion.  In Psalm 88:10-12, Heman asks a series of (seemingly) rhetorical questions about God working wonders for the dead.  Though the questions appear to presume a negative answer within the psalm itself (given its grim and deeply frustrated mood), the whole context of the Bible provides a positive answer to these six questions.  God will work wonders for the dead (Ezekiel 37, I Corinthians 15).  The dead will arise and praise God (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).  The lovingkindness of God will be declared in the Grave (Revelation 20:11-13).  The faithfulness of God will be declared in the place of destruction (Isaiah 58:12, 61:4).  The wonders of God will be known in the dark.  The righteousness of God will be known in the land of forgetfullness.  This is not only true for death and literal ruins, but also figurative ruins.  As our body is the temple of God (1 Corinthians 6:19), the restoration of our spirits and bodies, our thoughts and our emotions, is itself rebuilding the ruins.  It is not only waste places and destroyed towns and cities, but also shattered lives, broken hearts, and wounded souls that need to be healed.  Heman is far from alone in his plight, or his anguished longings to be made whole once again (or perhaps for the first time).

On The Purpose of Psalm 88

Let us examine some of the purposes for why Psalm 88 exists, and why it is an important (if often neglected) part of scripture.  Let us examine what Psalm 88 means as a psalm of lament (or complaint) dealing with the problem of chronic depression (which either alone is a serious problem or itself can be related to prolonged suffering and anguish that is unresolved, as a byproduct of an existing problem).  Let us also examine some of the implications of the presence of Psalm 88 in scripture as it relates to the theodicy problem:  why bad things happen to good people.

First off, the fact that Psalm 88 shows no resolution itself makes it a proper psalm for those in the same state of mind as Heman, the wise but suffering psalmist.  It is a common tendency for those who struggle with chronic depression or any kind of never-ending trial to think themselves to be alone, and outside of the grace and mercy of God.  Psalm 88 provides indisputable evidence that a wise and capable servant of God (indeed, a man whose wisdom and musical talents were well known in Israel, a man from a good family, with an honorable reputation and sterling character) also had suffered for many years, from his youth, without relief.  His song therefore is not his alone, but is also the song of anyone who has suffered like him–suffered from their childhood, day after day, feeling their strength sapped, as if they were approaching death despite being in what is supposed to be the prime of life, unable to find relief from nightmares and headaches and oppressive waves of gloominess.  Surely this psalm is not included for Heman alone–but for anyone else who has suffered like him, and therefore can share the same prayer to God, and the understanding that there are others who have suffered similarly for the mysterious purposes of God.  Even in the midst of suffering that seems without end, the faith remains that God can remove the trial if He wishes.

Additionally, this psalm is refutation (if any additional refutation were necessary) that a simplistic approach of judging those who suffer trials (even, perhaps especially, lengthy ones) are themselves to blame for their suffering.  It is a common, and abhorrent, practice for people who are suffering to be blamed for their prolonged trials (this is especially true in the case of mental illness–like depression), as if they were weak or sinful, and therefore responsible for their own suffering.  Blaming the victim allows others to feel as if the universe is a just place, so that they themselves (being righteous in their own eyes) will not suffer a trial that is beyond apparent relief or comprehension.  Unfortunately, those who suffer unjustly, and know it, have no such ability to distance themselves from the painful questions about the seemingly undeserved wrath of God.  Nonetheless, as Christ suffered without blame, and all human beings have at least some blame for their sins, to the extent that we suffer without a cause or without fault of our own, we share the viewpoint of our Lord and Savior who became sin despite his perfection.  For if He was hated without a cause, so shall we be–Psalm 88 is demonstration that good people do suffer, but that the suffering ultimately makes us wiser and more like Jesus Christ, and therefore more spiritual than we would be otherwise.  As horrible as it is to endure, our suffering is ultimately for our own benefit.  God will not forget those who suffer for righteousness sake, but will remember them (like Heman, and like ourselves) in His own time.

A Speculation On The Origins of Heman’s Depression

Despite the fact that information about the life of Heman and his father is somewhat scarce, we know enough to say that Heman was a person of very exemplary moral conduct, conspicuous abilities, and notable wisdom (despite the troubles caused by his chronic depression).  This ought to give hope to those of us who likewise suffer terribly from prolonged melancholy.  Despite the fact that the Bible does not give enough evidence to say for sure why Heman was depressed, there are at least two obvious possibilities.

We know from scripture that Joel, the father of Heman, was a corrupt and immoral person who took bribes and perverted justice [3] (see 1 Samuel 8).  If we assume that Heman was, from his youth, a person of moral sensitivity who suffered for and was ashamed of the corrupt deeds of his father, he might have struggled with depression from his youth given the bad example set by his father and his own noble determination to live, so far as possible, a godly life.  The tension between a rejection of the ungodly actions of his father and the desire to obey the biblical command to honor his father would have caused great strain as well as a heightened susceptibility to depression.

Having said the foregoing, it is additionally possible that Heman himself is one of the Bible’s survivors of child abuse.  Again, what has been said about Heman’s moral sensitivity (which would have been obvious at a young age), as well as the corrupt character of his father and uncle, would have made it possible that he suffered some kind of abuse from his relatives as a result of his early determination to follow the example of his grandfather and not his father.  Obedience to the biblical requirement of showing respect and honor to one’s parents and elders in general when they have been either involved or complicit in child abuse is something that wrecks havoc on one’s emotional and mental well-being, causing deep and lasting damage.  Let us not assume for a minute that obedience to God is without very serious costs, and Psalm 88 appears to be in part an examination of just how severe those costs may be for a believer.

The Obscurity of Psalm 88

In contrast to most of the other psalms of the Sons of Korah, and perhaps for understandable reasons, Psalm 88 has not been widely popular as a hymn.  Even those few who have sought to expound on Psalm 88 in depth, like Charles Spurgeon, have often done so with obvious reluctance [4], calling it fragmentary, or have commented forthrightly on its dealing with the subject of depression [5].  Since many Christians are reluctant to tangle with the subject of depression unless they have no other choice (such as is the case for those of us who are afflicted with it), it is unsurprising that this psalm languishes in unfamiliarity while more pleasant psalms are given more attention.  Nonetheless, as the Bible speaks to all types of people and all struggles, let us not forget to find help and comfort where it is provided.  The fact that depression is a common mental illness ought to make those scriptures that deal honestly and directly with the subject of particular importance in counseling and comforting brethren.  This psalm ought not to languish in obscurity, given the importance of its subject matter.

Conclusion

In conclusion, let us note that Psalm 88 was written by a godly man of great gifts and godly wisdom, who nonetheless struggled from his youth with depression.  The fact that this psalm was recorded in scripture despite a seeming lack of resolution meant that God honored the request of Heman to be remembered in mercy, for his psalm may comfort those who like him struggle with chronic depression while feeling forgotten, rejected, and alone.  The fact that this was a public hymn, however rare its use as such in our own times, means that depression was not a subject to be shoved under the table and ignored, but rather to be dealt with openly and honestly, and in a loving fashion.  For who better to help bind up the wounds of the broken, to restore the ruins of the sins of others on innocent lives than those who have dwelt in those ruins and called out to God for mercy and healing.  Psalm 88, despite its grim focus on depression, also reminds us that those of us who have walked in darkness and despair can be a lifeline to others who suffer likewise.  In helping and standing with each other, perhaps we can all find some measure of healing, as one hopes Heman found for himself.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/personal-profile-heman-the-ezrahite/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/psalm-42-and-4-as-the-deer-pants-for-the-water/

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/personal-profile-joel-and-abijah/

[4] http://www.spurgeon.org/treasury/ps088.htm

[5] http://livebythetruth.blogspot.com/2007/06/dealing-with-depression-psalm-88.html

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Music History, Psalms, Sons of Korah and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to Psalm 88: For My Soul Is Full of Troubles

  1. William E. Males says:

    Thanks Nathan for this post. It is perhaps the most enlightening commentary on Psm 88 out there to date. It is a truly a sad short coming amongst believers to assume that there those who suffer seemingly unexplainable hardships must be the victim of their own sins. How often we carelessly jump to conclusions and judge the suffering as obviously afflicted for being guilty of some sin in their life somewhere. Yet for every liar, thief, adulterer, pedophile, and murderer there are unknown numbers of victims.

    The greatest thing in the psalm to me is in all that, like with Job, there was no exposed sin in the heart by a careless and complaining mouth. There is still reverence, honesty and focus to the only refuge yet to be had. Here is a lesson all God’s people need to learn.

    Thanks again Nathan.

    William

    • You’re very welcome. Indeed, Heman remained faithful to God despite his unexplained suffering. One thinks about Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians that these things were written for our benefit. And indeed they are–if we are to be wiser than Job’s faithless friends, we must be content to accept the possibility that for now there may be suffering without an apparent cause that will, in the future, be made right by God.

  2. Rhonda says:

    Excellent Nathan. Exceptional work. I’m bookmarking this article for later deeper contemplation.

    Very well said.
    Rhonda

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  6. πίστις says:

    Reblogged this on Inspirational Christian Blogs and commented:
    A very well written commentary on Psalm 88.

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  8. BF Marak says:

    Thank you for this article. It’s a relief to know that Im not alone on this road of chronic depression. I am also one of those who are walking where Heman walked. A series of betrayals in a relationship had left my soul shattered and dead. Your article gave me a glimse of hope, knowing that this brokeness could be a lifeline to someone and it is a benefit to my own soul. And it has inspired me to believe once again that only when my hopes and dreams have been crushed God will build His own in me.

  9. Jan Pruis says:

    Dear Nathan,

    Thank you so much for your hard-won elucidation of Psalm 88 !
    Much needed words of truth, wisdom and compassion, seasoned by firsthand experience – words to which I, from my own experience, can wholeheartedly relate!

    There are those inner states of being, so subtle in their texture, so deep and multi-layered in their rootage and so loaded with nuances as to all too easily slip through the meshes of diagnostic manuals and conventional modes of Bible exegesis. This only adds to the lonely plight of the ‘Hemans’ of this world and of their need to be ‘seen’ in the lowest pit of sorrow and despair in which they find themselves shut up. Being ‘seen’ to them equals being assured of the truth of the intuitive conviction that was vocalized in their desperate questionings of the Almighty: it could not possibly be His purpose to leave them here to pine away in secret! ‘Shall the dead arise and praise You?’
    The realization – by words of comfort like yours, Nathan! – that No! They’ve never been forgotten! God’s eye has ever been on them! serves to fuel them with new vigor and resolve to finish the final stretch of their less traveled path of hidden pain and sorrow,, for Resurrection Power and Life – Jesus is His Name! – awaits around the corner!

    Emotional pain, sorrow and grief mean big trouble, especially when the roots of these woundings and sufferings reach back to unresolved issues in the ancestral line. Not being seen in this trouble, not being able to get the depth of it across and thus being shut up in it spells double trouble…
    ‘When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ (Psalm 11:3)
    Could it be coincidence that, prophetically, the number 88 stands for ‘the righteous afflicted’?
    Could it be coincidence that this lonely psalm goes by the number of the double 8, double the number of Resurrection and new Beginnings? Thousand times no! On the manual of our Omniscient Heavenly Physician double trouble qualifies for a double dose of His Resurrection Power! Jesus is His Name!

    Dear Nathan, by this precious Truth-releasing interpretation of Psalm 88 you’ve proven yourself to be a precious end-time comforter, preparing the way for The Savior to suddenly swing open the doors of ancient prisons and catapult their captives into their destiny, restoring unto them the treasure troves of their inheritance that had so subtly been usurped by the hidden enemies of their soul.
    They in their turn will be called repairers of broken walls (the identities of individuals and their families), they will raise up the age-old foundations (God’s original design for individuals and families, their DNA) and be the re-knitters of wounded emotions (Isaiah 58:12; free interpretation)
    They will rebuild the ancient ruins (destinies obscured and overrun by spiritual enemy forces) and restore the places long devastated (spiritual inheritance, laid waste by the usurpator); they will renew the ruined cities (restoration of identities, cleansing of dna) that have been devastated for generations. (Jesaja 61:4; free interpretation)

    Be abundantly blessed, comforted and encouraged in return, both personally and in your precious ministry!

    In Him, our Father,

    Jan Pruis
    The Netherlands

    N.B. Are you familiar with the book ‘Healing of the wounded spirit’ by John and Paula Sandford? One chapter in this book is devoted to a condition called ‘Spiritual imprisonment’. John and Paula’s (Spirit-led) findings are to a large extent based on Psalm 88. Reading this chapter was nothing less than a homecoming experience for my soul! In other words, a must-read for anyone who can personally relate to Psalm 88!

    • I’m not familiar with the book you mention, and I’m very grateful for your praise. Truly, my understanding of Psalm 88 is, like much in life, rather hard earned. I do appreciate your warm words, though :).

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  14. Hannah says:

    I have been struggling with depression most my life. Tonight, was bad. The extreme desire to “escape,” would not leave. For months I have felt this distance from God, I have cried violent prayers out, hoping he would hear, but feeling like it was falling on deaf ears. I eventually gave up. I google searched, “Bible Verses to help Depression,” and I got some good verses, but it wasn’t doing anything for me. I gave up. I prayed to God again. I told God I trusted him and that I was going to close my eyes, open my Bible, open my eyes, and read. When I opened my eyes, Pslam 88 was right infront of me. I was in awe. That was me. Just to be sure it was about depresion, I looked up, “Psalm 88 analyasis” and a few websites came up. One of them I read gave relatively weak arguments, saying the man was suffering from his own sin. Unsatisfied, I stumbled across this blog. I read the first sentence of paragraph five and I new this was for me. Right now. Tonight. I read the whole article. I felt a slight wave a joy when it hit me just how great God is and to know he is here. God, his word, Heman, and this blog, helped save my life tonight. Glory to God. Thank you.

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  26. Hey man, my name is Frank Rodgers and I’m a pastor at Grafted Church in Lawrenceville, GA. I personally don’t battle with depression, however this is a topic that overlooked and often chalked up to, “It’s a sin issue…” in the church. This Sunday I’ll be preaching on the topic to include the realities of depression among believers. The Lord led me to Psalm 88 when praying about how he would have me teach this. This is where I became stumped as so much of this is foreign to me. However, revelation from Holy Spirit leading me to your article here is mind blowing.

    Thank you for your transparency, your honesty, and your committed walk with revelation & truth.
    Blessings Dude,
    -Frank

    http://www.graftedchurch.com
    graftedchurchbic@gmail.com
    (personal) pastorfrank1977@gmail.com

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  28. Joy says:

    I am leaving for NYC to visit my parents and family today. As I was texting my friend to share a request for prayer, I said, “I was scared of being engulfed,” and that I wanted to “look up specific verses to minister to me so I can extinguish accusing arrows.” The concordance for “engulf” gave me Psalm 88. Appropriately, the “lowest pit” and the “darkest depth,” I attribute to the sin patterns of my family. “I am set apart with the death” is my association with this pattern of sin because I was born into association with and suffer from the kind of rejection that breaks God’s heart and invites His wrath.
    “From my youth I have suffered,” because this is a family sin.
    I have no escape of the consequences of being born into this earthly family, but thank you for this post, that the rhetorical questions posted by the Psalmist leads to the saving grace of Jesus Christ, who has overcome the grave. I have hope, now, because of the Psalm and because of your post, that God SEES me.

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