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 , 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 , 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  (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 , calling it fragmentary, or have commented forthrightly on its dealing with the subject of depression . 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.
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.