Today’s passage: Psalm 88
This stupid psalm is resisting introduction. I’m about to ask “Have you ever thought you were going to die?” and recount the time I got stuck upside-down in a pool floatie as a toddler or the time the family Saturn got hit by a semi truck when I was eleven, but then I realize: this psalm is about an extended period of being on the edge of the grave. It’s not about watching your life flash before your eyes in a moment. So then I’m about to ask “Have you ever wished you could die?” and talk about lying in the upstairs hallway overwhelmed by pain on the third day of having chicken pox when I was eight, but then I realize: the author of the psalm wants God to rescue him from his perpetually near-death state. He has no desire to die. So here’s the question: have you ever gone through a time in your life where, day after day, you felt like the living dead?
The psalm (which judging by the epigraph appears to have been penned by Heman the Ezrahite, one of the sons of Korah) is about being close to death in a particular way. The man compares himself to a corpse: “I have become like a man without strength…like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more” (4-5). He’s not even the walking dead; it’s like he’s going through his life just lying there. It’s like he’s gotten the Joseph treatment or even been buried alive: “You have put me in the lowest pit, in dark places, in the depths” (6). And who is it that’s put him six feet under? The psalmist contends that it’s God.
Like David in Psalm 38, Heman the Ezrahite sees himself as an object of God’s wrath. He pleads to God, “You have afflicted me with all Your waves” (7) and “Your terrors have destroyed me” (16). Not only has God left him ostensibly drowning in judgment, it would seem he’s isolated him. “You have removed my acquaintances far from me” (8), the psalmist states. God has taken away the people he knew; moreover, God has made him an object of derision. It may be that Heman is being melodramatic, an unreliable narrator who cannot see God carrying him through this trial. I’ll entertain that possibility. But the fact remains: this is how it feels to Heman. To dismiss him as a histrionic drama queen would be a cruel disservice both to his inner state and the external pressures he’s suffering.
When he pleads his case to God in the middle of the psalm, it’s on grounds we’ve seen before. “Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You?” (10) he asks. How can God get any meaningful praise out of a corpse in the grave? His argument recalls one that David made in Psalm 30, one that might be construed as a bargain for rescue, offering to trade your praise for God’s salvation.
By the end of the psalm, nothing has changed, except that Heman has finished a song about his afflictions. He remains troubled to the last note of the last bar, and what happened afterward we can only imagine. But we know this much: even in the depths of the pit, he still called out to God. He still believed God might release him.