For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 88.
Psalm 88 is notorious because it is a completely negative Psalm. The Psalmist says nothing positive or hopeful. The Psalmist feels that he is near death, or even experiencing death, and he characterizes death as a state of alienation from God—-where God does not regard the dead, and the dead do not praise God. While the Psalmist does not feel that God is heeding him—-even in the morning, which in the Psalms and the Hebrew Bible is often a time of divine deliverance—-he still thinks that God is paying attention to him, for he believes that his suffering is due to God’s wrath upon him. The Psalmist also feels abandoned by his friends and acquaintances.
Something that I appreciate about many of the laments in the Psalms is that they carry a message that we can call on God, even if we are alone and nobody else likes us. In this day and age, communitarianism is becoming the norm within the Christian religion, and, while community is important, the stress on communitarianism tends to send the message that those who have problems fitting into a community are displeasing to God. But the Psalms of lament convey another message: that God loves us, even if others do not. But does Psalm 88 convey that message, when it is completely negative? I think so, for the Psalmist still believes that calling out to God is worth the effort, even if God does not appear to be listening to him. As long as there is a God, there is hope.
Unless one is dead, right? That’s why I have a hard time getting my mind around the disbelief in a rigorous afterlife in ancient Israelite thought. So death, according to Psalm 88, is a time when people are ignored by God and tend to ignore God by not giving God praise. There is even a statement in the Talmud that the dead are free from the obligations of the Torah! Even if the Psalmist was hoping that God would deliver him from a premature death, the fact is that he would die eventually. Even if God were to heal him of his disease and allow him to live to a ripe old age, the Psalmist would at some point die and become independent of God. It sounds rather hopeless, to tell you the truth!
One commentary I read treated Psalm 88 as a foil for the hope in a resurrection that is in the New Testament, and that makes a degree of sense: Hebrews 2:15 talks about people being in bondage due to their fear of death, and how Jesus delivers them from that. In the Hebrew Bible, however, what would be the purpose of a religious life, if we were all heading towards a state of alienation from God? I suppose that the Book of Ecclesiastes wrestles with that question: it says that we should enjoy life and serve God while we can, and yet it also appears to hold out some hope that the spirit of human beings will go to God at death.
Not surprisingly, there were Jewish interpretations that sought to uncover some hope in Psalm 88. The Targum actually calls Psalm 88 a Psalm of praise. And Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch interprets v 1 to mean that the Jews in exile suffer during the day, but during the night they come before God and study the Torah, and are thereby refreshed. I doubt that Psalm 88:1 is saying such a thing, but I do identify with what Rabbi Hirsch is getting at: that we can endure a harsh situation by setting our minds on what is positive and edifying. Or at least we can try!
But, in my opinion, the lesson of Psalm 88 is that God will listen to us, even if we have nothing positive to say. I can also identify with the Psalmist’s desire to avoid death, which is a state of alienation from God. Who would want to be in a state of isolation, where one is not cared for by God, and one does not care for God?