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Psalm 88:1-5

1. O Jehovah! God of my salvation! I cry day and night before thee. 2. Let my prayer come into thy presence: incline thy ear to my cry; 3. For my soul is filled with troubles; and my life is drawing near to the grave. 4. I am numbered with them that go down to the pit: I have been as a man who hath no strength: 5. Free among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more, and who are cut off from thy hand.

 

1 O Jehovah! God of my salvation! Let me call upon you particularly to notice what I have just now stated, that although the prophet simply, and without hyperbole, recites the agony which he suffered from the greatness of his sorrows, yet his purpose was at the same time to supply the afflicted with a form of prayer that they might not faint under any adversities, however severe, which might befall them. We will hear him by and by bursting out into vehement complaints on account of the grievousness of his calamities; but he seasonably fortifies himself by this brief exordium, lest, carried away with the heat of his feelings, he might become chargeable with complaining and murmuring against God, instead of humbly supplicating Him for pardon. By applying to Him the appellation of the God of his salvation, casting, as it were, a bridle upon himself, he restrains the excess of his sorrow, shuts the door against despair, and strengthens and prepares himself for the endurance of the cross. When he speaks of his crying and importunity, he indicates the earnestness of soul with which he engaged in prayer. He may not, indeed, have given utterance to loud cries; but he uses the word cry, with much propriety’, to denote the great earnestness of his prayers. The same thing is implied when he tells us that he continued crying days and nights. Nor are the words before thee superfluous. It is common for all men to complain when under the pressure of grief; but they are far from pouring out their groanings before God. Instead of this, the majority of mankind court retirement, that they may murmur against him, and accuse him of undue severity; while others pour forth their cries into the air at random. Hence we gather that it is a rare virtue to set God before our eyes, that we may address our prayers to him.

3 For my soul is filled with troubles. These words contain the excuse which the prophet pleads for the excess of his grief. They imply that his continued crying did not proceed from softness or effeminacy of spirit, but that from a due consideration of his condition, it would be found that the immense accumulation of miseries with which he was oppressed was such as might justly extort from him these lamentations. Nor does he speak of one kind of calamity only; but of calamities so heaped one upon another that his heart was filled with sorrow, till it could contain no more. He next particularly affirms that his life was not far from the grave. This idea he pursues and expresses in terms more significant in the following verse, where he complains that he was, as it were, dead. Although he breathed still among the living, yet the many deaths with which he was threatened on all sides were to him so many graves by which he expected to be swallowed up in a moment. And he seems to use the word גבר, geber, which is derived from גבר, gabar, he prevailed, or was strong, 509509     See volume 2, page 320, note 2. Some consider the words מחלת לענות, Machalath Leannoth, which Calvin renders “Machalath, to make humble,” as together denoting an instrument of music. “For my part,” says Dr Morison, “I lean to the idea that these words are intended to denote some musical instrument of the plaintive order; and in this opinion Kimchi and other Jewish writers perfectly agree. They assert that it was a wind-instrument, answering very much to the flute, and employed mainly in giving utterance to sentiments of grief, upon occasions of great sorrow and lamentation.” in preference to the word which simply signifies man, — the more emphatically to show that his distresses were so great and crushing as to have been sufficient to bring down the strongest man.

5 Free among the dead, lie the slain who lie in the grave. The prophet intended to express something more distressing and grievous than common death. First, he says, that he was free among the dead, because he was rendered unfit for all the business which engages human life, and, as it were, cut off from the world. The refined interpretation of Augustine, that Christ is here described, and that he is said to be free among the dead, because he obtained the victory over death by a special privilege, that it might not have dominion over him, has no connection with the meaning of the passage. 510510     גבר geber, therefore, denotes a man “when in vigorous manhood; who is neither a boy nor an old man, yet it is applied to Balaam, when old, in Numbers 24:4.” — Bythner The prophet is rather to be understood as affirming, that having finished the course of this present life, his mind had become disengaged from all worldly solicitude; his afflictions having deprived him of all feeling. 511511     “‘Free among the dead,’ inter mortuos liber,” says Dr Adam Clarke, “has been applied by the Fathers to our Lord’s voluntary death: all others were obliged to die; He alone gave up his life, and could take it again, (John 10:18.) He went into the grave and came out when he chose. The dead are bound in the grave: He was free, and not obliged to continue in that state as they were.” In the next place, comparing himself with those who have been wounded, he bewails his condition as worse than if, enfeebled by calamities, he were going down to death by little and little; for we are naturally inspired with horror at the prospect of a violent death.

What he adds, that he is forgotten of God, and cut off from his hand or guardianship, is apparently harsh and improper, since it is certain that the dead are no less under the Divine protection than the living. Even wicked Balaam, whose purpose it was to turn light into darkness, was, nevertheless, constrained to cry out,

“Let me die the death of the righteous,
and let my last end be like his,” (Numbers 23:10.)

To say, then, that God is no longer mindful of man after he is dead, might seem to be the language of a heathen. To this it may be answered, That the prophet speaks according to the opinion of the generality of men; just as the Scriptures, in like manner, when treating of the providence of God, accommodate their style to the state of the world as presented to the eye, because our thoughts ascend only by slow degrees to the future and invisible world. I, however, think, that he rather gave utterance to those confused conceptions which arise in the mind of a man under affliction, than that he had an eye to the opinion of the ignorant and uninstructed part of mankind. Nor is it wonderful that a man endued with the Spirit of God was, as it were, so stunned and stupified when sorrow overmastered him, as to allow unadvised words to escape from his lips. Although faith in the truth that God extends his care both to the living and the dead is deeply rooted in the hearts of all his genuine servants, yet sorrow often so overclouds their minds as to exclude from them for the time all remembrance of his providence. From perusing the complaints of Job, we may perceive, that when the minds of the godly are preoccupied with sorrow, they do not immediately pierce to the consideration of the secret providence of God, which yet has been before the subject of their careful meditation, and the truth of which they bear engraven on their hearts. Although the prophet, then, was persuaded that the dead also are under the Divine protection, yet, in the first paroxysm of his grief, he spoke less advisedly than he ought to have done; for the light of faith was, as it were, extinguished in him, although, as we shall see, it soon after shone forth. This it will be highly useful particularly to observe, that, should we be at any time weakened by temptation, we may, nevertheless, be kept from falling into despondency or despair.


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