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Understanding the Psalms - Ps 88

An appreciation for some of the characteristics of Hebrew poetry can give us a greater appreciation for the psalms. 

Unlike much English poetry, the primary emphasis of Hebrew poetry is not rhythm or rhyme, but "parallelism." The basic thought unit (composed of  two or three lines) can accomplish one of several different things.

  1. The lines can complement each other; they can express similar thoughts.
  2. They can contrast each other, affirming one thing and then denying its opposite (or saying that the opposite is true for another set of circumstances).
  3. The second (and additional lines, if they exist) can clarify (further explain) the first.
  4. The lines can in some other manner develop the thought that is being expressed.
For example in the first half of Psalm 88:

Introductory Request
1O LORD, the God of my salvation,
         I have cried out by day and in the night before You.

    2Let my prayer come before You;        
         Incline Your ear to my cry!
   (Parallel thoughts in each line complement each other)

Description of his situation (in the first person)
     3For my soul has had enough troubles,
         And my life has drawn near to Sheol.  
   (These two lines complement each other)

    4I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit;
         I have become like a man without strength,  
   (as do these two lines - using different words to describe the same thing)

    5Forsaken among the dead,
         Like the slain who lie in the grave,
         Whom You remember no more,
         And they are cut off from Your hand.  
      (the last three lines further explain the first line)

Statement that God is the cause of his situation. (note switch from 'I' to 'you' and subsequent lines build on the first)
    6 You have put me in the lowest pit,
         In dark places, in the depths.
    7Your wrath  has rested upon me,
         And You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah.
    8 You have removed my acquaintances far from me;
         You have made me an object of loathing to them;
         I am shut up and cannot go out.
    9My eye has wasted away because of affliction;

Another very common feature of Hebrew poetry is ring parallelism where the climax of the section is actually in the middle and is surrounded by matching statements on each side in the form:

          C  (central thought)
     B'      (similar or direct opposite content/theme to  B)
A'           (similar or direct opposite content/theme to  A)

This can be seen in the last two parts of Psalm 88 where similar themes are underlined or in bold and surround the central ideas in verses 11 and 16:

A    I have called upon You every day, O LORD;
       I have spread out my hands to You.

B            10 Will You perform wonders for the dead?
               Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah.

C                      11 Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave,
                         Your faithfulness in Abaddon?

B'           12 Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness?
              And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

A'   13 But I, O LORD, have cried out to You for help,
     And in the morning my prayer comes before You.

D   14 O LORD, why do You reject my soul?
      Why do You hide Your face from me?

E          15 I was afflicted and about to die from my youth on;
            I suffer Your terrors; I am overcome.

F                 16 Your burning anger has passed over me;
                   Your terrors have destroyed me.

E'         17 They have surrounded me like water all day long;
            They have encompassed me altogether.

D'  18 You have removed lover and friend far from me;
     My acquaintances are in darkness.

These sorts of arrangements can be found all through the old testament as well as in the gospels and parts of the new testament.  However most of us focus on straight through linear constructions and aren't used to them and so don't notice them.

This Psalm can be grouped with other 'difficult' psalms where hatred for enemies (ps 137), and curses on former friends (ps 109) are expressed.  In Ps 88, the psalmist questions the love of God.  Together these psalms give us permission to express to God the thoughts we often experience when in bad situations.  Even though this Psalm is devoid of hope at the end, people have actually found this realistic statement a source of comfort when they feel like they have hit rock bottom.

David Wanstall, 10/08/2010