Psalm 88: Do you work wonders for the dead?

(18 verses, 1:53 to read)


What I am about to READ

  • Psalm 88 is a psalm of complaint from one who suffers.


  • Superscription: Heman the Ezrahite is perhaps mentioned in I Chronicles 15:19 and 25:6 as one of the chief temple singers appointed by David. He might also be the Heman mentioned in I Kings 5:11, 1 Chronicles 25:1, 25:5, and II Chronicles 29:14.
  • vv. 1-2 address the prayer to God.
  • vv. 3-9 are a description of the suffering of the psalmist, couched in terms of a pit and grave.
  • vv. 10-12 are questions about God’s ability to rescue from death.
  • vv. 13-18 are a further description of the psalmist’s suffering at the hands of God Himself.
  • Norwegian Lutheran theologian, Dr. Ingvar Floysvik, suggests that the Psalm consists of three stanzas: vv. 1-9a, vv. 9b-12, and vv. 13-18. The final two stanzas being half stanzas. He points out that each stanza begins with the psalmist persistently crying out to God in prayer.


  • This psalm is the category sometimes called complaint psalms (which includes 6, 44, 74, 88, and 90). This is a classification I’m getting from Dr. Ingvar Floysvik’s book, When God Become My Enemy. This is a good resource on these psalms; however, this work is directed at those who have some ability with the original Hebrew texts.
  • In the opening petitions of this prayer, we are reminded of Who God is. Not only is He the God of our salvation, but He is the One to Whom we are to pray. We are commanded to use God’s Name for prayer in the 2nd Commandment, but more wonderfully, God has also promised to hear our prayers, even in the bleakest of situations.
  • The second major section of the Psalm begins a sharp descent into greater suffering. Traditionally, this has been viewed as a prayer from someone suffering some sort of illness. The illness is so great that the psalmist counts himself as already dead. In vv. 7-9, the psalmist confesses that God is the source of his suffering. This section is reminiscent of Jesus’ cries in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He sweat drops of blood before His suffering and death.
  • The third section of the psalm are questions about God’s work among those who are already dead–even among those in hell itself. Luther tells us that we are to pray this Psalm along with Christ, as if He is the one praying it. This casts a new light on what has been said up to this point. We know that Christ suffered all of God’s wrath for us at the cross, including eternal death in hell. With that in mind, we also know that God did indeed bring Christ up from hell (see also Acts 2:25-28 and Psalm 16). This means that Christ has already suffered everything for us. Our suffering is then joined to Christ, who is able to save, even from hell!
  • The final section of the psalm more pointedly credits (or blames) God for the suffering that the psalmist is enduring. This ought to remind us that God does inflict us with suffering in this life in order to strengthen and refine our faith in Him. This is quite the opposite of the Devil’s goal in tempting us, which is to snuff out our faith in Christ and His saving work.
  • Even in the midst of these complaints and the suffering that we endure in this life, this psalm is addressed to the God of our salvation. The entire psalm is prayed based on the fact that God has promised to hear our prayers and deliver us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven (Small Catechism, 7th petition of the Lord’s Prayer). Because we are joined to Christ’s suffering and death, we know that our suffering and death will ultimately end in the resurrection of our flesh, where God will once and for all rid us of all sin and death. God, then, does save us, even from hell itself!


Why should cross and trial grieve me?
Christ is near
With His cheer;
Never will He leave me.
Who can rob me of the heaven
That God’s Son
For me won
When His life was given?

When life’s troubles rise to meet me,
Though their weight
May be great,
They will not defeat me.
God, my loving Savior sends the;
He who knows
All my woes
Knows how best to end them.

God gives me my days of gladness,
And I will
Trust Him still
When He sends me sadness.
God is good; His love attends me
Day by day,
Come what may,
Guides me and defends me.
-Paul Gerhardt (LSB 756, stzs. 1-3)

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post below, or join the conversation in our Facebook group:

-Rev. Jordan McKinley, pastor
Trinity Lutheran Church, Vallonia, IN

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