The superscription refers to this composition as a “song” and a “psalm” and then mentions the “sons of Korah.” During the time of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, the Levite Korah perished because of having rebelled against the divinely granted authority of Moses and Aaron. His sons, however, did not die, and the “sons of Korah” mentioned in the superscription probably are their descendants. (Numbers 16:1-3; 26:10, 11)
The Hebrew expression natsách (preceded by the preposition “to”) is commonly thought to signify “to the musical director” or “leader.” In the Septuagint, the rendering is “to the end.” An ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Psalter reads victori (“to the victor”), probably because of linking the Hebrew expression to a root meaning “to defeat.” This suggests that considerable uncertainty exists about the significance of natsách.
The words “according to mahalath” may have informed the “musical director” or “leader” that the song be sung to the accompaniment of a tune known as “Mahalath” or that particular instruments be used, perhaps flutes. That the significance of the term “mahalath” has been lost is apparent from the Septuagint reading maeleth, which also is a transliterated form of the Hebrew expression.
There is uncertainty about the meaning of the transliterated Hebrew expression “Leannoth,” which is rendered “to reply” or “to respond” in the Septuagint.
The significance of “maskil” is likewise uncertain. If linked to the Hebrew verb sakál, the term incorporates either the meaning “to contemplate” or “to give insight.” This could mean that “maskil” is either a contemplative or an insightful composition. The Septuagint translator apparently associated the term with “insight” and used a form of synesis, meaning “understanding” or “intelligence.”
As a “maskil,” the composition is linked to Heman the Ezrahite (“Israelite,” according to the Septuagint). He may have been the descendant of Judah through Zerah (if “Ezrahite” and “Zerahite” have the same significance) who was especially noted for his wisdom. (1 Kings 4:31; 1 Chronicles 2:3-6) The superscription does not provide sufficient detail to determine exactly how the sons of Korah and Heman are associated with Psalm 88.
Both by day and by night, the psalmist cried out to YHWH, the “God of salvation” or deliverance. So serious was the situation that he made his petitions before YHWH even at night during times of wakefulness.
Recognizing YHWH as the sole source of deliverance, the psalmist ardently desired that his prayer come before him and that he would grant a hearing ear to his cry (“supplication,” LXX) for aid.
The psalmist’s soul or he himself had been filled or satiated with miseries, and he felt that the seriousness of the situation brought his life ever closer to Sheol or the realm of the dead.
The extreme peril in which he found himself made it appear as if he had already joined those who had descended into the pit. His circumstances resembled that of a warrior deprived of his strength (“without help,” LXX), lying prostrate. The reference to being “free” among the dead may mean liberated from the toiling of the living. Lying unidentified on the ground, those slain in battle are persons whom YHWH does not remember, for they are cut off from his hand. Their being forgotten is to be understood as meaning that God’s helping hand no longer reaches out to rescue them from distress.
The psalmist considered himself as one whom YHWH had already put in the “depths of the pit,” in the “dark regions,” in the “depths” (“in the shadow of death,” LXX). The Septuagint rendering attributes the plight of the psalmist to his enemies (“they [not you] have put me”).
On account of his distress, he felt that God’s wrath weighed heavily upon him. The psalmist perceived his affliction as though God had overwhelmed him with “all his waves” or a deluge of troubles.
As a consequence of his affliction, the psalmist’s acquaintances distanced themselves from him. They came to regard him like things to be loathed or abhorred. His situation had come to be like that of a person confined or under restraint, with no way to escape. The Septuagint rendering indicates that he had been delivered over and could not get away. He attributed all of the distressing developments to YHWH, who had permitted them to occur.
Doubtless his misery caused the psalmist to shed many tears. From profuse weeping for prolonged periods, he would have perceived the strain on his eyes. Each eye would have been wearied. In his great sorrow, the psalmist called out to YHWH all day long. Like a suppliant, he stretched out his arms with opened palms.
Only the living can experience the benefits of God’s activity. This aspect prompted the psalmist to raise a number of questions directed to YHWH. Do you perform a wonder (a deed that results in astonishment) for the dead? Do the “rephaim” (healers, LXX) arise and praise you? Is your compassionate concern, abiding love, or “mercy” (LXX) mentioned in the grave, or your faithfulness (“truth,” dependability, trustworthiness, LXX) in the realm of destruction? Are your wonders known in the darkness (the region of darkness where the dead find themselves) or your righteousness or justice in the “land of forgetfulness” (the place where all are forgotten or where the dead are)? The implied answer to all these questions is, No. (Regarding the transliterated term “rephaim,” see the Notes section on verse 10.)
Therefore, while he had life, the psalmist determined to cry out to YHWH. In the morning, upon waking up, he would pray.
The psalmist, however, could not understand why YHWH had cast off his soul and hidden his face from him. It appeared to him that God had abandoned him and withdrawn his favorable attention.
From the time of his youth, the psalmist had been in a pitiable state and near death. This probably means that early in life he was afflicted with disease. The psalmist’s reference to his having endured God’s terrors or frightful things may relate to the alarming and painful symptoms of his illness. If the last Hebrew word in verse 15(16) is derived from pug, the psalmist then described himself as powerless or wearied. (See the Notes section regarding verse 15.)
To such an extent had the psalmist suffered that he spoke of God’s wrath as passing over him and God’s terrors reducing him to silence (like a dead man). All day long, the terrifying troubles surrounded him like an overwhelming flood, closing in upon him from every quarter. As a result, he was left without a single friend. The psalmist attributed this to YHWH’s placing both friend and companion far away from him. As for those knowing him, he links them to a “dark place.” This could mean that they were like darkness to him, providing no brightness or comfort. According to the reading of the Septuagint, those knowing him or his acquaintances were distanced from him because of his wretchedness.
Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.
Verses 7(8) and 10(11) conclude with “selah,” a transliterated Hebrew expression of uncertain significance. The Septuagint rendering is diápsalma, thought to mean “pause” or “musical interlude.”
In verse 10(11), the transliterated Hebrew term “rephaim” is of uncertain derivation. The context suggests that, in this case, “rephaim” denotes the departed in the realm of the dead.
The last part of verse 15(16) in the Masoretic Text is obscure, and translators have adopted a variety of interpretive readings. “I am desperate.” (NRSV) “I am numb.” (REB) “I suffer your terrors wherever I turn.” (Tanakh) “Lifeless, I suffer your terrible blows.” (NAB) “You have terrified me and made me helpless.” (CEV) “I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.” (NIV) “I am finished!” (NJB) The extant Septuagint reading of verse 15(16) departs considerably from the Masoretic Text. “Wretched [or, poor] I am and in troubles from my youth. And having been exalted, I was humiliated and brought into despair.”