Commentary on Psalms (42 - 89)
© by Francis Foulkes
& Cyril Okorocha



"1. O LORD, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
2. let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.

3. For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5. like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6. You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7. Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

8. You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9. my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O LORD;
I spread out my hands to you.
10. Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you? Selah
11. Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12. Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

13. But I, O LORD, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14. O LORD, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15. Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16. You wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me,
17. They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18. You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me;
my companions are in darkness."

The Book of Psalms brings to us faithfully the prayers - and the praises - of people in all kinds of different situations and experiences of life: joys and sorrows, blessings and deep problems. This psalm has been called the saddest psalm in the whole book. Other psalms speak of great troubles, but have a note of hope in the end. This psalm begins and ends with woes. The New International Version is probably right in translating the last words, "the darkness is my closest friend". In fact two things make the psalm so desperately sad. The psalmist seems to face trouble in every possible way, and he can express no hope of anything beyond death and the grave.

Trouble upon trouble

Like Job, the psalmist faced one problem after another. "My soul is full of troubles" he said (verse 3). He seems to have been brought near to death by illness, and for a long time, even from his youth he had suffered like this (verse 15). He may have had a disease like leprosy, as a result of which or for whatever reason, his friends and neighbours forsook him (verses 8 and 18). He was "repulsive to them" (Good News Bible). Worst of all, he feels that God continues to be angry with him because of his sin, and has cast him off (verse 14). In fact, he blames God for all his troubles. Notice how many times "you" and "your" are used in verses 6-8 and 14-18 of what he feels that God has done.

What hope beyond death ?

The psalm, like some others, says a great deal about death and the grave. For the grave the words "Sheol", "the Pit", "Abaddon" are used; and "the dead", "the slain", "the shades" are referred to. In verses 10-12 he asks six questions, all expecting the answer 'No'. He feels that the dead can no longer know God's steadfast love and faithfulness, experience his saving help and praise him. God can work wonders for the living, he felt, but not for the dead.

How should we, as Christian people today, read and understand and use this Psalm? a. We should realise that for some people life seems just full of troubles and there seems no answer to the problems that they face. We can think of people in the world who face injustice or natural disasters, famine and hunger, with no one to help. We can think of refugees having to leave home and country with nothing more than the clothes that they stand up in. We can think of those who face continuing illness and prayers for healing seem unanswered. Such people seem to be able to do no more than say with Job (5:7), "human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward". We cannot deny the immense troubles that some people have to face, and there often is no easy answer to the question, 'Why?'

b. In spite of the fact that the psalmist seemed to have no answer to his problems, he still turned to God. Every day (verse 9), morning (verse 13) and night (verse 1), he prayed. He still believed in the steadfast love and faithfulness and saving help of God (verses 11-12), and did not doubt or deny them. "Lord, God of my salvation" he prayed (verse 1). That is a lesson to all of us.

c. We have seen in a few of the psalms that there was some hope and insight into life after death, but the clarity of our hope comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What we can be assured of now "has been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10). Because of that, our prayers need never be just the same as the prayers of this psalm. With the apostle Paul we can say, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18).

Prayer Pray today for those whom you know or know about who face great trouble or suffering, that they may know the presence of God now, and have in Jesus Christ a firm hope for the future.

For further thought and study

a. Look up Psalms 16:11, 23:6, 49:15, 73:24 and 139:7-12, and see if you think that they offer hope that the psalmist in this psalm did not have.

b. What does it mean for a Christian person today to address God in faith as "God of my salvation"? See Matthew 1:21, Romans 10:9-13 and 1 Timothy 1:15. Note

A number of things are said in the heading to this psalm. Like Psalms 84 and 87 it is linked with the Korahites who were involved in the worship of the temple in Jerusalem. "Mahalath Leannoth" may be the name of the tune to which the psalm was to be sung, but the words may mean 'sickness to humble', which could link with the theme of the psalm. Heman the Ezrahite, and Ethan the Ezrahite who is mentioned in the heading of the next Psalm, are named in 1 Chronicles 15:17 among the temple musicians.