In a certain sense, all the psalms are Messianic, all of them point to Jesus. But because this psalm is particularly dark, some might want to argue that perhaps it is less the case here. But I think we should actually go the other way. This psalm is in fact dark, but consider the darkness Jesus went through for us. There may be lesser applications for us—wherever the Head is, the body is not far away—but we will consider this psalm as preeminently fulfilled in the moment when Christ was abandoned at Skull Hill for our sake.
“O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee: Let my prayer come before thee: Incline thine ear unto my cry; For my soul is full of troubles: And my life draweth nigh unto the grave . . .” (Ps. 88:1–18).
Summary of the Text:
This dark psalm begins with the cry of faith—“God of my salvation” (v. 1). He is in great anguish, crying out day and night (v. 1). He wants his cry to come before the Lord because his soul is full of trouble and he is on the brink of death (v. 2). He is reckoned among those who descend to Sheol, down to the pit (v. 3). He is counted among the dead (vv. 4-5). He is in that pit because God has put him there (v. 6). The wrath of God rests upon him, and all the waves of God wash over him (v. 7). His friends and acquaintances have scattered (v. 8). He has called out to God daily, but to no effect (v. 9). Will the dead praise God (v. 10)? Will God’s lovingkindness and faithfulness be declared in the grave and underworld (v. 11-12)? He continues to cry out to God (v. 13). Lord, why do you cast me off? Why have you forsaken me (v. 14)? He has been ready to die from his youth on (v. 15). The fierce wrath of God overwhelms him (v. 16). God’s terrors envelop him like water (v. 17). God has ripped away from him those who are dear to him (v. 18). And abruptly the psalm ends there.
The Central Darkness:
At the creation of the world, darkness was on the face of the deep and the Spirit moved on the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2). At the dying of Jesus, darkness covered all the land for three hours (Matt. 27:45), and at the death of Jesus the veil in the Temple was ripped in two (Matt. 27:51). The Spirit was at work on that chaos also. Jesus cried out in utter abandonment, “My God, my God . . .” (Matt. 27:46). In this moment, there was nothing attractive about Him (Is. 53:2). “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the mystery of propitiation, where the wrath of God is fully poured out—and anticipated here in this psalm.
Lord God of My Salvation
The only words of hope in this psalm are in the very beginning of it. There is this expression of hope at the start, and it is all downhill from there. The psalm ends by driving into the granite wall of black despair. The first verse is Jesus setting His face to do what must be done. He sets His face like flint to go to Jerusalem (Is. 50:7). Lord God of my salvation. He prays that the will of the Father be done, and not His own (Matt. 26:39). Lord God of my salvation. He, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame (Heb. 12:2). Lord God of my salvation. What the Lord Jesus knew in the light, He held onto in the darkness.
Down to the Pit:
A number of words are used to describe the realm of shadows, the realm of the dead. One Hebrew word for it is Sheol (v. 3), with the Greek equivalent as Hades. Another word is bor, or pit (v. 4). Then there is qeber, or burial chamber (v. 5). And the deeps (v. 6) are also associated with Sheol. Another word is destruction, or Abaddon (v. 11). So the cry here is one of rhetorical despair, with the implied answer of “no one will hear in the land of forgetfulness.”
But even here, God answered prayer. With no expected answer to these questions, God answered gloriously. Jesus descended to the lower parts of the earth (Eph. 4:9). He preached to the spirits who had been disobedient at the time of Noah (1 Pet. 3:18-19). God did not abandon His soul to Hades (Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:27), and so when He came back from the dead, the righteous dead came with Him (Matt. 27:51-53). He then led captivity captive and gave gifts to men (Eph. 4:8).
Jesus experienced the full wrath of God (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 4:10). It was all poured out upon Him. And as we see from the expressions of this psalm, He did not experience this as some sort of a “theological truth.” Jesus cried out in actual despair, and in that cry of despair He reconciled the world to God. “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19). Consider: “Thy wrath lieth hard on me” (v. 7), “suffer thy terrors” (v. 15), and “Thy fierce wrath goeth over me” (v. 16). And why? All of it for you.
Jesus calls us His friends (John 15:15), and He felt the abandonment by his disciples acutely (Luke 22:61). It is a significant part of the lament in this psalm as well. God has put away His acquaintance far from Him (v. 8). God has made Him an abomination to them (v. 8). Lover, and friend, and acquaintance have been removed (v. 18). They have all disappeared into blackness. Everyone that Jesus was dying for disappeared into utter darkness. All He had to hang onto was the promise of Scripture, and that is what He clung to—a fragment of God-breathed despair. My God, my God . . .
And what was it all for? Why did this psalm have to end in this way? So that we would not end in this way. “I will declare thy name unto my brethren: In the midst of the congregation will I praise thee” (Ps. 22:22).
He died in shame so that He might receive eternal glory. He died without a people so that He might have a people. Jesus died friendless so that He might have friends forever. The psalm ends with no hope, just as the life of Jesus ended with no hope. And why? So that the world might be filled with hope.