Psalms 88 and 89: Unconventional Faith   Leave a comment




Psalms 88 and 89


The superscriptions of Psalms 88 and 89 name figures obscure to people in 2023.  The superscription of Psalm 88 refers to Heman the Ezrahite.  The superscription of Psalm 89 refers to Ethan the Ezrahite.  The superscriptions are dubious, as evidence indicates.  They also use the term maskil, which is musical.  Psalm 88 is a maskil of Heman, just as Psalm 89 is a maskil of Ethan.  A maskil is:

…a psalm accompanied by some special kind of music, or sung at a special (annual) festival.

The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible:  An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, K-Q (1962), 295

Who were Heman and Ethan?

1 Chronicles 2:6 lists Heman and Ethan as the sons of Zerah, a son of Judah and Tamar (see Genesis 38:30).

An alternative theory of identifying Heman cites 1 Chronicles 25:5-6, which describes him as a seer and one of the cultic musicians during the reign of King David.  1 Chronicles 25:1-2 mentions that Heman and company

prophesied to the accompaniment of lyres, harps, and cymbals.

TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures

We read that this Heman sired fourteen sons and three daughters, all of whom

were under the charge of their father for the singing in the House of the LORD, to the accompaniment of cymbals, harps, and lyres, for the service of the House of the LORD by order of the king.

–Verse 6, TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures

Whether the Heman of 1 Chronicles 25 is the Heman of Psalm 88 is uncertain.  “Ezrahite” may derive from “Zerah.”  Yet “Ezrahite can also mean “native born.”  And, if the Heman of 1 Chronicles 25 is the Heman of Psalm 88, who is the Ethan of Psalm 89?  If the Heman and Ethan of 1 Chronicles 2 are the Heman and Ethan of Psalms 88 and 89, respectively, centuries separate them from the time of King David, as well as the Babylonian Exile.

Another obscure detail comes from the superscription of Psalm 88:

…on mahalath leannoth.

A note in The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition (2014) speculates that mahalath leannoth may be akin to mahalah, which means “illness.”  So, mahalath leannoth may indicate

a sad melody or a melody for the sick.

Or it may derive from halil, which means “flute.”

The interpretation of mahalath leannoth as a sad melody or a melody for the sick fits the text of Psalm 88.  The psalmist, mortally ill, complains to God.  This may simply be the lament or a mortally ill person or it may symbolize national catastrophe–maybe the Babylonian Exile, too.  The psalm concludes without divine rescue.  Psalm 88 indicates a sense of rejection by God:

Your fury overwhelms me;

Your terrors destroy me.

–Verse 17, TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures

Walter Brueggemann, in The Message of the Psalms:  A Theological Commentary (1984), describes Psalm 88 as

an embarrassment to conventional faith

and likens the psalmist’s plight to that of Job.  I prefer the divine silence in Psalm 88 to the two big speeches of God in the Book of Job and to the tacked-on happy ending of that book.  The divine silence feels honest.

Brueggemann continues:

But Israel must also deal with Yahweh in the silence, in God’s blank absence as in the saving presence.  Israel has no choice but to speak to this one, or to cease to be Israel.  In this painful, unresolved speech, Israel is simply engaged in being Israel.  To be Israel means to address God, even in God’s unresponsive absence.


Psalm 89 dates to following the Fall of Jerusalem (587/586 B.C.E.) and prays for the restoration of the Davidic Dynasty.  Given the absence of the Temple in Psalm 89, we have a range–587/586 to 516 B.C.E.–the range between the destruction of the First Temple and the dedication of the Second Temple.  Psalm 89 also concludes in unresolved tension:  Where is the fulfillment of God’s covenant?

O LORD, where is Your steadfast love of old

which You swore to David in your faithfulness?

–Verse 50, TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures

Brueggemann’s commentary on the Book of Psalms does not cover all the entries of the Hebrew Psalter; it contains no analysis of Psalm 89, for example.  Nevertheless, I feel comfortable writing that he would classify Psalm 89 with Psalm 88 as

an embarrassment to conventional faith.

Besides, history tells us that the Davidic Dynasty never returned to power.

I favor unconventional faith that turns to the (seemingly) absent yet definitely silent God and speaks a lament.  This faith refuses to let go of God, even in the depth of despair.  When Israel makes such a lament, it is being Israel.  When a human being makes such a lament, that person acknowledges having nowhere else to turn.  The comparison to the Book of Job is apt, with one exception:  Psalm 89 acknowledges sins and punishment for them.  Nevertheless, Psalms 88 and 89 call to mind a passage from the Book of Job, in which the titular character calls upon God, who has afflicted him, to act as his kinsman-redeemer.  Job understands that he has nobody else to whom to turn for defense:

But I know that my redeemer lives,

and in the end he will stand up on the earth,

and after they flay my skin,

from my flesh I shall behold God.

–Job 19:25-26, Robert Alter






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