It should seem, by the titles of this and the following psalm, that Heman was the penman of the one and Ethan of the other. There were two, of these names, who were sons of Zerah the son of Judah, 1 Chron. 2:4, 6. There were two others famed for wisdom, 1 Kgs. 4:31; where, to magnify Solomon’s wisdom, he is said to be wiser than Heman and Ethan. Whether the Heman and Ethan who were Levites and precentors in the songs of Zion were the same we are not sure, nor which of these, nor whether any of these, were the penmen of these psalms. There was a Heman that was one of the chief singers, who is called the king’s seer, or prophet, in the words of God (1 Chron. 25:5); it is probable that this also was a seer, and yet could see no comfort for himself, an instructor and comforter of others, and yet himself putting comfort away from him. The very first words of the psalm are the only words of comfort and support in all the psalm. There is nothing about him but clouds and darkness; but, before he begins his complaint, he calls God the God of his salvation, which intimates both that he looked for salvation, bad as things were, and that he looked up to God for the salvation and depended upon him to be the author of it. Now here we have the psalmist,
I. A man of prayer, one that gave himself to prayer at all times, but especially now that he was in affliction; for is any afflicted? let him pray. It is his comfort that he had prayed; it is his complaint that, notwithstanding his prayer, he was still in affliction. He was, 1. Very earnest in prayer: “I have cried unto thee (Ps. 88:1), and have stretched out my hands unto thee (Ps. 88:9), as one that would take hold on thee, and even catch at the mercy, with a holy fear of coming short and missing of it.” 2. He was very frequent and constant in prayer: I have called upon thee daily (Ps. 88:9), nay, day and night, Ps. 88:1. For thus men ought always to pray, and not to faint; God’s own elect cry day and night to him, not only morning and evening, beginning every day and every night with prayer, but spending the day and night in prayer. This is indeed praying always; and then we shall speed in prayer, when we continue instant in prayer. 3. He directed his prayer to God, and from him expected and desired an answer (Ps. 88:2): “Let my prayer come before thee, to be accepted of thee, not before men, to be seen of them, as the Pharisees’ prayers.” He does not desire that men should hear them, but, “Lord, incline thy ear unto my cry, for to that I refer myself; give what answer to it thou pleasest.”
II. He was a man of sorrows, and therefore some make him, in this psalm, a type of Christ, whose complaints on the cross, and sometimes before, were much to the same purport with this psalm. He cries out (Ps. 88:3): My soul is full of troubles; so Christ said, Now is my soul troubled; and, in his agony, My soul is exceedingly sorrowful even unto death, like the psalmist’s here, for he says, My life draws nigh unto the grave. Heman was a very wise man, and a very good man, a man of God, and a singer too, and one may therefore suppose him to have been a man of a cheerful spirit, and yet now a man of sorrowful spirit, troubled in mind, and upon the brink of despair. Inward trouble is the sorest trouble, and that which, sometimes, the best of God’s saints and servants have been severely exercised with. The spirit of man, of the greatest of men, will not always sustain his infirmity, but will droop and sink under it; who then can bear a wounded spirit?
III. He looked upon himself as a dying man, whose heart was ready to break with sorrow (Ps. 88:5): “Free among the dead (one of that ghastly corporation), like the slain that lie in the grave, whose rotting and perishing nobody takes notice of or is concerned for, nay, whom thou rememberest no more, to protect or provide for the dead bodies, but they become an easy prey to corruption and the worms; they are cut off from thy hand, which used to be employed in supporting them and reaching out to them; but, now there is no more occasion for this, they are cut off from it and cut off by it” (for God will not stretch out his hand to the grave, Job 30:24); “thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, as low as possible, my condition low, my spirits low, in darkness, in the deep (Ps. 88:6), sinking, and seeing no way open of escape, brought to the last extremity, and ready to give up all for gone.” Thus greatly may good men be afflicted, such dismal apprehensions may they have concerning their afflictions, and such dark conclusions may they sometimes be ready to make concerning the issue of them, through the power of melancholy and the weakness of faith.
IV. He complained most of God’s displeasure against him, which infused the wormwood and the gall into the affliction and the misery (Ps. 88:7): Thy wrath lies hard upon me. Could he have discerned the favour and love of God in his affliction, it would have lain light upon him; but it lay hard, very hard, upon him, so that he was ready to sink and faint under it. The impressions of this wrath upon his spirits were God’s waves with which he afflicted him, which rolled upon him, one on the neck of another, so that he scarcely recovered from one dark thought before he was oppressed with another; these waves beat against him with noise and fury; not some, but all, of God’s waves were made use of in afflicting him and bearing him down. Even the children of God’s love may sometimes apprehend themselves children of wrath, and no outward trouble can lie so hard upon them as that apprehension.
V. It added to his affliction that his friends deserted him and made themselves strange to him. When we are in trouble it is some comfort to have those about us that love us, and sympathize with us; but this good man had none such, which gives him occasion, not to accuse them, or charge them with treachery, ingratitude, and inhumanity, but to complain to God, with an eye to his hand in this part of the affliction (Ps. 88:8): Thou hast put away my acquaintance far from me. Providence had removed them, or rendered them incapable of being serviceable to him, or alienated their affections from him; for every creature is that to us (and no more) that God makes it to be. If our old acquaintance be shy of us, and those we expect kindness from prove unkind, we must bear that with the same patient submission to the divine will that we do other afflictions, Job 19:13. Nay, his friends were not only strange to him, but even hated him, because he was poor and in distress: “Thou hast made me an abomination to them; they are not only shy of me, but sick of me, and I am looked upon by them, not only with contempt, but with abhorrence.” Let none think it strange concerning such a trial as this, when Heman, who was so famed for wisdom, was yet, when the world frowned upon him, neglected, as a vessel in which is no pleasure.
VI. He looked upon his case as helpless and deplorable: “I am shut up, and I cannot come forth, a close prisoner, under the arrests of divine wrath, and no way open of escape.” He therefore lies down and sinks under his troubles, because he sees not any probability of getting out of them. For thus he bemoans himself (Ps. 88:9): My eye mourneth by reason of affliction. Sometimes giving vent to grief by weeping gives some ease to a troubled spirit. Yet weeping must not hinder praying; we must sow in tears: My eye mourns, but I cry unto thee daily. Let prayers and tears go together, and they shall be accepted together. I have heard thy prayers, I have seen thy tears.