Psalm 88: A Tenebrae Psalm



A Tenebrae service in its current evangelical format is a dark service commonly observed on the Thursday evening before Good Friday. It is a church service in which the events of Christ’s Passion are acknowledged and honored. Scripture is read, music is sung, and lights or candles gradually dim or are extinguished, until the service room is very dark. Worshipers often exit in silence. Psalm 88 is highly suitable for a Tenebrae service. This psalm dramatically prophesies Christ’s final suffering and death in his own first person voice. The psalm foretells in this man’s own words what it felt like for him to die. Notice that the psalm has two characters–1) the speaker, and 2) the silent character, God. What a treasure this is for us to find in God’s Word.


Psalm 88 (ESV)

O LORD, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you.
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 a man who has no strength,
5 like one set loose 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.

In verses 1-3, we sense the events of Holy Week–our Lord’s deep, deep, constant prayers, his foreknowledge of his betrayal, his suffering in the Garden, his arrest and trial, his close friend’s three denials, and finally, his crucifixion. By verse 4, Jesus the man is dead, or nearly so. Verse 6 works very well as a description of a tomb.

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 horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

Verses 7 and 8 might be a repetition of the period Christ spent on the cross, resulting in his being placed in a small, dark cave, a tomb, from which he could not escape.

9 my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed 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 righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together.
18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.

The last ten verses (9-18) are best read as a whole. They seem to repeat in different words the first eight verses with a deeper development of the prayers of pleading the psalmist prayed. We hear notes of what Christ may have spoken to his Father when he cried out to him those three times in the Garden, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” (Luke 22:42; Matthew 26:36-44)

Jesus loved his friends; it grieved him that they shunned him as a horror (verses 8 and 18).

The words dark or darkness are mentioned three times in this prayer-poem: once in verse 6, once in verse 12, and once in verse 18.









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