Psalm 88 within its Contexts (Historical, Literary, Canonical, Modern, and Psychological): Do they help with Interpretation?

  • June Frances Dickie UKZN
Keywords: Psalms of Lament, Biblical Lament, Covenantal Theology, Literary Studies, Psychological Hermeneutics, Holocaust, Chronic Illness, Canonical Hermeneutics, Canonical Interpretation


Psalm 88, considered ‘the darkest psalm’, is often avoided by ‘the average reader of Scripture’ and considered ‘outside of normative theology’ by many scholars. The big problem is that the lamenter accuses God of breaking the covenant, and God does not answer the lamenter. The psalm ends without resolution. Moreover, the complainant claims to be innocent, thereby raising the issue of a person suffering unjustly (before an all-powerful, loving God). Biblical texts like this force us to look wider and deeper, to gain an understanding of the text’s message and its role within the canon. In this paper, the wider view is considered by studying the psalm within five contexts – historical, literary, canonical, within the modern world, and in the light of a psychological theory. The first has little to offer (of certainty) but the literary view highlights key themes. The canonical view shows how it critiques Ps 1, gives a climax to Book III (with Ps 89) and prepares for Book IV, and connects with Job and Jesus. The modern context brings new insights: the reality of the Holocaust has prompted deep searching and an adjustment of theological thinking by several scholars. And the psychological perspective (from the fact that the psalmist does not experience the identity disintegration common in such situations) highlights the crux of the psalm – his covenant relationship with YHWH as the most important, and only, element that holds in such extreme times.  In essence, the psalm (in context) shows us that innocent people suffer, but God is not unjust. However, sufferers should protest and their pain should be acknowledged as truth. Moreover, meaning should not be squeezed out of suffering, for humanity’s inability to comprehend fully is a reality. Nevertheless, the psalm gives space and permission for sufferers to safely protest with a fellow-sufferer.


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Author Biography

June Frances Dickie, UKZN
Ph.D candidate (2016)