Psalm 88: Interpretive Afterlives, Coping Strategies, and the Work of Mourning

John Michael Garza, Fordham University


Psalm 88’s unmitigated cry of anguish, despair, and abandonment has presented a unique theological problem for commentators. From a form critical perspective, the psalm’s most distinctive feature is the absence of a closing vow of praise or certainty of hearing that is a defining characteristic of the lament genre of psalms. From a theologically-inflected form critical perspective, Walter Brueggemann has been pivotal in exploring Psalm 88 as a theological gem that reveals something important about what it means to be engaged with God through faith. Nevertheless, the proposals of Brueggemann and others about how to understand the importance of Psalm 88 continue to be problematic by not taking the psalm seriously as a resource in and of itself. Has Psalm 88 always been problematic for interpreters, or is it only once it is examined within form critical categories that it becomes a theological issue? How exactly has the psalm been read throughout its history of interpretation? To answer these questions, I trace the reception of Psalm 88 as it occurs in early Christian and Jewish interpretations, in the form critical work of Hermann Gunkel, Sigmund Mowinckel, Claus Westermann, and Walter Brueggemann, and in more recent readings of the psalm that use critical theory to think about its importance. In doing so, I argue that that majority of previous interpreters read Psalm 88 in ways that either implicitly or explicitly attempt to cover over the wound that Psalm 88 demands remain uncovered. In turn, I bring the work of Jacques Derrida on mourning to bear upon the text as I offer my own theopoetic reading of the psalm that voices it from the perspective of an individual who mourns the death of God even as they are constitutively bound to God’s remembrance. I contend that Psalm 88 lingers in the pit, gropes in the darkness, and accepts that the work of mourning is a new mode of being in the world, a new type of faithfulness in the absence of God, and that mourning itself constitutes an unending and constitutive relationship with the God who haunts.

Subject Area

Biblical studies|Theology|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Garza, John Michael, "Psalm 88: Interpretive Afterlives, Coping Strategies, and the Work of Mourning" (2020). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI27960292.