Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 15, 2015
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 107 is a thanksgiving liturgy that worshipers probably recited at a festival in Jerusalem’s temple. Some congregations still use it or a modified form of it at Thanksgiving worship services. It also serves as the basis for a number of well-known hymns, including Martin Rinkart’s stirring “Now Thank We All our God” and the mariner’s hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”
Those who preach and teach Psalm 107 may want to help hearers enter into it by reflecting on examples of God’s goodness and enduring love. They may want to invite them to contemplate examples of such goodness and enduring love in their own lives. One helpful exercise might even be to invite worshipers and students to compose their own version of or just a stanza for Psalm 107.
After all, the God of Psalm 107 is still as good and faithful as God was in the psalmist’s day. In fact, those aren’t just two of God’s many characteristics. They are, in some ways, the very essence of who God is. While our own goodness and faithfulness may be as enduring as a snowfall in July, God remains good and faithful.
Yet the psalmist doesn’t just praise God for that goodness and faithfulness. She also cites evidence of it throughout the psalm. Verses 4-32’s evidence has a discernible pattern. Each stanza features a description of some form of trouble people encountered, as well as their prayerful response to that crisis. Each also includes details of God’s redemption of those in trouble in addition to the appropriate thankful response to that salvation. Those whose redemption the psalmist cites includes people dying from hunger (4-9) and rebellion (17-22), as well as prisoners (10-16) and sailors caught in a storm (23-32).
Psalm 107 begins with the psalmist’s call to those whom God has redeemed from various crises to respond by giving thanks to their Savior. The call’s a bit reminiscent of parents trying to teach their children how to express their gratitude to those who have given them a gift. After all, we can almost see the psalmist, like a parent, asking worshipers, “Now what do you say?” And then it’s as if he reminds those “children” whom God has given the gift of redemption, to say “Thank you, Lord!”
The passage appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary focuses on just those whose rebellion against God’s good and perfect ways reflected their foolishness. In verse 17 the psalmist reports that they “became fools” and “suffered affliction.” However, the context at least suggests they became ill because of their rebellion.
This would, of course, echo Israel’s experience in Numbers 21. After all, the Israelites foolishly complained there to Moses and God, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food.” God responded to that rebellion by sending poisonous snakes that bit, sickened and killed many Israelites.
Psalm 107 seems to draw a straight line from sin to sickness. After all, according to verse 17 the rebels “suffered affliction because of [italics added] their iniquities.” Those who preach and teach Psalm 107 in the light of Jesus Christ’s work may want to help hearers think carefully about what that means. After all, our sin sometimes has harsh consequences. If, for example, you break the law by driving your car through a red light, another car may hit yours. Yet those who profess that God has punished all of God’s sons and daughters’ sins in Jesus Christ don’t claim that God punishes God’s children by making them sick (or making them get into accidents). Sickness and death are part of the general human condition on this side of God’s new creation.
The disaster that Psalm 107:17-18 describes prompts those who have acted foolishly to respond in wise ways in verse 19. Those who’d suffered affliction, hated food and nearly died “cried out to the Lord in their trouble.” They turned to the only One who could rescue them from the calamity they’d brought on themselves. This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 107 a chance to help hearers reflect on their own natural responses to trouble. To where do we turn first for our help in times of crisis? It’s tempting for citizens of the 21st century who have so many resources at our disposal to turn to God for help only as a last resort when all other resources have failed.
God’s response to the rebels’ desperate cries for help reflects God’s goodness and faithfulness for which we thank God in verse 1. God rescues miserable people from their distress. In fact, with the same power that God displays by speaking a creative word, God speaks a healing word. God rescues those who cry out to the Lord from the lip of the grave. Of course, Christians can hardly hear verses 19 and 20 without thinking of the healing ministry of Jesus Christ. The gospel writers fill their works with accounts of Jesus’ healing power in the lives of countless ill people cried out to him for help.
The psalmist recognizes that the most appropriate response to such gracious “yes’s” to our pleas for help is thanksgiving. Much like the psalmist calls God’s children to give thanks to the Lord because God’s love endures forever, in verse 21 she calls those whom God has redeemed to give thanks to the Lord for God’s “unfailing love.” After all, God manifests that love by, among other things, doing wonderful deeds for those God loves.
However, the psalmist insists those God has rescued also have good reason to sacrifice “thank offerings” to the God who redeemed them. As Nancy deClaisse-Walford notes, when people sacrificed thank offerings, they also ate with the priests a meal of celebration of God’s goodness. So in the context of Psalm 107, those who’d hated food and nearly died again taste life-giving nourishment.
Since Christians believe Jesus Christ fulfilled the ceremonial law that involved offering sacrifices as thank offerings, those who preach and teach Psalm 107 may wish to explore how God’s modern sons and daughters can offer God their thanks. How can we go beyond saying and singing our thanksgiving to God? How can thanksgiving be a central theme of our thoughts and actions?
After all, as deClaisse-Walford notes, we not may be or ever have literally been dying because of our rebellion. Yet nearly all of us have needed not only spiritual but also physical rescue by God. Psalm 107 offers a good template for our response to such crises. We recognize the problem, cry out to God for help, gladly accept the help the Lord gives and then give thanks to God.
Yet this template also helps us to consider our response to those in crisis around us. We join those who are sick, hungry, lost, imprisoned or in some other kind of danger in crying out to God for help. However, we also remember that God often rescues others from their distress in no small part through God’s children. So those whom God has redeemed from their distress always ask ourselves how we can put ourselves in a place to be used by God to help rescue others from their crises.
The Old Testament scholar Terrence Fretheim says Psalm 107’s imagery reminds him of the baby monitors many parents of young children have. They resemble walkie-talkies. Parents place the monitor near their baby and keep the receiver near them. So no matter where the parents are in the house, they can always hear the noises their child makes. They can hear, for example, when their child cries upon awakening from a nap. This allows them to respond immediately to those cries.
It’s almost as if the psalmist pictures God as placing a kind of baby monitor near God’s sons and daughters. That monitor is tuned to the noises we make, particularly our cries of pain. God instantly hears our cries for help so that God can graciously respond with redemption.
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