Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 7, 2015
Psalm 138 Commentary
Psalm 138 is a psalm of praise to God for deliverance from some kind of trouble. Its content suggests the psalmist’s enemies have done all they can to silence that praise. However, the psalmist remains utterly determined. Perhaps his foes’ opposition has even made him more determined than ever to praise God with “all of his heart,” in other words, as Raymond Van Leeuwen writes, “from the deepest center of the poet’s being.”
God’s adopted children can hardly hear this psalm without hearing a tone of defiance. The poet’s enemies have directed their anger toward her. Her neighbors may be bowing down not toward God’s temple but toward the earth’s kings who claim either to be divine or to represent their gods. However, the poet insists, “I will praise you, O Lord, with all of my heart … I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name” (italics added). After all, she recognizes that Yahweh alone is the God of heaven and earth who deserves her praise.
It’s instructive that the psalmist praises God first of all not for what God has done, but for who God is, for God’s faithfulness. When God’s children take the time to praise God, it’s often primarily for things God has done. Even the psalmist praises God for what God has done, for God’s act of deliverance. However, that doesn’t come until after he has praised God for God’s character, for God’s love and faithfulness.
In that way Psalm 138 serves as an excellent model and even liturgical resource for God’s children who want to praise the Lord from the deepest center of their being. It also offers those who teach and preach the psalm to reflect with hearers on the shape of our prayer lives. After all, people are naturally in such a hurry to ask God for things that they pay scant attention to God’s loving and faithful nature.
Even when the psalmist finally gets around to praising God for what God has done, he starts with God’s “exaltation” of God’s name and word “above all things.” In other words, the psalmist doesn’t begin by praising God for what God has done for him, but for what God has done, in a sense, for himself. God has exalted God’s “name,” another word for God himself, above all the gods whom people assume vie with God for power and their attention.
This God whom the psalmist praises from her very core faithfully pays loving attention to “the lowly,” perhaps including the psalmist herself. While people naturally take notice of those who can do something for us, of the high and mighty, Psalm 138 reminds us God pays attention to both the ordinary and the extraordinary, to the common and the uncommon. In fact, God is so attentive to human affairs that God even knows the proud from “afar.” In other words, God knows the evil intent of the proud.
Psalm 138 offers those who preach and teach it an opportunity to reflect with hearers on their own perceptions of God. In a culture that often views God as very passive, this God is very active. This God rescues and protects, keeps and hears, looks on and knows, preserves and stretches out God’s hand, fulfills and refuses to abandon. In a world that knows so little unconditional love and faithfulness, this God is always loving and faithful toward all God has made and makes.
In fact, Psalm 138’s poet is so determined to praise God for who God is that he doesn’t even get around to praising God for what God has done for him until more than halfway through the psalm. It’s not until verse 7 that he praises God for God’s preservation of him. Though his enemies have chased him into the midst of trouble, perhaps even into the “valley of the shadow of death,” (cf. Psalm 23), God has spared the poet’s life. Though his enemies’ anger has flared against him, God has stretched out God’s hand to save the poet, much like God’s stretched out God’s hand over the Red Sea’s threatening waters to save the Israelites.
God has even graciously granted the psalmist “boldness” and “stoutheartedness.” So though her enemies may angrily threaten her, the psalmist can courageously praise God with her whole being. Verse 3 offers the Bible’s only use of the word translated as “stoutheartedness.” The phrase may literally mean something like, “You strengthened me with strength in my soul,” an allusion to the courage with which the God fills the psalmist’s whole person.
Yet the psalmist isn’t content to be the only person who praises the Lord. In fact, he isn’t even content with just God’s Israelite sons and daughters singing the Lord’s praise. No, verses 4-5 express the psalmist’s longing for even the earth’s kings, many of whom think of themselves as gods, to join in that chorus of praise to Yahweh, the true God of heaven and earth. Psalm 2’s poet professes that God rules over even the world’s kings and nations. Now Psalm 138’s poet prays that God will work so that God’s praise spreads like ripples from the “lowly” to the kings of the earth.
It may seem ironic that this prayer forms the literary heart of Psalm 138. After all, it’s not just that the earth’s kings often thought of themselves as “gods.” It’s also that those kings may have been some of the enemies who threatened the psalmist. Yet the psalmist prays not for their restraint, punishment, or even destruction, but for their conversion. Right in the middle of a psalm that both praises God and pleads for God’s help, the psalmist turns her attention away from herself and onto the kings whose praise God longs and deserves to hear.
Yet the poet ends this psalm of wholehearted praise to God with a plea for God not to abandon the works of God’s hands. This may seem like a bit of a “downer” after verses 4-5’s grand eschatological vision of the kings of the earth bringing God their worship and praise. However, it reminds us that while the world’s kings and nations will someday join creation’s chorus of praise to God, not all of them do so yet. Psalm 138 reminds us that, as Van Leeuwen notes, “God’s kingdom, and its righteousness, saving rule, is ‘already and not yet’.” God and God’s children’s enemies, sin, Satan and death, never stop attacking God’s people for even a moment.
So we join the psalmist in praying for both God’s sustaining presence and the complete coming of God’s kingdom so that the whole creation can join the psalmist in bowing down to the Lord of heaven and earth. In that way Psalm 138 echoes the apostle Paul’s confidence that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.”
Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer was a resident of Ruleville, Mississippi who worked very hard on a plantation. However, because she tried to register to vote, she was fired from her job. She was later arrested and beaten senseless for trying to help others register to vote, sustaining injuries that would plague her for the rest of her life. She was a member of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party that tried to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
On August 22 Mrs. Hamer appeared before the convention’s credentials committee to tell her story about trying to register to vote in Mississippi. The unspeakable suffering and deprivation she’d endured at the hands of white oppressors couldn’t squelch this grace-filled Christian’s boldness. Threats of repercussions for it couldn’t stifle her stoutheartedness as she told some of the most powerful men in America, “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America? Thank you.”
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