Even the staunchest believer sometimes wonders about the efficacy of prayer. Does it really work? Does God listen to our prayers and answer in identifiable ways? Not only our personal experience of apparently unanswered prayers, but also some of the more difficult Christian doctrines (the sovereignty of God manifested in predestination and election) make us ask those questions. Even when we are sure God has answered in miraculous ways, a skeptic could claim that we are interpreting events in wishful ways. Does God really answer our prayers?
The anonymous writer of Psalm 66 gives a resoundingly affirmative answer to that question. And he wanted everyone to know about it. “Come and listen, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me. I cried out to him with my mouth… God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer. Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!”
I am well aware those verses are not part of the lectionary reading for today, but they should be. Cutting them out will give us a truncated sense of the meaning of our reading from verses 1-9. Indeed, I would argue that the entire Psalm was written because of a specific answer to prayer. That answer led not only to the Psalmist fulfilling his own vows (13-15) and declaring to the worshiping congregation what God did for him (verses 16-20), but also to calling the whole world to praise God for what God has done for Israel (verses 1-12). The Psalmist’s personal experience of answered prayer was not just a “Jesus and me” moment. It was motivation to call the whole church, indeed, the whole world to praise God for his “awesome deeds.” In this day of privatized religion, this Psalm gives us a wonderful alternative model to follow.
To be fair and balanced, I must say that no less an expert than James Luther Mays disagrees with my interpretation of Psalm 66. He thinks it moves in the other direction, beginning with the corporate and moving to the individual. He sees verses 1-12 as a processional hymn for the entire congregation (even the whole world) which leads to a moment in the liturgy when a representative individual gives personal testimony in identity with and on behalf of the congregation (verses 13-20).
Who am I to argue with an eminent scholar like Mays? But I do like my take because of the rule of end stress; it is finally the experience of individually answered prayer that spurs this call to universal praise. Whichever interpretation is right, it is clear that Psalm 66 combines the corporate and the individual in its call to praise, and includes the pagan world along with chosen Israel.
The inclusion of “all the earth” in this call to worship is not unusual in the Psalms, but it is still noteworthy, because a “chosen people” (including Christians) tend to think that it’s all about them. So it is helpful to be reminded that God’s reign extends far beyond Israel. Yes, God has acted for Israel in marvelous ways, but ultimately he will use them to bless the whole world (Genesis 12:3). In anticipation of that worldwide salvation, Psalm 66 calls the whole world to praise God now. “Calls” is too mild a word. In fact, the opening verses bristle with imperatives commanding the whole earth to “shout, sing, make his praise glorious, sing,” because of his awesome deeds.
The whole earth instantly responds by bowing and singing. Indeed, verse 3 uses the politically incorrect word “cringe.” A number of scholars point out that such language is offensive in our global village that is working so hard at making peace between the great religions. It sounds like a threat to say, “So great is your power that your enemies cringe.” But the word “cringe” simply means “pay homage.” This is not a call for the pagan nations to cower in fear before the power of God, but to bow down in humility and praise his name. Yes, the permanently rebellious have reason to cringe in fear (verse 7), but what God really wants is for all his creatures to acknowledge him and sing his praise. In other words, there is something missionary and redemptive in this call to universal praise.
We see that in verse 5 where everyone in the world is invited to “come and see what God has done, how awesome are his works in man’s behalf (or among mankind).” That last interpretative twist reminds us that what God has done for humankind has occurred “among humankind,” that is, in history. God’s awesome deeds are historical acts. The great “I am” has broken into the cause and effect continuum of history and done something new and startling.
Back in Israel’s history, God’s saving acts were done in a particular place for a particular people. In verse 6 the Psalmist makes specific reference to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. “He turned the sea (yam in Hebrew) into dry land; they passed through the waters (nahar in Hebrew) on foot….” “Sea” undoubtedly refers to the Red Sea, while “waters” might mean the Jordan River. So then the Psalmist is referring to that entire 40 year act of deliverance that began at the Red Sea and concluded with the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land.
James Luther Mays adds a fascinating spin. “Yam and Nahar are the names of the personalized cosmic powers whom the Canaanite god Baal overthrows in the ancient myth of Baal’s ascent to kingship over nature. The Psalmist draws on that myth to speak of the primal saving event in Israel’s story as the revelation of the Lord’s rule over the nations.” No wonder the Psalmist calls all the nations as well as Israel: “come, let us rejoice in him.”
But God has done more than that for Israel. In verses 8-12 the Psalmist speaks not of one mighty act of deliverance, but of an ongoing corrective relationship between God and his redeemed people. While we could read these verses as a reference to Israel’s Exile, they probably also refer to the whole time between the Exodus and the end of the Old Testament. Israel was redeemed, but hardly perfect. So God tested them in the way a metallurgist tests metal, to purify them. God put them through very tough times to bring their salvation to completion, so that they would become the Holy Nation he designed them to be.
Israel didn’t always (or often) understand that. They wondered why God had forsaken them. Here the Psalmist reminds them that even in their hardest times, God was active, like a loving parent disciplining a child (cf. Hebrews 12:4-6). And he points out that God had finally “brought us to a place of abundance.” So, he calls Israel to praise God even, and perhaps especially, for those times of discipline that they found so agonizing. God loves us just as we are, but in his love God won’t leave us just as we are. As Beth LaNeel Tanner puts it, “This section reminds us that the post-salvation road is not an easy one. Israel had to learn very hard lessons. This is not, nor will it ever be, ‘cheap grace’.”
So the Psalmist calls the congregation and the nations to make a joyful noise of praise to God, because of God’s involvement in Israel’s national affairs. God has performed macro-miracles for his people as a whole. Then in verses 13-20 the Psalmist turns to the micro-miracles God performs in the individual lives of his people. “When I was in trouble…, I cried out to him… and God heard my voice from heaven….” God doesn’t just work on a large international stage; he works on the tiny stage of my life. Praise God with me, “all you who fear the Lord” and “all the earth.”
The early church made a uniquely Christian application of this Psalm. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, it added to the superscription of Psalm 66 these words, “a Psalm of Resurrection.” As early as the first and second centuries, the church began to sing this Psalm at the Feast of the Resurrection in celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. That was partly because of the phrase at the end of verses 8-12, “but you brought us to a place of abundance.” That can be understood as a cryptic prophecy of resurrection. And the early church noticed that an important Hebrew word was used to describe God’s rescue of his people. It is the word yasha, from which Yeshua or “Yahweh saves” derives. All Christians will recognize that as the Hebrew name of Jesus.
To God’s deliverance of Israel in the Exodus and from the Exile and God’s corrective dealing with his people in the time between those two acts of salvation, we Christians must add the most awesome deed of God on behalf of and among mankind. God heard the cries of his people and answered their prayers by becoming one of us, a human, a Son of Adam, and an Israelite, the Son of David. The Incarnation, the Atonement, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for us individually, for the people of God as a whole, and for the nations of the world—those are the awesome deeds of God that call the whole world to “make his praise glorious.”
Small, individual, particular historical actions can make a huge impact on world history, as this well worn proverbial poem explains.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the Kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Some scholars think that this little poem referred to the death of King Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth Field, immortalized in Shakespeare’s Richard III. You may recall the King famously shouting, “A Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a horse!”
For want of a nail, the whole world would be lost. Praise God for his mighty, little acts!
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 3, 2016
Psalm 66:1-9 Commentary