Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 24, 2016
Psalm 138 Commentary
At first glance Psalm 138 is simply a royal psalm of thanksgiving offered to God in response to some special experience of personal salvation. It includes an invitation to the royalty of the earth to join in praising the God of this King, whom the superscription identifies as David.
Many scholars don’t take the superscriptions literally. The “I” of the Psalm, then, becomes a representative or personified Israelite speaking for the whole nation. So, James Luther Mays, for example, sees Psalm 138 as “a general song of praise by the restored community in the post-exilic period, written under the influence of the prophets whose words are gathered in Isaiah 44-66,” particularly the prophetic words predicting deliverance from that Exile.
I’m not sure it is necessary or possible to decide between those two different takes on the Psalm. Indeed, maybe it began as a personal thanksgiving that was adopted liturgically by the whole body of believers. That is surely what it can be for us as we apply it to our congregations today– a model of the way we should give thanks to God for his ways with us and his word to us. With those 9 lepers in the Gospel story, we often don’t return to give thanks. Perhaps that’s because we just not very good at it; we’re at a loss for words. And perhaps it’s also because we don’t always (or often?) have the Psalmist’s experience of directly answered prayer; “When I called, you answered me.”
Whatever the reason for our struggle with praise and thanksgiving, Psalm 138 has some very helpful and unusual guidance for us. Take, for example, the movement of moods in the Psalm. It begins as sunny as a summer day in verses 1-3, where the Psalmist can’t say enough good things about Yahweh. Then, it swells to boisterous or audacious in verses 4-6, where the Psalmist moves outside his own lovely experience with God and encourages the kings of the pagan nations all over the world to join him in praising Yahweh. Finally, the Psalm ends realistically with its admission that “I walk in the midst of trouble.” That trouble doesn’t make the Psalmist doubt his God. He still expresses complete confidence that Yahweh will continue his saving work in his life, but he does conclude with a brief heartfelt plea that Yahweh will finish his work in him. Such is, and should be, the movement of our prayers.
Some brief textual notes may help you flesh out your sermon. The Psalmist speaks directly to Yahweh in verse 1, promising to praise/thank/confess out loud. The Hebrew word there has the sense of making public, not keeping it a secret, making known how great Yahweh is. But the following phrase, “with all my heart,” suggests a deep interiority. My public praise comes from the bottom of my heart, from the depths of my being. Our praise, then, must be born in the secret depths of our hearts, but it must not be kept secret. Both secrecy and superficiality are enemies of proper praise.
Part of the public audience for the Psalmist’s praise is “the gods.” Though there are a few references like this to “the gods” (cf. Psalms 135 and 136), the Old Testament’s typical attitudes toward other gods is much more dismissive. They are nothing, vanity, incapable of seeing, hearing, acting. So, what is going on with this relatively positive reference to “the gods?” Some scholars take the easy way out by translating this “the angels.” But this could also be a reference to the gods of the nations who are mentioned in verses 4-6. The nations think their gods are real, so I will praise the true God in the presence of these supposed gods, as a way of putting them in their place. Not only Israel will hear my praise, but so will the kings of the nations and the gods to whom they look for help.
The Psalmist gives two reasons to praise Yahweh—who God is and what God has done. It is very important to make this distinction, because many Christians offer poor praise because they haven’t seen God do anything. The Psalmist says, “When I called, you answered me.” But that is not the experience of many Christians disappointed by unanswered prayer.
So the Psalmist’s words in verse 2 are a crucial reminder. I will praise your name “for your love and faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word.” The Hebrew words chesed (love) and emet (faithfulness) are huge covenant words in the Old Testament. They are associated with the name of Yahweh in that locus classicus of Exodus 34:6,7. When Moses asked to see all of God’s glory, God said that wasn’t possible. But he did offer to let Moses see his back from the cleft in the rock. “And God passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness….’”
Even if we don’t often see answers to our personal prayers, the Psalmist directs us to praise God for his long history of loving and faithful involvement with his covenant people. That historical involvement has exalted the name of Yahweh, because he has kept his words of promise through all the generations. If Mays is right in his corporate reading of this Psalm, then “the return from exile exalted the Lord’s name by fulfilling the prophecies of salvation made in the Lord’s name.” When I can’t identify answered prayers in my own life, I can praise God for his long history of keeping his promises in the lives of his covenant people.
But the Psalmist insists that God does hear our personal prayers. That’s the second reason to praise Yahweh. As I said before, this will be a sore spot for some of your congregation members. You can approach their disappointment in several ways. You could use the Psalmist’s sunny testimony in verse 3 as assurance that God has indeed answered their prayers; they just haven’t noticed. Or you could encourage them to keep praying by holding up David’s testimony as the words of a man who often felt that God had deserted him (see the many psalms of lament). David was no Pollyanna; he knew the pain of God-forsakenness. But he did not forsake God. He kept praying, knowing that God does hear and answer. Whatever you do with verse 3, be sure to empathize with those who can’t say those words. But don’t shy away from asserting what David so cheerfully confesses.
In verses 4-6 we hear the Psalmist doing something audacious. He joins his voice to the bold claim we first hear in Psalm 2, the claim that Yahweh has appointed his anointed King as king over all the earth. In Psalm 138 that anointed King of Israel turns to the kings of all the earth and calls on them to join him in praising the God of Israel. In doing that, David and Israel “are carrying out their vocation to be witnesses before the gods and nations to the sovereignty of God revealed in his salvation.” (Mays) According to Genesis 12:3, Isaiah 43:9,10, Isaiah 44:8, and other texts, such world-witness is what God had in mind from the beginning of his covenant relationship with Israel.
The call of verses 4-6 points ahead to the eschatological vision of Revelation 5 and 7, where all nations gather around the throne of the Messiah and praise God. A new world order, in which the lowly are raised up and the arrogant are brought low, will be filled with praise to the true God who has fulfilled his word. That vision should embolden us in our missionary calling. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, God’s anointed King, is Lord of all. We should call the princes and the paupers of the nations to acknowledge his Lordship right now.
From such soaring thoughts, the Psalmist comes down to earth with the frank admission that there are times when “I walk in the midst of trouble.” We should rejoice in this realism. Even the sunniest, most exuberant Christian will have trouble. Jesus promised it in John 16:33. So the presence of trouble is not a commentary on the quality of our faith. It’s just the way things are.
But here’s more of the way things are. “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes, with your right hand you save me.” The Psalmist is sure of that and we should encourage our congregation to share that certainty. God has stretched out his hand by becoming flesh in Christ. His nail pierced hands are the guarantee that nothing can separate us from the chesed and emet of Yahweh. As the old hymn put it, “The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
Indeed, “he who began a good work in us carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) Long before the day of Christ, David was sure of that, because of the certainty of the covenant. “Yahweh will fulfill his purposes for me; your love (chesed), O Yahweh, endures forever….” What a resounding conclusion to this sunny, audacious, realistic Psalm!
But wait. That is not the end. Strangely and surprisingly, it ends with a heartfelt plea; “do not abandon the works of your hands.” What’s up with that? How can someone so sure of God love and faithfulness in verses 1-8a suddenly entertain the possibility of God abandoning him? What kind of faith is that? It’s my kind of faith, and yours. We are all a mixture of certainty and questions, faith and doubt, assurance and fear. “Lord, we believe; help us with our unbelief.” The Gospel itself is always characterized by the tension between the “already but not yet.” We affirm “thine is the kingdom” and we pray “thy kingdom come.”
Psalm 138 is true to life and to the Gospel. Even those who praise God need to plead with God. And even those who aren’t sure that God answers should praise God. The Psalm and the Gospel assure us that he will finish the work he’s begun in us. The God who has us in his hand will not loosen (the literal meaning of “abandon” in verse 8) his grip. So we can be “bold and stouthearted” as we praise God for taking hold of us and plead with God not to let his grip weaken.
When you preach on Psalm 138, the church in the United States will find itself in a highly politicized situation. The Republican and Democratic National Conventions surround this Sunday. David’s invitation to the rulers of the earth made me think about Trump and Clinton. It might be fruitful to ask how many of this year’s candidates for political office could speak this Psalm from the heart? Can you imagine these American candidates praising God “when they hear the words of your mouth,” which refers to “the Lord’s grand commitments to his people?” What would they think about David’s claim that God looks favorably on the lowly, but views the haughty from afar? As our politicians make promises about what they will do for our country and the world, Psalm 138 reminds us that Yahweh calls all of us to “bow down toward [his] temple,” which, of course, is Jesus. Psalm 138 is a call to re-orient ourselves around the ways and the word of God in a world dominated by the ways and words of would-be kings and queens.
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