Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 18, 2016
Psalm 113 Commentary
Psalm 113 is a thing of beauty, both in its form and in its content. It is a beautiful example of the forms of Hebrew poetry, consisting of three perfectly rounded stanzas: the call to praise Yahweh in verses 1-3, the praise of Yahweh’s majesty in verses 4-6, and the praise of Yahweh’s mercy in verses 7-9. Using the Hebrew number of perfection, the Psalmist describes the seven actions of Yahweh that call forth our praise: “is exalted,” “sits… on high,” “stoops down,” “raises,” “lifts,” “seats,” settles.” There is a four-fold repetition of that call to praise in the first stanza and a conventional three-fold repetition of “the name of the Lord.”
No wonder it was one of Jesus’ favorite Psalms. Well, that may be overstating the case a bit, but there is good historical evidence that Jesus sang it often, given its close attachment to the celebration of the Passover feast. You see, Psalm 113 is the first Psalm in the Hallel Psalms (Psalms 112-118), which were sung in connection with Israel’s great religious festivals (Week, Tabernacles, Dedication, New Moon, and Passover). We know that Psalm 113 and 114 were sung before the Passover meal and Psalms 115-118 after that meal. So when Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 report that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn at the conclusion of the Passover celebration, the reference is almost certainly to the tradition of singing the Egyptian Hallel Psalms.
As he prepared to shed his blood as “the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin,” Jesus sang the praises of the God who had saved his people through the blood of a lamb once before. Sometimes it is difficult to preach a distinctively Christian sermon on a Psalm, but that is not the case with Psalm 113. Even though it is distinctively Jewish, it has at least two other obvious connections to Jesus Christ, which we will see through a careful reading of the Psalm.
Note the prominence of God’s proper name in the call to praise. This is not an invitation to praise some generic God, “the Lord” of popular American culture. This Psalm is all about Yahweh, the name God revealed to his covenant people as he saved them. “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them.” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” (Exodus 3:13-14)
Why the fuss about God’s name? Because, of course, names in the ancient world revealed something central about the person who bore the name. So Jacob (the deceiver) was given a new name, Israel (he wrestled with God), to signify a change in his character. In the movie Dances with Wolves, Army officer John Dunbar is given the name Dances with Wolves as a sign of his new identity as an adopted Native Americans. And God tell us his real name so that we will not mistake him for all the gods invented by a sinful humanity. He is the God who depends for his existence on no one’s mind or hand. He simply is and always has been and always will be.
Thus, Psalm 113 calls not only ancient Israel to praise Yahweh, but also every creature in the universe throughout history. “Let the name of Yahweh be praised both now and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets the name of Yahweh is to be praised.” In beautiful poetic language, the Psalmist takes in all of time and all of space in his call to praise. Yahweh is the only God there is in all of history and in the entire universe, so praise his name.
The second stanza of Psalm 113 heightens this call to praise by focusing on the incomparable majesty and the incomprehensible mercy of Yahweh. Yahweh is not some little tribal deity whose power is limited to the boundaries of a tiny piece of Middle Eastern real estate. He is “exalted over the nations (and their gods, of course), his glory is (even) above the heavens.”
As I read that last line, I thought about the recent Dark Skies Project, the effort to eliminate light pollution in the National Parks, so that people can see the glory of the Milky Way Galaxy. I remember sleeping out in my backyard many years ago as a boy in Denver, Colorado, where a higher altitude and the absence of pollution showed me a sky so bright with stars that I could almost read a book by their light. Look up, says the Psalmist, and realize that the glory of Yahweh is above and beyond the wonders of the universe.
As you look up, ask yourself this question. “Who is like Yahweh our God, the One who sits enthroned on high…?” That, of course, is a rhetorical question, the answer to which is, obviously, “no one.” No one and nothing is like Yahweh. He is unlike anything in the universe, which leads many contemporary thinkers to conclude that God is, therefore, unknowable. If there is nothing to which you can compare God, then how can you possibly know God? But that is not where Psalm 113 goes. Rather than getting lost in agnostic mystery, Psalm 113 gets lost in ecstatic praise, because this incomparable God has actually gotten involved in human history at a place and time you could find on a map and circle on a calendar.
The God who is so exalted that he is not like anything in our universe has “stooped down to look on the heavens and the earth.” Contrary to the popular song of a few years back, God is not “watching us from a distance,” curious and interested, but uninvolved. Rather, he has stooped to help the poor and needy in his mercy. Indeed, the greatest display of God’s incomparable majesty is his incomprehensible mercy. This combination of transcendence and immanence is at the heart of biblical religion; indeed, it is the Good News at the heart of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.
Psalm 113 doesn’t know about that ultimate act of divine condescension yet, but all Israel knew how God had stooped to save them in the Exodus (cf. Psalm 114:1 and 2). Yahweh didn’t just stoop to look; he reached down and raised the poor from the dust and lifted the needy from the ash heap (dung pile, according to other translations). “Our God” (verse 5) actually gets his hands dirty in the dust and dung of human existence.
And God is not content to get us out of the mess; he also “seats [us] with princes, with the princes of their people.” Interestingly, the verb translated “seats” is the same as the verb “sits enthroned” in verse 5. It means, literally, “dwell.” The God who dwells on high has stooped down to raise us up, so that we can dwell on high. God wants us to share his glory. Is this an adumbration of the notion of the divinization of man, suggested in passages like II Peter 1:4 (“so that through [God’s great promises] you may participate in the divine nature”)? The greatest measure of God majesty is the mercy that lifts poor wretched sinners into the majesty for which he originally designed us.
Of course, this is the second, and obvious, connection between Psalm 113 and Jesus Christ. “He who was rich became poor, so that out of his poverty we might become rich.” (II Corinthians 8:9) Through the inspiration of the Spirit, his mother, Mary, gathered up this theme of condescension and elevation in her Magnificat. By his mighty arm, Yahweh has “brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)
The opening words of the Magnificat provide the third connection between Psalm 113 and Jesus Christ. The Lord “has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” Mary was the last and most glorious in a long line of woman who miraculously gave birth when everyone thought it was impossible. The last verb in Psalm 113 is that word “dwell” again. “He settles (dwells) the barren woman in her home, as a happy mother of children.” In ancient Israel a barren woman suffered the greatest disgrace and the deepest tragedy. In her old age, in that day before Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, a barren woman would be utterly destitute and desolate because there would be no one to take care of her.
Psalm 113 praises the incomparable Yahweh because in his incomprehensible mercy, he cares for barren women, beginning with Sarah and continuing through Rebecca and Rachel and Hannah and Elizabeth and, finally, a woman who was not barren, but a virgin. It is to a barren, lonely, desolate human race that Yahweh stoops and gives a Child, and a Family, and a Future, and a Place to Dwell.
So this distinctively Jewish Psalm gives us a rich opportunity to call Christians to praise God for a Jewish Messiah who came to save the world. In a world that calls the Christian faith narrow and bigoted because of its claim that there is “one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus,” it is important to show again that God does not sit far above the teeming human race watching with baleful eye. Rather, he stoops in mercy and dies in misery to raise us up to life more glorious than we can imagine.
I began to work on Psalm 113 in the midst of the Summer Olympics in August. You will preach on it several weeks later, but the memory of the Olympics may offer you a way to connect your listeners to this ancient Psalm. The Olympic motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” urging athletes to elevate themselves by their own effort. The Olympic hope is that through sports a diverse and divided world will be drawn together into a closer human family. As thrilling as those efforts were and as glorious as that dream may be, the fact is that no amount of human effort and dreaming will lift the poor and needy and provide the lonely and desolate with the care they need. The city of Rio de Janeiro was the perfect example of that. Only the Incomparable Yahweh who stooped in his Incomprehensible Mercy can save the world. Jesus left his disciples with an Olympic-sized commission that echoes Psalm 113. “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations….”
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