Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 9, 2017
Psalm 145:8-14 Commentary
Psalm 145 is an exuberant, but hardly extemporaneous Psalm. Indeed, it is a carefully crafted Psalm of praise. The superscription explicitly identifies it as that, using a word for praise found only here in the entire Psalter. We might call it the quintessential Psalm of Praise, for it uses all the traditional language of praise we find scattered throughout the Psalter. If we want to learn how to praise God, here is our teacher. Indeed, its structure suggests that pedagogy was part of its purpose. I’ll say more about that structural clue in a moment.
The basic skeletal structure is very simple: a two verse introduction in which David tells his audience what he intends to do with this Psalm, namely, praise “my God the King.” The body of the Psalm (verses 3-20) sings the praiseworthiness of God; here’s why I want to praise him and why you should too. And the last verse is a pledge to continue praising God and an invitation to the whole world to join in that praise.
That body of praise can be roughly broken down into 4 stanzas, each of which sings of a different attribute of God demonstrated in his actions. Verses 3-7 are about God’s greatness. Verses 8-13a focus on his goodness. Verses 13b- 16 cover his faithfulness. And verses 17-20 revolve around his righteousness. A more careful look at each of those stanzas will reveal that they are not that simple. Those dominant ideas run into each other, appear repeatedly, and combine variously.
That lack of consistency is due to the hidden structural framework of the Psalm—hidden to the English reader but not to the reader of Hebrew. Psalm 145 is an alphabetic acrostic. Each subsequent verse begins with the letter of the Hebrew that comes after the one that began the previous verse. Thus the thoughts are arranged alphabetically, not thematically. This accounts for the apparently random occurrences of the various themes.
This poetic device makes the Psalm appear sloppy to us, but studied to the original readers. The use of an alphabetic acrostic was designed to express comprehensive praise, everything from A to Z. Or as Brueggemann puts it, the acrostic was designed to remind the audience that life is well arranged and ordered. There is no slippage, no tension, no incongruity. All is well, because God is in his heaven and he is in charge on earth in all his greatness, goodness, faithfulness, and righteousness.
That, indeed, is the theme of Psalm 145. Yahweh is the great King over all the earth, so let all the earth—not just his covenant people Israel, but all the earth, “every creature”—“praise his holy name (verse 21).” If the order of the Psalms is intentional, even theological, rather than a random collection of assorted poems, then there is a sense in which Psalm 145 is a summary of the message of the Psalter. Here is David the greatest King of Israel leading Israel and all flesh in a celebration of the Kingship of Yahweh– not only Israel’s true King, but the King of all the earth.
We could praise God for many things or, better, for his many roles in our lives. He is our creator, provider, protector, redeemer, shepherd, father, rock, and refuge. God is all of that and more. But Psalm 145 focuses on this one role that sums up all that God is to his people—our King. The rest of the Psalm is designed to help his subjects see the greatness of the King and sing his praise.
Our reading for today (verses 8-14) is cut out of the middle of the Psalm, probably because it highlights the central features of the Kingship of Yahweh. Verses 8 and 9 emphasize the benevolent goodness of the King. In the ancient Middle East, kings had absolute power and could become incredibly cruel. But Yahweh is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”
These words, of course, echo those famous words of Exodus 34:6, which reverberate throughout the Old Testament as the fundamental revelation of God’s character. No wonder Calvin said that Exodus 34 is “as clear and satisfactory a description of God… as can be found anywhere.” These are God’s own words. This is not general, popular theology. It is the language of personal, relational, covenantal life. So it is a surprise to hear in verse 9 that the covenant God of Israel is good not only to his own people, but also “to all: he has compassion on all he has made.” No wonder David says in verse 10, “All you have made will praise you, O Yahweh.”
At the linguistic and theological center of this acrostic poem are verses 11-13. Within these verses the word for Kingdom, malkut, is found 4 times, emphasizing the theme of the Psalm. Some enterprising scholars even point out that verse 11 begins with the Hebrew letter kaph, verse 12 begins with lamed, and verse 13 with mem. If we reverse those Hebrew letters, we have melek, the Hebrew word for King. In overt and covert ways, Psalm 145 wants to remind us that Yahweh and his Kingdom are at the epicenter of everything. And, unlike the kings and kingdoms of earth that all pass away eventually, ‘Your Kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations.” For that everlasting reign, we praise our King.
And even as Yahweh’s reign is never ending, so it is universal. He is “loving toward all he has made (verse 13b).” While much of what follows outside of our reading is focused on his own people (those who “call on him… in truth,” who “fear him,” who “love him”), there are a couple of notes emphasizing his care for those on the margins. In addition to his general providential care of all (you “satisfy the desires of every living thing”), God pays special attention to “all who fall” and “are bowed down.” This is language familiar to all who know about God’s concern for the poor in the Torah and his condemnation of those who take advantage of them in the Prophets. Our great King pays attention to the least, the last, and the lost. For that tender care, we praise our King.
But we shouldn’t miss the single negative note in this Psalm. There is one group of people for whom Yahweh has no sympathy. “He watches over those who love him (and those who are unloved in the world), but all the wicked he will destroy.” The great King who is gracious and good is also righteous in all his ways. And those who rebel against his rule, who set themselves up as god-like rulers, and live in persistent wicked rebellion will discover the hard side of the King. In the end, for the good of his Kingdom and its subjects, he will get rid of the Rebellion. If he doesn’t, things will never be right in the world. There will never be peace. And though the words may stick in our throat at this thought, Psalm 145 reminds us to praise our King for that aspect of his reign too. Don’t we confess this very thing every time we say the words of the Apostles’ Creed? Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
So the Psalter ends. Or at least some scholars think that the Psalter once ended with Psalm 145. Only later were the 5 Hallelujah Psalms, the original “Hallelujah Chorus,” added. We can’t be sure about such issues, but it is certain that Psalm 145 is the overture to those last Psalms that all begin and end with “Hallelujah,” “Praise the Lord.” All five of them echo the features and language of 145. It ends with “My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord. Let every creature praise his holy name forever and ever.” The five that follow respond to that invitation. Psalm 145:21 and Psalm 150:6 stand as an inclusio around the paean of praise the ends the Psalter. (James Luther Mays)
What a fitting conclusion to the songbook of God’s people. We’ve been singing about our life under God. We’ve lifted up our praise and our problems, voiced our love and our lament, uttered our intercession and our imprecations, confessed our faith and expressed our doubts, pouring out our broken hearts and our grateful hymns to the Lord. Life is so hard and insecure. But here at the end of all our songs, we are reminded of the one solid thing in life. Yahweh, my God, is the King of my life and the world in which I live. When the mountains shake into the heart of the sea and my faith follows, there is an equilibrium, a coherence and reliability that stands at the center of things. “I will extol you, my God the King.”
Here is a Psalm for our times. On this Sunday after the great Fourth of July celebration of freedom in the United States, many are wondering where our country and the world is headed. The new administration in the U.S. promised to shake things up and has kept that promise in ways no one could have anticipated. While some rejoice in that, many others are terrified at this shaking of the foundations. Where can we find security in our world, when a new Tweet every morning brings some new crisis? Well, our security rests in Yahweh the King, whose Kingdom is everlasting. Trust him and the Son of his love who sits on the throne at the center of the universe, ruling all things for the church (Ephesians 1).
The Talmud called upon all Jews to recite Psalm 145 three times every day. It said that all who faithfully followed that practice could be sure that they are part of the world to come. That’s not bad advice. While merely reciting a Psalm will not guarantee us a place in that world, reciting this Psalm regularly will remind us that there is a world beyond this one. Through Jesus and by faith in him, we are part of it. So, as you struggle to sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, remember to praise the King of it all, who is your God in Christ Jesus.
One way to help people live into this ancient Jewish song is to remind them an old Christian hymn, “This is My Father’s World.” I’ll combine two stanzas to make the point.
This is our Father’s world: O let us not forget
That though the wrong is great and strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King, let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad.
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