Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 10, 2018
Psalm 138 Commentary
While some scholars call this an individual Psalm of thanksgiving, I think there is enough evidence to label it a royal Psalm of praise. For one thing, it is “of David,” the first of 8 Psalms attributed to David. While that doesn’t definitively prove that David wrote it, the central section (verses 4-5) is addressed to (other?) kings. Further, Psalm 138 has all sorts of resonance with other Davidic Psalms; for example, compare verse 7 with Psalm 23:4. It simply feels Davidic. And, finally, reading it as a royal Psalm of praise provides us with an eminently relevant way to preach it in this day when the politics of power dominate the news. National and international affairs are being driven by men who would be kings. (Isn’t it interesting that none of these throne seekers are women?)
I must confess that I was nudged in this interpretive direction by the other Old Testament reading for today. I Samuel 8 records that moment in Israel’s history when the people demand a human king. Samuel protests that they have a king, Yahweh. They insist that they need a human king to govern them, to represent them in international affairs, and to lead them into war. In the end, God accedes to their demands, but warns them severely that the reign of a human king will change their lives dramatically. He will take their children and turn them into soldiers and servants; he will take their property and produce; he will tax them; and, contrary to the King they have now, he will not always be benevolent and just and merciful and wise. Israel’s history would prove Yahweh to be right over and over again, with a few exceptions.
In Psalm 138 we meet the great exception to the general rule. Here is a faithful king who gives all the praise to God and who invites all the kings of the earth to do likewise. When read against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s presidency, Psalm 138 can give you an opportunity to speak truth to power. Of course, you’ll have to be very careful not to make the sermon about Trump, as though he is the only leader who needs to hear this Psalm. Every democratic leader is tempted to err on the other side of the political divide. Preach it as a call to all leaders to be the kind of king David was, regardless of party, even quite apart from politics. And preach it so that Jesus Christ is lifted up as the King we all need and want.
Imagine how different the world would be if all leaders were to begin each day with Psalm 138:1-3. Rather than puffing up their chests with their own self-importance, what if everyone in power said, “I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart; before the gods (that is, all the other leaders and the divinities they represent) I will sing your praise?” David bowed toward the temple, as all good Jews did. Jesus said that he was the new temple. What if everyone bowed down to Jesus at the beginning and end of every day!?
And what if every leader (and follower, for that matter) treasured the gifts that God gave David everyday—love, faithfulness, and his word. By the time you read this, the royal wedding in England will be over. Lavish gifts will have been laid at the feet of the royal couple. But what everyone really needs is the assurance of God’s covenant love and faithfulness, the counsel of God’s infallible Word, and the saving knowledge of his blessed name.
How wonderful it would be if every leader would pray as David did in his hour of trial. And what a difference it would make if those prayers received the kind of answer David did in verse 3. We always want God to change the situation we’re in: stop the North Koreans, change Putin’s heart, remove Assad from power, restrain the rash impulses of Trump, stop racism and school shootings and terrorism. Those are all legitimate prayers. May God answer them all. But David’s prayer was answered not with changed situations, but with a changed heart. “You made me bold and stouthearted,” so that I could lead through the situation with my faith focused on God.
In verses 4 and 5, David voices the audacious claim at the heart of the Psalter—Yahweh, the King of Israel, is really the King of all kings. The kings of this little third-rate power in the dusty hills of Israel are the servants of the Great King over all the earth. And here, David calls all those other kings to join him in praising Yahweh, the God of Israel.
There is a lot of talk these days about summit meetings between Trump and Kim and Putin and Xi, and a host of smaller meetings designed to solve the problems of the world. David calls for another kind of summit meeting, a praise meeting where all the kings of the earth praise Yahweh for his words and ways. Compared to the glory of Yahweh, all the pomp and circumstance of those meetings are tawdry and cheap. There is only one leader great enough to solve the world’s problems, but sadly our leaders are preoccupied with their own words and ways. Ephesians 1:20-23, Phil. 2:9-11, and the entire book of Revelation apply this message to Christ.
Verse 6 voices a truth that would stun the leaders of the world. As high as you might think you are, Yahweh is higher. But though he is on high, he actually “looks upon the lowly,” meaning that he looks with favor and mercy on those whose hearts are humble. In a world that values pride and self-confidence and braggadocio, David speaks a counter-word. God actually looks down on the proud “from afar.” That is, the Most High King does not draw near those who vaunt themselves. The more they puff themselves up, the smaller they become in God’s eyes. As the ego-centric Pharisee in Jesus’ parable discovered, the person who goes home justified by God is the poor publican who cries out, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
In verses 7 and 8 we find abundant opportunity to talk about Christ and about our lives as Christians. Indeed, these verses could be seen as a “prophecy” of the ministry of Christ. The Gospel reading for today in Mark 3:20-35 shows us Jesus under attack from his “foes,” the Jewish leaders who accuse him of being in league with devil and his family who are afraid he has lost his mind. Jesus walked in the midst of trouble, but God preserved his life until it was time to lay down his life. So it is with all of his children, as we walk though the valley of the shadow.
Jesus spoke often about his purpose, his time, his work, his business. David speaks for Jesus when he says, “Yahweh will fulfill his purpose for me.” That is the great comfort for all believers, both high and low. How much calmer would we be, how much bolder, and determined, and focused, and loving, if we truly believed that God has a purpose for us that he will fulfill. We wouldn’t need to scrabble and plot and push and defend ourselves and attack others, if we truly believed that, at the end of the day, we would be able to say with Jesus, “It is finished.” Paul voiced that kind of Christ-like confidence in Phil. 1:6 and Romans 8:28-30.
We hear the words of verse 8b repeated throughout the Psalter, most insistently in the Psalm just two ahead of this one, Psalm 136. “Your love, O Yahweh, endures forever.” That love (the ubiquitous hesed), the never-failing covenantal commitment of Yahweh to his people, is the foundation of life. In a world where everything changes, this alone is unchanging. World leaders fight to maintain their national security, but as recent hacking attempts and intercontinental missile launches and random terrorist attacks illustrate so dramatically, there is no human way to make the world secure. Of course, we can’t just roll over in front of security breaches, but what a different world it would be if the kings of the earth would say with David, “Your love, O Lord, endures forever.” “Here I stand!”
The Psalm ends on a seemingly peculiar note. This king who trusts Yahweh with his life and kingdom prays that Yahweh will not “abandon the works of your hand.” If he really believes that God’s covenant love endures forever, why would he pray something like that? Well, given the confidence he voices throughout the Psalm, we must read those last words, not as the cry of fearful desperation, but as the quiet confidence of a secure believer. It is the same kind of holy tension we hear in Jesus announcement that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” and his classic prayer, “thy Kingdom come.” That Kingdom has come, but it is not yet here in its fulness. God will not abandon his work in me or in this world. However, in the daily struggles of life, it is an important exercise of faith to pray, “Do not abandon the works of your hand.” The theological truth of the Gospel must be expressed in the spiritual and psychological need to pray that truth.
The Psalmist’s call to the kings of the earth to join him in praising God made me think of a wonderful novel by Ann Patchett. Bel Canto is about the beauty of music overcoming the divisions of humanity. A multi-cultural group of dignitaries are invited to hear a world-famous opera singer perform at an exclusive dinner party in a third world country. As they sit mesmerized by her “bel canto,” a band of guerillas raid the party and take everyone hostage. For the next 4 months, these ragged rebels hold hostage these important people from all over the world—Japanese, Russians, English, French, Spanish, etc. Throughout that time, the opera singer performs each day and the power of her music draws them all together, captors and captives, poor and rich, male and female. All are transformed by the power of beauty, even as the Beautiful Savior, the King of Creation, will one day re-unite all things (Eph. 1:9, 10).
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