YEAR C: EPIPHANY 5
(Sunday between February 4 and February 10)
In Psalm 138 we are nearing the end of the Book of Psalms. Psalm 138 begins a final, short collection of psalms associated in their superscriptions with David (Psalms 138-145). This collection shows signs of belonging together as Psalm 138 has several common motifs or words with Psalm 145, the last in the collection. These include the ‘name’ of the Lord (Pss 138:2; cf. 145:1-2, 21), the ‘glory’ of the Lord (Ps. 138:5; cf. 145:11), and the ‘greatness’ of the Lord (Pss. 138:5; 145:3, 6).
Psalm 138 is a thanksgiving psalm. The first section of the psalm (vv. 1-3) opens in vv. 1-2 with a declaration enveloped by the verb ‘to give thanks’. The thanksgiving is for the Lord’s steadfast love and faithfulness, and the fact that the Lord has somehow delivered the psalmist (vv. 2-3). The circumstances that the psalmist faced before deliverance are not described here. Rather, it is the response of the psalmist to deliverance and its effects that are of concern.
The first section (vv. 1-3) focuses both on the nature of the psalmist’s thanksgiving and its first effect. It involves a sense of devotion and worship toward the place which symbolises the Lord’s presence, the temple (v. 2). In particular this thanks and praise is given ‘before the gods’. That is, it is a proclamation of the sovereignty of the psalmist’s God over all other powers that would seek to control or influence life. Thanksgiving involves such allegiance and faithfulness; a faithfulness that emulates the Lord’s faithfulness toward the one who cries in need.
The second section (vv. 4-6) speaks of the kings of the earth who will also ‘give thanks’ (translated in the NRSV as ‘praise’). The psalmist’s thanksgiving is catching. One suspects that the word these kings have heard is of the psalmist’s deliverance. In any case its hearing issues in praise and singing by those who are supposed to have power in foreign parts. In the various sections of the psalm we work our way through those parties whom one would expect to have power over the psalmist, the gods and now the kings. But the one to whom the psalmist gives thanks is sovereign over all. Part of the reason for this is both the Lord’s care for the lowly, as well as his regard for those who are ‘haughty’ or elevated in their own sight (v. 6). This last verse in the section reminds us of the statement at the heart of Psalm 8 (vv. 4-5).
The third section of the psalm (vv. 7-8) speaks of another group whom one might expect to have power over the psalmist, the enemies or those who bring trouble. In words, this time reminiscent of Psalm 23, the psalmist speaks of a sense of security in terrifying circumstances. The reason for this confidence is the eternal nature of that for which the psalmist gives thanks in v. 2, the Lord’s ‘steadfast love’.
Over these three sections the psalmist’s response to the Lord’s deliverance has involved worship and further trust in difficult times. It may even involve the widespread proclamation of the reason for thanks. The effect of the thanksgiving is that the psalmist puts aside all that would demand allegiance over against the Lord, sees even those of power acknowledging the Lord’s sovereignty, and trusts in the Lord’s continued presence and care. The psalmist finishes with a petition that the Lord might not forsake the work already accomplished. Implicit in that, however, is a vow that the psalmist might not forsake it either.
Psalm 138 is wedged between two psalms of greater reputation, Psalms 137 (‘By the rivers of Babylon …’) and Psalm 139 (‘O Lord, you have searched me and known me …’). The proclamation of thanksgiving in Psalm 138 suggests that the Lord has answered the psalmist’s desperate plea expressed in Psalm 137. As a way of exploring the ‘work of (the Lord’s) hands’ (Ps 138:8) and showing how the Lord regards the lowly, the psalmist will turn in Psalm 139 to a personal account of a faithful relationship with the Lord. In that psalm it will be seen that it is not possible for the psalmist to escape the Lord who is all present and all knowing. Given the vulnerability of human life (cf. Pss 39:4-6; 62:9; 144:4) such a presence could be oppressive but in Psalm 139, as is the case in 138, it leads only to wonder and praise (Ps 139:14).
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
A number of verses in the psalm could be used within worship. Verses 1 or 4-5 could be used in the call to worship without any modification.
With small modification, verse 3a (‘On the day we called, you answered us’) and verse 7a (‘Though we walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve us against the wrath of enemies’) could be used as a response in the prayers of intercession.
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8 (9-13)
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