YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday between July 24 and July 30)
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Psalm 105 is one of a handful of psalms which recount part of the history of Israel (see also Pss 78, 106, 135, 136). It is also one of the psalms that ends with the word hallelujah, ‘praise the Lord’ (cf. Ps 106 etc.).
After a general introduction calling people to give thanks to the Lord (vv. 1-4) they are then called on to ‘remember’ (v. 5). This is one of the major themes of the psalm. Memory and remembrance are the key to this recounting of Israel’s early history. But it is memory with a purpose, and the memory that the psalmist recounts is tailored to that purpose.
The central themes of Psalm 105 are set out in vv. 7-11. They have to do with the faithfulness of God. The Lord is described as sovereign over all the earth (v. 7). The everlasting nature of the covenant the Lord made with Abraham is stressed (vv. 8-10), and the gift of the land of Canaan as Israel’s ‘portion for an inheritance’ is the focus in v. 11. Frequent repetition of significant words throughout the psalm such as ‘land(s)’ (10 times), ‘covenant’ and its synonyms (e.g. ‘word’, ‘promise’) (8 times) and of the names of the patriarchs (8 times), underlines these themes. In setting them out the psalmist stresses the Lord’s remembrance of the covenant in v. 8 (Hebrew: ‘he remembered’; NRSV: ‘he is mindful’) and v. 42. The Lord’s memory governs all that is recounted in the psalm, and by implication, everything involved in the ongoing relationship between the Lord and the people.
The use of words and phrases like ‘forever’, ‘for a thousand generations’ and ‘everlasting’ in these verses stresses the eternal nature of the Lord’s commitment. The relationship is further characterised by two words, ‘servant’ and ‘chosen’, used to describe the Lord’s people throughout both Psalms 105 and 106. These terms are applied to the likes of Abraham and Moses of old (Pss 105:6, 25-26, 42; 106:23) but also to speak of later generations (Ps 105:43) and those yet to come (Ps 106:5). A vital part of this relationship is the gift of the land of Canaan, reference to which surrounds the recital of past events (Ps 105:11, 44). The relationship between the Lord and his people is not simply for mutual benefit. It has universal implications as vv. 1 and 7 imply.
The telling of Israel’s early history, involving the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the captivity in Egypt, Moses and the Exodus, then follows in the section beyond our reading today (vv. 12-44). It is cast in a particular way. It stresses the Lord’s protection of the people at each stage in their journey (see e.g. vv. 14, 17, 24, 26, 37, 40-41). All of this is the outworking of the memory of the Lord (v. 42). The call then for the people to remember (v. 5) is thus a call for faithfulness to the Lord who is their model of one who remembers.
The passage on Joseph, vv. 16-22, although beyond today’s reading, is central to the historical recital. Joseph’s experience of captivity, release and being set to rule over a foreign king’s possessions, anticipates the experience of Israel recited in the psalm overall. Two things in this episode are important for understanding the whole psalm. As in the Joseph story in Genesis 37-50 the readers of the psalm are told that the Lord is in charge of this piece of history. The Lord sends Joseph to Egypt ahead of Israel to preserve and bless the people (Ps 105:24; cf. Gen 45:7; 50:20). Israel is to understand that behind the events recited in this psalm as well as in its application to later generations, lays the hand of the Lord who does not forget. Moreover, just as with Joseph, the time of hardship is one in which the word of the Lord refines (NRSV: ‘tests’) his people.
The wisdom to be gained from this recital is that the Lord provides for the people even in the most difficult times. They will prosper with the Lord even in captivity (v. 24) when their oppressors have the upper hand. In vv. 26-36 details of the way the Lord provided in Egypt are given, namely in the mission of Moses and Aaron and the story of the plagues. This account differs in some detail from those in Exodus 7-12 and Ps 78:44-51. For example, the plague of darkness comes first in Ps 105:28 but second last in Exod 10:21-29 and is missing entirely from Psalm 78. It is still arguable, however, whether Psalm 105 is using a different plague tradition to Exodus or they depend on oral variants of a general tradition which has not yet become fixed. The point made is that it is the memory of the Lord which allows the people to prosper.
The recital of past events ends in v. 44 with the gift of the lands of the nations and the wealth of the peoples. It is important to note that the emphasis in Psalm 105 is precisely on the promise of land and not of descendants as is the case in Genesis. This suggests that for the intended readers of the psalm, land is the crucial issue as was certainly the case in the exile and after. The shift in naming from ‘the land of Canaan’ in v. 11 to the plural, less specific ‘lands of the nations’ in v. 44 suggests that the intended audience are those who need to understand the message of the psalm in a wider, more universal context. This recital of ancient events offers hope for them. Their faithful God will provide. But at the same time there is an openness at the end of the psalm. The purpose of the gift of land is so that his people might keep the Lord’s statutes (v. 45). Obedience to the God who has remained faithful to promises made is part of the wisdom to be gained from the recital of past events. Faithful, divine memory calls for the corresponding quality in God’s people (cf. Ps 103:17-18).
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
Verses 1-6 can be used as a call to worship, possibly with some responses by the congregation:
O give thanks to the LORD, call on his name,Verses 7-10 could also be used as part of the prayer of adoration.
make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.
Seek the LORD and his strength;
seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he uttered,
O offspring of his servant Abraham,
children of Jacob, his chosen ones.
Old Testament reading: Genesis 29:15-28
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