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October 10, 2010
Psalm 66:1-12

The first 12 verses of Psalm 66 ring with praise and joy. The psalm begins with the same line as Psalm 100, ‘Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth’. This psalm continues the mood and themes of the previous psalm, Psalm 65. Both are psalms of community thanksgiving.

As a psalm of thanksgiving Psalm 66 reverses the order we find in the lament psalms. In the latter, usually some complaint or difficulty is described before there is a vow or act of praise, but here there is a barrage of praise before finally in vv. 16-19 we hear how God has delivered the people. But even in the words of praise themselves there is reason given for praise. As in many places there is an allusion to the Exodus out of Egypt, vv. 5-6. That ‘event’ is symbolic of all acts of deliverance. It is the event recalled from the past when every new prayer for deliverance is uttered. It is the memory that preserves the people’s faith and allows them to dare to seek God’s goodness and deliverance again. God is seen as king over the nations (vv. 3-4), leading his people through difficult times to safety. The psalmist realises that these memories are not always easy to bear. The past, even the tradition of the Exodus, also recalls times of testing and trial, of hardship that was severe (vv. 10-12). Yet they can say in the end ‘yet you (God) have brought us out to a spacious place.’ The Hebrew is a little awkward here and implies a place of plenty.

A section omitted from the reading this week, vv. 13-15, speaks of offering sacrifices. I suppose the lectionary writers have omitted these verses because of the direct reference to sacrifice and burnt offerings etc., things foreign in many ways to our modern Christian worship. But we ought not to miss what the psalmist is saying here. They are fulfilling vows of thanksgiving made when they were praying for God’s help (vv. 13-14). What we should not miss is the psalmist’s recognition that they need to respond to what they perceive God has done for them. It is easy to pray and then if we believe in some way that God has responded to the prayer, or at least heard us, then offer a simple ‘thanks’ before moving on in life to something else. But this is not enough. The whole point about the vow of praise in a lament psalm is that in this prayerful encounter with God we enter into a relationship which is transformative. Our words are matched by a fulfillment in our lives. The act of bringing an offering as fulfillment of a vow of praise to God is to proclaim publicly the relationship to God and the thanksgiving of the worshipper. It is also to symbolise in a public way the giving of our lives in this relationship with God.

The second thing present in the part of the psalm omitted is the vow of the psalmist to proclaim publicly what the psalmist perceives God has done for them (v. 17). Again there is a public response by the psalmist to God’s response to their prayer, this time in engagement with others of faith. Both of these points make it clear that prayer is not simply a private matter between God and us confined to our private places of devotion, or even to our churches. Private prayer has connections both to community worship and the mission of God’s people in the community. In the very best sense it is both evangelical and missional. The psalmist is both pray-er and teacher (cf. Ps. 51.13).

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

Unlike Psalm 137 last week, Psalm 66 offers many opportunities for use in worship.

Verses 1-3a, 4, 5, 8-9, and 16 could all be used, in various combinations or in part as a call to worship. They could be organised into a responsive call with the leader and congregation responding to each other, a point fitting t the perspective of the psalm itself, or read by the leader.

Verses 8-12 can be adapted t make an introduction to the declaration of forgiveness:

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.
For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place,
as we hear the words of Jesus:
‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Thanks be to God
Alternatively, v. 19 can be set in the plural as another introduction to the declaration of forgiveness:
But truly God has listened;
he has given heed to the words of my prayer
he has proclaimed in Jesus Christ:
‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Thanks be to God
Old Testament reading: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

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