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Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

Today’s psalm is appropriate when read in the context of the Easter season for two reasons. First, it is a thanksgiving psalm, where thanks is offered to God for the deliverance of the psalmist. Secondly, the references to death and rescue from death in the psalm (see vv. 3, 8, 15) are suitable in the context of the resurrection of Jesus. This association has long been noted in the Church, where the psalm has traditionally been used with the celebration of communion, especially communion on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. Reference to the ‘cup of salvation’ has encouraged this association, as a reminder of the cup of the Eucharist, referred to by Paul as ‘the cup of blessing’ (1 Cor 10:16). The Gospel writers also refer to the suffering and death of Jesus as the ‘cup’ he bore (Matt 20:22-23; 26:31; Mark 10:38-39; John 18:11).

Two sections of the psalm are set for today, vv. 1-4 and 12-19. This reflects a very ancient practice of seeing the psalm as two psalms, vv. 1-9 and 10-19, as it is treated in the ancient Greek and Latin versions of the Old Testament. However, we should note the structure and elements that suggest the unity of the psalm. Any sermon on the psalm ought to take it in its entirety.

The psalm falls into three sections: vv. 1-7; 8-14; 15-19. Each begins with praise of the Lord, rehearses the trouble or difficulty experienced by the psalmist, and ends with thanksgiving and further praise. The same refrain concludes each of the last two sections (vv. 13b-14 and vv. 17b-18). Verse 7 could also be understood in parallel with this refrain.

While there are common features in each section of the psalm, there is nevertheless movement through the psalm. The first section (vv. 1-7) begins with a strong statement of praise of the Lord, even love (cf. Ps 18:1-4). The psalmist’s plight is described in terms of a near death situation. There is no description of the actual trouble which beset the psalmist. ‘Death’ is probably used metaphorically, speaking of the time and place of distress and anguish. ‘Death’ can refer to any state of existence wherein life is depleted in some fashion (e.g. through illness, time of difficulty, social segregation, challenge to faith etc.). Ps 88:3-12 contains an extended figurative use of death language. Death in Psalm 116 refers to a place/time where there is an absence of the blessings of the Lord. The psalmist goes on to reflect on the grace and mercy of the Lord and his own deliverance after prayer. The injunction to the self in v. 7 to return to ‘rest’ is possibly a reference to an intended visit to the temple as the place of the Lord’s presence.

Verses 8-14 begin again with the praise of the Lord for deliverance, with the psalmist now walking in the land of the living and reflecting on their own faith in their time of trouble. The psalmist had almost stumbled but is now able to walk before the Lord. ‘Death’ in this section of the psalm refers to a time of challenge to faith, but the psalmist kept their faith even when there was great opposition. In vv. 12-14 the psalm returns to thanksgiving with the refrain mentioned above, which could be part of a liturgical response.

In the last section, vv. 15-19, the psalmist begins again with brief praise of the Lord for the preciousness with which he holds the death of the faithful. This same verse also mentions the psalmist’s difficulty, this time briefly in terms of a ‘death’ unspecified. The section then moves into praise with the refrain and a final public proclamation. The psalmist seeks to pay their vows through the thanksgiving sacrifice (cf. Lev 7:12-15; 22:29-30). The ‘cup of salvation’ in v. 13 does not refer to an element of the sacrifice ritual but is best understood in terms of  the psalmist’s ‘destiny’ or ‘lot’ in life (cf. Pss 11:6; 16:5; 75:8; Jer 16:6 etc.). The offering will be made in the presence of the people, as in v. 14, but the reference in v. 19 expands the idea noting the place of offering as the courts of the house of the Lord, i.e. the temple.

As we move through the psalm, the statement of the difficulty is reduced in each section, and the final statement of praise is expanded, from first a personal response, through a public response, to finally a public proclamation in the temple. Thanksgiving is seen not just as a personal thing but as having a public dimension, an ‘evangelical’ thrust to it. Personal thanks brim over into public community worship. Moreover, while the psalmist reflects on their own strength in the face of opposition (vv. 10-11), it is prayer to the Lord (v. 4) that is the key to deliverance. The words of the prayer for help are matched by those of the prayer of thanks (vv. 13b and 17b). A major part of thanksgiving is about the testimony to the hearing, graciousness, mercy, protection etc. of the Lord (vv. 1, 2, 5, 6). Prayer, in this psalm, is not compartmentalised into prayers for help, and later prayers of thanks, although there will be times when each is appropriate. Rather, prayer in its various forms, brought together as appropriate, is the constant of and the key to life.

In Jewish tradition, this psalm, as one of the group called ‘the Egyptian Hallel’ (Pss 113-118), was read in the Passover celebration. Part of the ritual was to raise and bless four cups. A ritual link is created between the celebration and the ‘cup of salvation’ in Ps 116:13. Thus, Psalm 116 became the thanksgiving of all who celebrated the Lord’s deliverance of Israel in the Exodus. When Paul calls the Eucharistic cup ‘the cup of blessing’ (1 Cor 10:16) he alludes to the Passover ritual and transforms it into the Eucharist. Psalm 116 is thus associated with the death of Jesus. The references to death in the psalm are then understood in the context of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus, thus, becomes the speaker of the psalm, but only does so as he joins his voice to all who before and after offer such a prayer to the Lord.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

The opening verses (vv. 1-2) of the psalm can be adapted for a call to worship:

Love the Lord, because the Lord has heard your voice and your supplications.
Because the Lord inclined the ear to me, therefore I will call on the Lord as long as I live.
Verse 5 also makes a suitable introduction to the declaration of forgiveness after confession:
Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful
and declares in Jesus Christ,
‘Your sins are forgiven!’
Thanks be to God.
Finally, vv. 12-17 could be used as an introduction to the great prayer of thanksgiving if the service includes communion:
What shall we return to the Lord for all God’s bounty to us?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.
O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.
You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord.

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

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