YEAR A: EASTER 6
Psalm 66 is another psalm of thanksgiving. Its association with the Easter season is presumably because of v. 9, where the Lord God is praised as one ‘who has kept us among the living’.
The psalm is divided into three sections: an introductory invocation (vv. 1-7); a national thanksgiving (vv. 8-12); and, finally, a personal thanksgiving (vv. 13-20). The last two sections are included in today’s reading but to do the psalm justice it should be read and preached in its entirety. Verses 1-7 also can be useful for prayers in worship. In this introduction there is an invocation to the congregation that itself falls into two parts. In vv. 1-4 the liturgist or choir calls on the people to praise God in different ways: shouting, speaking, acknowledging and worshipping, and in general making a ‘joyful noise’. Such praise is exuberant, and extravagant. It is meant to match the nature of the one who is praised.
The God who is praised is the God of all the earth (vv. 1, 4). The call to praise is not only to those who proclaim themselves as the people of God, but to all creatures. It could even be seen to go beyond just creatures to more abstract entities. The psalm imagines a God with enemies who will come cringing (v. 3b). The image is not so much one of utter demoralisation of those who have opposed God, even to the point of constant humiliation. Rather, it speaks of those who have opposed God recognising the ‘awesome deeds’ of God, whose name is ‘glorious’. The enemies may not be even peoples or creatures. We could think of them as such things as ignorance, selfishness, injustice and oppression. These too will bow to God’s ‘name’. There is an eschatological aspect to this call. Those who respond already embody a praise that will stretch out far beyond just them, and a victory over all that is counter to the one who is about to be described.
Continuing the call to all the earth, the liturgist or choir calls upon all to see what God has done (vv. 5-7). This is the second part of the invocation but also the first part of the reason for praise. All psalms of praise consist of these two parts – a call to praise and a reason for praise. There is no praise of God that is not ‘reasonable’ in the sense of being justified and responsive. The particular episode which all are called to ‘see’, i.e. contemplate, is the exodus as made clear by references to the sea becoming dry land, and the people passing through the river on foot (v. 6), possibly references to the crossing of both the Reed Sea and the Jordan River as the people of Israel made their way from Egypt, the land of captivity, to the promised land. Israel’s own past history bears witness to the power and glory of God. There is a sense here too that God’s activity with Israel is for the benefit of the nations (v. 7). God’s strength in delivering his people is part of his watch over all nations, a way of holding back the rebellious.
The thanksgiving in vv. 8-12 is for all the people. It affirms Israel as chosen by God but acknowledges the painful experiences through which Israel’s faith was refined. The language of these verses reflects the notion of the suffering people found in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), and embodied in the suffering servant whose story we followed in Holy Week. In v. 11 the psalm implies that this God is as tough on his own people as he is on his enemies, acting to besiege and distress them. The verse echoes many of Israel’s experiences from the harshness of the wilderness wanderings to the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. In light of the reference to God ‘testing’ his people in v. 10a, we see that such hardship is part of a journey toward what is described in the NRSV as ‘a spacious place’ (following the LXX and other witnesses) or as the Hebrew says ‘to a saturation’, i.e. a place of abundance. This is a God who takes his people through hard times to a place where his great provision is known. This journey is encapsulated in the story of the exodus itself. It is echoed again in the events of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.
In vv. 13-20 an individual makes his or her own testimony preparing to pay a vow of thanksgiving for deliverance. The sacrifices suggest the person is wealthy and perhaps influential (vv. 13-15), but one who has experienced troubles (v. 14). The person calls the people to hear their testimony, but then provides only a vague account of the circumstances (vv. 17-19). The emphasis thus remains on God, to whom the speaker attributes their survival. The psalmist’s release from troubles is proof enough for them that God did hear. This language of ‘hearing’, however, stands for much more – the belief that God responds in some way. With this understanding, the speaker now echoes the words of the general thanksgiving (v. 8) as they in turn bless God and give thanks for divine mercy.
A number of developments take place in this psalm worthy of note in our Easter celebration. The call to all the earth to praise God at the start of the psalm is narrowed to a national celebration, then to the thanksgiving of a single person in vv. 13-20. There is a point of continuity within this range as the final blessing of God by the individual echoes the blessing the nation is called to give to God. We could also view this psalm in reverse, understanding that the praise and thanks of the individual is a particular example of what is described in universal terms at the start. This picks up the eschatological aspect mentioned earlier. What is present and real for the individual is but a particular example of what is called forth on a cosmic scale – the praise of an extravagant God. But also we see that what has been experienced nationally in vv. 8-12, namely the idea that what God provides for the people who go through hard times, is not just sufficient for them but is fullness itself, to the point of satiety. Maybe this is the point of describing the person in vv. 13-20 as rich enough to offer extravagant offerings. It is not to impress that only those with the personal means to be extravagant can praise God appropriately, but to say that whatever our means, we need to be as extravagant as we can in our praise, just as the nations are called to such praise in vv. 1-4. Is the God who ‘makes our cup overflow’ (Ps 23:5) worth anything less than all we can give on our part?
In this Easter period, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the ‘first born from the dead’. We see in that the extravagance of God’s gift of new life. The particular resurrection of Jesus is a sign and the beginning of the new life offered to all creation. The praise we offer as Jesus’ disciples and as people of God is a foretaste of the praise all creation will offer God. It should be as exuberant and extravagant as we can make it for God does extravagant things to bring the creation and people to life.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
Verses 1-5, in full or in part, make a suitable call to worship even without any modification.
Verses 8-12 could be used as the declaration of forgiveness either read by the leader or responsively between leader and congregation. It could be concluded with the words:
…..yet you have brought us out to a spacious place,Finally, verses 16-20 with some slight adaptation, could also be used in the declaration of forgiveness as follows:
you have proclaimed through Jesus Christ our Lord,
‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for you.
You cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with your tongue.
If you had cherished iniquity in your heart, the Lord would not have listened.
But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of your prayer.
Hear the words of our Lord Jesus Christ:
‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Blessed be God, because he has not rejected our prayer
or removed his steadfast love from us.
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