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(Sunday between January 14 and January 20)
Psalm 40

Waiting for the Lord was the theme of Advent. At Christmas we celebrated the coming of the Lord in Jesus. Now in Epiphany that coming is further revealed for what it is and means. The psalm for this week, Psalm 40, explores something of the nature of the waiting we experienced in Advent. The psalmist’s waiting, which the NRSV translation describes as ‘patient’, could equally be seen as intense or over a lengthy period. Now it has come to an end and the psalm speaks of its outcome and the proper response at its conclusion.

Psalm 40 is an unusual lament psalm. Unlike most lament psalms which begin with the complaint followed by thanksgiving, Psalm 40 has thanksgiving and its outcome (vv. 1-10) preceding complaint and petition (vv. 11-17). The initial thanksgiving is for some past, unspecified lament. It serves as a foundation for a further complaint revealing that the way of faith does not just flow in one direction – lament to thanksgiving. The waiting of the psalmist, and that embodied in Advent, is not always smooth, easy or ‘patient’. It has its own ups and downs, its own reversals.

The psalmist begins by saying that the Lord has responded to their prayer with rescue (vv. 1-3). The Lord has drawn them up from a ‘roaring pit’ (so the Hebrew) and a ‘miry bog’. The imagery is common in ancient prayers. The psalmist had been near death, but their feet are now secure and a new song of praise is in their mouth. This has consequences for the community, many of whom will see and fear. This is a call to trust the Lord. Such trust and thanksgiving is a gift from the Lord.

Verses 4-5 continue to describe the blessing of the Lord on those who trust. It is for those who avoid certain behaviour, namely turning ‘toward the proud’ and following ‘what is false’. The translation of ‘false gods’ in the NRSV is not necessarily implied by the Hebrew. As the psalmist addresses the Lord directly in v. 5 they contemplate the incomparability of the Lord and the countless number of his ‘wondrous deeds and thoughts’, terms sometimes connected with the exodus and associated events (Pss 105:2, 5; 106:22; Mic 7:15). The thanksgiving of the individual is tied to that of the nation.

In vv. 6-10 the psalmist turns more fully to their own response to the gifts of deliverance and thanksgiving from the Lord. Surprisingly, they speak against the offerings of the regular sacrificial system (cf. Leviticus 1-4). Such critique is usually associated with the prophets from the eighth century BCE onward (cf. Amos 5:21-23; Isa 1:11-16; 66:3; Mic 6:6-8; cf. Ps 51:16-17). The meaning of v. 6, however, is not easily fathomed. The Hebrew of v. 6b reads literally ‘Ears you have dug for me’. The NRSV rendering of ‘but you have given me an open ear’ is one suggested interpretation. The Jewish Publication Society reads v. 6b before v. 6a and has ‘You gave me to understand that you do not desire sacrifice and meal offering’. Other suggestions have been made. Verse 7 is a little clearer and indicates that what is a delight to the Lord is to have his servant say ‘Here I am!’ and to know that it is the servant’s delight to do the will of the Lord and to have the Lord’s teaching deep inside. This does not mean that the sacrificial system is no longer necessary, but that the internal orientation of the one who comes near to the Lord is paramount.

The outworking of the one who delights to do the Lord’s will finds expression in the proclamation of good news to the great congregation (vv. 9-10). What is in the psalmist’s heart cannot be kept there (v. 10a) and they now proclaim the Lord’s ‘steadfast love’, faithfulness, salvation, and righteousness. The mention of the great congregation at the start and end of these verses emphasizes that thanksgiving can only be that if it invites others into its experience.

There is some uncertainty over how vv. 11-12 are to be read. These verses begin the petition section of the psalm. The psalm by its shape reinforces the idea that any plea for deliverance in future situations is grounded in the experience of deliverance in the past and its consequent thanksgiving and proclamation. If the general shape of the psalm with its ‘reverse’ order of thanksgiving – complaint is a reminder that there is no single movement in prayer from complaint to thanksgiving but a constant movement back and forth, then vv. 11-12 remind us that in this back and forth movement each element builds upon the other.

In the petition the psalmist seeks from the Lord the very things they have proclaimed in the great congregation – ‘steadfast love’ and faithfulness. They are beset by evils without and iniquity within. It is instructive that the one who has just demonstrated true thanksgiving and what a truly acceptable offering to the Lord is, may still find themselves beset by iniquities, indeed overwhelmed by them. In this psalm, both external evils and internal iniquities are beyond counting. The psalmist cannot help themselves. But we should remember that they have also said that the Lord’s ‘wondrous deeds and thoughts’ are likewise innumerable (v. 5) and in vv. 1b-3a it was the Lord who was the one to save. The foundation and hope for this new petition lies in the earlier thanksgiving.

The psalmist has asked that those who seek their life and look for advantage over them may themselves be shamed by the Lord (vv. 13-14). The psalm ends with a general plea for ‘all who seek’ the Lord to rejoice and praise the Lord (v. 16). There is an implicit contrast here through the use of the same verb ‘to seek’ between those who seek the psalmist’s life and those who seek the Lord. The psalmist prays that the latter may become witnesses to the Lord’s greatness (v. 16). Finally, the psalmist reminds us that this hope for deliverance depends not on their own status or power, for they are lowly and needy among the people. The psalmist picks up the language of Pss 9:18 and 10:2, 9 seeing themselves among the needy. Even so, the Lord still has concern for them, as for all the poor and needy. So the psalmist asks for the Lord’s help to come soon.

In Psalm 40, an individual psalm of thanksgiving and complaint, the psalmist becomes a model for all. In their prayer, the psalmist takes us beyond the usual pattern of laments deeper into the nature of thanksgiving and its connection to petition and plea. The depth of the relationship with the Lord that the psalmist seeks to convey is embodied in the language they use. The psalm is full of words relating to the body and its activity (‘feet’, v. 2; ‘steps’, v. 2; ‘mouth’, v. 3; ‘ear’, v. 6; ‘heart’, vv. 8, 11; ‘lips’, v. 9; ‘see’, v. 12; ‘hair’, v. 12; ‘life’, v. 14). When the psalmist utters the words in v. 7, ‘Here I am’ (lit.: ‘Here, I have come!’) and uses the emphatic pronoun ‘I’ in v. 17, they stand before the Lord totally vulnerable. Giving all one’s life to the Lord is the essential point of the psalm. The delight of the one who is blessed (Ps 40:4) is to do the will of the Lord and have the Lord’s teaching in their heart. Such was the witness of the anonymous servant in Isaiah 49.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Verse 1 of the psalm could be used as a call to worship for the service.

Verse 11 (‘Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.’) can be used as a refrain for the congregation through the prayer of confession or as a congregational response at the end of the prayer.

Finally, vv. 4a and 16 can be adapted for the blessing at the end of the service:

Blessed are those who make the LORD their trust;
may all who seek you, O Lord, rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation say continually, "Great is the LORD!"
and the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
be with you now and forever.
Old Testament reading: Isaiah 49:1-7

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