YEAR B: EPIPHANY 7
(Sunday between February 18 and February 24)
Psalm 41 is the last psalm in Book I of the Psalms. It has elements of both lament associated with illness (vv. 4-10) and thanksgiving (vv. 1-3, 11-12) with Yahweh having answered the call for help. How we read the psalm depends on how the tenses are interpreted and the timing of the illness in relation to the statements of confidence. The psalm also provides a fitting conclusion to the Book I of the Psalms beginning with a beatitude ‘happy are those’ similar to what is found in Pss 1:1 and 2:12.
The psalmist begins by pronouncing blessed the ‘one who considers’ the poor (v. 1). But what does it mean to ‘consider’ the poor? First, the word ‘poor’ can mean materially poor, or lowly, weak, and helpless. In light of later references to illness, that might also be implied. Secondly, the verb ‘to consider’ can mean ‘to make wise, to act prudently, prosper, or have success’. Also in the Hebrew, the preposition ‘to, toward’ (lit.: ‘to give consideration toward the poor’), can mean ‘to give careful attention to, to study’. It can also imply action as well as thought. It is likely that both careful study and responsive action are embraced by the words. Blessed is the one who both cares for the poor through compassionate action and learns from the situation. The Jewish Targum of Psalm 41 conveys this dual sense with its expansion of the verse: ‘who considers the affairs of the poor to have compassion on him’.
There is some ambiguity in vv. 1b-3. Who is the one whom Yahweh delivers, protects and sustains? Is it the ‘poor’ or ill, or the one who ‘considers’ them? But also we know Yahweh does these things so do vv. 1b-3 describe Yahweh’s own care for the poor and is the psalmist to consider this, or does the psalm describe the deliverance of the psalmist who does the considering. The reference to enemies in v. 2b could fit this situation. But these need not be mutually exclusive readings. The psalmist does consider the poor whom Yahweh cares for and they reflect on their own situation and Yahweh’s care for them, especially in times when they are ‘poor’ even in the sense of ill. At the same time the psalmist is called to exercise such care for others as Yahweh does, who even in v. 3b acts as nurse/physician.
The psalmist knows that when evil besets them Yahweh will deliver (v. 1). The vocabulary of sustaining and preserving is present in both this section of confidence in Yahweh (vv. 2-3a) and at the end of the psalm (v. 12). The strong language of illness in v. 3 suggests that what the psalmist learns from observing the one who is ill or weak is transferable to other situations. Divine support on the sickbed translates into support in any situation where enemies confront him.
The psalmist’s reflection more closely to his own prayer in. His reflection on ‘the poor’ leads into personal petition (vv. 4-10, 11-12). In more general terms, reflection connects to and shapes the expression of faith. Both God’s word in torah and other faithful reflection influence the prayer life of the faithful one.
In vv. 4-10 the psalmist details their own complaint. Verses 4 and 10 with an identical statement form an inclusio seeking Yahweh’s graciousness. However, there is also signal movement within the lament. In v. 4, the psalmist starts with the personal pronoun, ‘As for me’, but after the petition gives the reason for the petition as ‘for I have sinned against you.’ In v. 10, they begin to Yahweh, ‘But you’, then after the petition outline what might arise from Yahweh’s intervention. In these two verses the psalmist details both their own responsibility and that of Yahweh. The frame for the lament functions as the motivation for Yahweh’s action.
The language of healing (v. 4) and lying down (v. 8) suggests that the problem may be one of illness, thus picking up the introduction in vv. 1-3. However, in seeking healing he states he has sinned against Yahweh (v. 4). This recalls the sense of sin as the cause of troubles in earlier psalms (cf. Pss 32:5; 38:3, 18; 39:1, 11). The modern interpreter would have problems with this connection. However, this issue is not explored in any detail in this psalm. What is of most concern is the social dimension of this predicament, the rejection of others and what the enemies and friends who oppose the psalmist have to say and do, and that is still a significant issue. It is implied in the psalm that there is competition over whose word will have efficacy, the psalmist’s with their trust in Yahweh or that of the opponents. The latter wait for the psalmist’s death and the passing of his name.
Finally, in v. 10 the psalmist calls again on Yahweh in words echoing v. 4. They seek Yahweh’s graciousness in raising them up so they might repay those who oppose them. What is sought is not personal revenge but divine justice and vindication (cf. Ps 31:23). The irony is heightened when the psalmist describes their friend as one they trusted and with whom they ate. This description only serves to underline the theme of trust in Yahweh.
The question remains whether the illness the psalmist speaks of in vv. 4-10 is something in the past, and its description here simply a reiteration of the basis for thanksgiving, or whether it is truly the reason for a present lament. English versions often conclude the direct quotation at the end of v. 4, suggesting vv. 5-10 could be a present statement. However, ambiguity in the Hebrew grammar mean the argument can go either way.
In vv. 11-12, the psalmist expresses confidence in Yahweh and the assurance of vindication through their own integrity (a legal term indicating innocence of the charge brought) and through the presence of Yahweh. As noted above this could be either a statement of past vindication or one of confidence almost in defiance of present difficulties. In either case, the psalmist knows Yahweh delights in them and has supported them and made them stand in the divine presence. This is the ultimate statement of assurance and ‘victory’.
The psalm ends in v. 13 with a doxology similar to those in Pss 72:18-19; 89:52; and 106:48. These doxologies respectively conclude Books I through IV within the Psalter.
Psalm 41 may have begun life as a lament in time of illness. Its significance now lies beyond that narrow setting. It has been taken up into the prayers of Israel as instruction in trust in Yahweh, even in the most difficult times when all including friends stand in opposition. The end of Book I of the Psalms, in anticipation of the end of the whole book itself, speaks of the psalmist being taken into the presence of Yahweh forever. Nothing else can one hope for, other than a resounding response of ‘Blessed be Yahweh’, from the entire congregation. This may have been enacted in the temple liturgy but in this collection of prayers its meaning goes beyond those physical confines.
Old Testament reading: Isaiah 43:18-25
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