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 (Sunday Between October 9 and October 15)
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

We have read parts of Psalm 105 on several recent Sundays. Today we read part of its companion Psalm 106. It is one of the few psalms where we have a clue within the Old Testament as to how the psalm was used in ancient Israel. 1 Chron 16:34-36 quotes Psalm 106:1, 47-48 in the context of the liturgical act associated with David bringing the ark into Jerusalem. Psalm 106, along with the other psalms quoted in 1 Chronicles 16, may have been used in some regular enthronement festival celebrating the kingship of the Lord. If so, this psalm celebrates that kingship by means of confession.

Verses 1-5 form the general introduction to the psalm before it focuses on the early history of Israel. The psalm is introduced with an injunction to praise the Lord and give thanks. Verses 2-3 express in positive terms the inexhaustible reasons for praise and the resultant happiness of those who observe justice and righteousness.

The positive injunctions of these verses are then quickly transformed in vv. 4-5 with a plea for the Lord to remember the psalmist when the Lord helps the people. The psalmist wishes to see, and share, the prosperity and gladness of the Lord’s people. Note that the word ‘remember’ is parallel to the word ‘help’. The Lord’s remembrance of the psalmist or his people is their salvation. The Lord acts on his memory. Remembering involves appropriate action.
Thus there is a tight connection within these introductory verses. Praise is central in vv. 1a-2 and the goodness of the Lord is demonstrated in the happiness, prosperity and joy of his people (vv. 1b, 3, 5). Only v. 4 sounds a discordant note with its plea implying that all is not as well with the psalmist and the Lord’s people as ought to be the case. More than that, this verse introduces the major motif of ‘remembering’ which will sound throughout the psalm.

The main body of the psalm (vv. 6-46) is introduced by a blunt statement picking up the discordant element in v. 4. In v. 6 the psalmist declares that both ‘we’, that is the generation of the psalmist, and ‘our ancestors’ have sinned. The cause for the plea in v. 4 is qualified by a confession of sin but at the same time the psalmist joins the present generation’s sin to that of their forebears and prepares the way for the presentation of Israel’s history which follows.

Following the general declaration of v. 6 we find a catalogue of specific incidents from Israel’s early history detailing exactly how the ancestors sinned. The first incident is the rebellion of the people at the Reed Sea (vv. 7-12). Even in Egypt the ancestors did not remember the Lord’s graciousness. The story of the ancestors’ failure to understand the Lord’s action is told in Exod 4:1-8; 14:11-12. The psalm follows the Pentateuchal tradition closely. In spite of the people’s rebellion the Lord is said to have saved them at the Reed Sea (cf. Exod 14:21-31). He saves them solely on the basis of his own name, that is, on the basis of his reputation and nature. The result is that the people praised the Lord. We note already the development of the motif of remembrance (or lack of it) and of the theme of praise, that which the present generation are called to give to the Lord.

Then follows a series of seven incidents or situations in which the people continued to sin against the Lord in the wilderness and after they had entered the promised land. These incidents, and their counterparts in the Pentateuch traditions, are as follows:

1. Craving in the wilderness, vv. 13-15; cf. Exodus 16;
2. Korah’s rebellion, vv. 16-18; cf. Numbers 16;
3. Golden calf, vv. 19-23; cf. Exodus 32;
4. Failure to enter land, vv. 24-27; cf. Numbers13 and 14;
5. Ba’al of Peor, vv. 28-31; cf. Numbers 25;
6. Waters of Meribah, vv. 32-33; cf. Exod 17:1-7; Num 20:2-13;
7. Apostasy in the land, vv. 34-39; anticipated in various places, e.g. Exod 34:11-12; Num 33:50-56.
It needs to be noted that in this list the psalmist has not followed the order of events exactly as found in the Pentateuch even though in some detail the psalmist has adhered to the tradition. It is clear that recounting the events in some supposed ‘proper’ order was not on the psalmist's mind. Rather the psalmist adds his or her own emphasis to the telling. The cause of the people’s sin is their forgetting the works of the Lord (vv. 13, 21). By ‘forget’ the psalmist does not just mean that the people had a lapse of memory. To ‘forget’ the works of the Lord is to be disobedient, to pursue a way other than that of the Lord (cf. v. 3). This is contrasted to how the Lord remembers his people and acts by saving them as noted already.

As the people continue heedlessly adding one sin to another throughout their history, and the uninterrupted catalogue of sins gives this impression, the anger of the Lord is increased. At first we are told that the Lord acted to save his people for his name’s sake (v. 8), but increasingly the Lord now acts to punish, if not destroy, his wayward people.

The Lord’s graciousness which, in vv. 8-11, was so evident in spite of the people forgetting now seems to disappear altogether. Any graciousness toward the people comes only after the intercession of Moses or Phineas (vv. 23, 30). There appears to be little mercy on the Lord’s part in these verses, just as there is no praise of the Lord by the people.

Verses 40-46 bring the recall of past events in the psalm up to the time of the writer. The whole catalogue of events and situations comes to a climax in which the anger of the Lord increases to the point where he abhors his people and lets them be conquered and taken into exile. This reference hints that the psalm was probably written during the exile. It also brings into greater clarity the discordant note sounded at the start of the psalm (vv. 4, 6). We now see what the difficulty is which the people face and we know that they realise their situation is seen as the result of their own sinful ways.

In spite of the emphasis on the Lord’s anger in the catalogue of past sins, v. 43 notes that that anger was tempered by the Lord’s compassion and when his people cried to them he delivered them. Even in the exile which they are probably experiencing at the time of writing, God has looked upon their distress and for their sake he remembers his covenant according to the abundance of his steadfast love (v. 45).

The depth of the Lord’s compassion, which tempers his anger at his people’s rebellion, is clear. That compassion is not cancelled because of the continual rebellion of his people and their apparent inability to learn from their own history. ‘Many times he delivered them’ (v. 43). The key to this persistent action of the Lord is his abundance of steadfast love. His anger is not totally annulled, but neither is his memory of his people. The Lord punishes his people for their sin, but his compassion transcends that punishment. The abundance (v. 45) and the eternal nature (v. 1) of the Lord’s steadfast love are what constitute hope for the people. It lies not in their own worthiness nor even in their willingness to confess their sins. Even while in exile, the Lord’s compassion is already hinted at in the pity their captors have for them (v. 46).

Finally, in v. 48 the people cried for full deliverance which in this case means returning to their home from exile. The promised outcome of that is that the people will give thanks to the Lord and glory in his praise. The repetition of giving thanks and praise echo the references to these activities called forth at the beginning of the psalm (vv. 1-2).

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

Verses 1-3 serves as responsive call to worship:

Praise the LORD!
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Who can utter the mighty doings of the LORD, or declare all his praise?
Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.
Other verses can be adapted to form a prayer of confession:
Remember us, O LORD, when you show favor to your people;
help us when you deliver them;
that we may see the prosperity of your chosen ones,
that we may rejoice in the gladness of your nation,
that we may glory in your heritage.

Both we and our ancestors have sinned;
we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.
                                                                        (Psa 106:4-6)
    (petitions for forgiveness may be listed)

Nevertheless, you regarded our distress when you heard our cry.
For our sake you remembered your covenant,
and showed compassion according to the abundance of your steadfast love.

Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.

Hear the word of the Lord in Jesus Christ:
‘Your sins are forgiven!’

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
And let all the people say, ‘Amen.’
Praise the LORD!
                                                                         (Psa 106:44-48)

Old Testament reading: Exodus 32:1-14

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