< July 28, 2013 >

Commentary on Psalm 138

 

Is it realistic to have faith?

To some folks, that description might seem far too weak. For faith, they would say, ought to be optimistic. There is indeed something to be said for a confident and hopeful trust in God; however, most of us are wary of a facile optimism that leaves no room for wrestling with the bad things that befall us.

On the other end of the spectrum, having a pessimistic faith surely proves inadequate as a desired goal for Christian experience. As pastors and teachers contemplate using Psalm 138 for proclamation and instruction this Lord’s Day, I would submit that realistic faith works quite well for the biblical witness of this psalm.

Several scholars have noted structural markers in this modified individual thanksgiving psalm,[1] be it the “inclusion” formed by the Hebrew word hesed (“steadfast love,” verses 2, 8),[2] or the chiastic framing of the “generalizing, world-inclusive, expansive stanza” (verses 4-6) by the first-person speech of verses 1-3 and 7-8.[3] For proclamation, the NRSV paragraphing of three stanzas works well, each having roughly seven verbal phrases.

I would call attention to the predominantly positive tone throughout the psalm, except for the conclusion of each stanza. To be sure, the seventh element of the first stanza, translated by the NRSV as “you increased my strength of soul” (verse 3b) sounds nice, but the Hebrew text is not so clear, perhaps literally meaning, “you made me arrogant in my soul with strength” (NRSV textual note). Such a translation fits with sentiments in other psalms (30:6-7) and with the seventh element in stanzas two and three: “but the haughty he perceives from far away” (verse 6b); and “do not forsake the work of your hand” (verse 8c).

The general tone of praise and thanksgiving is thus held in tension with the realistic faith of these elements, wherein disciples must be realistic about aspects of our uncertain world. One way of guiding worshipers through this balance is by first “majoring in the major” theme and then acknowledging the necessity of realism about the “minor” theme.

The praiseworthy character of a faithful God
Keeping in line with the structural cues, it is clear that the major message of the psalm is positive and hopeful. God is given praise with respect to three spheres: in the presence of an unseen, divine realm (verses 1-3); in relation to the visible realm of kings and nations (4-6); and in light of one’s personal encounter with enemies (7-8).

Another way to think about the content of the psalm is to illustrate God’s attributes and actions of God. God’s name and word is exalted (verse 2, 4); God hears and answers prayer (verse 3; see today’s gospel reading from Luke 11); God’s glory is evident to all (verse 5); and God’s deliverance actively achieves God’s purposes (verses 7-8a). It is important for disciples of Jesus to recognize this principal witness of the Bible, to “major in the major” by embracing the praise of God among the people of God.

Worship is the goal of human history and a (if not the) primary calling of the church. This outlook need not be confined to times of plenty, for we are reminded by Paul to “give thanks in everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). A realistic faith capitalizes on the so-called “good times” by growing deep in the knowledge of the Triune God whose kingdom rule is sure. This growth prepares believers for the “bad times” when doubts arise and it is difficult to identify, much less rejoice in, what is praiseworthy.

The prayer-worthy character of an uncertain world
On to the “minor” theme. The college where I teach does not require all students to minor in an academic discipline, but most of them choose one or more subjects as a minor focus. Similarly, while the church community makes its praise of God a central priority, it is nevertheless part of our calling to prepare disciples to face the world with realistic faith. The “strength of soul” (NRSV) spoken of in verse 3 could have the unintended result of personal pride, making us -- along with others -- the object of God’s “far away” perception of our haughtiness (verse 6).

The internal and external striving that leads to so much trouble places us ever in the need of the closing petition: “Do not forsake the work of your hands” (verse 8). For all of the praise we gladly offer God on this side of the consummation, we will continue to be “standing in the need of prayer.” The irony of this psalm’s high view of God’s person and works is its insistence that God’s “exaltation above all does not entail his distance from us” in our lowly estate (verse 6).[4] God’s word and ways (verses 4-5) ensure that justice will finally overcome all that is fallen in the world, as much as we might struggle to understand how that justice is meted out (see the OT lection from Genesis 18:20-32).

We cannot finally access the original setting of this psalm or know precisely how it was regularly employed in Israel’s worship. Psalm 138’s distinctive emphasis on kings offering praise may mean that this psalm was composed by or for a king or governor.[5] Whatever its origin, all believers can sing and pray this psalm today with a realistic faith that lives between grief and joy, between unemployment and meaningful work, between loneliness and deep friendship, between an unrealized goal and its successful achievement.


[1] It has some elements typical of Individual Thanksgiving but a less-developed account of rescue. SeeFrank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150, Hermeneia, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 528.

[2] Konrad Schaefer, Psalms, Berit Olam (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 324.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Craig C. Broyles, Psalms, NIBC (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 482.

[5] John Goldingay, Psalms: Volume 3: Psalms 90-150 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 616, 622.