< September 21, 2014 >

Commentary on Psalm 145:1-8

 

Psalm 145 occurs just before the five-psalm doxological close to the book of Psalms (Psalms 146-150) and is the last in a group of Psalms (Psalms 139-145) in Book Five that are identified in their superscriptions as psalms “of David.”

Some scholars suggest that the Psalter ended with Psalm 145 at some point in its transmission history and that Psalms 145-150 were added as a concluding expression of the words of Psalm 145:21: “My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”

Psalm 145 is classified as an individual hymn of praise (see Psalms 23, 87, 139); others maintain that it is a wisdom psalm, based mainly on its acrostic structure. In Psalm 145, each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, verse one begins with aleph, verse 2 with beyt, and so forth. The acrostic poem was a common “wisdom” form in ancient Israel (see, for instance, Psalms 34, 111, 112, 145, the book of Lamentations). They were the works of highly skilled literary artists and functioned in ancient Israelite literature in a number of ways.

Acrostics were most likely memory devices to aid in private and public -- individual and corporate -- recitation; literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject, from aleph to tav, from “A” to “Z.” Adele Berlin says this about Psalm 145, another alphabetic acrostic: “The poet praises God with everything from A to Z: his praise is all-inclusive. More than that, the entire alphabet, the source of all words, is marshaled in praise of God. One cannot actually use all of the words in a language, but by using the alphabet one uses all potential words.”

Psalm 145 is attributed, in its superscription, to David, the iconic king of ancient Israel. Within its twenty-one-verse acrostic structure, David leads the Israelites and all of creation in words of praise and thanksgiving to God as king. For those who accept that Psalter has a story-line and is not just a haphazard collection of songs of ancient Israel, Book 5, in which Psalm 145 occurs, tells the story of the Israelites in the postexilic period. They have been allowed to return from captivity in Babylon (Psalm 107); they are rebuilding their worship practices (Psalms 113-118; 119; 120-134); and they are searching for a source of identity as part of the vast Persian Empire in which they find themselves.

They have returned to their land; they have rebuilt their temple and resumed many of their worship practices; but they cannot have a king leading them. David appears prominently in Book Five (in psalmic superscriptions) and, in Psalm 145, leads the people in celebration of God, not a human like himself, as king over Israel. A human king to establish justice and peace, to create a center of identity, was not possible, but God as king could be just that.

Psalm 145 opens with celebratory words of David, declaring, “I will exalt you, my God the king and I will bless your name for all time” (my translation). While almost every English translation of verse 1 renders the first portion as “ … my God and king,” the Hebrew is clearly, “my God the king,” a significant statement placed on the lips of king David. God is not just king; God is the king.

David continues with the words, “I will bless your name.” “Name” was an important concept in the ancient Near East. Names reflected the natures and characters of the person who bore them and were conceptually equal to the essence of ones being. The name “Jacob” means “he usurps,’ because he grabs Esau’s heel at the birth, attempting to be the first-born twin (Genesis 25:26). He indeed usurps Esau later in life when he coerces Esau into selling to him his birthright and when he tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing. After wrestling at the Jabbok, God changes Jacob’s name to “Israel,” which means “he has struggled with God” (Genesis 32:28).

During Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush in Exodus 3, Moses replies to God’s command to return to Egypt with a seemingly simple request: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I tell them?” (3:13). Moses asks for God’s name in order to fully understand and then convey to the Israelites who this God was. In Exodus 20, God commanded the Israelites that they not “make wrongful use of” God’s name. And the book of Deuteronomy tells us that God’s name will dwell in the place of God’s choosing in the promised land (Deut 12:5; 14:23-24; 16:2).

In verses 3-8, the psalm singer enumerates a number of attributes of God. The Lord is great (verses 3, 6); good (verses 7, 9); and compassionate (verses 8 (merciful in NRSV), 9). Other words, such as “righteousness” (verse 7); “steadfast love” (hesed) (verse 8); and “works” (verses 4, 5) occur repeatedly in the verses.

The psalmist not only describes the attributes of God, but states a firm intention to proclaim them to others. In verse 4, “one generation to another” will “laud (make known)” God’s “mighty acts.” In verse 5, the psalm singer says, “I will meditate” on God’s majesty and works. The generations and the psalmist will “proclaim” and “declare” in verse 6; and they will “celebrate” and “sing aloud” in verse 7. The psalm singer and the generations will not only enunciate a description of their God; they will eagerly and joyously tell it to others.

The message of Psalm 145, placed on the lips of king David, is that the Lord is king over all generations of the Israelites and over all peoples. For ancient Israel, the words of Psalm 145 spoke powerfully and decisively a new world into being.

The message for the church today is simple and yet complex. In the midst of the turmoil and uncertainty in the world, praising God as sovereign is the solution. But what does that mean? We can speak the words, but how do we put them into action? God is indeed sovereign, but we must be the hands and feet of God in God’s world -- what some call a “communitization” of kingship.

In the ancient Near East, the role of the king was to provide a safe place of habitation for humanity. That safety included dwelling places, farm land, drinking water, abundant harvests, increase of animals, and fertility within the family (see Psalms 72 and 107). In our twenty-first-century world, many people do not have the basic elements of safe habitation -- whether as a result of poverty, societal violence, disease, or outright neglect. We must, in God’s name, provide for all what the kingship of God promises.