< June 21, 2009 >

Commentary on Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

 

Psalm 107 opens with a typical call to praise.

All those who have been redeemed from trouble and exile by the Lord are summoned and called upon to give thanks for God's steadfast love and unswerving faithfulness to the covenant and the covenant people. The key command, "O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever," is also used in Psalms 118 and 136 as a congregational response or refrain. Thus, its use in the current text gives a liturgical flavor to the whole.

This opening call to praise is followed by four stanzas, each of which explores and illustrates the sort of steadfast redeeming love that the Lord exercises when the faithful find themselves in particularly dire predicaments.

The first stanza focuses on the experience of hunger and thirst in the desert, the second on the experience of captivity and forced labor, and the third on the experience of deathly illness. The fourth stanza (verses 23-32) is the text selected by the lectionary and focuses on the perils of journeying by sea.

At first glance, this stanza about storms at sea seems to be a bit of an oddball in the collection. After all, in ancient Israel, just about everyone could relate to the possibilities of starvation, capture or exile, and illness. These were all very real and present dangers of life.

But going down to the sea was a different matter. The Israelites were not, by and large, a seafaring people.

For those who are born and raised in a maritime culture, the everyday risks and terrors of life at sea are an ever-present reality, whether we have in mind an ancient Phoenician trader, an Elizabethan sea captain, or a contemporary New England fisherman.

For the people of the Psalmist, however, the whole undertaking was totally arcane, full of random and unanticipated risks and constantly on the edge of irresistible disaster. The average Israelite probably looked upon a ship voyage in much the same way that someone with a phobia about airplanes looks upon a transatlantic flight.

So why is the sea included as one of the four arenas of risk in which the Lord's steadfast love is seen to operate? Exploration of some possible answers to this question also offers intriguing possibilities for the interpreter of the text.

First of all, the affirmation that God is both able and inclined to save God's own from dangers that cannot be fully known should have particular value in contexts where there is anxiety or uncertainty about the future. Nothing, after all, could be any more uncertain than the situation of a ship at sea.

Second, there are particular symbolic and even mythological overtones to the choice of the sea.

In the ancient world, the turbulent, churning, unpredictable sea was closely associated with the shapeless, chaotic void that preceded creation. Thus, God's demonstrated power to redeem from storm and shipwreck also reaffirms God's cosmic, creative authority. The Lord's calming of the sea in response to the cries of the mariners demonstrates that the very power that founded the universe is brought to bear to save God's people.

Similarly, the sea is powerfully associated with death and the place of the dead. Such an association is vividly expressed in Jonah 2:5-6. Just as in that text, so here also the Lord's rescuing people from the sea is tantamount to his rescuing them from death. Any Christian congregation should have ample interest in such a connection.

Finally, this segment of the Psalm offers a number of interesting textual connections that could be fruitfully explored. The alert reader will discover echoes of a number of passages, including:

  • The Priestly creation story in Genesis 1−The parallel between God's subduing the storm in this Psalm and God's subduing the primeval, chaotic waters in creation has been remarked on above, and would bear further consideration.
  • Psalm 29−Those congregations who follow the lectionary readings will have encountered this Psalm two weeks previous, and could profit by Psalm 107's concrete example of what the Lord's being "enthroned above the waters" might look like in practical terms.
  • Jonah, particularly the first two chapters−The interesting contrast of the God-fearing mariners and the fatalist Israelite Jonah make for an interesting discussion of who it is that benefits from God's steadfast love. Which one looks more like the people God saves in Psalm 107?
  • The gospel narratives of Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4 and Luke 8) and walking on the water (Matthew 14, Mark 6, and John 6). Jesus' demonstration of power over the water and the storm are clear testimonies to his divine stature. The Psalm text could help remind contemporary audiences how clearly this implication would have been seen by the gospels' original readers.
  • God's preservation of Paul from a shipwreck (Acts 27). In this instance, the faithful presence of one of God's people in the midst of many who were not brings about the extension of the saving power extolled in Psalm 107.

Regardless of the direction taken by the interpreter in connecting this Psalm with the congregation, it will be worthwhile to circle back, as the Psalmist does, to the necessity of public praise and thanksgiving when God's steadfast love is shown. Both the introductory sentences of verses 1 and 2 and the conclusion of the reading in verses 31 and 32 emphasize this point.

The experience of God's saving power is not a private matter but rather is completed by sharing its good news in public. This insistence has implications not only for the congregation's understanding of the Psalm but, more importantly, for its practices of corporate prayer and worship.