Commentary on Psalm 138
Psalm 138 is a song of thanksgiving in individual style. The opening line, “I give you thanks” (verse 1a) is a common feature of thanksgiving songs. Such songs perhaps served as liturgies for the offering of well-being (Leviticus 7:11-18), the words of the psalm accompanying the thanksgiving sacrifice. The word for the offering in Hebrew is todah, the same term that may more generally mean “thanksgiving” and the verbal expression “I give thanks” here comes from the same Hebrew root. The sacrifice of well-being was a free-will offering Israelites made in response to God’s gift of healing from illness or restoration of any sort. Jeremiah 33:10-11 depicts such an offering after the lord restored the fortunes of Judah from the devastating circumstances of Babylonian captivity. Whether or not Psalm 138 was used alongside a sacrifice of this type, it contains beautiful words of thanksgiving for a prayer of gratitude.
“With my whole heart” is a Deuteronomic expression that communicates a whole-hearted desire to give thanks (see 1 Kings 8:23; Jeremiah 3:10; 24:7). The phrase is a first-person version of the words “with all your heart” in the Shema’s injunction to love God completely (Deuteronomy 6:5). The reference to the temple in verse 2 confirms a possible setting in worship like that described above, namely, for one who came to give an offering after God restored her from sickness or trouble.
Despite the appropriateness of Psalm 138 for the cultic act of making a thanksgiving offering, a number of elements of the psalm suggest the psalm served as “a general song of praise by the restored community in the postexilic period” rather than just the song of an individual.1 For example, the first section of the psalm (verses 1-3) gives very general reasons for thanksgiving and does not indicate a situation of sickness or other specific trouble. Also, rather than giving details of God’s restoration, it simply names God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” (verse 2) which are popular descriptions of divine character (see Exodus 34:6) and recalls only that “On the day I called, you answered me” (verse 3).
The psalm identifies perhaps its most important setting in verse 1b: “before the gods I sing your praise.” The expression, “before the gods” (verse 1b) reflects the task of the community of faith to witness to God’s power and goodness in a world in which many “gods” vie for attention. Although these words may not seem applicable for modern believers who have adopted a narrow understanding of monotheism, “before the gods” is a powerful reminder that God is the only true source of healing and refuge. Praise in the Old Testament always has a positive, straightforward dimension in which the worshipper declares his or her adoration of God (“I sing your praise”). It also carries, however, a pejorative element, a denunciation of the power of “the gods” which modern worshippers do well to recognize in all the forces that claim their loyalty.
Verses 4-6 focus on the nations’ recognition of the LORD with assurance that they will acknowledge the ways of the LORD and give praise (verses 4-5). Verse 6 identifies the primary reason for this praise: the LORD’s character is worthy of it because the LORD “regards the lowly.” This fundamental statement of God’s character is common in the psalms. Although God is powerful, it is the particular use of divine might that defines the LORD. Namely, the LORD exercises power to bring justice and equity (see Psalm 97:2b, “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne”). Psalm 82 presents this concern for justice as the primary characteristic of divinity, and here Psalm 138:4-6 identifies it as the reason the “kings of the earth” will ultimately acknowledge the LORD’s sovereignty.
Verses 7-8 return to explicitly individual language as the psalm concludes with thanksgiving for deliverance from trouble similar to that in other thanksgiving songs (see Psalm 30). The final line, however, speaks again of a community of faith. “The work of your hands” describes God’s people in other passages (verse 8; see Isaiah 60:21; 64:8). Thus, the psalm as a whole testifies to God’s deliverance as individuals experience it as part of the redeemed community. It points to the larger purpose of salvation, namely to reveal to the “nations” the goodness of God and to testify to the community’s reliance on God and confidence that God’s salvation will come to completion.2
The preacher does well to highlight the nature of thanksgiving and to note the thanksgiving offering that stands in the background of this psalm. Perhaps most important to note, however, is that this psalm has potential to guide worshippers to the true meaning and purpose of thanksgiving. It reminds us that our salvation, for which we give thanks, is not for us alone. It is also evidence of the reign of God and the coming of God’s kingdom. With that recognition, Psalm 138 gives us language to proclaim the truth of God’s kingdom to the powers of this world that claim falsely to hold the keys to life.
- James Luther Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 424.
- Mays, Psalms, p. 425.
February 6, 2022