Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year B)

Psalm 107:1 will always have a very special place in my heart.

March 22, 2009

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Commentary on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Psalm 107:1 will always have a very special place in my heart.

Some years ago, I learned to sing it in Hebrew, and now I teach students in my Old Testament class to do so too. The song captures the simple joy with which the psalm echoes. My reflections yield several suggested Lenten lessons that surface from the text.

To begin, this text carries several intriguing points:

  • It involves a community. An anonymous speaker uses plural verbs to address a group of worshipers within earshot. I imagine a happy crowd scene – people from all walks of life (and from everywhere, too; cf. verse 3) gathered at the temple or some other site with the speaker in front leading it.
  • A backward perspective dominates. The whole psalm walks the crowd through samples of hairy experiences some of them probably had in the past. With each new sample, I picture a segment of the crowd nodding knowingly, as if to say, “Yep, that’s exactly how terrible it was!”
  • Structurally, calls to give thanks (verses 1, 21-22) bracket stories of rescue (vv. 2-3, 17-20). The text clearly links the stories and the calls. The stories mark the reasons for the people to give thanks. They also fuel the people’s passion to do so – without the stories there’d be no reason to thank anyone. The joy of the thanks matches the horrors of the stories.
  • This text is about God, not the worshipers. Verses 1 and 2 each mention “the LORD,” as do verses 19 and 21. They signal that the gathering and the story-telling are in his honor. And it gives specifics about him: he is “good” (tob), shows ever-available “steadfast love” (hesed; verse 1), hears cries of “Help!” (verse 19a), and is above all a rescuer of people in deep trouble (verse 19b).

An unexpected little word, the Hebrew proposition min (“from”), keeps popping up and plays a key role. In most places it means “from” as in “away or separate from” (verses 2, 3 [five times], 19, 20), but once it means “source of” (verse 17). The former sense pictures God’s “rescue” as actual separation from troubles and real relief rather than simply endurance. The latter diagnoses the source of the trouble that demanded rescue. Yikes! How Dumb! Our text singles out one particular story (verses 17-18), one appropriate for Lent, in three short scenes. Scene 1 looks back on people horribly shaking their fists at that “good” and “ever faithful” God, and Scene 2 on a persistent, offensive lifestyle of sin.

Scene 3 plays out the results of that sin and rebellion: those “sources” (min) birth “fools” (awilim). The word describes people blind and deaf to their own clueless, ridiculous behavior (Jeremiah 4:22; Hosea 9:7; Proverbs 29:9). They proudly think themselves as “with-it” – wise, sane, progressive, and sophisticated.

But the psalmist paints them as miserable, afflicted, too sick to eat, and nearing death. This is deadly serious business. Their very life is at stake. They’re starving to death; they’re literally “at death’s door” (verse 18).

Here is where I begin to squirm, as if watching an old video of “the dumbest thing I ever did.” Sinful scenes from my own past come eerily to mind. On Sundays, I see myself piously mouthing “I believe in God the Father Almighty…,” then wandering far from God the rest of the week. The psalm drives me to confess, “Yes, that’s me, too.”

I’m a theologian by profession. Of all people, I know what God’s about! But I’m just another pious “fool” regularly cruising a spiritual Titanic, a “ship of fools.” That’s the first Lenten lesson the psalmist wants me to see: from God’s perspective, I’m just plain stupid.

One Smart Move! But all is not lost! Fool that I am, I am never too far gone to make one “smart move” – to cry out to God for rescue. That’s what the psalmist reports (verse 19), and that’s the text’s second Lenten lesson: even fools have enough sense to dial the Divine 911 to escape trouble. It’s the smartest move we can ever make.

The Divine 911. Above I observed that this text is about God. Here I observe that the sad story of rebellious fools has a Scene 4 – a very happy ending. A distress cry to God yielded a rescue “from” (min) this self-induced trouble.

I am struck by the picture of God behind this scene. It recalls the baby monitor – a kind of walkie-talkie – my friends have. Though elsewhere in the house, the small radio broadcasts any obvious noises their son makes in his crib, like when he cries awaking from a nap. The psalmist pictures God’s ears as constantly tuned to the noises we make. He instantly hears our pained cries for help and responds with rescue.

Perhaps that is no surprise. After all, he is a “good” God (verse 1a) – kind, patient, thoughtful, tender-hearted, and eager to help. At no time is his “steadfast love” (hesed) offline or down. The third Lenten lesson is that, when trouble swamps us, God stands ready to deliver us.

So, with the psalmist’s call (verses 1, 22), we say, “Thanks be to God for his steadfast love!”