Commentary on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
The appointed psalm comprises two sections of the lengthy song of thanksgiving, Psalm 107. A quick overview of the entire psalm will be helpful to understanding this portion. (For once I do NOT suggest doing the whole psalm.)
The entire psalm consists of an introduction followed by six stanzas. The first four of these stanzas follow a common structure.
The introduction is a standard call to praise—“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.” But then a certain type of person—“the redeemed” that God has “redeemed from trouble”— is called to praise. And they are described as those:
He gathered in from the lands,
From the east and from the west,
From the north and from the south (verse 3)
Then follow the four formulaic stanzas, which share a common structure:
Stanza 1 Those gathered from desert wastes
Stanza 2 Those gathered from darkness, gloom, and prison
Stanza 3 Those gathered from sin, illness, and hunger
Stanza 4 Those gathered from the sea
Here is a brief look at the common pattern that structures these four stanzas:
- “Some were….” [a dire “trouble” is named]
- The trouble is described
- “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble”
- “And he saved them from their distress”
- The rescue is described
- “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind”
- A closing word of praise
Each of the groups of people who are in trouble and then redeemed from their trouble in these stanzas can be likened to a group of pilgrims, rescued and gathered in by the Lord to worship and praise in Jerusalem. In the first stanza, one thinks of the Exodus and those who were wandering in desert wastes. In the second stanza, one thinks of the Exile and those who were caught in the Exile, in the gloom of forced labor and bondage. Skipping ahead to the fourth stanza, one thinks of those caught in storms at sea—especially one thinks of Jonah and the righteous gentiles who were caught with him in the storm.
The foolish pilgrims: “Some of you were sick because you’d lived a bad life”
In the third stanza—which is the appointed psalm text for this Sunday—we immediately run into a major translation problem. The NRSV reads, “Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction.” The NIV, by contrast, reads, “Some became fools through their rebellious ways, and suffered affliction because of their iniquities.”
The Hebrew word in question—‘ewilim—simply means “fools.” The NIV offers the straightforward translation. NRSV “corrects” to the text—changing ‘ewilim to cholim, “sickly ones,” but it does so without external textual support. This correction is both unnecessary and without support—it also obscures the theological point that the stanza seems to be making: sometimes our sin is that we are stubbornly foolish. And when we are, our foolishness can lead to our own suffering. Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message Bible captures the sense well: “Some of you were sick because you’d lived a bad life, your bodies feeling the effects of your sin. You couldn’t stand the sight of food, so miserable you thought you’d be better off dead.”
The psalmist reports that these foolishly sick ones then cried to the Lord in their trouble and he saved them from their distress.
“He sent out his word and healed them”
The description of God’s saving help for this group of pilgrims is fascinating: “He sent out his word and healed them.” The phrase “sent out his word” (dabar) is as enticing as it is mysterious. What could it look like for God to send out the word? Similar phrases occur a few other places in the psalms and once in Isaiah, always in the context of the Lord’s sovereignty over creation:
He sends out his command (‘imrah) to the earth;
his word (dabar) runs swiftly.
He gives snow like wool;
he scatters frost like ashes.
He hurls down hail like crumbs—
who can stand before his cold?
He sends out his word (dabar), and melts them;
he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow. (147:15-18)
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command (dabar)! (148:7-8)
These phrases in Psalms 107, 147, and 148 call to mind the creation story in Genesis 1, in which God creates by speaking the creation into being. A phrase in Psalm 104 also comes to mind: “you send forth your spirit, [living things] are created” (verse 30). One also thinks of the famous passage in Isaiah 55, where the prophet likens God’s Word to the rain that falls from heaven and does not return until it has accomplished the thing God intended it to do.
These similar phrases in other passages help one imagine what the psalm means when it says, “he sent out his word and healed them.”
The “word” here most likely refers to God’s power to sustain creation from moment to moment. The Lord speaks the word and creation bursts into being. The Lord speaks the word and blizzards rage with snow and hail and wind. But the Lord speaks again and snow and hail melt.
The pilgrims who were sick in Psalm 107 spoke a word of prayer, crying to the Lord in their foolish suffering. The Lord spoke the word and they were healed.
What then? Well, following the logic, another kind of word is necessary—the word of praise: “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works.” But also a word of witness: “Let them tell of his deeds with songs of joy.”
The Word made flesh
Because the Gospel reading for this Sunday comes from John, one final intertextual connection seems appropriate. The Gospel of John says that Jesus himself is the Word made flesh and connects Christ the Word with all creation. It feels appropriate to lay John 1:1-4 out as if it were a psalm:
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
And without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
A friend of mine often says, “God has spoken a word of love and life to all creation. His name is Jesus.” I believe it is not too much of an exegetical stretch to think of Jesus as we sing or recite the word of Psalm 107: “He sent out his word and healed them.” Let them thank the Lord.