Commentary on Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
Psalm 116 begins with a confession of love and ends with a call for praise.
Only selected verses from the psalm appear in the lectionary for this Maundy Thursday. Yet any exposition of Psalm 116 should include the entire text. It contains a full account of what it means to trust God through challenging circumstances. As the liturgical calendar moves through the final days of Jesus’s ministry prior to his death, it is particularly important to keep in mind the psalmist’s reflections about the experience of suffering, doubt, and hope.
Throughout this text, the psalmist speaks to a number of audiences. In the main, she addresses her community. But during the middle of the psalm, and especially at the end, she talks directly to God (verses 8, 16-19). And at one point, she even talks to her own soul (verse 7).
Despite these multiple addressees, the psalm can be divided into two main parts. The first part relates a thanksgiving of God’s saving activity (verses 1-11). This testimony to God’s faithfulness gives way to the second part (verses 12-19), which focuses on the vows that the psalmist will fulfill in response to God’s work.
The opening lines of the psalm suggest that the psalmist loves God because God hears her when she calls YHWH’s name (verses 1-4); “I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my supplication.” According to the logic of the psalm, God’s character and power require that if God hears her, then God will surely act. Thus, the psalmist can confess her love at the outset not explicitly for what God has done, but simply for the fact that God hears her in the midst of her trouble.
The psalm also provides vivid detail about the psalmist’s trouble. The psalmist felt “the snares of death,” “the pangs of Sheol,” “distress and anguish” (verse 3). She has been “brought low” (verse 6) to the brink of death (verse 8). As she recalls those difficult times, she quotes herself, “I am greatly afflicted” (verse 10). She adds that she used to say: “everyone is a liar” (verse 11). It is worth remembering at this point that according to ancient forensic practice, testimony alone could be enough to bring about a death sentence. Lies would have had devastating consequences. Perhaps she is indicting her whole community because she has so suffered so much from false accusations.
In addition to reporting her past complaints, the psalmist recalls a petition, how she called on “the name of the LORD” (verse 4). To call the deity by name — saying “O YHWH, I pray, save my life” — is to bring two incompatible realities into contact with one another: God’s power and the psalmist’s suffering (verse 4). She is calling the deity to attend, to hear about how things have gone so wrong. God’s reputation cannot sustain such a disordered situation to endure. If YHWH hears one calling YHWH by name, then there will be a resolution.
Indeed, the psalm suggests that calling on the name of YHWH has worked. The psalmist could hardly get one foot in front of another, stumbling and blinded by tears (verse 8). Yet now she is now walking before God (verse 9) “in the land of the living.” God’s response to the psalmist has brought about restoration, new life in the midst of death.
A vow of praise
There is a well-established liturgical pattern in the Psalms, that is, in response to God’s gracious acts, the psalmists make vows to praise God and offer sacrifices of thanksgiving. The second part of the psalm (verses12-19) takes up the topic of vows, detailing what the psalmist can do in response to God. The psalmist has experienced God’s power and is eager to acknowledge it, to give something back to the one who has given her so much (verse 12). This “returning” praise to God acknowledges the gratitude one feels to God. Moreover, it provides a witness to others about the power of God, who is able to bring someone back from the brink of death (verse 3).
Within these vows of praise, the psalmist offers a maxim about how God views the death of God’s people. The NRSV translates verse 15 this way: “Precious (Hebrew: yaqar) in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” The translation of yaqar largely preserves the wording of the King James Version of 1611. However, over 400 years the English word “precious” has undergone significant semantic drift. To be clear, the context does not suggest that God takes delight in the death of the faithful, like one would delight in a “precious” stone or a “precious” child. “Precious” in this context suggests a costliness to God. God takes death or the threat of death seriously. And the psalmist’s suffering up to the point of death was grievous to God.
Salvation from the threat of death came to the psalmist after she called on the name of God (verse 4). In the latter verses of the psalm, she calls on the name of God twice more, but in the gratitude for God’s acts (verses 13, 17). YHWH’s name is on her lips as she lifts up “the cup of salvation.” (verse 13), a libation in thanksgiving for what God had done.
Of course, in the context of the Christian liturgy, “the cup of salvation” is associated with the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament we celebrate on Maundy Thursday. In the Christian appropriation of this phrase, the ritual of a libation of thanksgiving in the temple receives new significance through the life and death of Jesus. In the original context of the psalm and in the Christian sacraments, the “cup of salvation” marks the gracious work of God in the world. God has done it in the past, and is doing in now. Like the Psalmist and our Lord Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, we assume a posture of gratitude for what God has done, and how God’s mercy and grace transforms death into life (verses 3-4, 8-9).