Commentary on Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
The psalm text appointed for Maundy Thursday worship contains some of the most-loved and lovely phrases in the Psalter. These include, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”
Yet it is one of these lovely phrases that is also one of the most confusing, difficult to unravel phrases in the Psalter. Namely, the strange-yet-comforting phrase, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.”
And the psalm also presents readers with one of the basic challenges of the life of faith: “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” (verse 12).
I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice
Psalm 116 is one of the most recognizable songs of thanksgiving. The song of thanksgiving—which is also called the “new song” in the Psalter—is a song-offering presented in worship after some life-saving experience of God’s grace.
Sometimes simple is better than complex; sometimes less is more. That’s the case with the start of Psalm 116. The psalm begins with simple elegance:
I love the Lord, because he has heard
My voice and my supplications.
It is as straightforward as that. As the writer of 1 John says, we love because God has loved us (see 1 John 4:7-12). The psalmist loves God because of a direct experience of God’s love. The psalmist uses a lovely image to describe this experience: “He inclined his ear to me.” We do not use the verb “incline” often in daily parlance, but the image is familiar—of a mother leaning in close to hear the voice of her child, or a father turning his head in order to hear a softly spoken request better. The psalmist then adds, “I will call upon him as long as I live”—literally in Hebrew, “in my days I will cry out.”
In the verses that follow (116:3-11), the psalmist reports about the near-death experience from which he was rescued (“the snares of death encompassed me”) and the prayer he offered in the midst of his trouble (“I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’”). The psalmist then fleshes out some of the details of his distress. These verses are omitted in the lectionary, but provide the necessary context for understanding what follows.
What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?
The psalm reading continues with verses 12-19.
The psalmist then asks one of the basic questions of the life of faith—“What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” The choice of the word “bounty” is odd—it feels a little old school. The Hebrew word here is the same as in Psalm 103:3: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.” We might more readily translate here, “What shall I give back to the Lord for all of the benefits I’ve received?” Philip Melancthon once said that to know Christ is to know his benefits—his free gifts.
What are those benefits? Psalm 103:2-6 offers a representative list: forgiveness of sins, healing from diseases, rescue from death, steadfast love and mercy, “good things” in life, the constant renewal of spirit, justice for the oppressed. Other passages add on: the fruit of the spirit, the whole armor of God, the whole range of spiritual gifts, and the promise of eternal life.
The question: What shall we return to the Lord for all of the benefits we have received?
The answer: A song of thanksgiving.
One of the standard elements of the Hebrew “prayer for help” or “lament” psalm is the promise or vow to praise God. For example, in Psalm 13 (a classic prayer for help), the psalmist vows that once God has answered the prayer, “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (13:6). We can assume that the singer of Psalm 116 made a similar vow, because he says, “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people” (116:14). Having cried out to the Lord and having experienced gracious rescue, the psalmist now fulfills the vow with a song.
The purpose of the song is to fulfill the previous vow by praising God and telling others what God has done. The theological point is that the thank you note that God wants is not an expensive offering, but simply to tell others what God has done for you. As the singer of Psalm 50 says, God does not delight in or demand whole burnt offerings. What God desires is that “my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance” (Psalm 51:14). The singer of Psalm 40 goes so far as to say that if we do not tell others what God has done for us, we hide God’s saving help in our hearts and withhold God’s steadfast love from others (Psalm 40:9-10).
To praise, bear witness to God. Give God away to the neighbor.
The cup of salvation and the death of God’s saints
Two verses in the psalmist’s song of thanksgiving merit special attention.
The first is: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (verse 13).
Christians, of course, draw a connection between this verse and the sacrament of Holy Communion, which Jesus instituted on Maundy Thursday. To connect the “cup of salvation” with the institution of the Lord’s Supper is valid; as it says in 1 Corinthians, Christ said, “‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:25-26).
But if we remain in the Old Testament context for a moment, the “cup of salvation” more likely refers to a celebration meal that a rescued person might throw in thanksgiving for his or her deliverance. Deuteronomy 14 describes such a meal in the context of harvest, but this law likely sets the pattern for a celebratory meal offered in response to an experience of God’s redemption. Notice that the law specifically says that the poor and the priesthood must be invited:
Go to the place that the LORD your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together. As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them … because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake (Deuteronomy 14:25-29).
Allow me to offer a personal note by way of illustration. Forty years ago—a biblical number—I was diagnosed with bone cancer in my legs as a teenager. The doctors amputated my legs and cut the cancer out of my lungs, where it had spread. And in the process they saved my life. Every ten years, my family and a couple of close friends gather for a celebratory meal. We lift up the cup of salvation and bless the name of the Lord.
But there is one more key verse to explore: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” Christians often comfort each other with this verse when a loved one dies. I remember sharing this verse with a friend when his mother died.
But what could such a phrase mean? God finds death precious? Of course not. A similar phrase in Psalm 72 offers context:
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight (Psalm 72:12-14).
One thing that the phrase means is that death is not a sign that God has abandoned someone. Neither is a near-death experience a sign that God has turned against someone.
We humans like to reason backward from our suffering to God’s judgment. A friend’s mother was dying of a horrible disease and asked him, “What have I done to deserve this from God?”
The answer: Nothing. You are precious in God’s sight even as you die and even as you suffer. Your blood, your life, your suffering are precious to God.
It is fitting that Psalm 116 is read or sung on Maundy Thursday as we prepare to remember Christ’s death on an imperial Roman cross. And to remember that even as Christ died, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.”
God’s power to redeem extends even beyond death.