Commentary on Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
Psalm 116 is a prayer of thanksgiving.
Like other psalms of this type (see Psalm 30; 32; 34), Psalm 116 begins by saying that God has rescued the psalmist from trouble (verses 1-2). Then the psalm describes the distressing circumstance now past (verse 3), recalls a prayer for help (verse 4) along with the Lord’s saving response (verses 5-11), and then vows to give witness to God’s salvation before the congregation (verses 12-19). Perhaps the most distinctive mark of this type of psalm is the promise of a thanksgiving offering (verse 17). The thanksgiving psalms probably began as part of the liturgy that accompanied this offering (see Jeremiah 33:10-11).
Although the original use of Psalm 116 is relatively certain, this psalm also clearly took on a distinct liturgical role in Jewish tradition. It came to be and is now read as part of a larger group of psalms, Psalms 113-118, known as the Egyptian Hallel. The word hallel means “praise.” This word is related to the expression hallelu-yah (“Praise the Lord”) that begins and ends many of the psalms in this grouping, including Psalm 116 (verse 19). Since ancient times the Egyptian Hallel has been used in the celebration of Passover.
The theme of deliverance from death makes this quite appropriate (see verses 3, 4, 8, 15). More specifically this psalm is linked to the Passover meal. Thus, the Church reads this psalm on Maundy Thursday, the day during Holy Week when we recall Jesus’ last meal with his disciples in the context of Passover.
The psalm begins in a rather unique way, with the psalmist declaring love for God (verse 1). It is much more common for the psalmist to speak of trusting God, seeking refuge in God, or waiting for God. The word “love” (ʼāhab) does not connote an emotion as much as a commitment of loyalty. Love is a covenant word (see the word in the context of David’s relationship with Saul [1 Samuel 16:21] and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:3]).
Thus, the psalmist pledges fidelity to God because “he has heard my voice and my supplications” (verse 1). But what the psalmist pledges in loyalty to God is not obedience to cultic or moral legislation. Rather the psalmist simply promises to “call on him as long as I live” (verse 2). Like so many other psalms, therefore, Psalm 116 begins by recognizing reliance on God as the supreme expression of faithfulness.
The final segment of the psalm raises the question of what the psalmist can give back to God in return for God’s goodness and salvation (verses 12-19). Verse 12 recalls verse 7 in which the psalmist called himself or herself to “return, O my soul, to your rest” because of bountiful ways God has responded to the psalmist’s cries. Now the psalmist asks, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”
The answer comes in verses 13-14 in three statements. First, the psalmist promises to “lift up the cup of salvation” (verse 13a). Originally “cup of salvation” probably referred to a libation offering (see Exodus 29:40). But later tradition associated the cup with the portion of Passover in which four cups of wine are offered. Psalm 116 (along with Psalm 115 and 117-118) is read in connection with the fourth cup.1 For Christians the cup came to refer to the salvation found in Jesus Christ who reinterpreted this element by identifying the cup with his sacrificial death and the new covenant that came from it (Matthew 26:27-28; Mark 14:23-24; Luke 22:20).
The second answer to what the psalmist can give back to God is simply “to call on the name of the Lord” (verse 13b). This statement recalls the declaration in verse 2. Again, the psalmist pledges to show faithfulness to God by depending on him. The third answer to how the psalmist will respond to God’s goodness is in vows to be paid before the congregation (verses 14, 18). The vow was perhaps made originally when the psalmist prayed for help (see Psalm 65:1). Now, the vow is mentioned again and the psalmist “pays” or fulfills the vow, perhaps with the offering being given in the presence of the congregation.
After focusing on God’s goodness, verse 15 may seem to turn in a completely different direction. The statement that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones” sounds like death is precious. The word translated “precious” (yāqār), however, means something like “costly.”2 Thus, it states that God takes seriously the death of those who are devoted to him. For that reason the psalmist identifies herself as God’s servant and celebrates the fact that God has liberated her (verse 16).
The final three verses focus specifically on the offering hinted at earlier. The thanksgiving sacrifice is prescribed in Leviticus 7:12 as proper response to God’s gracious acts. The main features of Psalm 116:17-19 is the public nature of the offering. The psalmist will make his offering “in the presence of all his people” (verse 18b) and “in the courts of the house of the Lord” (verse 19a). The “courts” here refer to the precincts of the Jerusalem temple, the central worship site for the people of Judah.
For Christians who read Psalm 116 on Maundy Thursday the psalm’s celebration of deliverance from death takes on a unique character. It is not read as testimony to what God has done in the past so much as it gives hope for deliverance in the future. The psalm’s images of death now apply to the coming suffering of Jesus. The celebration after deliverance draws us into the suffering of Jesus as his offering to God and to us. Jesus himself has become a sacrifice and we now benefit from his faithfulness to God.
1J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” NIB, 4:1149.
2McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” 1149.