Commentary on Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
A single voice speaks here, drawing me into the psalmist’s experience and, in effect, leading me to compare my own with his.
The voice here:
- is upbeat and hopeful, not remorsefully agonizing over sin
- tells a personal story of rescue in answer to his prayer
- tells the story publicly to other worshipers (and God [verses 16-17]), perhaps at the temple (see verses 18-19)
- moves from a declaration of love for God (verses 1-2), through a moving report about the rescue experience (verses 3-11), to a series of thankful promises (verses 12-15, 18-19)
In short, the psalm has two topics: why the Psalmist loves God, and how he plans to show gratitude. Really? Psalm 116 for Maundy Thursday?
When I first read Psalm 116, I couldn’t quite connect it with Maundy Thursday. I wondered, “What were those people who organized the lectionary thinking?”
But, after further reflection, these topics strike me as being right on target for the occasion. Remember: this is the evening we remember both Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet and his command (Latin, mandatum, hence the English “Maundy”) to love one another. “Love” is the psalmist’s first word, and he commands himself (verses 12-19) to respond to the love of God he’d seen in action.
Two questions arise for me. First, why should I obey Jesus’ command? And second, how shall I carry it out? But with Jesus’ teaching in the background, Psalm 116 provides the answers, appropriately fitting the context of Maundy Thursday.
Now, About Love…
Today, the word “love” has a thousand meanings. I may say that I love my wife, I love enchiladas, I love baseball, I love my job, etc.
Obviously, I don’t love my wife in the same way (and to the same degree) as I do enchiladas, baseball, or my job! In contrast to these varied understandings of “love” today, “love” for the psalmist combines a commitment to enrich an ongoing relationship and a warm feeling of deep affection for the other person (in this case, God).
The psalmist’s love derives from his experience with Yahweh. But what really grabs me in his report is the warm, relational picture the psalmist’s words paint. God has:
- “heard my voice” (verse 1)
- “and my cry for mercy” (or “favor”; verse 4 quotes the simple, wrenching cry, “LORD, save me!”)
- “inclined his ear” (verse 2; alternately, “bends down” in the New Living Translation)
Verse 3 pictures the psalmist terrified in the vise-grip of death — like a swimmer trapped in seaweed, overpowered by a furious undertow.
I’ve experienced undertow and thick seaweed; it’s absolutely horrifying. Once, in the deep end of a summer camp swimming pool, I thought I was drowning. It’s an unforgettable, terrifying moment. My mouth was full of water, my cry for help muffled. “This is it,” I thought.
My experience leads me to imagine the psalmist fatigued from the struggle, his “cry for mercy” a weak, desperate, panicked shout, “LORD, save me!”
The question, of course: Is anybody listening? Crying (“yelling” better captures the Hebrew qara) is futile if no one hears it.
That’s what’s so astounding about God: he “heard my voice.” He must have been listening, his attention undistracted by other things. And, wow! He “inclined his ear.” Imagine what that assumes. God is above the psalmist, as if God were taller or sitting higher than the floundering voice yelling “Help!” And God, as it were, “bends his ear down” to make sure he hears every word.
The words plant a tender, loving image in my mind: an adult bending down, her ear next to the mouth of a small child, to catch clearly its faint, inarticulate whispers.
In that pool long ago, I suddenly felt a strong arm out of nowhere lift me to the surface. And so did the psalmist.
Time to Pay Up!
Without blinking, the psalmist knows that he, so to speak, “owes God a big one” (verse 12). His “Thank you very much!” list includes:
- Raising a celebratory “toast” and shouting something in God’s honor for everyone to hear (verses 13, 18-19)
- Public repayment of vows made to God
- Giving a public sacrifice as thanks (verse 17)
Granted, it’s humanly impossible to “repay” God fully. The bill for rescue is incalculable. As I see it, however, the “big one” should be something God really likes, and it should be something sacrificial.
As I finish pondering Psalm 116, I imagine three blank sheets of paper before me. Written across the top, a few words begin a statement that I am to complete in the space below. The three statements begin with
- “I love the LORD because…”
- “I owe God ‘a big one’ for…”
- “And to show my thanks, I’m going to…”
On the first sheet, I list what about God makes me love him (his love, generosity, forgiveness, healing, and sacrifice on the cross).
On the second sheet, I write down specific moments when, like the psalmist, God bailed me out of big jams.
Together, these two sheets remind me why I should obey Jesus’ command (my first question).
On the third sheet, I tick off my own short list of things I’ll do this week to live out my thanks. It’s my “Thanks-living” menu. This sheet answers my second question.
Now I am ready to face tomorrow — and three days from now.