Commentary on Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
At first glance, a psalm of thanksgiving may seem like an ill-suited choice for Maundy Thursday.
How does the victorious and celebratory tone of thanksgiving fit into our commemoration of those final tender moments of Jesus with his disciples before his death — the last supper together, the identification of Jesus’ betrayer, Jesus washing of the disciples’ feet? For those who know what is coming, Maundy Thursday is a day full of pathos and intimacy with our beloved Savior, not a day for hallelujahs.
Amid the solemn remembrance of these Maundy Thursday events, however, we would do well to make space for thanksgiving. For in the shadow of the cross, on the night before his death, Jesus shared the bread and the cup with his disciples, interpreting his imminent suffering and death not as an end but as a beginning, not as a tragedy but as a victory, not as a time for sorrow but as a time for eucharistia, “thanksgiving.” Among other things, then, today is a time for giving thanks, joining our voices with the psalmist in gratitude for God’s mercy toward us in bringing about our salvation and restoring us to life.
The psalm opens with the genuine and sincere profession, “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications (Psalm 116:1).” It is the heartfelt response of one who is overcome with God’s mercy toward him, mercy which has fostered in him not just gratitude, but the deeper, more sustained posture of love. The psalmist’s story is now intimately bound up with God’s. He had been in the grip of death (verse 3), his life, by ordinary standards, was finished. But having heard his cry, the Lord saved him and brought him back from the land of the dead (verse 4, 8).
As with all psalms of thanksgiving, the connection here between God’s saving act and the psalmist’s gratitude is significant. The gratitude of the psalmist flows out of the keen awareness of what God has done for him, hearing and answering his cries for help. While the lectionary omits verses 3-11 from our reading today, then, rehearsing the story of his distress and God’s divine intervention on his behalf is central to his confession. It is the awareness that he needed help and that God indeed saved him that cultivates in him a posture of thanksgiving and deepens his love for the Lord.
In the final section of the psalm, verses 12-19, the psalmist vows to offer up public expressions of gratitude in the house of the Lord, so full is his heart with thanksgiving for what God has done. He will lift up the cup of salvation, call on the name of the Lord, and offer up a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Leviticus 7:11-15) so that everyone will know what God has done and join the psalmist in giving God praise. The expression “cup of salvation” in verse 13 is found only here and its meaning is unclear. It may refer to a drink offering that often accompanied temple sacrifices (Numbers 15:8-10; 28) or it may be a figurative expression for drinking in the benefits and blessings of God’s salvation.
Read in the context of the passion of Christ, the psalmist’s “cup of salvation” calls to mind another cup, the cup that is poured out for us as the new covenant in Jesus’ blood (Luke 22:21). Here, at an annual Passover meal with his disciples, while remembering and rehearsing God’s mighty act in delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt, Jesus lifts up the cup and proclaims that in him, God is bringing about something new, a new redemptive work for all people.
While ours is not a political liberation like the Exodus nor a healing from sickness like the psalmist, both of these images are helpful metaphors for understanding what Christ has done for us. Sin is like a brutal taskmaster, controlling our wills and enslaving us to the selfish and evil inclinations of our own hearts. Who can deny that we do what we do not want to do and what we do not want to do, we do. Often we act in ways that damage relationships, dehumanize ourselves, and destroy shalom. Similarly, sin is like an untreated sickness that poisons our life as individuals and as communities. It robs people of the life of blessing and human flourishing that God intended for them and leads to death.
Lifting the cup, Jesus announces that the reign of sin is over. In him, there is forgiveness for sin, freedom from guilt, and a new covenant whereby we are restored to new life as God’s kingdom people. In Christ, the old has passed away; the new has come. Redemption and restoration are ours as all are now invited to drink in the benefits and blessings of the cup poured out, Jesus blood shed for us.
The significance of Psalm 116 for Maundy Thursday, then, is that it invites us to remember and rehearse how we too have been “delivered from death” by the death of our Lord and Savior and cultivates in us a posture of thanksgiving and praise for all God’s goodness to us. For on this night, as is the case whenever we celebrate the Lord’s supper, Christ holds out to us the cup that is poured out as a new covenant in his blood, inviting us to drink in the benefits and blessings of his sacrifice, to say with grateful hearts yes to God, yes to salvation, yes to dying to sin, and yes to our new life as God’s kingdom people in Jesus Christ.
On Maundy Thursday, then, in the shadow of cross, let us profess with the psalmist, we love you Lord, for you have heard our voice and our cry for mercy. You have delivered us from death, our eyes from tears, our feet from stumbling. Praise the Lord!