Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 107 opens with the words:

June 24, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

Psalm 107 opens with the words:

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the LORD say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
And gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
From the north and from the south (or, sea). (Psalm 107:1-3)

It seems undoubtedly to have been placed at the beginning of Book Five as an answer to the closing words of Book Four:

Save us, O LORD our God,
and gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.   (Psalm 106:47)

Psalm 107, a community hymn of praise, was most likely a liturgy of thanks offered by worshipers at a festival at the temple in Jerusalem. Four groups of people appear in its verses, together representing, perhaps, the four points of the compass and the “redeemed of the LORD” mentioned in verse 2. 

Verses 4-9 tell of a group of wanderers, lost in the desert, who finally arrive at their destination. East of Palestine lays a vast desert which separates it from the eastern side of the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia. Few travelers in the ancient Near East dared any attempt to traverse this terrain. 

Verses 10-16 tell the story of prisoners who are set free. The West is the place where the sun sets, the deathly place of darkness in which the sun dies every night as it makes its journey over the earthly realm. Like the ones wandering lost in the wilderness, the ones dwelling in darkness cry out to God, and God leads them out of darkness and the shadow of death and tears to pieces their bonds. 

Verses 17-22 tell of “sick” persons who are healed. The word translated “sick” actually means “foolish ones.” The people of the ancient Near East associated sickness with foolishness or sin and understood it as God’s punishment for sin (see Psalms 32:1-5 and 38:3, 5). In the books of the prophets, the North, the third direction mentioned in 107:3, was often depicted as the direction from which the punishment of God came to the ancient Israelites. 

The fourth and last vignette of Psalm 107, verses 23-32, tells the story of a group of sailors who are saved from shipwreck. It begins, in verse 23, “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters” and continues, in verse 26, “they mounted up to the heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity.”

The compass point connected with the fourth vignette is rendered in the majority of modern English translations as “the south” (verse 3). The Hebrew text of verse 3, though, clearly has “from the north and from the sea. The difference between the Hebrew text and the English translations seems to be a felt need to have the psalmist refer to the four compass directions.  In addition, the word for “south,” (that literally means “right” — “south” when one faces the sunrise) is an easy emendation from the Hebrew word for “sea.” 

The sea represented another real threat to those who lived in the ancient Near East. Merchant ships sailing out of the Phoenician ports across the Mediterranean Sea often encountered difficulties in its unpredictable waters (recall the treacherous journeys of Paul in the book of Acts and the story of Jonah). Verses 25-29 depict God as the ruler of the sea, able to command its waters to do his bidding (see also Psalms 29:34; 65:7; 89:9-10; 95:5). A storm on the waters (verses 25-27) leads the sailors to cry out to God (verse 28). God then calms the waters and give the sailors rest “in the haven of their pleasure” (verse 30). 

Each of the four vignettes of Psalm 107 follows a precise format:

a description of the distress (verses 4-5, 10-12, 17-18, 23-27)
a prayer to the Lord (verses 6, 13, 19, 28)
details of the delivery (verses 7, 14, 19-20, 29)
an expression of thanks (verses 8-9, 15-16, 21-22, 30-32)

In each vignette, the “prayer to the Lord” and the “expression of thanks” are identical:

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress (verses 6, 13, 19, 28)
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind (verses 8, 15, 21, 31)

The repetition of words in the vignettes provides further evidence that the psalm may have been used in a liturgical setting, as a liturgy of thanks, in which groups of worshipers recited the words of Psalm 107 antiphonally with presiding priests.

Are the four vignettes actual accounts of deliverance by the Lord sung in celebration at a festival? Or is the psalm purely a literary composition, with the four groups representing, in the words of James L. Mays, “all those who have experienced the redemption of the Lord”? Whatever the original Sitz im Leben of Psalm 107, its placement in the Psalter by the shaping community renders it as a hymn celebrating deliverance. 

We may never find ourselves literally wandering in a desert wasteland, forced to dwell in a place of deep darkness, sick to the point of death, or caught in a tumultuous storm at sea, but as James Mays points out, each of us have or will face those times when we need desperately the redeeming hand of God. Psalm 107 provides a model for how to handle those times — recognize the situation you are in; cry out to God and tell God what you need; accept the deliverance that God brings; and then give thanks to God.