Commentary on Psalm 145:8-14
Psalm 145 is an acrostic in Hebrew,
with verse one beginning with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the second verse with the second letter, and so on down to the last verse beginning with the last letter (verse 13 covers two letters). Each verse is divided into two parts, which the NRSV and most other English translations make into separate lines. As translations cannot convey the acrostic structure easily, the psalm may come across as slightly disjointed to many readers and hearers, reading as a series of somewhat loosely connected statements. But what does unite them all is the theme of praise–from start to finish this is a psalm of praise to God.
The lectionary selection, verses 8-14, covers eight lines of the acrostic, the Hebrew letters het to samek. The first two and last two lines (verses 8-9, 13b-14) testify to important features of God’s character and dealings with humans. The middle four lines (verses 10-13a) are addressed directly to God and focus on the glory and eternal nature of God’s kingdom. This alternation between testimony and direct address is common in the psalms and, indeed, is characteristic of authentic worship in general, which must always balance out prayer and testimony, praise and proclamation, confession and profession.
Verse 8 is a paraphrase of God’s self-revelation to Moses at Sinai: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). This initial divine self-revelation was an important source of reflection for later Old Testament writers, who quote or paraphrase it often, including in the Psalms (e.g. Numbers 14:18; Joel 2:13; Psalms 86:15, 103:8). For the people of Israel, God’s gracious and merciful nature, God’s slowness to anger and abundance of “steadfast love” (Hebrew khesed) are foundational in forming the people’s relationship to God.
What is especially noteworthy about Psalm 145 is how the gracious character of God, initially revealed as a part of God’s relationship to Israel, is then extended to all of creation. Verse 8 reflects Israel’s traditional core understanding of God’s disposition towards Israel itself. Verse 9, however, immediately broadens the recipients of this disposition to include everyone: “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” The word “all” appears over and over in verses 9-14, a strong indication of the comprehensive scope celebrated in the psalm of God’s gracious dealings with the entire creation.
While verses 8-9 proclaim the gracious character of God, verse 10 begins the section of direct address to God. Fittingly, the grammatical subject shifts from God to those addressing God, stated as “all your works” in the opening part of the verse. Just as verse 9 asserted God’s goodness to all, so verse 10 reciprocates: “All your works shall give thanks to you.” The reference to God’s “works” picks up on the language at the end of verse 9–God’s compassion is given to “all that he has made.” Just as God’s own creation is the recipient of God’s compassion, so it is the creation, God’s own works, who return thanks. The phrases “that he has made” (verse 9) and “works” (verse 10) in the NRSV actually translate the same Hebrew word, a connection that is clearer in some other translations.
How is it possible that all of God’s works will return thanks to their creator? The second half of verse 10 and verses 11-12 explain. At first glance, it might appear that verse 10b re-narrows the scope of God’s relationships with humans: “your faithful shall bless you” (the NRSV’s “all” here is not present in the Hebrew). Is the concern now only with God’s chosen people? The exposition in verses 11-12 of the way in which the faithful will bless God makes it clear that the expansive character of God’s grace is still in view. The faithful will bless God by testifying “to all people” (literally, “to the children of humankind” or even “to the children of Adam”). The faithful will testify of God’s glory, power, and mighty deeds. These verses thus present a certain challenge to God’s people–it is their task to proclaim God’s kingdom and mighty acts to all people, so that all of God’s creation may then give thanks to God in return.
The notion of God’s “kingdom” is central in verses 11-13a. Verses 11-12 speak of the glory of God’s kingdom twice. In verse 13a (the mem line), God’s kingdom becomes the subject of the sentence, and both halves of verse 13a express the eternal nature of God’s kingdom. This eternal nature naturally contrasts with the transient nature of all human kingdoms, and all other human institutions, for that matter. Similarly, the glory and splendor of God’s kingdom bring to naught any claims of glory that might be asserted by human governments or other institutions. Jesus memorably spoke of God’s kingdom as the treasure and pearl of highest value, worth selling all one has to obtain (Matthew 13:44-46).
Verses 13b-14 return to testimony of God’s character and deeds, as in verses 8-9. God’s faithfulness and grace are proclaimed, and as in verse 9 the emphasis is that they are present in “all” that God does–and therefore extend to all to whom God does them! Verse 14 concludes our reading with a turn of emphasis that is perhaps surprising at this point in the psalm–God’s care for the fallen and bowed down. Though not a major point thus far, this picks up on the language of mercy and compassion from verses 8-9 and again emphasizes the universal outreach of God–two more uses of the word “all.” Just as importantly, the verse reminds us that God’s glory and might does not merely contrast with human frailty. Rather, in God’s kingdom the frail and suffering are raised up and upheld by God’s glory and might.
July 3, 2011