Commentary on Psalm 138
Psalm 138 is a song of thanksgiving and trust. The text is comprised of three main sections.
•Verses 1-3 contain confident proclamations of God’s greatness and God’s faithfulness to the psalmist in the past.
•Verses 4-6 describe the implications of God’s faithfulness: systems of power are turned on their heads.
•Verses 7-9 acknowledge the reality that trouble can befall those who trust God. Even so, the psalmist remains reliant.
A Faithful Witness to a Faithful God (verses 1-3)
The psalm begins with expansive, full-throated praise for God’s mighty saving acts on behalf of the psalmist. The psalmist pours out his/her “whole heart” (verse 1) in thanksgiving. Nothing is held back.
To praise the Lord “before the gods” (verse 1) is to exalt the Lord above these other lesser deities. The psalmist acknowledges the gods whom others worship only to declare that the Lord deserves praise over and against them.
As it was for the psalmist, so it is with us today. Praising God with our whole heart has an effect on our systems of loyalties. When we praise the Lord with all we have, other gods–those things competing for our trust and veneration–recede into the background as the glory of God overwhelms them.
Indeed, the glory of God overwhelms the psalmist as well. The psalmist bows down (verse 2) in a gesture of submission and gratitude. What prompts this gratitude? God’s faithfulness and steadfast love (verse 2), two characteristics of the Lord that are paired throughout the Psalter (e.g., Psalm 26:3; 40:10-11; 57:3; 86:15).
These characteristics are not just abstractions; the psalmist has seen God’s faithfulness and steadfast love in action. When the psalmist cried out to the Lord, the Lord answered (verse 3). God’s saving answer buoys the soul of the psalmist.
Moreover, all of us who hear this account of salvation find our hearts strengthened and our faith confirmed when we reckon God’s long-established reputation of answering God’s people when they cry out to him.
The Glorious New World Order (verses 4-6)
In the central section of the psalm, the psalmist moves from describing his/her own relationship with God to descriptions about how God relates to the systems of power that govern the world. Throughout these verses, the psalmist presents an alternate vision of the world order.
In this world, God is the ultimate sovereign. God has complete authority. This authority is on display though the shouts of praise issuing from the lips of “all the kings of the earth” (verse 4). These kings–who have their own gods (cf. verse 1)–will nevertheless praise God just like the psalmist has done.
The psalmist concludes this section by reflecting on a paradox of God’s power (verse 6). God is high, yet he cares for those who are low. This care actually has the effect of exalting the lowly. Indeed, these humble folks experience a change in position because of God.
Yet the haughty, those who are “high on themselves” and their own abilities, enjoy no proximity to God. God, the most high, is far away from the haughty, and those who are far away from God cannot experience God’s saving presence (see e.g., Psalm 10:1; 22:1, 11; 38:21; cf. Proverbs 15:29).
In this section, the psalmist has painted a picture in which systems of power are overturned. All kings praise the Lord and thus show their subordination to God. Moreover, the haughty and powerful are far away from God, while the lowly enjoy God’s undivided attention and care.
An Expectation for God’s Deliverance (verses 7-8)
If we are honest, this picture of the world order, as presented in verses 4-5, does not seem to square with many of our experiences of human power structures. When the wicked succeed and the weak suffer, it sure does seem that God favors the haughty and that no one cares for the lowly. It seems that rulers have their own way and operate with unchecked power. The final verses of the psalm acknowledge the fact that indeed trouble does befall the faithful ones (verse 7), and that mighty enemies rage against the psalmist, threatening to overwhelm the psalmist.
Having granted that the world is a difficult place for the faithful to live, the psalmist nevertheless relies upon God’s power for deliverance. The psalmist has made an affirmation of faith, that God is the highest power in the universe (verses 1-6). Now the psalmist relies on God to see him/her through this journey, “through the midst of trouble.”
At the end of the psalm we find its first and only petition: “Do not forsake the work of your hands,” (verse 8) – a petition that God’s saving activity on behalf of the psalmist (verse 7) will always continue, just as Yahweh’s steadfast love endures forever (cf. Psalm 136).
Conclusion: Binding Faithful Affirmations with Honest Pleas
Psalm 138 presents a model for bringing together honesty and faithfulness to God through prayer. When faced with tragedy or suffering, many Christians utter statements like “God’s got a plan” or “God is in control.” Verses 4-5 make similar confessions about God’s sovereignty: God’s power trumps all others.
Yet this psalm juxtaposes these confessions with an honest assessment that the psalmist is currently facing hardships (verse 7). There is tension in that juxtaposition, for it would seem that if God really were “in control,” the psalmist would not be in such dire straits. The concluding petition highlights the tension further: “do not forsake the work of your hands!” (verse 8).
This psalm shows us that affirmations about God’s sovereignty can and should be uttered alongside honest expressions of anxiety and even doubt. However, this is often not the case when we pray. When prayer is faithful but not honest, confessions about God’s power become little more than effete bromides.
In light of the description of trouble and the petition at the conclusion of the psalm, the psalmist’s confessions about God’s authority and character become particularly compelling. In sum, the witness of the psalmist provides encouragement for all of us who “walk in the midst of trouble.”