Commentary on Psalm 138
Psalm 138 is almost always categorized as a song of thanksgiving.
God has answered the psalmist’s prayer (v. 2a); and quite appropriately, the psalmist thanks God enthusiastically (v. 1a), including apparently a visit to the Temple (v. 2). The focus on thanksgiving is reinforced by the three-fold repetition of the Hebrew root that is translated “give thanks” in vv. 1 and 2, and “praise” in v. 4. Clearly, the psalmist gives God the credit for the gift of life: “you give me life” (v. 7b; NRSV “you preserve me”) and “your right hand delivers me” (v. 7d). In contemporary terms, we might say that the psalmist displays an attitude of gratitude. In the entitlement-oriented culture in which we live, Psalm 138 might helpfully be appropriated as an example of living gratefully — that is, receiving life as a gift instead of concluding that we have simply “made a living” for ourselves (see the phrase “abounding in thanksgiving” in Colossians 2:7, the Epistle Lesson for the day).
While it is helpful to discern and reflect upon what is typical about Psalm 138 as a song of thanksgiving, it is also profitable to note what is unique about the psalm. For instance, although the psalmist affirms that his or her prayer has been answered (v. 3), he or she seems still to “walk in the midst of trouble” (v. 7a); and the final line of the psalm is a petition that communicates ongoing neediness: “Do not forsake the work of your hands” (v. 8c).
To be sure, Psalm 138 is not the only song of thanksgiving to juxtapose grateful celebration with petition — see, for instance, Psalm 118, in which the expression of thanks and the description of deliverance (vv. 1-24) are followed by the request, “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! (v. 25). In any case, the juxtaposition is significant, since it rings true, both existentially and theologically. In terms of human existence, there is never really a time when everything is all right. And theologically, the juxtaposition of thanksgiving and petition is a reminder that attempting to embody “the ways of the LORD” (v. 5) actually evokes opposition, as we know from the testimony of the psalmists (see, for example, Psalms 22:7-8; 69:7-8), the prophets (see Jeremiah 15:15-18), and Jesus. In short, as people of faith, we shall always be in a position of both celebrating God’s gift of life and needing to continue to pray for God’s help, as Jesus taught his disciples — after all, “thine is the kingdom” and “thy kingdom come” are part of the same prayer.
The juxtaposition of celebration and petition in Psalm 138 is a characteristic of the Psalter on several levels. The individual laments, for instance, regularly contain descriptions of distress, followed by petition and then by expressions of trust and/or praise (with the exception of Psalm 88). On a macro-level, the first three books of the Psalter (Psalms 1-89) are dominated by the voice of lament, whereas the final two books are characterized primarily by the voice of praise. And in the more immediate context of our psalm, Psalm 138 introduces a final Davidic collection that contains a core of laments (Psalms 139-143); and this collection is followed by a collection of songs of praise that concludes the Psalter (Psalms 146-150). What is the effect? It seems that readers in every generation are invited to live with gratitude to God for the gift of life, even amid trouble and opposition, all the while relying on God’s help and entrusting the future to God’s care. This final note is sounded by the psalmist’s affirmation in v. 8, ‘The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me” (see Psalm 57:2).
The ability to live thankfully at all times and to entrust life and future to God is grounded ultimately in the conviction that God is sovereign – that is, that God is the ultimate reality, and that God’s will (God’s “word”/”words” in Psalm 138:2, 4 and “the ways of the LORD” in v. 5) constitutes the genuine path to a fruitful and satisfying life. The very acts of thanking and praising God, including bowing down and singing (vv. 1-2, 4-5), affirm God’s sovereign claim. The fact that the psalmist’s thanksgiving to God is articulated “before the gods” (v. 1b) underscores that sovereignty belongs to God alone; and God’s sole sovereignty is to be universally acknowledged, evidenced by praise from the most powerful of earthly rulers (v. 4a; see Psalm 2:10-12, which perhaps not coincidentally is echoed here as the Psalter moves toward its conclusion). While it is possible to hear Psalm 138:4 (and Psalm 2:10-12) imperialistically — that is, “the kings of the earth” will be forced to worship the God of Israel — this need not be the only interpretive option. Rather, v. 4 may be understood as an articulation of the psalmist’s (and/or God’s) vision of a world unified around God’s purpose to set things right for the benefit of all humanity (see Psalms 72:11-17; 96:10-13; 98:4-9; 150:6; Isaiah 2;2-4).
Lest God’s sovereignty be misunderstood to be something like unbridled power or force, v. 6 offers a helpful clarification. God exercises God’s power not as sheer force, but rather as something like sheer compassion. God’s concern for “the lowly” (or “the humiliated,” as I prefer to translate the word) and God’s distancing the divine self from “the haughty” means that the proud, the prosperous, and the powerful cannot properly claim that “God is on our side.” The theological, ethical, and missional implications are profound (see also 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Psalm 113:4-9; Luke 1:51-53). God’s power consists of love (see “steadfast love” in vv. 2, 8); and the implication is that genuine praise and gratitude — and indeed, genuine power — will ultimately take the form of regarding “the lowly,” as God does.
The repetition of “your hand(s)” (vv. 7-8; see also “right hand” in v. 7) at the conclusion of the psalm is particularly worthy of note, since the verb translated “forsake” in v. 8 means more literally “drop, let fall.” The phrase, “the work of your hands” (v. 8), can refer to the psalmist; but it could also suggest the whole of God’s creation (see Psalm 104:24). Even though it is framed as a petition, the last line of the psalm communicates faith. Ultimately, the psalmist’s gratitude, praise, and trust are grounded in the conviction that God has “got the whole world in his hands.”