Commentary on Psalm 138
Psalm 138 is classified as a psalm of thanksgiving, sung in the voice of an individual. It is well established that such individual psalms can also reflect and express the experience of the community of faith, so there are plenty of opportunities for the text to connect to the lives of those hearing it read and interpreted. The core experience driving the psalm’s outpouring of praise and thanksgiving is reported in verse 3: “On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul,” and the rather unusual wording of the final clause—it means something like “you reinforced my inner strength”—should not be allowed to obscure the essence of what God has done: answered the prayer that arose from some sort of trial or trouble.
Both individuals and congregations have experience of such moments of answered supplication, and so ought to be engaged by the psalm’s exposition of the nature of the thanksgiving that ought to be practiced by the redeemed of the Lord. Preaching on Psalm 138 should follow the text in offering hearers a guide to what thanksgiving looks like and what it can accomplish.
Thanksgiving places the worship and celebration of God above all other priorities
The psalmist’s intention to give thanks “with my whole heart” (1) reflects a determination to focus the whole of the psalmist’s attention and being on the act of gratitude. That God has given a saving answer to the psalmist’s plea for help is of such great worth and importance that only a wholehearted focus on gratitude will do by way of response. The psalmist also declares that thankful praise of the Lord will be offered “before the gods” (1). While the prevailing view on the existence of multiple “gods” has changed since the psalmist’s day, there remain plenty of powers and priorities who clamor for our attention and allegiance. Proper thanksgiving, the psalm insists, belongs only to the Lord, and overrides the claims of any and all competitors.
Thanksgiving is, at the same time, individual and corporate
Thanks for God’s faithfulness and care is to be offered “toward your holy temple” (2), which suggests that the act of thanksgiving, even when initiated by an individual, is to reverberate in the worship life of the community. The place where the whole congregation assembles in God’s presence is a particularly appropriate venue for thanks, so that the whole may celebrate the Lord’s goodness and faithfulness to each.
Thanksgiving empowers effective witness
The shift from the psalmist giving thanks in the context of worship to the kings of the Earth praising and singing of God’s glory (4-5) may seem abrupt, or even jarring. There is, however, a point of connection between the two scenarios. The reason given for this surprising behavior on the part of the most powerful of human rulers, the psalmist says to the Lord, is that “they have heard the words of your mouth.” The vocabulary here insists that the “word” that has influenced the kings is a spoken, rather than written, one. And what is the only spoken utterance thus far mentioned in the psalm? The thanksgiving and praise of the psalmist and his people. Their testimony of God’s saving response to prayer stands as a witness so compelling that the greatest powers of the Earth join in the celebration. The psalmist also notes that, at the other end of the earthly spectrum of power, “the lowly” also benefit from the Lord’s regard, adding yet another cause for thanksgiving and yet another call to bear witness to God’s goodness. When God’s people make a priority of giving thanks for what God has done, the word gets out, and all sorts of people come to know and extoll the Lord’s glory.
Thanksgiving leads to confidence in God for the future
From the place of worship to the halls of worldly power, the psalmist’s thanksgiving has had its effect. Now, in its final section (7-8), the psalm shifts setting once again. The presence of fellow worshipers and of mighty kings now gives way to the presence of enemies. But here also, says the psalm, the practice of giving thanks to God for God’s saving acts has a powerful and positive influence. Because the psalmist and the community are in the habit of reciting and proclaiming what God has done for them in the past, they can now face threats and uncertainty with confidence that God will continue to help at times of need in the future.
Only someone who has recognized and acknowledged the help that God has faithfully offered to God’s people can say with assurance, in the very face of the foe, “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever” (8). The one who is constant in thanking God wholeheartedly and giving voice to reports of the Lord’s help will know that they are indeed the work of God’s hands, never to be forsaken.
Note that congregations in which prayers of intercession and thanksgiving, shaped according to the individual concerns and joys of the members, are a regular part of worship will likely find these connections particularly intuitive. Congregations where this is not the practice may find here impetus to consider its inclusion.