Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

The scriptures often describe people and things in absolute terms, with a rhetorical flair I advise my students to avoid.

Bread and Fish
Bread and Fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.  Original source: Wikimedia.

August 3, 2014

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Commentary on Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21

The scriptures often describe people and things in absolute terms, with a rhetorical flair I advise my students to avoid.

I tell them that critical thinking requires us to seek precision in our language and shun generalities that make reality look simpler than it actually is. This Psalm 145 selection, therefore, makes it challenging for interpreters readily to embrace the exuberant declaration that “The Lord is good to all” (verse 9).

On one level, the language of Psalm 145 is straightforward and simple. The words, “The Lord is,” occur five times, and their object is usually “all” or “every” of some category, for example, “all who are falling” (verse 14). Another type of statement predicates actions of the Lord, such as “raises,” “gives,” “fulfills,” “hears,” and “watches.” In other words, it is the theology we first learned at the table: “God is great. God is good.” What is there not to understand?

On another level, however, human history and personal experience prompt us to wonder just how the Lord’s goodness becomes active and effective for all creation. Whatever our theological convictions may declare, sometimes it’s just difficult to feel that goodness at work in the midst of suffering and loss.

So, can we profess with the poet that “the Lord is good to all”? In our congregations there will be situations in which this statement brings confusion and pain instead of joy and peace. The fact is that there’s no way to argue someone into this affirmation of faith; but the reason we keep leading in worship and stepping into the pulpit is that we know the Holy Spirit works within — and the fellowship of believers surrounds — the broken-hearted. It’s with that confident hope that I make the following observations.

First, let’s start with the obvious: our selection is about one-half of the entire psalm, whose acrostic structure and consistent style require that the parts of the psalm should be understood in light of the whole.1 The verb “to bless” at the beginning (verse 1), middle (verse 10), and end (verse 21), and the key Hebrew word kol (“all, every”) seventeen times in the poem are two other signs of its unity.2 Parallel panels move from praise (1-2, 10) to greatness (3-6, 11-13a) and goodness (7-9, 13b-20).3

So, while this Sunday’s selection concentrates upon the goodness of God, it passes over verses 10-13, wherein the poet extols the kingship of God. We must be careful, therefore, not to sever the positive theology in our verses from its source in God’s royal power. As James Luther Mays writes of verses 4-7, “God’s power is good and God’s goodness is powerful.”4

The choice to pass over verses 10-13 isn’t based on the avoidance of monarchic language for Israel’s God, since those verses appeared when Psalm 145 was used in the lectionary just three Sundays ago. Still, we don’t want short-term liturgical memory to fail us when it comes to interpreting the rest of the psalm.

Second, we need to understand just how the Hebrew word kol (“all, every”) functions in this psalm. Instead of leaping into philosophical and theological conundrums, we would do well to ask whether kol must be taken here as “all” in the sense of an absolute, numerical comprehensiveness. To be sure, there are places where an author seems to intend this: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31).

In other places an author intends to express a representative comprehensiveness, as when “David assembled all Israel in Jerusalem” (1 Chronicles 15:3). There were certainly some Israelites who didn’t make it to Jerusalem for that celebration. The poetic style and imagery of Psalm 145 intend us to see the goodness of God in “successively broader circles,”5 so that nature and history point to the complete goodness of God’s nature, rather than to a human moral assessment about each and every event is in the cosmos. Paul’s thinking in Romans 8:28 runs parallel to this truth, namely, that it is the experience of God’s people that “all things work together for good,” not that all things are morally good in themselves.

Third, the major portion of this Sunday’s lection (verses 14-21) interprets the goodness of God primarily in terms of God’s faithfulness (verse 13b) to and for the people of God. Psalm 145 invites those who sing and pray it into a circle of trust, a place where we begin to see God’s relation to the world not in terms of our own needs but in terms of the larger stage of divine purpose and action.

Thus, in spite of the fact that this psalm begins with the first person singular, it soon moves well beyond any single individual to all times and places. Seeing Psalm 145 as a “community” praise psalm helps us realize that its theology transcends its personal application to one’s own spiritual growth, and certainly beyond praying for the next nice thing God can do for me.6

Moreover, regular corporate praise becomes, as Walter Brueggemann suggests, “an evangelical act that invites a deep departure from the greed system of self-securing.”7 A community that praises in this way must also pray boldly, dependent for each day’s good gifts from God above (Matthew 6:11).8


1 On the structure see Gerald H. Wilson, “The Qumran Psalms Scroll Reconsidered: Analysis of the Debate,” CBQ 47 (1985): 624-642.

2 Leon J. Liebreich, “Psalms 34 and 145 in Light of their Key Words” HUCA 27 (1956): 181-192.

3 Craig C. Broyles, Psalms (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 506.

4 James Luther Mays. Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 439.

5 Reuven Kimelmann, “Psalm 145: Theme, Structure, and Impact,” JBL 113 (1994): 53.

6 Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, trans Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 827.

7 Walter Brueggemann, “Praise and the Psalms: A Politics of Glad Abandonment, Part II” Hymn 43 (1992): 14-15.

8 Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3, Hermeneia, trans L. M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 602-603.