Commentary on Psalm 138:1-8
This psalm of thanksgiving — one of those songs that was composed after its author had come through a rather tight scrape — offers praise to the Lord in response to an experience of deliverance.
The poet had experienced what the psalms call “a day of trouble” (see Psalms 20:1, 27:5; 41:1), a “day of disaster” (see Psalm 18:19), or a “day of distress” (see 59:17) — some really tough times.
The term “day of trouble” is intentionally vague. It can refer to times of physical illness, spiritual struggle, financial peril, military threat, and the like. The psalms also call these times of crisis a “day when I call” (56:10; also a more literal translation of 20:9), because times of crisis are also times of prayer — moments when a suffering person or people “cry out” to the Lord in despair.
On the day I called …
And that is the point that is made in this psalm. The singer says, “On the day I called, you answered me.” Having come through the time of trouble — or, more correctly, having been brought through the time of trouble by the grace of God — the singer now thinks of the dark valley through which he walked no longer as the time of trouble, but as the time when he called out and when God answered. The time when “you increased my strength of soul.”
[The phrase that is translated “my strength of soul” in the NRSV is likely to be misinterpreted by modern audiences. We often think of “the soul” as the spiritual part of our being. The Hebrew term that is usually translated as “soul” is nephesh. The term literally means “throat” and more figuratively means one’s “true self” or “inmost being.” The NIV (“you made me bold and stouthearted”) and NJPS (“you inspired me with courage”) take the term to refer to a spiritual or moral strengthening. But the phrase more likely refers to a literal bodily recovery. The psalmist’s point might be paraphrased: “I once was weak, but now I’m strong.”
I give you thanks, O Lord …
The psalmist’s passage through the time of crisis had quite literally, in the words of Psalm 40:3, put a new song in his mouth. Or, in the words of Psalm 51:15, the Lord had opened his lips so that his mouth could declare God’s praise. And so the psalmist does so. He begins his song with what are classic words of praise: “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart.” The Hebrew word (a hiphil of the verb yadah) that is translated “give you thanks” does not properly equate to our English word “thanks.” The verb yadah means “to know.” So in the hiphil, which here has a causative sense, the verb means “to cause someone else to know.” In other words, the verb should probably be translated as “teach” or “make known.” Or, as the Old Testament theologian John Goldingay has translated the term, “to confess.”1
In other words, “giving thanks” Old Testament-style, has less to do with some internal feeling of gratitude and more about sending God a thank you note. And the thank you note that God desires is to tell others what God has done. To proclaim the good news of God’s gracious actions to the assembly of believers, to the surrounding neighborhood, and to the world. The scope that the Lord has in mind for our confessing of the good news, for our making the Lord known, is the entire world, even the entire universe. The psalm says “all the kings of the earth” shall know and shall join in praise. And the psalm in verse 1 says “before the gods I sing” — meaning that psalmist imagines the vaults of heaven themselves resounding with his “confession” about what God had done for him.
Your name and your steadfast love
There are two things that the psalm confesses. The first has already been mentioned — that the psalmist experienced God’s help in the midst of some crisis. The psalmist called out in the day of trouble, the day of calling, and the Lord answered. Or, as the psalmist describes it in verse 7, the Lord preserved him from the wrath of enemies: “you stretched out your hand, and your right hand” delivered me. In other words, the psalmist confesses a particular experience of God’s grace.
The second thing that the psalmist proclaims is more abstract — she proclaims the character of God. Notice the following confessions:
“I. . . [confess] your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted your name and your word above everything” (verse 2)
“great is the glory of the Lord” (verse 4)
“Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever” (verse 8)
The psalm uses a group terms, which together describe the character of God — “glory” and “your name” and, most importantly, “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” The reference to God’s name can be confusing for modern audiences. In Old Testament thought, God’s “name” is more than just the “handle” that God goes by. It is God’s very identity — and, by extension, God’s very presence. To praise the Lord’s name is both to acknowledge who one trusts, but it is also claim God’s presence. When one speaks the name of the Lord, one claims the relationship that one has with God — and, indeed, when one speaks God’s name one makes known that one is in God’s presence.
An even more important concept in the psalms is that of the Lord’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” If one were to boil down the theological witness of the Book of Psalms to one phrase, it would be this: The Lord is faithful. The two terms — steadfast love (Hebrew, hesed) and faithfulness (Hebrew, ’emet) — describe God’s character. It is a character that is trustworthy, which means that the promises God makes can be trusted. Which means that the laws that God ordains are good. Which means that the guidance and providence that the Lord offers are better for us in the long run than our own wills for our own lives.
One final note. The psalmist’s experience of God’s help has reminded her that she is not the captain of her own soul, that he is not the master of his own fate — and that this is a good thing! Some people reject the offer of help from outside themselves, because they do not want to be weak, to need help, or to admit their limits. Biblical faith starts with admitting our own weakness, our own sin, our own limits — and of accepting the gracious mercy and fidelity of the Savior who comes among us to serve rather than to be served. The psalm ends with a request for continued help: Do not forsake the work of your hands. Each of us is the work of God’s hands. And to be a follower of the Lord means to know that we cannot and need not do it all on our own.
1 See John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 3: 90-150 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 753. Here Goldingay writes that “confession is a matter of words” (617).