Commentary on Psalm 138:1-8
Psalm 138 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, a psalm in which a single voice praises God for goodness to or on behalf of that individual, usually for deliverance from some trying situation.
Hermann Gunkel, one of the great fathers of psalm studies, describes hymns of thanksgiving in this way: “A person is saved out of great distress, and now with grateful heart he [sic] brings a thank offering to Yahweh; it was customary that at a certain point in the sacred ceremony he would offer a song in which he expresses his thanks.”
In eight brief verses, the singer of Psalm 138 gives thanks to God in the presence of three groups: the gods (verses 1-3); the kings of the earth (verses 4-6); and enemies (verses 7-8). Second-person pronouns abound in verses 1-3, occurring eleven times as the psalmist addresses God directly.
In verse 1, the psalmist gives thanks to God, making music in the presence of the gods. Psalms 135 and 136 also mention “the gods.” In Psalm 135:5 the singer declares “great is the LORD, our God, our Lord, more than all the gods.” And in Psalm 136:2-3, the psalmist says, “Give thanks to the god of gods … give thanks to the lord of lords.” Such phrases are common in the Old Testament, expressing God’s sovereignty over any claimants to the appellation “god.”
In verse 2 of Psalm 138, the psalm singer continues the words of thanks, this time to the “name (shem)” of god, because of God’s “steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (‘emeth).” “Name” was an important concept in the ancient Near East. Names reflected the natures and characters of the person who bore them and were conceptually equal to the essence of ones being. The name “Jacob” means “he usurps,” because he grabs Esau’s heel at the birth, attempting to be the first-born twin (Genesis 25:26). He indeed usurps Esau later in life when he coerces Esau into selling to him his birthright and when he tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing.
After wrestling at the Jabbok, God changes Jacob’s name to “Israel,” which means “he has struggled with God” (Genesis 32:28). During Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush in Exodus 3, Moses replies to God’s command to return to Egypt with a seemingly simple request. “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I tell them?” (3:13).
Moses asks for God’s name in order to fully understand and then convey to the Israelites who this God was. In Exodus 20, God commanded the Israelites that they not “make wrongful use of” God’s name. And the book of Deuteronomy tells us that God’s name will dwell in the place of God’s choosing in the promised land (Deuteronomy 12:5; 14:23-24; 16:2).
The word “steadfast love (hesed)” occurs some 245 times in the Old Testament, 127 times in the book of Psalms. One Jewish scholar defines hesed as “a free-flowing love that knows no bounds.” Hesed is most closely connected conceptually with the covenant relationship between God and children of Israel. Genesis 17 records these words of God to Abram, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now alien … and I will be their God” (verses 7-8).
In Exodus 19, God says to the children of Israel, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (verses 5-6). In each instance, God calls the Israelites into a special relationship centered around a covenant.
Hesed is often used in conjunction with “faithfulness (‘emeth). Both are self-descriptive words used by God in the revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:6-8). The Hebrew verbal root of ‘emeth is ‘aman, meaning “be firm, be reliable, be permanent,” and is the root from which the word “amen” is derived. The psalmist thus gives thanks to, makes music to, and bows down toward God because of God’s name, covenant commitment, and firm reliability.
In verse 3, the psalm singer states what has prompted these words of thanks to God. The first begins in most English translations with the words “On the day that I called,” suggesting a particular point in time when the psalmist cried out. In Hebrew, however, the phrase has a broader temporal frame of reference, best understood as “whenever.” Thus, the psalmist thanks God for answering whenever the psalmist cries out.
In verse 4, the venue of thanks and singing to God shifts from the realm of the gods (verse 1) to the earthly realm of kings. The reason that kings ought to join the psalm singer in giving thanks and singing to God is three-fold: 1) The kings have heard the words (verse 4b; 2b); 2) The glory of the Lord is great (verse 5b); and the Lord is exalted, seeing and knowing the states of the lowly and the haughty alike (verse 6).
The venue shifts once again in verse 7, this time to the realm of the midst of “trouble (tsarah) and the wrath of my enemies (‘oyeb).” The two words “trouble” and “enemies” are often used in parallel constructions in Hebrew poetry (Psalm 42). The psalm singer refers to the hand of God three times in the closing verses of Psalm 138.
God stretches out a hand (verse 7); God’s hand delivers (verse 7); and the psalmist asks God not to “forsake” the “work of your hands” (verse 8). The word translated “forsake” is rapah and means “be slack, be loosened, be weak.” The psalmist has experienced God’s upholding hands over and over in the past and petitions God to continue to uphold and protect.
Psalm 138 celebrates the name, the steadfast love, the faithfulness, and the intimate care of God in the myriad places in which we find ourselves in life — our sanctuaries of safety; our chaotic social, political, and economic world; our daily trials and troubles. The psalm singer reminds the faithful that their God is a God who remembers and cares; that their God is a God worthy of thanks and worship; and that their God is a God above all gods.