Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

As I have done with the previous three Psalm lections, I again tie the theme of worship with some other theme of the passage.

September 6, 2009

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Commentary on Psalm 146

As I have done with the previous three Psalm lections, I again tie the theme of worship with some other theme of the passage.

Worship is obviously an appropriate concept to anchor Psalm 146, the first of the concluding five “hallelujah” psalms and a fine example of the “hymn” genre,1  or what Claus Westermann refers to as “descriptive praise,” with a “transition to exhortation and instruction.”2 

The psalm connects its praise (verses 1-2) with the theme of God’s providence, especially in terms of God’s engagement with creation, history, and humankind. Scholars offer different structural arrangements of the psalm which suggest their own directions for preaching about these aspects of providence: Weiser identifies five sections (1-2/3-4/5-6/7-9/10); Leslie Allen sees two major blocks of material (3-6a/6b-9) surrounded by an introduction and conclusion; and the NRSV holds verses 5-7 together in the middle.3 

Preachers in American congregations, at least, will be mindful of the fact that this Sunday falls on Labor Day weekend. This psalm certainly creates an opportunity for prophetic witness to a workaholic society that tries not to depend on God’s provision. Lest this seem too topical of an approach, however, the other lectionary texts offer a prophetic intertextuality of their own, linking God’s provision for healing and creation’s renewal (Isaiah 35:4-7a) to Jesus’ healing in Gentile regions (Mark 7:24-37) and the early church’s call to a ministry of impartiality (James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17).

Providence and Praise

The call to praise is reinforced by the abundant references to the covenant name of the Lord throughout the psalm (Yahweh, eleven times; plus El/Elohim four times). The saturation of God’s name is itself a testament to the ubiquitous providence of God. While it is true that many psalms praise God for specific, miraculous acts of individual and national deliverance, the argument here is precisely that these divine acts are not special interventions, not extraordinary instances of divine compassion, but rather Israel’s characteristic language of Yahweh’s providential presence in the world.4 

Yahweh is the one “who made heaven and earth . . . who keeps faith forever . . .” (verse 6). Scholars are therefore correct to suggest some influence on this psalm from the biblical wisdom traditions, for they contributed to Israel’s theology of creation and providence.5  Hence, one can see why this psalm would become part of Judaism’s “daily morning prayers.”6

What should be emphasized with equal seriousness is that God’s characteristic involvement with creation and history has a certain focus in this psalm, namely the oppressed and hungry, the prisoners (verse 7), the blind, and those who are bowed down (verse 8), and the stranger, orphan, and widow (verse 9). Israel’s law and prophets called the nation to account for its treatment of the most vulnerable members of society, and a Christian reading of this psalm rightly sees a connection with Jesus’ programmatic Nazareth sermon (Luke 4:16-29).7  God’s providence is praised not only in Jesus’ miracles, which are the first fruits of the restoration; it is also profoundly united to our understanding of the incarnation and crucifixion, in Jesus’ complete identification with humankind and his complete self-giving. I think of the way the recent motion picture, Seven Pounds, vividly portrays Ben Thomas (Will Smith) as a Christ-figure who gives himself — literally — to create healing and restoration in others.

The Infinite King and Finite Princes

Psalm 146 provides energy to the theme of God’s providential involvement by linking it to God’s righteous rule from Zion (verse 10) and presenting a stark contrast between this king who “will reign forever” and “princes . . . mortals in whom there is no hope” (v. 3; see also Psalm 118:9). The Hebrew wordplay in verses 3-4 undermines any merely human source of deliverance, for ‘adam (“mortals”) must return to ‘adamah (“earth”), invoking the judgment of Genesis 3:19. Jewish intertestamental literature also drew on this ancient tradition, finding comfort in the fact that oppressive rulers would not remain forever: “Today they will be exalted, but tomorrow they will not be found, because they will have returned to the dust, and their plans will have perished” (1 Maccabees 2:63).8 

The title track of Coldplay’s recent CD, “Viva la Vida,” presents just such a fallen monarch who remembers, “I used to rule the world, seas would rise when I gave the word / now in the morning I sleep alone, sweep the streets I used to own.” Later he adds, “One minute I held the key, next the walls were closed on me / and I discovered that my castles stand, upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.”

“Princes” come under particular indictment because, as nobles, they were in a position to effect change for the poor and oppressed. The prophets often laid responsibility for Israel’s woes at the feet of its various leaders (Isaiah 3:14; Jeremiah 23; Ezekiel 34; Hosea 5:1). Yahweh’s royal office is highlighted, therefore, because he alone enacts true justice within history.

However, translating this judgment into our socio-political system, apart from a fully developed biblical theology of leadership, might lead to unwarranted applications. As James Mays wisely notes, “The hymn does not say that leaders are unnecessary or not useful. It does warn against trusting them for salvation.”9 Psalm 146 does not dwell very long on the inadequacy and transience of human leadership. To do so would have undermined the author’s purpose of exalting the Lord’s providential care for creation, especially for the most vulnerable members of society — Israel’s and our own.

1A. Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary (Westminster, 1962), 829.
2C. Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms (John Knox, 1981), 122, 124.
3Weiser, 830; L. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Word, 1983), 302. J. Kselman suggests an interesting chiastic arrangement, with praise (1-2, 10) surrounding two wisdom sections (3-5, 8c-9), with a central theme of God as creator and redeemer (5-8b). See “Psalm 146 in its Context” CBQ 50 (1988): 591-592.
4On “characteristic speech” see W. Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress, 1997), 122-126.
5L. Perdue, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History (WJK, 2007), 73-74.
6Weiser, 830.
7D. Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (InterVarsity Press, 1975), 484.
8NRSV; reference cited by W. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1991), 865.
9J. L. Mays, Psalms (John Knox, 1994), 440.