Commentary on Psalm 146
Psalm 146 opens a collection of five hallelujah psalms at the end of the book of Psalms (146-150).
Each of these psalms begins and ends by encouraging everyone to “praise the LORD!” which is the meaning of the Hebrew phrase hallelu-yah. This joyful set of psalms is a fitting conclusion for the book of Psalms, which in Hebrew is known as “Praise Songs” (Tehillim).
Psalm 146 celebrates the good news that in the face of human frailty and mortality God remains trustworthy. What is more, God’s sovereignty from creation to eternity is dedicated to assisting those in deepest need and direst circumstances. Lifelong praise through bearing witness to God’s reign is the theme of Psalm 146.
The opening verses present an internal dialogue. An individual responds to the general call to “praise the LORD” by pledging herself to praise the LORD “as long as I live” and to sing God’s praises “all my life long” (vss. 1-2; compare Psalm 103:1). The human lifespan is introduced as ample time for expressing God’s goodness. (A contrasting emphasis on the brevity of human life appears in the critique of earthly rulers in vss. 3-4.)
An alternate translation of verse 2 identifies human life not only as the timeframe but also as the means through which to praise God: “I will praise the LORD though my life; I will sing God’s praises through my existence” (author’s translation). This translation suggests events in a person’s own life that illustrate God’s faithfulness. It also implies that the way one lives one’s life is itself an act of praise. Living out God’s values of truth, justice, and responsiveness to those in need described in vss. 5-9 acknowledges God’s goodness. This inspiring range of meanings is due to the scope of the Hebrew preposition in both phrases, which can mean “in, during, through, or by means of” (b).
The psalm suddenly shifts to the topic of human leaders or “nobles.” Even the best public officials, teachers, business leaders, and social change agents are limited in their efforts to help those in trouble, not because they are evil but because they are disappointing. Those who promise assistance are themselves mortal. Like the first “human being” (’adam) in Genesis, they die and return to the “earth” (’adamah, verse 4), and their plans fail on that day, a brief unit of time contrasting to the eternity of God’s reign. The stories of even the greatest of Israel and Judah’s leaders, such as Moses and David, demonstrate their fallibility. Contemporary examples of our leaders’ limitations are also easy to identify.
The rest of Psalm 146 gives a contrasting vision of God as an attentive and reliable sovereign. An opening beatitude highlights the good fortune of the person who trusts in the God of Jacob (verse 5). The ideology of ancient near eastern kingship as ensuring justice and as protecting the vulnerable lies behind the portrait of God as a helper in time of need that follows. (See Psalm 72 for an expression of this royal ideology.)
The qualities that make God praiseworthy are described through a series of wonderful verbs, all participles expressing habitual behaviors. Creation, restoration, and caregiving mark God’s character. God is always acting!
God is first of all the one who creates. The scope of God’s creative action is as large as the heavens, the earth, and the sea, as well as everything that inhabits them. The entire creation is undergirded by God’s eternal truth (verse 6).
God’s action quickly shifts from the panorama of creation to specific categories of vulnerable human beings. It is easy to identify people today who fall into the categories identified in Psalm 146:7-9 as the recipients of God’s special attention. Additional categories specific to local, national, or global contexts might be identified as well.
People who are exploited, experiencing hunger, and incarcerated are given top priority (verse 7).
God brings justice to those who have been economically, socially, or sexually abused for another’s advantage. The same Hebrew verb, “making” (‘oseh), is used to describe both God’s creating (‘oseh) of the entire world and God’s giving (‘oseh) of justice to those who have been oppressed. Creation and liberation are interrelated activities.
Providing food for the hungry follows as a parallel to God’s granting of justice. The help provided is not abstract, but real assistance in time of the body’s distress (see James 2:15-16). Food justice as an ongoing issue, exemplified by “food deserts” in some U.S. neighborhoods, might be lifted up in a sermon.
The third and final category in verse 7 includes those who are bound, whom God releases. The huge prison population in the United States springs to mind in this connection.
Healing of bodily and spiritual infirmities and restoration to wholeness follows (verse 8). Mark 7 contains parallels, with the Syrophoenician woman corresponding to the person bowed down who is raised up (Mark 7:25-26) and the man who is deaf and mute a variant of the blind person given sight (Mark 7:37; see also Isiah 35:5-6). Jesus ministry embodies God’s reign.
God’s love of the righteous belongs in this grouping, because the righteous commit themselves to reconciliation and to restoration of relationships.
The final categories of people for whom God advocates are those who are marginalized and powerless (verse 9). The resident alien (ger), the orphan, and the widow are three groups of vulnerable people whom God protects and expects Israel to protect (Exodus 22:20-23). No one who intends harm (the “wicked”) will ultimately succeed.
Psalm 146 portrays an amazing vision of healing, restoration, and wholeness. Living in a broken world where disappointment, anger, and injustice remain all too common, we are assured that God’s kingdom is different. We are emboldened to hope and to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The psalm concludes by acknowledging the eternal rule of Zion’s God, from generation to generation. With the divine help characteristic of God’s trustworthy governance in Psalm 146, the reasons for praising God are clear! Hallelujah!