Commentary on Psalm 116:1-9
Psalm 116 is a song of thanksgiving of an individual, a poem written after a difficult time of life has been endured, survived, or overcome.
It may seem strange, at times, to recite an individual’s song as a community in worship, but the individuals’ song was most likely written just for this purpose: that the whole congregation could hear what God has done for an individual. The individual bears witness to the group that God has been active in her life, and so encourages all who hear.
It is typical of the psalms of thanksgiving for the specifics of the psalmist’s trials to be largely ignored, leaving room for often effusive praise of God. This is precisely how Psalm 116 begins, with the psalmist saying that he loves God because…
- verse 1 I love the Lord because (Hebrew Kî) he has heard my voice and my supplications.
The psalmist then continues to list reasons why she loves God:
- verse 2 … because (Hebrew Kî) God has inclined the ear to me…
- verse 7 … for (Hebrew Kî) the Lord has dealt bountifully…
- verse 8 … for (Hebrew Kî) God has delivered my soul…
The reasons for giving thanks, one of the primary elements of the song-of-thanksgiving-psalm, are reiterated throughout the psalm. The pattern of “I ‘x’ because God has ‘y’,” that is so central to the psalm might be an important and fruitful avenue of proclamation based on the psalm.
Congregations and individuals do well to remember, and to bear witness publicly, to those ways in which they have felt God to have been active in their daily lives. Other Christians, other believers, and of course other spiritual seekers need to hear this. When we find ourselves in the midst of difficult times it is of utmost importance that we hear from others that these times can be endured, survived, and overcome, due to God’s care and provision.
The psalm itself serves not only as witness to what God has done but as the thanksgiving and praise that is due to God. Having prayed for help, and having experienced all the bounty of the Lord in response (cf. verse 12), the psalmist is now making good on the vow she made to sing God’s praises. Verses 12-14, not included in the selected reading in the lectionary, paint the picture of the psalmist’s sense of obligation in response to God’s grace:
What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD,
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.
A useful exercise might be for the preacher of this psalm to encourage the listener to first listen to the psalmist’s litany of “How do I love thee (O Lord) let me count the ways…” and then to beg the question for ourselves: Why do we love the Lord?
What do we owe our God in response for all that God has done for us — from the seminal act of creating us as individual living beings, to providing for us in our daily living (as Luther puts it, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil”1), to drawing us into the community of the redeemed through the Word.
For all of this, from life to faith, we owe God a song of thanksgiving and the witness to the world of all that God has done for us. Here again we might ask the question, “What might such a song of thanksgiving look like for us?” Is there an opportunity of/for confession, of bearing witness to God’s activity in the lives of our own people that might be explored?
One final note. Psalm 116, with its thanksgiving to God and the witness it bears, is set between two extremes, between two “existences” if you will: between Sheol — the land of the dead (verse 3), and the land of the living (verse 9). Sheol, which is literally the place where all who have died go in the ancient Israelite understanding of life and death, is often employed metaphorically in the psalms.
Sheol is not just a place — the land of the dead — but it is a state of being. The psalmist feels dead, and is lost, forlorn, troubled, while still very much alive. The benefits of God’s actions are that the psalmist is delivered from “death” and restored to a life that really feels like living. This produces not only “life,” but trust in God. With this in mind the preacher might consider adding (sic: keeping) verses 10-11, because with them in mind there is something of a chiastic structure to the psalm:
- Verses 1-2 “I love the Lord”
- Verse 3 Sheol/death
- Verses 4-8 God answers, delivers, saves
- Verse 9 Life
- Verses 10-11 “I kept faith”
The witness that is the core of the psalm, that God delivers, is centered at first by these two extremes, the experience of a death-like state and the restoration to “the land of the living,” and second by the declaration of the psalmist that she loves the Lord (because the Lord delivers) and that she kept faith even in troubling times (because the Lord delivers).
Christians may be inclined to rush to the eternal salvation promised in Christ Jesus, and this is not altogether wrong. But there is something very this-worldy about the promise as well. The promise is that because of what God does — listening to our supplications, answering our prayers, promising us life out of death, this life is transformed as well. And is that not worthy of our thanks, and proclamation?
1Martin Luther, “The First Article,” in The Small Catechism, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000).