Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 113 is the third psalm in a group of psalms in Book Five known as the hallelujah psalms (Psalms 111-118).

Rich and Poor, or, War and Peace
Unidentified Flemish painter. Rich and Poor, or, War and Peace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

September 22, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 113

Psalm 113 is the third psalm in a group of psalms in Book Five known as the hallelujah psalms (Psalms 111-118).

It also the first of a collection of six psalms (Psalms 113-118) that are known as “the Egyptian Hallel” and are used in the celebration of Passover. In modern Jewish life, Psalms 113-114 are recited before the Passover meal, and Psalms 115-118 are recited at its conclusion. Psalm 113, classified as a community hymn of praise, is sung at the blessing of the first Passover cup of wine. Calling its hearers to praise the name of the Lord for all of the Lord’s goodness to the people, it is an apt introduction to the Passover story, which is then recounted in the following psalm, Psalm 114.

Two evenly divided stanzas make up Psalm 113, verses 1-4 and verses 5-9, with verse 5’s question, “Who is like the LORD our God?” acting as the centerpiece of the psalm and connecting its two parts. Some scholars suggest that the psalm may have been used antiphonally, sung by two choirs in a worship setting.

The psalm opens with “hallelujah” — a command to the people to praise the Lord. Twice more in the opening verse, the command to praise is issued, first naming the subject of the command, “O servants of the Lord,” and then further identifying the object of praise, “the name of the Lord.” The phrase “the name of the LORD” appears again in verses 2 and 3. In verse 2, “the name of the Lord” is being blessed “from this time on and forevermore,” and in verse 3 it is being praised “from the rising of the sun to its setting.”

“Name” was an important concept in the ancient Near East. Names reflected the natures and characters of the persons who bore them and were conceptually equal to the very essence of being. To know someone was to possess some part of that person; to speak a name was to speak someone or something into being. The name “Jacob” means “he usurps,” because he grabs Esau’s heel at their 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 the incident at the Jabbok, God changes Jacob’s name to “Israel” which means “he has struggled with God” (32:28).

In the creation story in Genesis 2, God brings the animals one by one to the first human and we read, “and whatever the human called every living creature, that was its name” (2:19). Here we have a wonderful picture of humanity working together with God as co-creator. Naming brings the animals into being — an ibex becomes an ibex; a hippopotamus becomes a hippopotamus; an eagle becomes an eagle.

In Exodus 3, Moses encounters God at the burning bush. In that encounter, 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 say to them?” (3:13). Moses asked for God’s name. What is the nature and character of the God who is requesting such a thing? God replies with self-naming words of existence, “I am that I am.” From the Hebrew words ehyeh asher ehyeh?the ancient Israelites derived the personal name of God, Yahweh.They possessed an important aspect of the being of God.

In Exodus 20, God commanded the Israelites from Mt. Sinai that they are not to “make wrongful use of” God’s name. The book of Deuteronomy tells us that God’s name will dwell in the place of God’s choosing in the land (Deuteronomy 12:5, 14:23-24, 16:2). And Psalm 8:1 states, “O Lord , our sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” Verse 4 of Psalm 113 echoes Psalm 8:4: “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens.”

The question of verse 5 is the center of Psalm 113, connecting the call to praise of the first four verses with the reasons to praise found in verses 6-9. The question, “Who is like the Lord our God?” needs no answer. The answer is obvious, based on the description of the Lord that follows. Verse 6 states that God “is seated (literally “dwells”) on high,” yet God “looks down on the heavens and the earth.” In verses 7 and 8, God “raises up from the dust” and “lifts up from the ash heap” the poor and the needy and causes them to sit (literally “dwell”) with princes. And in verse 9, God “gives a home (literally “a dwelling place”)” to “the barren woman,” making her the joyous mother of children.

God who dwells on high looks down upon the earth; sees the needy and the poor Israelites in slavery in Egypt; raises them up from the dunghills and places them in the dwellings of princes; sees barren Israel, and gives her children a place to dwell. The repetition of the verb “to dwell” (in verses 6, 8, and 9) is striking. When Moses encountered God at the burning bush, God said to him, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. … Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them and bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land” (Exodus 3:7-8). A dwelling place, a homeland, was the ultimate promise of God to the children of Israel.

Many commentators connect Psalm 113:5, 7-8, and 9 with verses 2, 5, and 8 of Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2, in which Hannah sings to the “Holy One,” the “Rock” verse 2), because “the barren has born seven” (verse 5) and because the LORD “raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (verse 8). The story of God’s care for Hannah thus becomes a model for God’s care for Israel.

Psalm 113 ends with the same word with which it begins — hallelujah — forming a frame of praise around the words of the psalm. Psalm 113 is a hymn calling a community of believers to praise a transcendent God who cares enough for humankind to look down, reach down, and raise up the poor and needy of the earth. The answer to the question, “Who is like the Lord our God?” can be nothing more and nothing less than, “No one.”