Commentary on Psalm 113
If we open a commentary on the Psalms, we might learn that Psalm 113 is a “hymn of praise,” beginning (verse 1) and ending (verse 9) with the Hebrew imperative halelu yah: “Praise Yah(weh)!”
Like many of the hymns of praise found in the Psalter, the call to praise (verses 1-4) is followed by the reasons for praise (verses 5-9). As commentators regularly note, Psalm 113 paints a portrait of God who should be praised for both God’s transcendence and immanence. The psalmist asks, “Who could possibly compare to the Lord our God? God rules from on high; he has to come down to even see heaven and earth!” (CEB Psalm 113:5-6). In what follows, the psalmist then describes how this God is also a dynamic presence in this world: “God lifts up the poor from the dirt and raises up the needy from the garbage pile to seat them with leaders—with the leaders of his own people! God nests the once barren woman at home—now a joyful mother with children!” (Psalm 113:7-9).
The ancient Israelites, we might read, would likely have used such a psalm in communal worship. If we move forward from the world of ancient Israel, we find that Psalm 113 has continued to be used in communal worship. For example, our commentaries will tell us that in Judaism this psalm is the first of the six psalms (Psalms 113-118) comprising the Hallel, recited during many Jewish holidays. Together these psalms tell a story that expresses delight and gratitude for God’s past, present, and future acts in the history of Israel. As the presence of Psalm 113 in the Revised Common Lectionary attests, the psalm continues to be used in Christian communal worship, too. It is read both in the Season After Pentecost and during Easter, often in connection with the story of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and the story of Mary (Luke 1:39-57). In 1 Samuel 2:1-10, we read about a God who listens to Hannah’s prayer for a child, intervening to make a barren woman conceive. Here again, we see a concerned God, a God who acts in history.
In some contemporary printed Bibles, we might find a title added to Psalm 113 that is not found in ancient manuscripts: “God the Helper of the Needy” (see, for example, the HarperCollins Study Bible). The Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564 C.E.) likewise focused on Psalm 113 as evidence of a God who helps those in need, writing, “In this psalm the providence of God furnishes matter for praising him, because, though his excellency is far above the heavens, nevertheless, he deigns to cast his eyes upon the earth to take notice of mankind.”1 Calvin then continues, “And as not a few are disconcerted by the vicissitudes which they behold occurring in the world, the prophet takes occasion, from these sudden and unlooked for changes, to warn us to attend expressly to God’s providence, that we may entertain no doubt that all things are governed according to his will and pleasure.”2
Calvin thus draws our attention to a question that those who recite or sing this hymn of praise might find themselves asking: even as Psalm 113 honors a God who rules from on high but nevertheless is also active in our world, how do we make sense of the psalmist’s claims if we find ourselves “disconcerted by the vicissitudes” around us? What do we do when we look around and it seems as if God is nowhere active in the lives of the poor, the needy, the barren? How do we praise God for “lift[ing] up the poor from the dirt,” “rais[ing] up the needy from the garbage pile,” and making a once barren woman “a joyful mother with children” in a world that tells a different story? If we read or sing this psalm in the United States, we might remember that recent reports note some 40 million people live in poverty in our country alone. Or we might think of the images from our evening news that continue to show us children seeking asylum in the U.S., sitting locked in cages, without adequate food and water, often separated from their parents. We ourselves might know food insecurity, debt, or yearn for a child that does not come.
Psalm 113 can always provide hope that God did act in history and will continue to act in history, as the active verbs attest (“God rules … lifts up … raises up … nests …”). But if we nevertheless remain disturbed by the disconnect between the psalmist’s claims and the realities of the world around us, what do we do with this particular hymn?
Reading the psalm with the early Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo (354 C.E.-430 C.E.) provides another possible way to employ it in our lives. In his reflection on Psalm 113:7, which exclaims that “God lifts up the poor from the dirt and raises up the needy from the garbage pile to seat them with leaders—with the leaders of his own people!”, Augustine warns readers, “Let not the heads of those exalted ones disdain to bow down under the Lord’s hand.”3 In other words, no matter how wealthy, respected, or high-ranking we might find ourselves, we must remain humble before God. After all, he continues, “Even though a faithful steward of his Lord’s wealth be given a place with the princes of God’s people, even though such a person be found worthy to sit among the twelve thrones and even to judge angels, nonetheless he or she is a needy person when raised from the earth, a pauper when exalted from the dungheap. Can you deny that they were lifted up from a dungheap, those who used to be enslaved to all sorts of desires and pleasures?”4 All humans, Augustine prompts us to remember, come from humble origins in comparison with the divine.
What lesson might we learn from reading with Augustine? If we are reading or singing Psalm 113 from a place of privilege, perhaps we can pause and reflect on how we might not always be in such a place. And, so, should the tables turn, and should we become someone in need of help, what would we want from those who were? Augustine provides one way we might engage this psalm outside of our liturgical lives and in our day-to-day lives. Hymns of praise do not absolve us from the work that we need to do alongside any divine activity present in our world. While the psalm does not explicitly command anything beyond praising God for God’s acts, perhaps we can, in the act of reciting a psalm that celebrates God’s work in the world, also remind ourselves of how we can do such work, too. Psalm 113 can prompt us to remember our own humble origins, to live with humility, and to serve other always, especially in moments when God’s presence in the world might be less explicitly manifest than we might want.
- Calvin, John. Commentary on the Psalms. Vol. 4. Trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1963), 295.
- Calvin, 295.
- Augustine. Expositions of the Psalms 99-120. Vol. 5. Trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003), 301.
- Augustine, 301-302.