Commentary on Psalm 146
The audacious and sometimes artful fantasy series Game of Thrones ended in May and provoked the outrage of many of its devoted fans.
Whether it failed to deliver on George R. R. Martin’s vision or betrayed one of its best-loved characters, the show stayed true to a theme encapsulated in Psalm 146:3: “Do not put your trust in princes.” More specifically, do not trust would-be messiahs who promise to use their royal might to bring justice to the oppressed.
Psalm 146 is commonly dated to the Persian period. This matters because the Persian Empire developed a rhetoric that promoted its universal, imperial rule as a force of cosmic order that the many peoples of the Empire should joyfully accept. Recent scholarship on Book 5 of the Psalter (Psalms 107-150) has appreciated that embedded in this material is a critique of this kind of Persian propaganda (see, for example, W. Dennis Tucker Jr.’s Constructing and Deconstructing Power in Psalms 107-150). Amid the praise of YHWH, “there is a secondary claim meant to discredit the power associated with other nations and peoples.”1
Significantly for Christians who, historically, have been seduced by imperial and national expressions of power, Psalm 146—and the fifth book of the Psalter—provides a critical lens through which to view the princes and mortals who make grand promises of “help.”
The psalm begins with four iterations of praise. First, the psalmist calls the people to praise YHWH; that outward call is then directed to the psalmist’s own being (traditionally translated “soul,” verse 1). This is followed by a two-fold promise to praise, in which the psalmist promises to praise and sing praises to YHWH, literally, with their life (beh?ayyay) and all their life long (verse 2). Through the psalmist’s invitation and testimony, the Israelites assembled in the temple are roused to join in a lifelong and life-consuming act of praise.
Verses 3-4 warns against trusting in human rulers, for in them, there is no “salvation” or “deliverance” (tesu‘ah). This human ruler will return to the earth just as all humans will (Genesis 2:19; Psalm 104:29; Ecclesiastes 3:19) and “on that day, all his plans will perish.” But the leader’s ambitious plans to save the Empire are fleeting not only in the sense that they will not last. “His plans” also reflect human finitude in that they arise out of a desire to accumulate power and control, to extend the dominion of the Empire. The psalm is making a shrewd political statement; it is an implicit but scathing critique of powerful leaders who assure their subjects that their “plans” have been designed to save them (but not, of course, to advance their own interests!).
The psalmist is not content only to critique, however; in verse 5 she offers a clear and compelling alternative. Those who whose help and hope is in YHWH are “happy.” The language of “happy are those” will, of course, play a key role in the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3-12; see also Luke 6:2-22). But the language of “happy are those” is also well attested in the Psalter. Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked (Psalm 1:1); who take refuge in YHWH (Psalm 34:8); who do not turn to the proud (Psalm 40:4); who consider the poor (Psalm 41:1); who observe justice (Psalm 106:3); who fear YHWH, who greatly delight in his commandments (Psalm 112:1); who keep his [YHWH’s] decrees who him with their whole heart (Psalm 119:2).
Here, the “happy” are those whose look to YHWH for help rather than to princes. In contrast to human rulers, YHWH is not only powerful (he made heaven and earth and the sea and all the things in them), his plans are not ephemeral (he keeps faith forever, verse 6), and he is actually and truly committed to bringing justice to the oppressed and to feeding the hungry (verse 7).
What follows is a litany of things YHWH always or habitually does (the verbs in verses 7-9 are all participles). YHWH is praised here as an intensely active god, tirelessly working on the ground, “executing justice,” “giving food,” “setting free” (verse 7), “opening (blind) eyes,” “lifting up,” “loving” (verse 8), “watching over,” and “upholding” (verse 9). Further, the objects of YHWH’s affections and attention are “the oppressed,” “the hungry,” “the prisoners” (verse 7), “the blind,” “those who are bowed down,” “the righteous” (verse 8), “the stranger,” and “the orphan and the widow” (verse 9).
Rather abruptly, the litany concludes with a “but” (verse 9). The penultimate poetic line assures the people that YHWH is not only a compassionate healer and savior but also a judge: “He will bring the way of the wicked to ruin.” Who were the wicked? The ruling classes of the Persian Empire? The Israelite elite who collaborated with the Persians?
Though the historical context helps us narrow the field of our speculations, we can’t really know. One thing that makes the Psalms so enduring is their open-ended language, which can be specified and localized to suit any given situation. This is a potentially risky moment for the preacher. For an Israelite living under the thumb of the Persian Empire, the imperial oppressor could be identified as “the wicked.” But who does that language implicate in the context of your congregation?
In my admittedly limited experience, mainline Protestants tend to get very uncomfortable with the language of the wicked (“so judgmental,” they say), while Protestants who have a more conservative social agenda feel a little too comfortable with it (“we know who the wicked are!” they say). But if the psalmist is talking about Empire here, then socio-economically and racially privileged churches of all stripes either have good reason to be nervous—or should be more nervous—because the question “Who are the wicked?” demands self-reflection. Mainline American churches are likely colluding with Empire in ways they might not want to think about. Thus, the courageous preacher might ask: With whom are we more aligned? With YHWH and the poor? Or with “the wicked” forces of Empire?
The psalm concludes with what was surely a subversive claim during the era of Persian rule. Despite the fact that the Persian emperor controlled the vastest empire yet known, the psalmist claims that it is YHWH who reigns and will reign forever (verse 10).
The Persian rulers talk of their “plans” and congratulate themselves for having brought cosmic order to the empire. But, the psalmist insists, YHWH is perpetually creating order on the ground, saving, healing, and redeeming those who suffer. While Empire is busy generating propaganda designed to convince its subjects that they are happy, YHWH is busy attending to the oppressed.
In our political age, when reading the news is a genuinely stressful activity, and when that stress leads us to place our hope in charismatic leaders who promise to save us (even though we know better), Psalm 146 offers a grounded orientation: don’t trust in the plans of politicians and world leaders. Instead, live your life in joyful accordance with what YHWH is doing right now.
- W. Dennis Tucker Jr., Constructing and Deconstructing Power in Psalms 107-150 (SBL Press, 2014), 188.
September 29, 2019