Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 145 ends with the words, “The praise of the Lord my mouth will speak, and all flesh will bless his holy name for all time and beyond” (145:21).

Lazarus waiting at the door
Lazarus waiting at the door, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source

September 29, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 146

Psalm 145 ends with the words, “The praise of the Lord my mouth will speak, and all flesh will bless his holy name for all time and beyond” (145:21).

And in the five psalms that follow, Psalms 146-150, that is precisely what takes place.

Psalms 146-150 are known as the “Final Hallel” of the book of Psalms. Each opens and closes with the words “hallelujah” — “praise the LORD,” and together they expand the praise of God from the individual psalm singer to the people of Israel to all creation.

  • Psalm 146:2 states, “I will praise the Lord as long as I live”
  • Psalm 148:14 states, “He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful for the people of Israel who are close to him”
  • and Psalm 150:6 says, “Let all that has breath praise the Lord”

Psalm 146 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving. It opens with an admonishment to the “soul” (nephesh) to praise the Lord and continues with a statement that the psalmist will praise and sing praises to God for the duration of her life.

In verses 3 and 4, the psalm singer admonishes those listening to the song of praise not to trust in earthly rulers, mere mortals (ben ‘adam) who will return to the earth (‘adamah) when their breath leaves them. These words bring to mind Genesis 2, in which the first human (‘adam) is formed by God from the earth (‘adamah), emphasizing the transitory nature of human existence.

Verse 5 begins with the wisdom word “happy” (‘ashre), the same word with which Psalm 1 opens and Psalm 2 closes. The word ‘ashre occurs twenty-six times in the Psalter, and most likely is derived from a verbal root that means “to follow a particular path,” thus suggesting the sense of assurance and contentedness that comes with knowing that one is “doing what is right” and is “following the right path in life.”

Verse 5 continues, “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob.” The word “help,” derived from the verbal root ‘ezer, is a powerfully simple word. It is used in Genesis 2:18, where we read: Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the (hu)man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” ‘Ezer occurs in its noun form some sixty-five times in the Old Testament, and in most cases, it refers to the “help” of God in some sort of life-threatening situation (e.g., Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:26; Psalm 33:20). Thus the word ‘ezer conveys the idea of a “help” that is a strong presence, an aid without which humankind would be unprotected and vulnerable to all sorts of unsettling situations.

In verses 6-8b, the singer of Psalm 144 describes the actions and attributes of God using action verbs in which the psalm singer outlines God’s generous care for creation by executing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, setting prisoners free, opening the eyes of the blind, and lifting up those who are bent down. In verses 8c-9, the psalm singer states that the Lord loves the righteous, watches over the strangers, and upholds the orphan and the widow, but that the way of the wicked God “will bring to ruin.” Psalm 146 ends with verse 10’s words of confidence in the reign of God over all creation with the words, “The Lord will reign for all time.”

But how does the reign of God work itself out in this world? What does it mean to trust in God to give bread to the hungry, to watch over the strangers, and to open the eyes of the blind?

Throughout most of the story of the Old Testament, our ancestors in the faith had a king. First Saul, then David and Solomon, and then others like Rehoboam and Hezekiah and Josiah. And we read repeatedly in the prophetic books that a major role of the king in ancient Israel, and in other cultures in the ancient Near East, was to provide justice for those who were oppressed, to give food to those who were hungry, to set prisoners free, to lift up those who were bowed down, to watch over strangers, and to support the orphan and the widow.

The role of the king was to provide a “place” for the people of the kingdom to live and flourish in safety and care and comfort. Unfortunately the kings of Israel didn’t do a very good job of fulfilling their God-given kingly duties, and by the time a psalmist composed Psalm 146, the Israelite people had been taken into captivity by the Babylonians, Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed, and no king ruled over Israel.

So what to do? Well, in the face of destruction and the end of the kingdom and nation founded by David, God could and would be ruler over the people. Psalm 97 states, “The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” The closing verse of Psalm 146 says, “The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.” The psalm singer reminds us that God, the creator of the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, will care for the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them better than any earthly king in Israel’s past had ever done. Better than anyone who is rich and powerful, better than any princes.

How will God go about performing these “caring” duties? Well, that’s where we — you and I — and where communities of faith, come in. We are called to be the hands and feet, the arms and legs, the eyes and ears, the voice and the heart of God in our world. How will God support the orphan and the widow? How will God give bread to those who are hungry? How will God set the prisoners free? Through folks like you and me. We are all called to care for this world and its inhabitants — to be the arms and legs, hands and feet, eyes and ears, voice and heart of God. How else will God’s presence be known and felt in the world?