Commentary on Psalm 36:5-10
One could go in a variety of directions in preaching on this psalm.
The psalm is assigned to the Epiphany season and thus the “light” theme of verse 9 suggests itself, moving all the way to the “light of the world” metaphor in John 9. The lectionary also suggests using verse 8 of the psalm as a refrain and thus tying the “abundance” theme to the abundance of wine in the Gospel for the day. I suggest, however, dealing with the psalm on its own and as a whole, with a focus on the last line of verse 6: “you save humans and animals alike, O Lord. “
Structure and Genre
The psalm falls into three parts:
- verses 1-4 describe human wickedness
- verses 5-9 focus on God’s steadfast love
- verses 10-12 ask God for deliverance from the wicked.
The psalm contains elements characteristic of a lament or call for help, with a complaint in the “they” form (1-4), an expression of praise and trust in God (5-9) and a cry for deliverance from the “wicked” (10-12).
Reading the Psalm
Verses 1-4 make clear the realities of the situation of those who are praying. They live in the midst of a godless people. There is no sense of the sacred, no acknowledgment that there is a God (verse 1). The wickedness of these people expresses itself in a me-centered life driven by deception and dishonesty, carried out in secret wheeling and dealing. They even plan evil while lying on their beds, when they should be sleeping (verses 2-4; see also Micah 2:1-5). The psalmist is a realist, aware of the opposition to God and the godly that exists all around.
Verses 5-9 express the heart of the psalm and the grounds for hope. In contrast to human wickedness we hear of the LORD’s amazing grace (“steadfast love”) and faithfulness. In contrast to secretive deceit and iniquity, we hear of God’s righteousness which is high as the mountains and deep as the seas (5-6). This amazing grace is not limited to those huddled in the safety of the sanctuary whether it be the people of Israel or the people of the Church. There’s a wideness to God’s love which extends to all peoples (verse 7). The old hymn has it just right:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in God’s justice which is more than liberty.1
The words of verses 5-9 are words of praise and of trust in the wideness of God’s mercy which extends not only to all peoples of the world but also to the animals (verse 6)! The imagery describing God here is imaginative and stunning: God’s steadfast love is “precious” (Hebrew, yakar, verse 7a) like a whole collection of precious stones (the same Hebrew word occurs in the listing of precious stones in Ezekiel 28:13); God is like a bird providing shelter for its young or like a host providing rivers of delightful drinks (verses 7b-8); God is a fountain that provides life (verse 9a) or God is the light in a world of darkness (verse 9; recall the description of that dreary world in verses 1-4).
Finally, verses 10-12 are a prayer for help. Such a prayer is an essential part of the psalms of lament. The one praying asks for God’s continued amazing grace (verse 10). The psalm concludes with another look at the wicked surrounding God’s people, asking God’s protection from them and even for their destruction (verses 11-12).
Toward a Sermon on this Psalm
The structure of the psalm could determine the structure of the sermon, as follows:
I. There’s plenty of evil in our “wonderful world.” (verses 1-4). As we look at our world, the words of Louis Armstrong’s song can come to mind: “What a Wonderful World!” Or of the hymn, “How Great Thou Art!” Or of Psalm 104.
But that’s not the whole story. The beginning of this psalm reminds us that all’s not right with the world. A glance at the day’s paper confirms just that: I see the report of the rape of a fifteen year old, a murder and suicide in a family with two children, and an ongoing tale of deceit and robbery by a prominent car dealer.
II. We have a wonderful God who loves all creatures of the earth, human and non-human alike (verses 5-9). But the psalm does not leave us wallowing in sin and sorrow. And this is a God who cares not only about us, God’s people gathered here. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy which extends to the peoples of the world and even to the non-human creatures (verses 6-7).
III. We ask God to continue to love us, and to help us to care for the earth and its creatures, human and nonhuman alike (verses 10-12). When we read through this psalm we note that God saves “humans and animals alike.” God’s care for the animals ought not come as a surprise. Remember that God declared to Jonah God’s concern for the one hundred twenty thousand citizens of Nineveh — “and also much cattle” (Jonah 4:11 RSV). Recall also that according to Jesus, God cares about individual sparrows (Matthew 10:29). And remember Psalm 104 which praises God because God cares for all the creatures of the earth (especially 104:27-30).
In our day, we have learned anew the importance of caring for the earth which sustains us. We are called to till and keep it (Genesis 2:15) and to exercise responsible dominion, which means to exercise care over it (Genesis 1:24-31; Psalm 8).
Reflecting on God’s love for the non-human as well as human creatures may remind us that too often we have disdained and neglected these fellow creatures of the sixth day (Genesis 1:24-31), whom we should think of as our distant cousins. God, says this psalm, cares about all the creatures of this planet, human and nonhuman. We, as God’s people, are called to do no less.
1 From Evangelical Lutheran Worship, hymn 588.