Second Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 40, classified as an Individual Lament, consists of two seemingly distinct parts, verses 1-10 and verses 11-17, suggesting to many scholars that two originally separate psalms were joined at some point to form a single psalm.

January 16, 2011

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Commentary on Psalm 40:1-11

Psalm 40, classified as an Individual Lament, consists of two seemingly distinct parts, verses 1-10 and verses 11-17, suggesting to many scholars that two originally separate psalms were joined at some point to form a single psalm.

In the psalm’s first ten verses, the psalmist recounts God’s deliverance from some life-threatening situation–described in verse 2 as “the desolate pit” and “the miry bog” (NRSV). The content of verses 11-17 resembles an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, which generally consists of three parts: (1) an Introduction, in which the psalmist declares the intention of giving thanks and praising God; (2) a Narrative, in which the psalmist tells what has happened that has prompted the words of praise; and (3) a Conclusion, in which the psalmist praises God for all that God has done (see Psalm 30 for a good example of an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving). For the most part, 40:1-10 consists of the Narrative of an Individual Hymn.

The lament portion of Psalm 40 begins with verse 11. Laments, like Individual Hymns of Thanksgiving, consist of distinct elements: (1) an Invocation, in which the psalmist cries out to God to listen (40:11, 13, 17); (2) a Complaint, in which the psalmist tells God what is wrong (40:12); (3) a Petition, in which the psalmist tells God what the psalmist wants God to do (40:11, 13-15); (4) an Expression of Trust, in which the psalmist recounts what God has done in the past so that the psalmist has hope that God will help again (40:17); and (5) an Expression of Praise, in which the psalmist celebrates the goodness and sovereignty of God (40:16).

In the lament portion of Psalm 40, the brief Expression of Trust (verse 17) states that the psalmist is “poor” and “needy” and that God is “my help” and “my deliverer.”  This commentator reads verses 1-10 as part of the Lament Psalm’s Expression of Trust and, therefore, as an integral part of the Individual Lament, rather than as a separate composition added to the beginning of the Lament. God, as “help” and “deliverer,” has brought this “poor” and “needy” one “up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog” (40:2). In addition, verbal parallels link verse 10 to verse 11, strengthening the case for the psalm being read as a whole. Verse 10’s two occurrences of “faithfulness” (‘emet) is echoed in verse 11, as the occurrence of “steadfast love” (chesed). 

Thus, let us explore verses 1-10 as part of the Expression of Trust of this Individual Lament, with verse 11 beginning the psalm’s Petition.

The reader learns in verse 1 that the psalmist has “waited patiently” (NRSV) for the Lord. The Hebrew verbal root here is qavah, which carries the idea of “hopeful anticipation” or “anxious waiting.” In addition, the syntactical structure of this verb in verse 1 is “Infinitive Absolute” plus “Perfect.” (Pull that Hebrew grammar off the shelf!) The Infinitive Absolute plus the Perfect emphasizes or intensifies the action of the verb. So, in Psalm 40:1, the psalmist is “actively, anxiously awaiting, with every fiber of the being” for the Lord. This is no quiet resignation–the psalmist is fully confident that God will come to the rescue.   

And God, indeed, rescues the psalmist from the “pit” (or, “well”–bor), the “bog” (or, “mire”–teet). A number of psalms use these words as symbols of death (bor–Psalms 7:15; 28:1; 88:6; 143:7 and teet–Psalms 18:42; 69:14). Thus, we may surmise that the threat to which the psalmist refers is not a minor life-event, but a serious situation in which the very being of the psalmist is threatened. 

God hears and sets the feet of the psalmist on a secure rock and puts a “new song” in the psalmist’s mouth. The phrase “new song” (sheer hadash) occurs six times in the Psalter (33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; and 149:1), but the best insight into its meaning comes perhaps in Isaiah 42:10 (the only place where “new song” appears outside the Psalter). Isaiah 42 is a song of celebration of the “servant,” discussed four times in the book (42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12). In the context of Isaiah 42, the “new song” marks a new beginning, a radical change from what has come before.  Psalms 96 and 98, classified as Enthronement Psalms, psalms which celebrate the kingship of God over all the earth, contain the same sentiment. Recognizing God as king establishes a new world order–no human king can surpass the power and majesty of Yahweh king. The singer of Psalm 40 celebrates a new beginning after being rescued from the “pit” and the “bog.”

Verses 4-10 address the outcome of the deliverance and the “new song.” The psalmist declares that those who trust in God will be “happy” (NRSV). The word translated in the NRSV as “happy,” and in the NASB and the NIV as “blessed” is ‘ashrey, from a Hebrew root that means “go straight, advance, follow the track.” It appears twenty-six times in the Psalter. While “happy” and “blessed” are acceptable translations for the Hebrew root word, a better translation seems to be “content.”  “Blessed” brings to mind the Hebrew word baruk, which carries cultic/sacred connotations. “Happy,” at least in our twenty-first-century context does not convey the full depth of the root word. A better translation is, in this commentator’s opinion “content,” which conveys a deep-seated sense of peace and feeling settled. 

The psalmist’s sense of contentedness (‘ashrey) comes not from listening to the words of the proud (verse 4), from pursuing things that only fleetingly offer satisfaction (false gods–verse 4), or from offering burnt or sin offerings–pious acts of worship (verse 6).  Rather it comes from trusting in God (verse 4). The word “trust” is derived from the Hebrew root batach, which means “to feel secure, be unconcerned, to totally rely on another.” When humans totally rely on God, they may not be immune to the exigencies of life–the pit and the bog, but they can see beyond the exigencies to a new vision–a new song, and summon all those around them to hear “the glad news of deliverance (verse 9). 

Thus, the faithfulness (‘emet) and steadfast love (chesed) of God is passed from one generation to the next (verses 10-11).