Third Sunday of Advent

Although the Psalm reading only offers the last six verses of this 10-verse psalm, a word about the psalm overall is in order.

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December 15, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 146:5-10

Although the Psalm reading only offers the last six verses of this 10-verse psalm, a word about the psalm overall is in order.

This is a praise psalm. Indeed, they’re all praise psalms here at the end of the Psalter. Psalms 146-150 make up a sort of “praise collection” — with the Hebrew root halal (“praise”) appearing 40 times in the last five psalms. Each of those five psalms begins and ends with the Hebrew “Hallelu-Jah” — that is, with the exhortation to “Praise the Lord!”

Psalm 146 is, like the four psalms that follow, unrestrained in its exuberance. Generally speaking, praise psalms attend to the variety of reasons for such exuberance in the first place. Here in Psalm 146, the reasons are ample. Praise the Lord for creating sky, earth, and sea, and all that is in them and for keeping faith without ceasing (verse 6). Praise the Lord, too, for giving justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to the imprisoned, and sight to the blind, not to mention a few other items, such as protecting strangers and supporting widows and orphans (verses 7-8). There’s a lot of praiseworthiness here. Simply put, the psalm gives credit where credit is due.

The words of Isaiah 61:1-2 — words which proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor — are reflected in this section of Psalm 146. For this reason, scholars believe that Psalm 146 — like Isaiah 61 — derives from Israel’s post-exilic period. As if to underscore the psalm’s historical setting, the very next psalm begins by declaring, “Hallelujah … The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds” (147:2-3).

Unfortunately, attempts to connect Psalm 146 with ancient Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C. will likely fall flat with your hearers. Instead, if you are preaching on the appointed Gospel, Matthew 11:2-11, your hearers may appreciate a word about Jesus’s words to the emissaries sent by John the Baptist. In the Gospel passage, the emissaries want to know if Jesus is the One they’ve been waiting for, the One John’s been preparing the Way for. Jesus responds: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:4-6). In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 61 comes at the start of his ministry and his controversial claim before the members of his hometown synagogue (Luke 4:18-19). In both Matthew and Luke, the allusion to Isaiah 61 (and so also Psalm 146) signals that, in Christ, God is doing a new thing under an ancient rubric: healing the people and setting them free.

An Aside on the Magnificat

The lectionary offers the Magnificat (Luke 1:46b-55) as an optional psalm. The connection between God’s deeds praised here in Psalm 146 and God’s deeds praised by the teenaged Mary of Nazareth is easily discerned. But the Magnificat appears to notch things up a level. In the Magnificat, God is praised not only for lifting up the lowly and satisfying the hungry, but also for putting down the mighty and sending the rich away empty-handed. Meanwhile, Psalm 146:5-10 appears content to thank God for bringing the wicked “to ruin” regardless of socioeconomic rank.

So if you want to stick it to the 1 percent, go with the Magnificat. Keep in mind, however, that while you or your hearers may not be part of the top 1 percent in the U.S., most of you are part of that club, globally speaking. If you’re satisfied with praising God for improving the fortunes of the less fortunate and leaving it at that, Psalm 146:5-10 may be the better option.