Commentary on Psalm 146:5-10
The third Sunday in Advent has become the rare moment when Protestant churches pay a little attention to Mary, mother of God.
The candle lit this day is traditionally pink for Mary’s day. The texts from the gospel attend to Mary’s responsiveness to God and to her prayer magnifying God’s glory. Protestants have known who we are partly by being not-Catholic, so not attending to saints, to Mary, to pilgrimages and relics and the hierarchy. But Mary keeps creeping in the back door. She is the first Christian—the first one to say “yes” to God’s cockamamie scheme to save the world through an unmarried Jewish teenager from the sticks. She is present at key points in Jesus’ ministry and even at his ascension and at Pentecost. She is a friend of the poor, mother of believers, the one who taught Jesus to pray and who teaches us.
The salvation announced in Psalm 146:5-10 is one that takes flesh in her womb. These psalm verses are almost a policy platform for the kingdom Jesus will inaugurate to which the church bears witness. And it starts with a beatitude—just like Jesus’ preaching does in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). Blessed, happy, glad, lucky, enviable is the one whose help is in the God of Jacob (Psalm 146:5). Think of all the things our world finds blessed and enviable: those who are rich, good-looking, and close to power (see verse 3). The Bible reverses these beatitudes: no, blessed is the one who has no hope other than the Lord. There is no blessing in the Bible on physical attractiveness. None whatsoever on wealth—in fact, quite the reverse. The kings in the Bible are a rogues’ gallery—even the “good” ones are disasters. The only one who is happy is the one whose God is the Lord.
The subsequent verses describe who this God is by what he does: he executes justice, gives food, sets free, opens eyes, lifts up, loves, watches strangers, and upholds widows. If you look at God’s business card, it includes these jobs: establisher of orphans and benediction of the just. There is a triumvirate of those drawing God’s special care and attention in Torah and so deserving the help of God’s people: the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. They are, as Robert Alter says, “exemplary instances of the vulnerable and the disenfranchised.”1 Those who are the lowest receive God’s greatest attention. The great preacher James Forbes often proclaims, “No one gets into heaven without a letter of recommendation from the poor.” Psalm 146 is God’s letter of recommendation for the powerless. Notice them. Help them. Make life with them. Become one of them. Charles Spurgeon compares the clauses from verses 5-9 to stair steps up which God leads the poor by hand. By contrast, the wicked are thrown down in this psalm in a single swift motion (verse 9b). Good is fascinating and deserving of patient attention. Evil is boring.2
Psalm 146 is itself a stair step. It comes at the tail end of the entire set of 150 psalms. It begins with an admonition for one’s own soul to praise (verse 1). The last step has every creature under heaven and upon the earth giving praise, all things animate and inanimate, hallelujahing with a crashing crescendo (Psalm 150). Psalm 146 is a sort of summary of the entire Bible, a “condensation of condensation,” one scholar calls it.3 If you want to know who God is, start with this psalm and work your way forward and back. We are tempted to trust in princes. We should not. We are tempted not to trust in the Lord, who loves and lifts the poor. We should. The whole is rooted in a theology of creation (verse 6). The God who made the sea and sky and all the other stuff is powerful enough to uplift the downtrodden. The one who made the eye can open it. The one who came among us as a stranger, who reaches out to widows and orphans, loves the righteous. St. Augustine locates humanity, all of us descended from Adam and Eve, in the “bowed down” of verse 8. We are bent low. God takes on our flesh and stands us up straight with his resurrection.4 “The Lord will reign forever,” the psalmist insists in verse 10, and the Nicene Creed echoes. This is the whole of the Bible’s good news in nuce, with enough power to fuel the sun and the other stars.
This is a psalm with dust on it (Psalm 146:4). We are creatures with dust on us. In fact, we are creatures made from dust (Genesis 3). This can be good news. The princes we are tempted to trust are dust creatures too, like us, and will return to their origin, as we all will. The Lord delivers from the dust. Not only that, he became dust, one of us, and was laid in dust like the rest of us will be. The strange way the Lord of dust delivers the poor is to become dust like them and raise some of that dust—his own body. One day he will raise all of the dust we have become, to be part of his new heaven and earth that will reign forever. For now, we have only the promise of one bit of dust raised—his, at the right hand of the Father. One day we will need no promise to trust—we will have the fulfillment. This psalm is a promise. Count on it.
And it all starts with the word of one peasant girl in response to one angel. “Here I am,” she says, echoing her foremothers and fathers through the centuries. “Let it be with me according to your word.” It is the prayer of every believer, the prayer of all creation, the prayer that the Lord of dust delights in and answers with a pregnancy, good news for the poor, and resurrection.
1 Robert Alter The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 503
2 Charles Spurgeon The Treasury of David: Spurgeon’s Classic Work on the Psalms, ed. David O. Fuller (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1976), 675.
3 Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Eric Zenger Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150, trans. Linda Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 609.
4 Expositions on the Psalms VI, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City, 2004), 416.