Commentary on Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Psalm 116 is sung or read each year at Passover celebrations in Jewish homes to this day.
Don’t Give Up On Prayer!
The psalm is a part of the collection of psalms running from 113 to 118, called the “Egyptian Hallel” (Egyptian praise), centering on the story of the deliverance from Egypt. Psalm 113 is a hymn. Psalm 114 is the centerpiece of this collection, reporting the event of the exodus. As the central act of God’s saving activity, the exodus is to the Old Testament what the cross-resurrection is to the New Testament. Psalm 115 then celebrates this event with a call to praise. Psalm 114 thus tells the story of the nation’s deliverance from bondage and is followed by words of praise (Psalm 115:1, 18). Psalm 116 now tells the story of an individual’s deliverance from death, and again is followed by words of praise, in Psalm 117.
Psalm 116 also plays a part in the yearly biblical readings of Christian churches, appearing in the ABC lectionary readings and also a text for Maundy Thursday. Luke 22:14-23 and the parallels tell of Jesus celebrating a meal with his disciples at Passover time. Psalm 116 would have been sung as part of their Passover celebration.
I suggest taking Psalm 116 as a whole as the basis for the sermon, putting it in the contexts of the celebration of the deliverance from Egypt and also the celebration of deliverance from sin and death as achieved by the Messiah suffering on the cross (Luke 24:26). The language of 24:30 points to the language of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19). The psalm itself tells the story of the deliverance of an individual from sickness, and of the life of a people as a praying and praising people.
Report of Deliverance from a Near-Death Experience (116:1-11)
The psalm begins with a member of the congregation giving a testimony. In the presence of the gathered people (verses 18-19), this person reports on an answer to prayer. (An aside: in the congregation to which I belong we pray for those who are sick or mourning or otherwise in need of prayer each Sunday. But so far as I can remember, I’ve not heard anyone stand up and say, “Let me tell you all how my prayers were answered.” As Lutherans, it seems to me, we ordinarily leave the giving of such testimonies to our sisters and brothers in the Baptist church down the street!) “The Lord has answered my prayer,” says the one giving testimony, “and I’m going to keep calling on the Lord for help for the rest of my life,” (verses 1-2 paraphrased).
The speaker does not give the specifics of the situation out of which deliverance came. It was what we would call a near-death experience (verse 3). As a friend of mine who has survived a brush with death because of cancer said to me recently, “I have stared death in the face!” My friend, like the psalmist, had prayed, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” (verse 4)
We are to assume that this psalm was composed some time after the psalmist had experienced this extraordinary deliverance. Upon reflection, the writer tells what he has learned about God from this experience. He makes some general statements: the Lord is gracious, righteous and merciful and watches over ordinary people. Then he summarizes his own experience: “When I was brought low, [God] saved me.” (verse 6)
With verse 8, the speaker addresses God directly and in verses 9-10 resolves to continue the walk of faith. According to verse 11 it appears that some in the congregation were not supportive of this individual during the time of trouble!
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! (116:12-19)
This last section of the psalm fulfills the promise to pray and praise the Lord as it was made in verse 2. Addressing the entire congregation, this individual gives thanks to the Lord who has rescued him (verses 12-14). Verse 15 affirms the value of each of the Lord’s people. Finally, the psalmist promises to take up a servant role, to fulfill promises made (verses 16-19).
Don’t Give Up On Prayer!
This psalm was written because one of our brothers or sisters in the faith had experienced deliverance from death as an answer to prayer.
But we all know that the Christian life is not always so simple. A mother or father may pray for years for a rebellious child, with no results in sight. I’ve often thought of Samson’s parents who must have spent many a restless night grieving about the shenanigans of their son — but all along, God was working through that boy! (Judges 14:4). We all know of times when we’ve prayed alone or with others at a sickbed, and the one for whom we are praying is not healed.
In these situations we ought to remember the prayer of another psalmist who addressed God, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And we recall that even Jesus asked that “Why” question from the cross (Matthew 27:46). The psalmist is never given an answer to that “Why?” question. Nor does Scripture report an answer to the question of Jesus. “As Christians, we need to learn to live with mystery,” one of my teachers used to say. “Or with unanswered questions,” we could add.
So how then should we live? What should we do? The whole Bible is clear on that one: Keep on praying anyway! The psalms provide a whole collection of prayers. Look at the example of Jesus (Luke 22:39-46). “Pray without ceasing,” says Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:17). “Are any among you suffering? They should pray” says James (James 5:13-18).
Finally, the person who told the story of his own experience wanted others to learn that prayer does change things. After all, that believer had looked death in the face and prayed, “Lord save me!” And there he was, standing with them, alive. Hallelujah!