Commentary on Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Psalm 116 is fourth in a group of psalms known as the “Egyptian Hallel” psalms (Psalms 113-118), the psalms recited at the Passover meal on the eighth day of Passover.
Psalms 113 and 114 are read before the meal; Psalm 115-118 are read at its conclusion, while drinking the fourth cup of celebratory wine.
Psalm 116 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, in which a psalm singer praises God for goodness to or on behalf of them, usually for deliverance from some trying situation (oppression, war, sickness, etc.). The great psalm scholar Hermann Gunkel describes the occasion on which these songs would have been offered: “A person is saved out of great distress, and now with grateful heart he brings a thank offering to Yahweh; it was customary that at a certain point in the sacred ceremony he would offer a song in which he expresses his thanks.”1
Individual Hymns of Thanksgiving typically consist of three elements:
- Introduction in which the psalmist declares the intention of giving thanks and praising God.
- Narrative in which the psalmist tells what has happened to the psalmist and what has prompted the words of praise.
- Conclusion in which the psalmist praises God for all that God has done on the psalmist’s behalf.
In Psalm 116, verses 1 and 2 are the Introduction, declaring the psalmist’s intentions. Verses 3-11 are the Narrative, telling what has happened to the psalmist and what has prompted the words of praise. And verses 12-19 are the Conclusion, the psalmist’s praise to God for what God has done. In this commentary, we will examine the Introduction, a portion of the Narrative, and the Conclusion.
Verse 1 has a seeming interpretational difficulty that leads modern translators to emend the Masoretic (Hebrew) text from: “I love because the Lord hears my voice … ” to “I love the Lord because he has heard my voice …” (perhaps on the model of Psalms 18:1 and 31:23). Does the psalm singer love (in general) because God has heard the singer’s voice or does the singer love God because God has heard the singer’s voice? This commentator opts to leave the Masoretic text as it stands: “I love (in general) because…”
Verse 1 continues with the notice that God hears the psalmist’s cries for favor or supplication [tahanun] before God. The word “favor” is derived from the verbal root hanan which carries a basic meaning of “an aesthetically pleasing presentation or aspect of someone or something” or “the pleasing impression made upon one individual by another.” The singer of Psalm 116 is able to love because God hears the “requests to show favor” from the psalmist. In verse 2, the psalmist declares that because God has “inclined God’s ear [to the singer] therefore I will call upon God as long as I live.” The phrase “inclined God’s ear” is a wonderful picture in Hebrew — it literally says “to stretch out the ear.”
In verses 3-11, the psalm describes the events in the psalmist’s life that precipitated the Hymn of Thanksgiving. Verses 3-4 tell us that the psalmist was inflicted with great distress, including the threat of death, and then cried out in the name of the Lord. “Name” was an important concept in the ancient Near East. Names reflected the natures and characters of the persons who bore them and were conceptually equal to the very essence of being. To know someone was to possess some part of that person; to speak a name was to speak into being.
In Genesis 2, God brings the animals one by one to the first human and we read, “and whatever the human called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19). Here we have a wonderful picture of humanity working together with God as co-creator. Naming brings the animals into being — an ibex becomes an ibex; a hippopotamus becomes a hippopotamus; an eagle becomes an eagle.
In Exodus 3, Moses encounters God at the burning bush. In that encounter, Moses replies to God’s command to return to Egypt, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13). God replies with self-naming words of existence, “I am that I am.” From the Hebrew words ‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh the Israelites derived the personal name of God, Yahweh. And the book of Deuteronomy tells us that God’s name will dwell in the place of God’s choosing in the land (12:5, 14:23-24, 16:2).
The final section of Psalm 116, verses 12-19, contains the psalmist’s praise to God for deliverance and protection. Two refrains divide it at verses 14 and 18: “My vows to the Lord I will pay in the presence of all his people.”
In verse 12 the psalmist asks what may be given to the Lord for all the goodness that the Lord bestows. Verses 13 and 14 answer the question: “a cup of helps” and ” completion of vows.” In the context of the “Egyptian Hallel” psalms, the “cup of helps” can refer to the fourth cup of celebratory wine drunk at the Passover meal.
Verse 15 has puzzled commentators for millennia. Most English translations follow closely the translation of the 1611 Authorized Version: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” But, one Hebrew word in verse 15 is an interesting study.
The word usually translated as “precious” comes from the Hebrew root yaqar, which means “be dignified, honorable, heavy, valuable.” It occurs nine times in the book of Psalms, and is translated variously in the NRSV translation as “precious,” “glory,” “honor,” “costly,” “pomp,” and “weighty.” The use of yaqar to describe the death of the Lord’s (faithful) hesed ones indicates that God does not happily accept the death of any faithful one, but considers life the better alternative and counts each death as costly and weighty.
Verse 16 returns to the praise of God for deliverance and protection, as we see in verses 3-4. The psalmist states, “Indeed, I am your servant … a child of your maidservant; you have unleashed my bonds.” The psalm singer’s words in verses 17 and 18 echo those in verse 14, “I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice … I will pay my vows to the LORD.”
The Passover celebrants raise a cup of wine to God in remembrance of all of God’s goodness to their ancestors and to them in the Exodus from Egypt. Psalm 116 is recited at each Passover as an individual recounting of God’s goodness and deliverance to each celebrant.
Psalm 116 is recited also in Christian tradition during the celebration of communion on Holy Thursday. As in the Passover celebration, so Christians raise a cup of wine in remembrance of all of God’s goodness to their ancestors in the faith and to them.
1) Hermann Gunkel, The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967), 17.