Commentary on Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Scripture is a confounding thing. If you’re not baffled by it, you’re not paying attention.
Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “It’s not the parts of Scripture I don’t understand that trouble me, it’s the parts I do.” We still proceed as though Scripture is troubling for its obscurity, its historical distance from our time and place, its debatable assumptions, its its its. We seldom stop to ask whether the problem is with us. Queer and feminist scholar Rita Felski often points out that the contemporary academy makes students and faculty sublimely articulate in our critiques, but surprisingly tongue-tied with regard to our loves.
Psalm 116 is not tongue-tied with regard to its loves. “I love the Lord,” it gushes right out of the gate. Sometimes we on the theological left dunk on praise and worship music as “Jesus is my boyfriend” music. The charge sticks when we throw it at this psalm. The way to pray it is without cool reserve, composed distance, measured equilibrium. It is to pant after God, who pants with longing for us first.
I love how physical the first few verses are. The Lord not only has an ear, but even inclines that ear toward the one praying (verse 2). These sorts of anthropomorphic descriptions of God are not to be taken literally, as both ancient and modern biblical scholarship agree (a rarity, that). Yet those of us joined in Christ to the God of Israel cannot help but see something of an anthropomorphization of God here. Literal description becomes an enfleshed God in Mary’s womb. God is shown to be surprisingly faithful to Scripture and frightfully allergic to our desire for distance from the divine.
God comes because we call. Be suspicious of the old canard, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” To read this psalm, there are no foxholes without God in them. The one praying calls out from the “snares of death,” the “pangs of Sheol” (verse 3), brought low to a place of death and tears and stumbling feet and affliction. But, however low the psalmist is pressed down, God presses God’s self down lower. God inclines (verse 2). God is not just gracious and merciful, as we have come to expect from Israel’s scripture (Exodus 34:6-7). Here, mercy is a participle. God goes around mercying. God delivers. God protects. God saves. The psalmist will not die, but will live (verse 9). When the psalms pray this way—and they often do—we presume the pray-er has come within an inch of death and then been miraculously delivered in order to render praise once more. But in Christ, we see that the one praying has not been delivered from death, that one has been delivered through death. There is no depth now to which Christ has not plunged, to save.
The latter half of the psalm is one of the richest fields for harvest for our New Testament’s writers. “I said in my consternation, ‘Everyone is a liar.’” It’s the sort of sentiment one lobs from the depths. And it is, of course, terribly dangerous. Spiritually speaking, no one should claim to be the only truth-teller. This is the sort of verse that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to argue that only Christ prays the psalms. He is the only one free of deceit. St. Paul lands on this verse as part of his litany of human catastrophe in Romans 1-3: there is no one who is righteous, not even one (3:4, 10, 20, 23). We might amend, against Paul in one way but with him in all others: well, there is One … The psalmist’s “I kept my faith, even when I said” (verse 10) progresses through centuries and translations to become St. Paul’s “I believed and so I spoke” (2 Corinthians 4:13). As Paul glories in his weaknesses and foibles, he sees the pattern of Jesus: suffering, and so giving life, rather than death. The God of the cross only gives life through weakness, suffering, and death—no other way. “I kept my faith,” the psalm exults, and the writer of Timothy takes note, offering the epigram for which all people should long, “I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Christian eucharistic prayers have often drawn upon verse 13, “I will lift up the cup of salvation” (see 1 Corinthians 10:16 here). What was once a reference to a drink offering, perhaps one that Jesus himself engaged in the night of his betrayal (Mark 14:23), here becomes a reference to another sort of cup of blessing, a drink that seems only for death but actually makes for new life. There are not only negative reasons to see Christ as the “I” in David’s songs. There are positive ones also. If you read this psalm in Christ, you start to discern the figure of the One who grants us access to the psalms in the first place.
The best known verse in this psalm for Christians may be one not quoted in the New Testament: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones” (verse 15). Both in Israel and in church, this has often been taken as a reference to the martyrs and to the death of God’s saints more generally. The word we translate “precious” could also be translated “costly.” It costs God dearly to see the death of even a single holy one. A light bearing witness to God’s grace goes out, and that costs God dearly. Yet in a surprising turn, even that light-gone-out can go on bearing witness, as it does in this psalm, as it does in Israel’s and the church’s memory, as it does in the communion of the saints. Never make death into a friend. It is only ever an enemy. As this psalm insists, it is an enemy defeated by a God who will bear any cost to save us. He then makes a trophy out of what death thought was a certain triumph, that turns out to be its ultimate defeat.