Opening The Old Testament
Sharing Gratitude: Reflections on Psalm 116
And how does the psalmist promise to thank God for that gift of God's salvation and soulful rest? The utterance of the psalm itself is only step one of a longer process, and here we can learn a great deal about full thanksgiving to God and its effects on us. "What shall I return to YHWH for all God's bounty to me" (v. 12)?
1) "I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of YHWH" (v. 13). "Cup of salvation" might also be translated "cup of rescue." Whichever way it is heard, the cup appears to be a real one, used to pour libations on the sacred altar. The psalmist has been rescued from calamity, and publically proclaims that rescue with a traditional drink offering in public worship.
2) "I will pay my vows to YHWH in the presence of all of God's people" (v. 14). It is not enough to thank God in private for deliverance; full thanksgiving must be offered for all to see in the public act of worship. This act is so important for full thanksgiving that the vow is repeated verbatim in verse 18.
3) And just where are these thanksgiving acts to be performed? "In the courts of the house of YHWH, in your midst, O Jerusalem" (or "in the midst of Jerusalem") (v. 19). The sacred temple is the proper place to demonstrate how grateful the psalmist is for the gracious rescue of God. Certain death has been averted because God has chosen to act. In response, the psalmist can do no less than act in worship and thanks.
The psalmist's certainty of God's actions on her behalf has urged the public act of thanksgiving. And what is the effect of such public acts? All the other worshippers can witness and celebrate the psalmist's deliverance and can thus participate in her joy and triumph. These fuller acts of thanksgiving bring the conviction of God's work into the open and offer opportunities for celebration to the larger community.
Too often we modern folk may think that a witness like this one in Psalm 116 will only make others feel jealous or furious because they too have not received a similar triumph and then cannot fully enter into the joy of the renewed sufferer. But the apostle Paul in his unforgettable figure in 1 Corinthians 12 suggests otherwise. Because we are "one body," he says, "if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it" (1 Cor. 12:26).
Could it be in our fear of public displays that we miss the chances to suffer with members of our communities as well as rejoice with them? Psalm 116 urges us to take our thanks to God public in order that others may be encouraged to ask of God for themselves.
Do such things finally prove that God always answers our prayers? Hardly. We cannot be so foolish, so absurd as to believe such a thing. But, when someone receives a blessing, is convinced that they have been heard by God, may it not embolden us and strengthen us, and encourage us to ask what we need for ourselves? And do we not all crave that rich possibility that God, who "loves to listen," might in deep mystery listen to us, and then urge us to proclaim our hearing from God to all we meet?
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.