Sharing Gratitude: Reflections on Psalm 116

Lectionary Reflections: Year A
Third Sunday of Easter
May 8, 2011
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
As we move further into the Easter season, we move inexorably further from the fanfares of Easter Day. Where are all those people? Why have things settled back into that old church routine? Did Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, make any difference to us after all? It is as good a time as any in the church year to examine what we are now to do this side of the resurrection.

Psalm 116 may be a very good place to begin. It is a delightful and rich psalm of thanksgiving, a heartfelt call to God, thanking the Divine One for all those many things that God has done for us, God's anxious and grateful children. The psalm begins in a truly memorable way; allow me to translate the first two verses quite literally:

I love that YHWH listens
            To my voice, my requests for grace.
Clearly, God has inclined the divine ear to me
            When in my days I call.

There is such intimacy when the psalmist begins with that simple, "I love that YHWH listens." Is this reality not one much in contention in the modern, secularized world? How can we genuinely know that God listens to us when we call out of our distress, when we ask God for aid in our troubles, or when we thank God for favors we believe we have received from the divine hand?

It will simply not do to attempt to prove such a belief with instances from our churchy experiences, because for every occasion of certainty of divine response, we can always name any number of examples of apparent divine silence. This psalmist is not asking us to believe as he does; all the psalmist asks of us is to listen to the narrative of her experience, her personal story, and the results of that story.

The truth of the narrative is: "The snares (or cords) of death encompassed me." If one reads this line individually, it could indicate that the psalmist has suffered a dangerous illness and has recovered. However, a very similar phrase is found at Psalm 18:5 in the larger context of the fear of battle at a time of some national emergency.

The precise content of the "snares of death" is far less important than the certainty that death appeared to be imminent and inevitable; the two succeeding lines emphasize the terror suffered by the psalmist: "the pangs of Sheol (the very place of death) laid hold of me (literally 'found me'); I suffered (again the verb 'found') distress and anguish" (v. 3). The repetitious use of the verb "to find" suggests that the psalmist was convinced that death was not just awaiting him, but was actively seeking to snatch him out of the land of the living.

But the new possibility of hope and renewed life began when "I called on the name of YHWH, 'O YHWH, I pray, save my life'" (v. 4). In effect, the psalmist recognized the fact that her life was no longer manageable on her own. And YHWH, the psalmist is convinced, came through. Verses 5-9 announce the conviction that because of YHWH's "righteousness" and "mercy" (v. 5), his very "life" ("soul" in the NRSV) may now "return to its rest" (v. 7).

It is always a risk to ascribe modern psychological categories to the Bible; nothing can cloud a full appreciation of an ancient worshipper faster than the claim that the ancient worthy is in fact "manic-depressive," or the result of a "dysfunctional family" or "is just getting in touch with his inner child." I cringe when such language issues from too many pulpits in our time. Still, the fact that the psalmist tells us that he has called on his very own life to "return to its rest" after YHWH has entered that life at his express request does suggest that when God was called upon, a troubled soul could again rediscover a place of genuine rest and repose.

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.

5/1/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.