We have come to our fourth of five lessons in an Old Testament Survey course on the Psalms. After an introductory lesson, we considered with some depth Psalms 1 and 2, the two gateway psalms. Two primary emphases emerge so far:
- The message of each psalm emerges most accurately and fully when one studies an entire psalm as a complete poem, a carefully composed piece of language art marked by literary conciseness, rhythm and elevated language.
- The gateway psalms present contrasting attitudes toward God’s law that God rewards or punishes.
This lesson considers a sample song of thanksgiving. Other songs of thanksgiving include Psalm 9 which begins, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds” (9:1); Psalm 108, “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations” (108:1); and Psalm 111, “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (111:1)
Psalm 138 begins a group of eight psalms with the superscription “Of David”. As in many other psalms attributed to Israel’s second king, David, the presence of enemies surfaces once again. From the gateway psalms, especially the second one, enemies stand in moral antagonism against Yahweh and His anointed King. They are the wicked who scoff at Yahweh’s law and seek to throw off its restrictiveness. Righteous worshippers of Yahweh suffer their hostile attacks through slanderous words and vicious deeds. The trouble they cause presses the psalmist to cry out for deliverance from Yahweh, and, in due season, the psalmist breaks forth in thanksgiving to Yahweh for rescue. The rescue, being nothing short of divine (perhaps even miraculous), naturally demands praise and adoration of Yahweh who steadfastly and loyally loves the psalmist.
This lesson presents an exegetical outline of the poem, wrestles with some sticky textual and theological issues in the first stanza, and concludes with some applications for our lives as believers in Jesus Christ.
Overview1 of Psalm 138
The psalm divides into three stanzas, verses 1-3, 4-6, 7-8. After affirming his wholehearted thanks (praise) for Yahweh’s steadfast love and faithfulness by answering his prayer, and after announcing the hope that all kings will acknowledge Yahweh’s favor to the lowly, the psalmist voices his confidence that Yahweh will deliver him according to steadfast love.
(Read Psalm 138)
We look first at stanza one, the psalmist’s vow of thanksgiving (1-3). He vows to praise Yahweh’s steadfast love and faithfulness because He has answered his prayer (1-3). The stanza has two parts. In verses 1-2, he praises Yahweh’s steadfast love and faithfulness (truth) in the company of human leaders or rival pagan gods (1, 2). In verse 3, He praises Yahweh because his prayer was answered (3).
First, he praises God in the company of human leaders or rival pagan gods. The singer begins: “I give you thanks, O Yahweh.” He has glad news of deliverance and it is far too good to keep to oneself. He must announce it in a song of thanksgiving to God. Psalm 40:10 likewise conveys this psalmist’s intention, to “tell the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation.”
He commits himself to wholehearted thanksgiving (1a). No legalistic obligation presses him to praise God as much as sheer delight over the rescue God has granted him. His tongue cannot help but speak the sincere utterance of a grateful heart. A grateful heart signifies adoring love that commonly boasts about the beloved.
As he thanks God, he is keenly aware of his audience. God, to be sure, stands as the primary object of his thanksgiving. But others are listening, other humans and rival gods. “I give you thanks, O, Lord, . . . before the gods I sing your praise (1). “Gods” here is the usual Hebrew term ’elohim. Interpreters consider three options here. “Gods” could refer to
- angelic (demonic) powers, lesser spiritual beings who make up God’s heavenly council.
- literal deities made subordinate to Yahweh, or
- human judges (governmental or religious leaders).
Psalm 82:6 expresses the psalmist’s statement to humans leaders: “You are gods”, that is, “As judges, people may call you ‘lord,’ but you are as mortal as anyone else.”2 In the NIV, the Old Testament case law (Exodus 22:8-9) interprets the term ’elohim to mean human governmental officials. “But if the thief is not found, the owner of the house must appear before the judges to determine whether he has laid his hands on the other man’s property. In all cases of illegal possession of an ox, a donkey, a sheep, a garment, or any other lost property about which somebody says, ‘This is mine,’ both parties are to bring their cases before the judges.”
The preferred interpretation of “gods” in Psalm 138: 1 is the pagan gods of surrounding nations. The psalmist elsewhere sings Yahweh’s praise among the nations (Psalm 18:49; 57:9; 96:3). Here their rival gods must hear the psalmist’s testimony of Yahweh’s salvation. ‘Their apparent rivalry to Yahweh is dealt a blow by the manifestation of his might.”3
(An application question that might engender good discussion: How might we declare thanksgiving before rival gods today? One idea is to respond to someone’s report of good fortune by saying, “God has been good to you.” Another idea would be to acknowledge sincerely the help of God in helping one to succeed or achieve something.)
In verse two, the psalmist bows down and praises Yahweh for his steadfast love and faithfulness (2a) “Bow down means to prostrate oneself as an act of reverence and worship. This is no flippant “thanks” but a submissive expression of deep gratitude. His bowing is toward Yahweh’s holy temple. Historically, David would have meant the Jerusalem center of worship. Today we recognize our Father in the “temple” called heaven as our Lord teaches to pray in Matthew 6:9.
(Discussion idea: How is one’s prayer affected by stopping to consider that our Father is in heaven?)
The psalmist gives thanks to Yahweh’s name, that is, all the manifestations of God’s nature, including his steadfast love and his faithfulness. “Steadfast love” is God’s promised, personal goodness to the believer and the believing community, based on His gracious covenant with them. “Faithfulness” means truth, truthfulness, affirming that the love God promised He will perform.
Now what does the last phrase of verse two mean? “For you have exalted above all things your name and your word.” Scholars have identified textual and theological concerns here. Kidner (1975: 462) wrestles with the issues and instructs:
The Hebrew text, as we have it, runs: ‘…thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.’ This is a strange expression (one would expect ‘even’ rather than ‘all’. For you have exalted above even things your name and your word.). [This is also]…a strange statement if ‘thy name’ has its usual meaning of ‘thyself revealed’, as it has in the first half of the verse. For all its high claims, Scripture does not encourage bibliolatry; so the meaning of such a sentence could only be that God has fulfilled his promise in a way that surpasses all that He has hitherto revealed of Himself. But this would be an obscure way of putting it… The RSV may have the preferred reading which assumes that the letter “w” was left off by a copyist: “You have exalted above everything your name and your word.” Here the LXX omits “your word” and simply has “your holy name.”
Our English texts (ESV, NIV) are reliable here. Note that there is a marginal reading in the ESV: “You have exalted your word above all your name.” If that is the correct reading, the psalmist means to say this: God has fulfilled his word (promise) beyond anything God had been known to do in the past.
(I believe that in our day-to-day experiences, there are times when we may stand back in amazement at how God fulfills his promises. We say, “I have never heard of the Lord doing that for someone. Wow! Praise Him!”)
Now as the first stanza ends, the psalmist not only praises Yahweh for his love and faithfulness as a testimony before pagan gods, but also for answered prayer (3). “On the day I called you, you answered me” (3a). That answer of deliverance fashioned inner change for the psalmist. His soul was strengthened. “You made me proud, i.e. elated me, not with a vain or selfish pride, but with a lofty and exhilarating hope.4 (3b).
Allen (1983: 275) summarizes the first stanza as he sees the psalmist standing just inside the ancient Israeli temple:
In the temple forecourt a worshiper utters his song of thanksgiving. His face is turned toward the main building, where Yahweh graciously presenced himself (cf. 1 Kgs 8:29). He sings with enthusiasm: his personal experience constitutes for him proof positive of the reality and power of Israel’s God and so a defiant challenge to all rival claims. In tones of praise he theologizes from his experience. He has seen Yahweh’s loving care at work in his life. It has been his privilege to witness the supreme validity of God’s self-revelation and of his promises. Then in simpler vein the psalmist gives the reason for his thanksgiving, answered prayer and restored vitality and morale.
Stanza two follows this vow of thanksgiving to Yahweh with a hymn of hope for worldwide praise (4-6). Trinity Broadcasting Network’s program Praise the Lord claims to be the largest praise gathering in the world. If in fact all who are watching the entertainment- style program actually would be expressing heartfelt thanksgiving to God, that well could be true. It seems, frankly, a little like announcer’s hype than a true report of reality.
Not so here in Psalm 138. David anticipates the praise of all the kings of the earth for Yahweh because he delivers the lowly and does not judge by human standards of greatness 4-6). He predicts three things: All the kings will give thanks because they have heard of Yahweh’s glory (4). All the kings will sing of Yahweh for his glory is great (5). All praise will be given because Yahweh does not judge by human standards, but delivers the lowly (6).
First, verse 4: “All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord.” It seems that the psalmist is so overwhelmed with wonder and a sense of indebted to God that he “transfers his thanksgiving to a broader canvas. . . Surely nothing but the concerted thanksgiving of the monarchs of earth could get anywhere near to matching the praiseworthiness this unique God whose habit it is both to promise and to perform” (Allen: 247).
In verse four, all the kings will give thanks because they have heard of Yahweh’s glory. His transcendent majesty places Yahweh in supreme command. And as Psalm 2 elucidates, Yahweh has placed Jesus Christ in the glorious position of King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Verse five affirms that all the kings will sing of Yahweh for his glory is great (5).
But here’s the wonder of it all (verse 6): Yahweh’s majesty is allied with grace (Allen: 247). The psalmist has experienced a general principle about God. “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.” God’s dealings demonstrate a polarity:
On one hand, he extends a kindly concern for those who subordinate themselves to him. First Peter 5:6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”
On the other hand, he possesses a trouble-laden omniscience of the self-willed. “He knows the haughty from afar.” Wrath follows those who throw off the law of God, Psalm 2 affirms. Note too, that all praise will be given because Yahweh does not judge by human standards. Popular practice commonly regards the mighty, the worldly-wise, the influential, the wealthy. God, instead, regards the lowly. What a praiseworthy God he is. In due time, all the kings of the earth will acknowledge him with praise. He is both majestic and magnanimous.
We come now to the last stanza of Psalm 138. In the first stanza, the psalmist expressed a vow of thanksgiving. In the second, he composes a hymn of hope for God’s worldwide praise. Now he concludes with a specific confidence of future deliverance: He voices his confidence that Yahweh will deliver him according to steadfast love and prays that Yahweh will not let him down (7-8).
“The singer is not content to allow his generalizing to stay on the level of theological truths concerning God’s ways with humanity. He adapts it to express his intensely personal appreciation” (Allen: 247). So verse 7 begins, “Though I.” He draws from the principle of God’s majestic magnanimity this assurance: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life” (7a). What a verse to memorize! How many times would the believer save his energy from being drained by worry if he would hear line as a looped mantra in his mind: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life.” Truly the heart experienced with majestic magnanimity has become convinced that Yahweh will deliver one out of affliction. The psalmist surely would affirm the Nicene Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.” He controls the timing and degree of affliction.
The psalmist knows that life in a sinful world guarantees trouble, particularly the wrath of his enemies (7a). Whether seen or unseen, opposition to the worshiper of Yahweh stands intent on afflicting him, discouraging him, tempting him to deny God and throw off his law. Kidner (1973: 463)reflects on the previous stanza when he says, “Meanwhile the vision of verses 4-6 waits to be realized, and times are hard.” But the psalmist carries this assurance: Yahweh is mighty, He will deliver him by preserving his life and doing battle for him against fierce enemies. “You stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me” (7b).
But there’s more than the immediate deliverance to cheer the singer’s confidence. Verse 8: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me” or as the KJV so memorably puts it, “The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me.” That’s true because the middle line of the verse holds an unbending standard about God: “Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” To the psalmist, “hard-pressed and threatened, the words come new-minted” (Kidner 1975: 463): God’s steadfast love endures forever.
On this rock the singer and all who follow in his train of belief build the foundation of their confidence. This is why we sing our thanksgivings, pour out our petitions, confess our sins, and seek to do the will of God. His steadfast, loyal, covenant love endures forever. It will achieve its intended end: “He who has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). Fresh trouble always underscores fresh grace and sends a fresh hope from this old but never stale truth of God’s covenant love in Jesus Christ.
With that assurance, the psalmist now prays: “Do not forsake the work of your hands.”
He is personally qualified to sing the motto of the thanksgiving service concerning the constancy of divine grace. Yet he dare not take it for granted: it must ever be balanced by constant submission. His final word must be a prayer that, just as he has known God’s molding hand upon his life thus far, so he may continue to encounter his gracious presence (Allen 1983: 248).
- Wholehearted thanksgiving requires time to meditate on the ways God has been showing His steadfast love to us. Failure to give thanks may likely indicate a corrosive condition in one’s soul—ingratitude (See the frightful list of characteristics that commonly accompany an ungrateful person in 2 Tim. 3:2. and Rom. 1:21.)5
- Thanksgiving becomes a tonic (or in Narnia, a cordial) for the soul, giving health and strength, boldness, stoutheartedness.
- Through every circumstance of life, we who believe on Jesus Christ can count on the steadfast love and faithfulness of God through Him. He is full of grace (kindness, goodness, love) and truth (faithfulness to His Word). Meditate on John 1:14-18.
- When our hearts are breaking over the actions and words of arrogant people who use their power (intellectual, political, financial, physical) to mistreat those weaker than they, we can rally ourselves with this assurance: Yahweh regards (takes notice of, cares for) the lowly (weak ones whose hearts trust Him) and rejects the proud (see Prov. 3:34; James 4:6-7). His timing and His manner to “regard” or “reject” may not follow our sense of “right” but He knows and does what is best.
Allen, Leslie. C. 1983: 244. Psalms 101-150. Word Biblical Commentary Volume 21. Waco: Word Books.
Allender, Dan. B. and Longman II, Tremper. 1994. Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions about God. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
Alexander, Joseph Addison. 1975 (first published 1850). The Psalms Translated and Explained. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Estes, Daniel J. 2005. Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Kidner, Derek. 1973. Psalm 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press. Also Psalms 73-150, published by the same in 1975.
Spurgeon, C. H. 1966. The Treasury of David in Three Volumes. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
1 Allen P. Ross. 1975. The Analysis of Bible Books: The Old Testament, Course Paper, Bible 655, Dallas Theological Seminary. Outline modified slightly for this paper.
2 Reformation Study Bible. 2005: 810. Orlando: Ligonier Ministries.
3 Allen, Leslie. C. 1983: 244. Psalms 101-150. Word Biblical Commentary Volume 21. Waco: Word Books.
4 Alexander, Joseph Addison. 1975: 536. The Psalms Translated and Explained. Grand Rapids:Baker Book House.
5 Hendriksen observes that though the world is full of “common grace” (God’s kindness to believers and unbelievers alike (Ps. 145:9, 17; Jonah 4:10, 11; Mt. 5:43-45; Luke 6:35), “common gratitude” is missing in the world. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Thessalonians, Timothy and Titus, Baker Book House, 1957, vol. 2., p. 285.