Old Testament: Judges 19 & 20
Poetry: Psalm 116
New Testament: Luke 16
As was discussed in two previous days’ devotions, Psalm 116 is another of the Hallel (literally, “Praise”) Psalms that are particularly associated with joyous events for Jews. They are prominent in the liturgies of the primary seasonal festivals such as Passover, and Psalm 116 is additionally part of the “Egyptian Hallel” subset of Hallel psalms. Psalm 116 does not make specific reference to Egypt, Passover, or the Exodus of Israel, but it is very straightforward to adapt its structure into a prayer of praise for the salvation of the nation of Israel. By connecting the psalm to that event, it is easily transformed into a pedagogical device that teaches the listener to acknowledge God for His grace toward Israel.
The Psalm is most naturally structured into three parts, but let us draw out the first two verses as an introductory dialogue (ellipsis of psalm text in bold):
I love the LORD. Why? Because He hears my voice, my supplications. Because He has inclined His ear to me. How should I respond? …. I shall call upon Him as long as I live.
The psalmist has provided a simple justification for the reader, all of us, to reverence and petition God: Because He hears me; the implication is that God answers those petitions. And because He hears me I should not fail to call on Him again and again.
Beginning in verse three, the psalmist builds upon the introductory dialogue to stretch and flesh out what could be the reason for calling on God and a more specific supplication: Cords of death wrap around me; the terror of the grave has come upon me; I found distress and sorrow. It is easy to see how this text was associated with Passover and the exodus: these words could be those of enslaved Israel, looking for deliverance from Egypt. Now look at verse four: Then I called upon the name of the LORD… “Save my life!” Taken in association with the enslavement in Egypt, these are the collective words of Israel, longing for deliverance, longing for God to “Hear my voice and incline His ear to me” (v 1). Verse four ends the first part of the psalm.
The second part of the psalm does not begin with a description of the salvation desired by the writer (later usage: the nation of Israel), but instead utilizes another introductory statement: Gracious is the LORD .. our God is compassionate … the LORD has dealt bountifully with you. (vv 5-7). Only in verses 8-11 is the desired salvation described. The psalmist acknowledges God for who He is before getting to specifics about what He has done. Cast as part of the Hallel, we have Israel 1) acknowledging God as LORD and 2) thanking God for salvation from Egypt. To see a record of a similar acknowledgment, take a look at Exodus 15, a poem or song of adoration sung by Moses and the Israelites after passing through the sea.
Finally, beginning in verse 12, the psalmist builds out eight verses to answer the question What shall I render to the Lord? It is the question that must be asked after reflecting and acknowledging what He has done. And the answer, given in the text, is a catalog of options for worship and reverence toward God.
When the psalm is sectioned as outlined here, one can see how it was adapted for the celebration of Passover. It provides context (terrible circumstances, like Egypt) and a call for salvation, it identifies the LORD God as the agent of deliverance, and then provides options for adoration of God. Imagine sitting around a table, each member of a family saying or offering (perhaps competitively?) an option for active reverence: “I shall lift up the cup of salvation” (the mealtime allusion is especially apt in relation to Passover), “I shall pay my vows to the LORD” and “I’ll pay my vows in the presence of all His people.” The point is that the reverence, acknowledgment, and worship derive directly from the active role that God takes (took!) in deliverance from the circumstances of verse three.
Psalm 116 is a wonderful outline of one context for the why and what of thankfulness toward God: I may be in terrible circumstances, but the God that is gracious and compassionate can and will rescue me. In response, I bow to Him in reverence and worship, declaring my thankfulness to Him in the presence of others.
The Psalms, as poetry, always carry some underlying structure, though perhaps lost in the translation from Hebrew to English. One of the features of many psalms that I appreciate is doublet structure, in the form of question-and-answer. For example, Psalm 116:1:
Question: I love the LORD
Answer: Because He hears my voice
These doublets can be used to impart rhythm to the reading of certain psalms. One way to take advantage of the inherent rhythm is to speak the psalms antiphonally, where one person reads the first part of the doublet and a second person reads the response. Another option is to incorporate movement, by walking through the first half of the doublet, pausing, and then resuming with the second half. It can greatly liven the Psalms!
If you are interested in reading the Psalms whose translation purposefully retained rhythmic and melodic elements, I encourage you to use the Coverdale Psalter (e.g., Psalm 116: https://psalter.liturgical-calendar.com/en-emodeng/Coverdale/116) or its newer revision, the New Coverdale Psalter (available for viewing online: https://bcp2019.anglicanchurch.net/index.php/downloads-pdf/).
- How would you finish the sentence/poem/song which begins, “I love the LORD because…”? Think on it, write it down, share it with the LORD. Who else could benefit from hearing your testimony of why you love the LORD?
- What are some options for how you can respond to the LORD? Write them down as well. Some responses, perhaps some we do most often, are not very good responses – if your list includes any poor responses you can cross them out now. Put a star next to a response you will work on today.