The Cords of Death and Cup of Salvation: Meditations and Questions on Psalm 116

14 Sep

Come, ponder some thoughts with me. Could Jesus, the Son of Mary, be in this psalm?

First, why is this psalm here in this position? As part of the Hillel (Psalm 113-118), with the “Praise the LORD!” ending each one except Psalm 114, the focus is on praise, building to a crescendo with Psalm 118, when the Messiah enters the City of God. Could it be that the death and resurrection of Jesus is in Psalm 116, even as the ascension is in Psalm 118?

When Peter pronounced at Pentecost, “…whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it” (Acts 2:24), there is a verbal parallel in Greek with Psalm 116:3, “The pains [lit. cords] of death surrounded me…” Remember, the Hillel was quoted at Pentecost! These were words that the Greek-speaking, visiting Jews from around the Mediterranean would have been familiar with, and perhaps had even quoted earlier that day.

Later, the psalm echoes, “You have loosed my bonds” (Psalm 116:16). Intriguing, isn’t it?

Now, let’s dive into the psalm and see what we see.

The psalm appears to have two parts, with a bridge in between. The opening verses form four neat foursomes, with the inner two ending with a note of salvation, and with the final one ending with an additional line: “I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living” (vv. 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-9). Could there be a verbal tie with the Messianic elements of Psalm 27:13?

The final verses also display a repeated pattern, with the opening verse mentioning the name of the “LORD” (Jehovah), and with the inner verses repeating themselves a bit (compare vv. 13-14 with vv. 17-18), having a final form similar to Psalm 89.

Together, the opening verses and final verses express the thought, “I love the LORD because He hears prayer for gracious deliverance; therefore, out of my love for Him due to His grace towards me, I resolve to worship Him—and what shall I offer, but the fulfillment of my vow to praise Him if delivered?”

In between the two sections are a set of connecting verses, like the bumpy part connecting the two ends of an earthworm:

“I believed, therefore I spoke, I am greatly afflicted” (verse 10).
“I said in my haste, “All men are liars” (verse 11).

Interestingly, the Septuagint divides this psalm at verse ten into two psalms, making the first start with love and the second with faith. What should we make of this division?

Also, the apostle Paul quotes verse ten in 2 Corinthians 4:13, “I believed and therefore I spoke,” which follows the Septuagint perfectly, and which perhaps aligns with the Hebrew as proof aligns with cause (Hebrew: “I believed, for the reason (proof) that I spoke,” i.e. the cause of speech is faith; therefore, the proof of faith is speech). Could it be that the psalms were separate originally, and that Paul is quoting the opening verse of Psalm 116b as a signal to point to the entire poem? Personally, I doubt there are two psalms here, but the Septuagint confirms that the big break in the poem is at verse ten.

All this is fine and dandy, but what is the point? Here is my playful understanding of the text at this point.

The Messiah has just emerged from death—a very close call. He looks back in verses one to nine and loves the Lord for hearing His prayer for deliverance. Even as it is impossible for contractions to keep a baby in the womb, for the harder the grab the more the push to come out, so also it was impossible for the tomb to keep the Messiah inside. This deliverance gives Him even more resolve to worship the Father—to “call upon Him as long as I live” (v. 2), which shows up later in the psalm.

He then recounts what made the difference in His deliverance: Faith. In the stranglehold of death, not one man could be trusted to keep his word (v. 11, “All men are liars,” which is true, for Paul quotes it in Romans 3:4). Instead, the Messiah resolved to believe the LORD and that is why He spoke (v. 10).

Then, turning to the future, He pondered what He should do now to render thanks to the Father for such a close deliverance. He will worship because God regarded His death as precious, even as He does all His “godly ones” (v. 15; cf. Psalm 16:10). Again, He repeats His resolve to worship, and this time mentions the loosening from death (resurrection), and closes with worship in the City of God, which is Psalm 118. Death, resurrection, and ascension—the psalm closes with the Gospel!

Could it be that this “son of Your maidservant” (v. 16) is the Son of God, who has no biological earthly father, but does have a mother, who addressed herself as “the maidservant of the Lord” and who was commended for her faith (Luke 1:38, 45)? What do you think? The only other time this phrase, “son of Your maidservant,” is used is in Psalm 86:16. Is there a tie? Again, the reference to “land of the living” may link this psalm with Psalm 27, which seems to prophetically speak of the desertion of Jesus’ legal parents while He remained in the temple (see Psalm 27:10).

At any rate, it is not wrong to love the Lord for what He does for us. Some may be quick to say such love is selfishly driven, and it could be in certain forms, but here in Psalm 116, we have a clear example of loving God because He does something for me (v. 1). The test is what happens next. The selfish man runs off with his benefit as a dog with a bone, or as the nine lepers—rendering no thanks, but fixated on the benefit. Here we find the Messiah absorbed with God: “What shall I render to the LORD for all His benefits toward me?” (v. 12, an echo perhaps of Psalm 103:2). Even though He is free from all cords, and could run to any place or to anyone, the Messiah is happy to run to God—not constrained by outer cords, but compelled by inner love. Ah, may such a love compel us as well, who have been saved from the second death!

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