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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Psalms 116

 

 

Verses 1-19

Psalms 116:1-19

THIS psalm is intensely individual. "I," "me," or "my" occurs in every verse but two (Psalms 116:5, Psalms 116:19). The singer is but recently delivered from some peril, and his song heaves with a groundswell of emotion after the storm. Hupfeld takes offence at its "continual alternation of petition and recognition of the Divine beneficence and deliverance, or vows of thanksgiving," but surely that very blending is natural to one just rescued and still panting from his danger. Certain grammatical forms indicate a late date, and the frequent allusions to earlier psalms point in the same direction. The words of former psalmists were part of this singer’s mental furniture, and came to his lips, when he brought his own thanksgivings. Hupfeld thinks it "strange" that "such a patched up (zusammengestoppelter) psalm," has "imposed" upon commentators, who speak of its depth and tenderness; it is perhaps stranger that its use of older songs has imposed upon so good a critic and hid these characteristics from him. Four parts may be discerned, of which the first (Psalms 116:1-4) mainly describes the psalmist’s peril; the second (Psalms 116:5-9), his deliverance; the third glances back to his alarm and thence draws reasons for his vow of praise (Psalms 116:10-14); and the fourth (Psalms 116:15-19) bases the same vow on the remembrance of Jehovah’s having loosed his bonds.

The early verses of Psalms 18:1-50 obviously colour the psalmist’s description of his distress. That psalm begins with an expression of love to Jehovah, which is echoed here, though a different word is employed. "I love" stands in Psalms 116:1 without an object, just as "I will call" does in Psalms 116:2, and "I believed" and "I spoke" in Psalms 116:10. Probably "Thee" has fallen out, which would be the more easy, as the next word begins with the letter which stands for it in Hebrew. Cheyne follows Graetz in the conjectural adoption of the same beginning as in Psalms 116:10, "I am confident." This change necessitates translating the following "for" as "that," whereas it is plainly to be taken, like the "for" at the beginning of Psalms 116:2, as causal. Psalms 116:3 is moulded on Psalms 18:5, with a modification of the metaphors by the unusual expression "the narrows of Sheol." The word rendered narrows may be employed simply as distress or straits, but it is allowable to take it as picturing that gloomy realm as a confined gorge, like the throat of a pass, from which the psalmist could find no escape. He is like a creature caught in the toils of the hunter Death. The stern rocks of a dark defile have all but closed upon him, but, like a man from the bottom of a pit, he can send out one cry before the earth falls in and buries him. He cried to Jehovah, and the rocks flung his voice heavenwards. Sorrow is meant to drive to God. When cries become prayers, they are not in vain. The revealed character of Jehovah is the ground of a desperate man’s hope. His own Name is a plea which Jehovah will certainly honour. Many words are needless when peril is sore and the suppliant is sure of God. To name Him and to cry for deliverance are enough. "I beseech Thee" represents a particle which is used frequently in this psalm, and by some peculiarities in its use here indicates a late date.

The psalmist does not pause to say definitely that he was delivered, but breaks into the celebration of the Name on which he had called, and from which the certainty of an answer followed. Since Jehovah is gracious, righteous (as strictly adhering to the conditions He has laid down), and merciful (as condescending in love to lowly and imperfect men), there can be no doubt how He will deal with trustful suppliants. The psalmist turns for a moment from his own experience to sun himself in the great thought of the Name, and thereby to come into touch with all who share his faith. The cry for help is wrung out by personal need, but the answer received brings into fellowship with a great multitude. Jehovah’s character leads up in Psalms 116:6 to a broad truth as to His acts, for it ensures that He cannot but care for the "simple," whose simplicity lays them open to assailants, and whose single-hearted adhesion to God appeals unfailingly to His heart. Happy the man who, like the psalmist, can give confirmation from his own experience to the broad truths of God’s protection to ingenuous and guileless souls! Each individual may, if he will, thus narrow to his own use the widest promises, and put "I" and "me" wherever God has put "whosoever." If he does he will be able to turn his own experience into universal maxims, and encourage others to put "whosoever" where his grateful heart has put "I" and "me."

The deliverance, which is thus the direct result of the Divine character, and which extends to all the simple, and therefore included the psalmist, leads to calm repose. The singer does not say so in cold words, but beautifully wooes his "soul," his sensitive nature, which had trembled with fear in death’s net, to come back to its rest. The word is in the plural, which may be only another indication of late date, but is more worthily understood as expressing the completeness of the repose, which in its fulness is only found in God, and is made the more deep by contrast with previous "agitation."

Psalms 116:8-9, are quoted from Psalms 56:13 with slight variations, the most significant of which is the change of "light" into "lands." It is noticeable that the Divine deliverance is thus described as surpassing the psalmist’s petition. He asked, "Deliver my soul." Bare escape was all that he craved, but he received, not only the deliverance of his soul from death, but, over and above, his tears were wiped away by a loving hand, his feet stayed by a strong arm. God over answers trustful cries, and does not give the minimum consistent with safety, but the maximum of which we are capable. What shall a grateful heart do with such benefits? "I will walk before Jehovah in the lands of the living," joyously and unconstrainedly (for so the form of the word "walk" implies), as ever conscious of that presence which brings blessedness and requires holiness. The paths appointed may carry the traveller far, but into whatever lands he goes, he will have the same glad heart within to urge his feet and the same loving eye above to beam guidance on him.

The third part (Psalms 116:10-14) recurs to the psalmist’s mood in his trouble, and bases on the retrospect of that and of God’s mercy the vow of praise. Psalms 116:10 may be variously understood. The "speaking" may be taken as referring to the preceding expressions of trust or thanksgivings for deliverance. The sentiment would then be that the psalmist was confident that he should one day thus speak. So Cheyne; or the rendering may be "I believed in that I spake thus"-i.e., that he spake those trustful words of Psalms 116:9 was the result of sheer faith (so Kay). The thing spoken may also be the expressions which follow, and this seems to yield the most satisfactory meaning. "Even when I said, I am afflicted and men fail me, I had not lost my faith." He is recalling the agitation which shook him, but feels that, through it all, there was an unshaken centre of rest in God. The presence of doubt and fear does not prove the absence of trust. There may live a spark of it, though almost buried below masses of cold unbelief. What he said was the complaint that he was greatly afflicted, and the bitter wail that all men deceive or disappoint. He said so in his agitation. [Psalms 31:22] But even in recognising the folly of trusting in men, he was in some measure trusting God, and the trust, though tremulous, was rewarded.

Again he hurries on to sing the issues of deliverance, without waiting to describe it. That little dialogue of the devout soul with itself (Psalms 116:12-13) goes very deep. It is an illuminative word as to God’s character, an emancipating word as to the true notion of service to Him, a guiding word as to common life. For it declares that men honour God most by taking His gifts with recognition of the Giver, and that the return which He in His love seeks is only our thankful reception of His. mercy. A giver who desires but these results is surely Love. A religion which consists first in accepting God’s gift and then in praising by lip and life Him who gives banishes the religion of fear, of barter, of unwelcome restrictions and commands. It is the exact opposite of the slavery which says, "Thou art an austere man, reaping where thou didst not sow." It is the religion of which the initial act is faith, and the continual activity, the appropriation of God’s spiritual gifts. In daily life there would be less despondency and weakening regrets over vanished blessings, if men were more careful to take and enjoy thankfully all that God gives. But many of us have no eyes for other blessings, because some one blessing is withdrawn or denied. If we treasured all that is given, we should be richer than most of us are.

In Psalms 116:14 the particle of beseeching is added to "before," a singular form of expression which seems to imply desire that the psalmist may come into the temple with his vows. He may have been thinking of the "sacrificial meal in connection with the peace offerings." In any case, blessings received in solitude should impel to public gratitude. God delivers His suppliants that they may magnify Him before men.

The last part (Psalms 116:15-19) repeats the refrain of Psalms 116:14, but with a different setting. Here the singer generalises his own experience, and finds increase of joy in the thought of the multitude who dwell safe under the same protection. The more usual form of expression for the idea in Psalms 116:15 is "their blood is precious". [Psalms 72:14] The meaning is that the death of God’s saints is no trivial thing in God’s eyes, to be lightly permitted. (Compare the contrasted thought, [Psalms 44:12] Then, on the basis of that general truth, is built Psalms 116:16, which begins singularly with the same beseeching word which has already occurred in Psalms 116:4 and Psalms 116:14. Here it is not followed by an expressed petition, but is a yearning of desire for continued or fuller manifestation of God’s favour. The largest gifts, most fully accepted and most thankfully recognised, still leave room for longing which is not pain, because it is conscious of tender relations with God that guarantee its fulfilment. "I am Thy servant." Therefore the longing which has no words needs none. "Thou hast loosed my bonds." His thoughts go back to "the cords of death" (Psalms 116:3), which had held him so tightly. God’s hand has slackened them, and, by freeing him from that bondage, has bound him more closely than before to himself. "Being made free from sin, ye became the slaves of righteousness." So, in the full blessedness of received deliverance, the grateful heart offers itself to God, as moved by His mercies to become a living sacrifice, and calls on the Name of Jehovah, in its hour of thankful surrender, as it had called on that Name in its time of deep distress. Once more the lonely suppliant, who had waded such deep waters without companion but Jehovah, seeks to feel himself one of the glad multitude in the courts of the house of Jehovah, and to blend his single voice in the shout of a nation’s praise. We suffer and struggle for the most part alone. Grief is a hermit, but Joy is sociable; and thankfulness desires listeners to its praise. The perfect song is the chorus of a great "multitude which no man can number."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 116:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-116.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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