Six Weeks with the Psalms
Psalms Week 6
We’ve already looked at Praise Psalms and now we’re looking at Thanksgiving Psalms. Is there a difference?
Well, you can praise the bus driver for driving buses every day, taking people from A to B, but you thank him when you’re on his bus and he takes you where you want to go.
Praise, I think, is about complimenting God for what he is, for his works, for the things he has done, for his creation. But thanksgiving is about what he does personally for us, We give thanksgiving for our place in life, for our homes, for the food we eat, for getting us out of situations we don’t want to be in – it’s about personal gratitude. Praise is about what God is and does, thanksgiving is about what God does for us.
The line is blurred quite a bit. Like the other genres in the Psalms, the psalms of thanksgiving have common characteristics making them distinguishable from other psalms. The psalms of thanksgiving often begin with praise to God. They praise God for who he is, his character and his goodness. The psalmist might also express love to God for who he is and what he has done.
The psalmist then describes the trouble he was in and what God did about it – this is really the thanksgiving part. He talks about how he felt and the details of what happened. In some ways, it can come across as lament, where the psalmist describes in vivid words the depths of his despair. But it’s usually recounted in past tense, because the main point of the psalm is to to sing about how God saved and rescued him.
I think this is shown quite well in Psalm 118, although as we’ve found out along along as we’ve been looking at psalms, they don’t always conform to all the rules.
I have a couple of bits of trivia about Psalm 118. Each psalm is a chapter of the Bible, we all know that, and The psalm before it is the shortest chapter in the Bible, and the psalm after it is the longest. And although it does depend a bit on which version of the Bible you use (it doesn’t work for the King James Version, for instance) it’s also the middle chapter the Bible – there are 594 chapters before it, and 594 after it. The King James has an even number of chapters, so there’s no middle chapter. And in most translations verse 8 is the very centre of the Bible, which has led some people to think it’s the central message of the Bible, that we should trust God more than we trust people. It’s okay, but I think there’s a lot better messages than that. And anyway, verses and chapters were only put in long after the Bible was first compiled, Catholics use a different Bible, Jews only look at the Old Testament, so I’m not sure we should read too much into this.
Anyway, it’s been though that Psalm 118 is another of those which is actually made up of different psalms stitched together.
I think vv1-4 and 28-29 go together, meant to be sung as a kind of call and response – the priest would sing one line and the worshippers would sing the refrain. You’ll have noticed, of course, that verses 1 and 29 are exactly the same – this is called an ‘inclusio’ and it happens in many places in scripture, not just in Psalms. Look at Proverbs 1, for instance, verses 1-7. Or just about the whole book of Matthew is an inclusio; 1:23 & 28:20.
Verses 5-14 have a theme of trusting God in crisis – talking of being surrounded , pushed, being cut off, and God always being there to rely on. I’ve read that the ‘I’ and ‘me’ in this psalm doesn’t refer to the person (unknown) who wrote it, instead it’s talking about the nation of Israel. So when the psalmist says ‘all the nations surrounded me’ it’s actually Israel who he’s referring to as being surrounded – building of the temple in Jerusalem in the 5th century BC was delayed as the nations (which is a kind of shorthand for anyone who wasn’t Jewish) didn’t want it to be built. You might notice that the LORD is mentioned in every one of these verses.
The theme changes in vv15-20 to glorification of God, giving Him glory for what he did. There is a military metaphor running through the psalm quite a bit, but I don’t think the psalm is so much about winning a battle or a war as it is about God delivering a people, the people of Israel.
Then we have vv21-27. There is a shift in emphasis here from referring to God in the third person – ‘what the Lord has done,’ ‘the Lord has chastened me’ – to the first person, ‘I will give you thanks.’ It’s as if the psalmist is now speaking directly to God. He talks about the Lord’s doing being ‘marvellous in our eyes’ (23), ‘let us rejoice’ (24), ‘save us’ (25). I think he’s now speaking on behalf of the people of Israel, offering his praise and thanks.
Now, to a subject we’ve touched upon a few times. The use of Psalms in the New Testament – can you spot the times this psalm has been quoted in the NT? I think there are a few obvious ones.
Verse 6 Hebrews 13:6
Verse 22-23 Matthew 21:42; Mark 12: 10-11, Luke 20:17
Verse 25-26 Matthew 21:9, 23:39, Mark 11: 9-10, Luke 13:35, 19:38, John 12:13
Even v25 – Save us – the Hebrew word is hoshiya na, in Greek it’s Hosannah, in effect the psalmist was saying the same as the crowds lining Jesus’ route into Jerusalem.
Spotting a thanksgiving psalm isn’t difficult – a lot of them start by saying ‘thanks’ or ‘I will praise you for something you’ve done for me.’ One of the newest translations, by Robert Alter (I can definitely recommend it - it’s a bit expensive to buy in three volumes, but single volume and Kindle editions are available: https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=robert+alter+hebrew+bible&crid=2RLMSSV7H9C1C&sprefix=Robert+alter%2Caps%2C153&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_12)
Alter’s translation oesn’t say thanks or ‘I praise you’, he uses the word ‘acclaim’. I quite like it, as it means ‘to enthusiastically approve of..’, something like that.
There are a couple of, well, odd things in the first couple of verses. The first one is, and I didn’t notice this until I read Alter’s translation (although it’s the same with the KJV), is that ‘LORD’ has been added in – I checked the original Hebrew and it just says ‘I will praise you…etc’ It seems the more modern translations need to let us know it’s God that David is talking about here. As if we didn’t know. Anyway, that;’s no big deal, but the verse also mentions ‘gods’ or ‘the gods’. There is only one God, right? I see the NIV version has put ‘gods’ in inverted commas, probably just to make it clear that David is talking about what he sees as false gods. There’s also a bit of editing going on in verse 2 in some translations – the KJV version keeps really close to the original Hebrew, saying ‘thou has magnified thy word above all thy name,’ but this is quite problematical, giving the impression God’s word is greater than his character and reputation (which his what his ‘name’ is). The Hebrew word for ‘your name’ is shimkha, which is quite close to shameykha, ‘your heavens’, so Alter has gone for ‘You have made your word great across all your heavens.’ It’s still not very satisfying.
As we’ve seen quite a few times in the past weeks, we’re often reading a very sanitised version.
What’s the reason for thanksgiving in this psalm, do you think? A prominent one, to me, is offering thanks for God answering prayers. Verse 3, 4, 6, 7 (do you recognise verse 7?)
Although it’s subtitled as a Thanksgiving Psalm, or a Psalm for Giving Thanks, it doesn’t really follow the same pattern as other thanksgiving psalms. In fact, it’s more of an instruction to worshippers. I’ve just included it as it seems to be a good way to finish off our course. There are seven instructions in it (remember that seven is the number of completion) – sing, worship, come, acknowledge, enter, give thanks, praise. I think it’s like a template for how church should be. We sometimes think of worship as internal, just between us and God, but Psalm 100 says we should join together, be happy, together in one place.