Week of November 25, 2018
The Point: Express gratitude and trust in the One who hears our prayers.
Give Thanks to the Lord: Psalm 138:1-8.
 I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise;  I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word.  On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased.  All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O LORD, for they have heard the words of your mouth,  and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD, for great is the glory of the LORD.  For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.  Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me.  The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. [ESV]
“A Bold Man’s Praise. In Psalm 137 the captive Israelites were unable to sing praise to God in the presence of their heathen captors, but in Psalm 138 a time has come not only when such praises are sung but also when the writer anticipates the praises of God being sung by the heathen themselves, even by their kings [4-5]. These psalms have been placed together to make this contrast and to teach that although there is a time for silence, lest we cast our pearls before swine [Matt. 7:6], there is also a time for bold confession. We must be bold to praise God when others will not praise Him.
A Bold Man’s Bold Thanksgiving. Since this is a worship psalm and its dominant note is thanksgiving, we are reminded at the start that worship involves thanksgiving. Up to now in our study of these last psalms we have stressed that worship is acknowledging God as the great God He truly is and praising Him for it. In other words, worship has to do with confessing God’s attributes. We are reminded here that it also has to do with thanking God for what He has done. These two parts of worship must go together since, as is the case, the only way we can know what God is like is through His actions. The opening verses of this psalm [1-3] have two puzzling parts. (1) Before the gods. The Hebrew word for “gods” in verse 1 is elohim, a plural word, which is nevertheless most often used for God Himself, as in the very first verse of the Bible: In the beginning, God (elohim) created the heavens and the earth [Gen. 1:1]. Some writers think God Himself is meant here, but it seems a bit strange to most readers to have the psalmist saying, in effect, “I will praise you, O God, before God.” Thus most commentators on Psalm 138 look for other possibilities. One idea is that before the gods means “before the ark of God,” that is, in the sanctuary. That meaning is unusual and even a bit redundant since the next verse says, I bow down toward your holy temple. Martin Luther and John Calvin thought the word refers to angels since it is used that way in a few other places, as in Job 1:6, where the “angels” (sons of God) present themselves before God. Some of the older versions of the Bible as well as some of the newer interpreters suggest that it refers to kings or judges. This is the probable meaning of the word in Psalm 82:6, which Jesus referred to, saying, If he called them gods to whom the word of God came [John 10:35]. Jesus seems to mean the judges of Israel. An extension of this meaning would be “the great of the earth” before whom David, a king himself, would most naturally express his praise of God. The final possibility is that elohim refers to the idols or false gods before whom David would be declaring the existence of the one and only true God. This was the view of some of the older commentators. Any of these interpretations is possible, and there is not a great deal that hinges on the outcome, but two facts point in the direction of “gods” meaning kings, judges, or other powerful people of the earth. First, if the background of the psalm is God’s promise of a lasting dynasty for David as recorded in 2 Samuel 7, then verse 9 of that chapter would explain the reference. God said, And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth [2 Sam. 7:9]. David would want to praise God before these other men, his peers. The verse would teach that we are to praise and exalt the Lord before those who are our peers also. Second, David mentions these kings explicitly in verse 4: All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks. In other words, he wants to praise God before the powerful of this world so that they might learn to praise God also, following his example. To my mind, this interpretation makes the most sense, given the context. (2) Verse 2 says literally, “You have magnified your word above all your name.” This seems a strange thing to say since God’s name, which is a way of referring to all that God is, is above everything. How can God’s word be exalted above that which is above everything else? Seeing this difficulty, some translators have guessed that the letter waw (meaning “and”) has been erroneously omitted from the text. Then they reinstate it to get something like the meaning found in the ESV: for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. The problem is that the text does not contain the word “and.” The actual reading may be best despite its initial difficulty. It would be as if God is saying, “I value my integrity above everything else. Above everything else I want to be believed.” The verse does not have to mean that God’s other qualities are moved to second place. If what is driving David in his thanksgiving is gratitude for the great blessing promised by God’s establishing his throne forever, the verse becomes entirely appropriate. For David would be fixing his confidence on God’s word. There is nothing in human life to suggest that an earthly dynasty or anything else is forever. All things human perish. Heaven and earth themselves will pass away [Matt. 24:35]. But if God has promised David an everlasting dynasty, then God will surely perform what He has promised. In fact, the reference to God’s supremely exalted word may refer to something recorded explicitly in 2 Samuel 7, for in verses 20 and 21 of that chapter David responds to God’s promise of an eternal kingdom noting, What more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Sovereign Lord. For the sake of your word and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made it known to your servant (NIV).
A Bold Man’s Gracious God. Enough of the problems. What is David praising God for in these verses? The answer is God’s steadfast love and faithfulness . Surely there are no greater qualities of God than these where the people of God are concerned. Yet strikingly, these two attributes are under attack today. In fact they have always been. People attack God’s covenant love because they want to substitute a religion of their own sullied works. They do not want grace; they want recognition of their own nonexistent merit. They attack God’s truth or faithfulness to His truth because they prefer their own perceptions or hunches instead. These were the same attacks Satan used in his temptation of Eve in the garden of Eden. His first temptation was an attack on God’s goodness, for the question “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” means “If God has forbidden one tree, He might as well have forbidden you to eat from all the trees; clearly He does not have your best interests at heart.” His second temptation was an attack on God’s word: “You will not surely die.” That means “God is lying.” David had learned that God does not lie and that all God’s thoughts and actions toward us flow from love and persist in faithfulness. God is good, and He is always good. Therefore, David wanted to thank God for His goodness and praise Him for His covenant love and faithfulness before everyone. David also praises God for providing what he needed when he needed it, and that immediately. David records that he called on God and God answered him right away. Moreover, God made him bold and stouthearted, no doubt in the face of the attacks of his enemies that he mentions a little further on .
A Bold Man’s Bold Desire. Verses 4 and 5 are describing the coming day of messianic blessing when the promised king will come to rule from His throne forever. As I pointed out before, because David is himself a king he is concerned for kings and looks forward to a day when all the rulers of the earth will bow before Him who is King of kings and Lord of lords. In this psalm David notes that the result of the Messiah’s coming will be God’s glory. In David’s case these words are not so much a declaration of what God has done, or even a prophecy of what He will yet do, but a prayer or desire that the kings of the earth might thank God and sing His praises. Kings will bow by the power of God when Jesus Christ returns, that day when every knee will be forced to bow before Him. David also says that the kings of the earth will praise God when they have heard the words of your mouth . This might mean when they hear God Himself on the day He thunders from Zion, but it probably means when those who know God declare His words to them. In other words, the psalm is acknowledging the need for the people of God to be missionaries. This interpretation fits the context of the psalm, in which the writer is making a bold confession of God’s love and faithfulness himself, but it is also what makes the psalm especially relevant to us and our time. Yes, God has exalted Jesus, having given Him a name above every name, and everyone in heaven and on earth will acknowledge that one day; but in the meantime, our great commission is to make God and His gospel known. As Jesus Himself said, we are to make disciples of all nations until the very end of the age [Matt. 28:19-20].
A Bold Man’s Humility, In the last stanza of the psalm the writer comes back to his own needs. He knows that God is great, that He has compassion for the lowly and disdain for those who vainly exalt themselves . He knows that God preserves his life, that He stretches out His hand in anger against his foes, that He saves him by the power of His strong right hand . But still he walks in the midst of trouble and cannot survive unless God preserves his life and stands by him . So he prays, Do not forsake the work of your hands . The most important line in this last stanza is the first line of verse 8: The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me. This is an Old Testament version of Philippians 1:6, which assure us that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. In Psalm 138 David was probably thinking of God’s purpose in sending the Messiah to reign on His throne, but we ought to think of this line in terms of God’s avowed purpose concerning us. What is God’s purpose for us? Paul states it nicely in Romans 8:28-30. God’s purpose is to make us like Jesus Christ and to bring us to glory. Our assurance rests in God’s eternal love. The next to last line of this psalm declares, echoing the repeated refrain of Psalm 136, your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Those who know God do not have any confidence in themselves. We know that we are only weak, guilty sinners saved by grace. Apart from the persevering grace of God we would all be certain to fall away into sin and perish. Our confidence is not in ourselves; it is in Him who loved us and gave Himself for us. So we say, The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me and your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. And we pray, Do not forsake the work of your hands.” [Boice, pp. 1193-1199].
“Message and Application. Here we have the confident faith of a believer who is trusting the Lord to deliver him from his enemies and perfect His plan for his life. And this is what every believer desires. But the psalmist bases his confidence on the Lord’s loyal love and goodness, displayed so clearly in His answering the prayers of the saints and in His championing the needs of the lowly. Here is the point of the psalm, namely, that the grace of God is His greatness – not something that the kings of the world embrace, but that they will acknowledge in the end when they see His glory. The expository idea may be worded this way: Because the Lord by His grace answers prayer and rescues the lowly, those who trust in Him know that He will perfect His plan for them and inspire universal acknowledgment of His greatness. The point is expressed powerfully in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which prophesies that the kings of the earth will be astounded and shut their mouths when they see the glory of the Lord, for His greatness and His glory is due to the fact that He suffered and died for the sins of the world so that He could justify many and bring them everlasting peace. No king in the world could have even dreamed of doing all of this.” [Ross, pp. 809-810].
“Audacious Faith. Introduction. Every believer should live with a bold confidence in the sovereignty of God over his life. While he remains responsible for all his choices and must take reasonable steps to protect and extend his life, his times, nevertheless, are in God’s hands. God has appointed the number of days he has to live upon the earth. Further, the Lord has preordained good works that he is to perform. Every follower of Christ follows a divinely written script that God purposes to accomplish through his life. Therefore, as the Christian faces daily challenges, many of which are momentous, he should move forward with an unwavering, audacious faith that God’s eternal purposes will be brought to pass. Even in the midst of mounting trials, he should trust God to fulfill His plan for his life. This is the focus of Psalm 138, a psalm of praise for God, who has exalted Himself above all. The Lord has delivered David from threatening foes, sustaining his life. Therefore, David magnifies God for this dramatic rescue. With mounting confidence, he is certain that God will fulfill His purposes for his life. He expresses absolute trust in the overruling will of God for him. No wonder David pledges such praise to God who answered his prayers and saved him out of his dangers. Although the specific occasion of the psalm is unknown, it represents a lifetime of trust that the psalmist had in God. Conclusion. No matter what circumstances a believer faces, he always has good reason to praise God. He must realize that God’s sovereign will for his life will be executed, regardless of whatever circumstances threaten him. No matter what trials a believer faces, he must hold fast to the confidence that God will overrule all until his divinely appointed purposes are completed. He should see his life as resting in God’s hands, not his enemies’ clutches. As a result, all followers of Christ are able to move forward confidently and serve God triumphantly. This audacious faith should be found in all who have committed their lives to Him. May we live with a bold confidence in our sovereign God, who presides over all.” [Lawson, pp. 329-331].
Questions for Discussion:
- Note the structure of verses 1-5. Make a list of all the things David says he does in verses 1-3 and the things the kings do in verses 4-5. Now focus on the for statements that show why David and the kings do what they do. List these things. Now compare the two lists. What can you learn about your worship of God from these two lists?
- In verse 7, what three things does the Lord do for David while he walks in the midst of trouble? What additional thing does the Lord do in verse 8. Memorize verse 8. Use this verse as your statement of faith and your prayer whenever you walk in the midst of trouble.
- Jim Boice writes that worship primarily consists of two things: confessing God’s attributes and thanking God for what He has done. Try focusing on these two things in your times of private and family worship this week. What impact did this exercise have on your worship of God?
- List the reasons for David’s thankfulness. How did God answer his prayer? What is exalted as a result of this answered prayer? How does David demonstrate humility in receiving the answer? In what ways do adverse circumstances affect David’s relationship with God? Think about why he has the confidence expressed in verse 8. How can you derive assurance of God’s fulfillment in your present situation?
Psalms, vol. 3, James Boice, Baker.
Psalms, vol. 2, Allan Harman, Mentor.
Psalms 76-150, Steven Lawson, Holman Reference.
A Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 3, Allen Ross, Kregel.