Here’s another psalm that uses the word “thanks” a lot, at least compared to other psalms, which tend to only use it once or not at all. In the NASB’s translation, it’s 460 words long, and “thanks” appears five times. That’s just slightly more than 1% of the words, but gratitude is central to Psalm 118, to the point that the NASB summarizes it with the header “Thanksgiving for the Lord’s Saving Goodness.” I expect we could learn something about our topic of choice here, so let’s dig into the text and find out what thanks is all about.
It’s another Gratitude Day around here. I chose Psalm 107 for today’s passage because, while most of the psalms that contain some version of the word “thanks” contain it only once, Psalm 107 contains it six: in verses 1, 8, 15, 21, 22, and 31. Let’s type some words about that word and the words around it.
Ezra is a book about getting back in touch with your roots. Its events take place around 460-450 BC, generations after Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. King Cyrus of Persia sends a sizeable party of diaspora Jews to return to Jerusalem, reunite with the survivors, and build a new temple to their God in their holy city. And it would seem Ezra, who chronicled this expedition, took a few cues from the book of Chronicles, because when he uses the word “thanks,” he too pairs it with the word “praise.” In the scene from today’s passage, after the foundation for the temple is complete, the priests lead the Hebrew people in praise and thanks. All in all, it’s an extremely Hebrew scene, so let’s get Hebrew.
I’m pretty sure it wasn’t until I was in junior high that I discovered there was more Jonah after Nineveh’s repentance. You may have had a different experience, but it seemed children’s Bible stories always stopped short of the scene where Jonah gets bent out of shape over Nineveh’s non-destruction. Then again, I may be misremembering, or perhaps I somehow never realized that the guy in the picture books grousing about his dead plant was still Jonah. Either way, I’ve got my intro paragraph, so let’s look at the actual text.
As we’ve discussed before, human beings won’t praise a thing for no reason. To praise something is to express approval of it, to say that it’s great. And even when we praise insincerely—when we praise things that we don’t think are great—it’s to flatter or win the approval of someone else. We have motivations for doing things, and praising is no exception. When David praises God in Psalm 145, he praises because he thinks God is great. But why does he think God is great? What’s so great about God?
Unlike yesterday’s psalm, there’s no cave in Psalm 143. The only real context we’re given is that it’s by David, and therefore about some point in his life. But like yesterday’s psalm, it’s a prayer under pressure for God’s help and mercy. Perhaps it was written from a cave, or about a cave, as David says his enemy has driven him into “dark places” (3). But although it’s a psalm with very little light, it’s not a psalm devoid of hope.
King David’s back today with another psalm of thanksgiving. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re looking at a psalm of simple orientation or new orientation, and for me, this is one of those psalms.
I expect that lyrical repetition has been around for as long as singing itself. It’s a potent device. If you want to write a hit pop song, get yourself a simple, singable chorus and a catchy hook, and lean into it hard: just drill it into your listeners’ heads. And whatever lyrical gymnastics you’re pulling off in your rap track, whatever rapid-fire vocals and complex internal rhymes, make sure you’ve got a good call-and-response chorus to get the audience bouncing. And to go back further, if you’re an ancient Hebrew lyricist, you too can put these techniques to work. Enter Psalm 118.
It’s your birthday. You come home to your dark house, and just as you’d expect, as soon as you turn on the lights, everyone jumps out and yells, “Surprise!” Except it’s not your friends. It’s strangers, and they strip you naked and beat you with baseball bats. They leave, and from your new vantage point on the floor, you suddenly notice: there actually is a birthday cake on the counter. That’s Psalm 89.
Psalm 62 has a chorus, of sorts. David opens the psalm with the following lines: “My soul waits in silence for God only; From Him is my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, My stronghold; I shall not be greatly shaken” (1-2). He repeats them in verses 5-6, with two differences: the first line becomes a command, “My soul, wait in silence…” (5), and the second line becomes “For my hope is from Him” (5). This is a tall order; how exactly are you going to rely on an invisible, intangible entity to be something so solid as a rock and a stronghold and save you from your enemies? Wouldn’t you be better off counting on, say, an actual rock or stronghold?