Thanksgiving After Rescue - Reflections on Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
by Dr. John Holbert on Tuesday, April 18, 2023
Thanksgiving After Rescue
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher
There are any number of psalms that describe in myriad ways how the psalmist was rescued from dire straights, whether illness or fear of defeat in battle or the terror of dying. Such psalms are especially appropriate for the Easter season, reflecting deep gratitude for the gift of Jesus’s death and resurrection, fulfilling God’s desire for all people to stay fixed in their convictions to follow God in all things, even to the point of death. The account of the resurrection is not some sort of interchange between God and Jesus, whereas the latter dies to assuage the anger of God for the people God has created, the traditional view of “substitutionary atonement,” found manifest in far too many weepy songs about how “Jesus died for me.” The cross and resurrection comprise the ultimate story of Jesus’s willingness to go to the cross as a call to act for justice in all circumstances and to reject both the power of the empire and the common human habit of giving in to that empire, no matter the dire consequences for those marginalized ones who live under the empire’s heel. Just like the Israelite story of the Sea of Reeds, where Moses leads the people of Israel through the sea in the face of an empire’s desire for their destruction, so the story of Jesus reminds all humanity that God has a way to live differently and more fully than any empire desires and demands.
Ps.116 is a psalm that apparently enshrines the gratitude of a worshipper who has faced severe sickness, has cried out in anguish to God for help, has been answered by that God, and has offered multiple forms of thanksgiving for rescue. No one should conclude from these actions of God and worshipper that such a positive reply is always assured. All who read this psalm can recount many occasions when the sufferer did not receive the reply urgently requested; death came despite faithful outcries for saving. Still, the psalm tells of a successful interchange between God and the one in pain, and offers thereby hope for others to turn to God in whatever struggles appear.
1) I love that YHWH has heard my voice and my supplications,
2) has leant an ear to me in the days of my crying.
The psalmist expresses gratitude out of the certain conviction that YHWH is ever anxious to hear when a worshipper cries for help. The poet then enunciates something of the problem that led to the outcry.
3) The snares of death surrounded me;
the throes of Sheol seized me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
The psalmist claims to have been at the point of death, encompassed by the specter of the end of life, envisioning the terrible pangs of Sheol, that place of the dead where all are destined to go when they die. “Distress and anguish,” rather general terms for dangerous and debilitating torment, conclude the psalmist’s reasons for a desperate turn to YHWH. It was then that the poet “called on the name of YHWH: ‘O YHWH, I pray, save my life’” (Ps.116:4). And YHWH did precisely that!
The final verses of the poem outline those specific ways that the psalmist plans to thank YHWH for the granted release from the fear and reality of pain and death. “What shall I return to YHWH for all God’s gifts to me” (Ps.116:12)? Here follows a list of the many ways that thanks may be expressed. “I will raise the cup of salvation and call upon YHWH’s name” (Ps.116:13). The “cup of salvation” may well be an actual cup that the worshipper lifts in the course of worshipping YHWH, a sign that YHWH’s actions may be symbolized in a raised cup (of wine?). “I will pay my vows to YHWH in the presence of all God’s people” (Ps.116:14). Here is a clear indication that true thanksgiving must be performed in the assembly of worshippers in order that all may witness and celebrate the gift of new life that has been received. Ps.116:14 is repeated verbatim in 116:18, suggesting the great importance of thanksgiving in the community, not confined to a muttered “thanks” to oneself.
“To you I will sacrifice the thanksgiving sacrifice, and will call on YHWH’s name” (Ps.116:17). Here the psalmist announces quite directly that the appropriate way to offer thanks is by the familiar “thanksgiving sacrifice,” an offering well-known to any Israelite worshipper, as any number of Hebrew Bible stories attest. Thus, the cup is raised, the vows are announced and fulfilled, and the thanksgiving sacrifice is offered, all in the presence of the worshipping assembly, in this psalm made explicit “in the courts of the house of YHWH, in the very center of Jerusalem” (Ps.116:19). Each of these sanctified actions are all signs of the psalmist’s great gratitude for what YHWH has done, signs that are shared with the community, saying to them all that YHWH is ready to hear and act on their behalf as well.
There is one line that appears almost out of place in this poem of grateful thanks. “Precious in YHWH’s eyes is the death of God’s faithful” (Ps.116:15). Why include such a sentiment in the midst of a song that extolls God explicitly for salvation from death? I suggest it is the poet’s way of offering comfort to all those, and they must have been many, who have not received the gift of life given to this psalmist. For those who are saved from anguish, there are so many who have not been given the gift, not for any lack of faithful outcry, nor want of serious worship. God’s gifts are just that, gifts, not certain results of faithful actions.
After all, Jesus pleaded that God would take the cup of agony away, but Jesus drank that cup to the dregs, and demonstrate thereby that God’s will was somehow mysteriously in that agony and death. Little wonder that Ps.116:15 has become an important element of more than a few funeral services down the centuries. Ps.116, in all its richness, is a fitting poem for a post-Easter people.