Grace Presbyterian Church
March 11, 2018, Lent 4B
Psalm 107:1-3, 10-22; (because so much of the psalm is referenced, it is linked in full)
A Psalm of Preservation
This is, in some ways, a fun psalm.
It’s a long one, to be sure, but it is also organized in a way that makes it quite easy to follow. The first three verses are a kind of prelude, setting the stage for the particular story of God’s goodness about to be told. Following are four particular stories, featuring particular examples of “those he redeemed from trouble.” The final eleven verses add a soberly joyful reflection on what has been said, and bring the song to a thoughtful close.
Within that structure one can see, to a degree beyond most of the Psalms, indicators of how this particular song might have been designed. Each of the four “stories,” as I’ve called them, note that the afflicted “cried to the Lord in their distress” and are brought to a close with the repeating instruction “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.”
We already expect these psalms to be songs (that is, after all, one of the basic original meanings of the word “psalm”), but in this case the repeating structure suggests a song with a specific purpose, probably one to be used in a worship liturgy as a statement of gratitude on the part of the congregation. Considering that this psalm, like those that follow after it in the biblical book, probably dates from much later than the rest of the book – to the period when the people of Israel were returning from exile, probably little more than two centuries before the birth of Christ – the call to gratitude probably carried with it a little extra fervor and a little more thoughtfulness than, say, a psalm written by King David at the height of his power. Gratitude tends to be heightened when suffering is past.
The psalm is also fun, so to speak, because it is so vivid. It seems the psalmist is searching out the most expressive words possible and going for the strongest and most evocative expression possible throughout the length of this considerable song. It’s not just a desert, it’s a “desert waste.” They weren’t just prisoners, they were prisoners “in misery and in irons”; the Lord “brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder.”
The fourth scene, beginning in verse 23, offers perhaps the most vivid of imagery in its accounting of those who “went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters,” where “they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.” It reads so vividly, doesn’t it?
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity.
They reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end.
It’s little wonder that composers have found this psalm, and that story in particular, irresistible for setting to music.[i] (follow the footnote for some examples)
While all of this makes Psalm 107 particularly enjoyable for reading or singing, there is a point to all of this poetic and visual imagery. In the end, no matter the particular struggle or grief or turmoil the people go through, it is the Lord who delivers or preserves them through it – “then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them out from their distress.” Those men “doing business on the mighty waters” didn’t redouble their efforts or “dig deep” or find the strength within; “they cried to the Lord in their trouble.” The ones wandering in desert wastes didn’t suddenly invent a GPS and devise their own way out of the desert; “they cried to the Lord in their trouble.”
Another point, one that goes with that main point, is that these instances of trouble were (and are) entirely too often self-inflicted. This is made explicit in the second and third stories. The prisoners, those bound “in misery and in irons,” were there because “they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the council of the Most High.” The third account, beginning in verse 17, declares that “some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and drew near to the gates of death.”
Many students of scripture conclude that this particular passage is a reference to the story found in the Old Testament reading today, the odd story from the book of Numbers. It certainly fits; the Hebrew people grumble against Moses, complaining about the wilderness; God sends poisonous snakes among the people, many are bitten, and many fall ill and even die; “they cried out to the Lord in their trouble”; the Lord instructs Moses to fashion that bronze snake and put it up on a pole, so that anyone bitten who looked upon that snake would live. It does fit; “sick through their sinful ways”; crying out to the Lord in their distress, delivered out from their suffering. You’ll hopefully notice that the gospel reading from John also makes reference to this story, comparing that serpent Moses “lifted up … in the wilderness” to Christ lifted up on the cross, again a “lifting up” necessitated through the sinfulness of humanity.
But there is one more point about this psalm, one that contradicts a devoutly and passionately held belief among many who call themselves Christians. Notice that in each of these cases something is true that we’d prefer not to be true. The ones wandering in the desert were in the desert, suffering thirst and hunger, fainting in their souls. The ones imprisoned, because of their rebellion against the words of God, were in prison, “bowed down with hard labor.” Those who were sick because of their own sinfulness were sick, afflicted, near death. The ones who went off to sea found out the hard way just how hard it is to endure when you rush off into a stormy sea.
These were not prevented from the consequences of their actions. They weren’t magically delivered from any hunger and thirst or hard labor or illness or storm-tossed staggering. Because of their choices, because of what they did, they suffered.
But “then they cried to the Lord in their trouble.”
God is not a magic talisman, guaranteed to keep us from suffering or being hurt no matter what stupid or foolish thing we do. It was particularly true for the Hebrew people in the wilderness; grumbling against God and God’s appointed leader was pretty much bound to bring trouble, from which God was gracious to deliver. But in all the cases the psalm includes, whether from rebellion or recklessness, those who did wrong didn’t escape the consequences of their actions, but they were preserved through them and led out from them.
Even the psalm’s epilogue continues the theme when the wicked suffer the consequences of their wickedness, when they are brought low and the lowly are lifted up. It’s the kind of thing that gets quoted on occasion in the New Testament, for example in the Magnificat the young Mary sings to her cousin while carrying the child Jesus. Jesus himself will make such allusions a few times as well.
Finally the psalm ends with something of a “mic drop” – “the upright see it and are glad, and all wickedness stops its mouth” – and a word to the wise; “consider the steadfast love of the Lord.” It’s still good counsel today.
For the steadfast love of the Lord, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #32, I Sing the Mighty Power of God; #653, Give Thanks to God Who Hears Our Cries (Psalm 107); #792, There Is a Balm in Gilead; #654, In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful