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Psalm 116 Biblical Commentary:
This is a psalm of individual thanksgiving. The psalmist is giving thanks to Yahweh for saving him from peril (v. 6). The psalmist doesn’t spell out the nature of the peril except that it was extreme. He might have been in danger of death (v. 3), but his comments about the “cords of death” could be a metaphor for some other sort of peril.
The psalmist cannot repay Yahweh for this salvation act, but he can give thanks. Furthermore, he can do so in a public setting where his thanksgiving will honor God in the presence of the assembled worshipers.
PSALM 116:1-4. YAHWEH LISTENS
1 I love Yahweh, because he listens to my voice,
and my cries for mercy.
2 Because he has turned his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
3 The cords of death surrounded me,
the pains of Sheol got a hold of me.
I found trouble and sorrow.
4 Then I called on the name of Yahweh:
“Yahweh, I beg you, deliver my soul.”
“I love Yahweh, because he listens (Hebrew: sama) to my voice” (v. 1a). The word sama means hear or listen––but in this context it obviously means more. Yahweh not only heard the psalmist’s plea for mercy, but also did something to save him. Verse 6b makes this certain. The psalmist says, “I was brought low, and (Yahweh) saved me.”
Love is a natural response to being saved. “We love (God), because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
“and my cries for mercy” (Hebrew: tahanun) (v. 1b). The word tahanun means a prayer of supplication or a plea for mercy.
In these verses, the psalmist paints a picture of desperation. He felt “the cords of death” and “the pains of Sheol” (v. 3). This psalm reveals the heart of a passionate man, so we can imagine him pleading passionately for God’s mercy.
“Because he has turned his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live” (v. 2). To turn one’s ear to someone is to position yourself to hear that person as clearly as possible. Those of us who have attained a certain age can appreciate the meaning of that gesture.
The psalmist says that, because Yahweh turned his ear to him––made a special effort to hear him––the psalmist will continue to call on Yahweh for as long as the psalmist lives.
A wise counselor once told me, “We do what works for us.” His point was that, when rewarded for our effort, we will continue to do the same thing again and again. That’s what the psalmist is determined to do. He prayed and Yahweh heard, so the psalmist will continue to pray in the hope and expectation that the God who heard once will hear him again.
“The cords of death surrounded me” (v. 3a). The psalmist paints vivid pictures in this verse. He may have in mind ropes or nets that he has used to ensnare game. Or he might have known a fisherman who fell out of his boat and became entrapped in his own net.
Some of us have experienced the cords of death closing around us. For me, it was getting caught in a rip tide that carried me so far from shore that boats passing between me and the shore didn’t see me. I tried swimming to shore, but the tide pushed me out faster than I could swim. I didn’t know that I should swim parallel to the shore to get out of the rip tide. I was sure I was going to die, because I could see no possibility of rescue. My primary regret was the thought of my mother receiving the news of my death. But God sent a man who had trained as a lifeguard to swim to me and pull me to shore. It was a very near thing, so I can appreciate the psalmist’s comment about the cords of death surrounding him.
“the pains (Hebrew: mesar) of Sheol got a hold of me” (v. 3b). The word mesar means pain or distress or anguish.
The word Sheol appears in the Old Testament about 60 times. It means the grave or death (Genesis 37:35; 42:38, etc.). Nowhere in the Old Testament is it described as a place of punishment. For the most part, the Old Testament holds out no promise of an afterlife or resurrection. That began to change in the two or three centuries before Jesus.
So the psalmist is describing his anguish at the thought of his impending death.
“I found trouble and sorrow” (v. 3c). See comments above.
“Then I called on the name of Yahweh” (v. 4a). The people of that time and place thought of names as more than labels. A name expressed the person’s essential character––something of the person’s power or authority. To call upon the name of the Lord, then, means something more than appealing for relief from a crisis. It means identifying oneself with the Lord in such a way that one’s own identity is tied together with the Lord’s identity. Calling on the name of the Lord requires allegiance––commitment––faith.
“Yahweh, I beg you, deliver (Hebrew: malat) my soul” (Hebrew: nepes) (v. 4b). The word malat is more usually used to mean escape or flee. The psalmist is praying for Yahweh’s help in escaping from the peril that so threatens him.
The word nepes means soul. The Israelites thought of the person holistically, and would never have divided the person into body and soul, as the Greeks were later to do. They could not have conceived of a soul apart from a body–– or of the soul continuing to live after the body died. When the psalmist prays for Yahweh to deliver his soul, he is really asking for Yahweh to save his life.
PSALM 116:5-6. YAHWEH SAVED ME
5 Yahweh is Gracious and righteous.
Yes, our God is merciful.
6 Yahweh preserves the simple.
I was brought low, and he saved me.
“Yahweh is Gracious (Hebrew: hannun) and righteous” (Hebrew: saddiq) (v. 5a). The word hannun means gracious or merciful. The word saddiq means just or righteous.
Graciousness and mercy (hannun) and just and righteous (saddiq) would seem to be polar opposites. A merciful person is willing to forgive the other person’s misdeeds. A just person wants adherence to high standards.
“Yes, our God is merciful” (Hebrew: raham) (v. 5b). The word raham means merciful or compassionate. Our raham God is sympathetic to those in need. He acts to restore those whose lives are broken––not because they are deserving, but because God is compassionate.
“Yahweh preserves the simple” (Hebrew: peti) (v. 6a). The word peti means foolish or simpleminded. Ezekiel uses it to describe someone who sins through ignorance (Ezekiel 45:20).
The psalmist may be considering decisions that led him to his woebegone status. Many of our wounds are self-inflicted, and that may be how the psalmist sees his problems––self-inflicted.
“I was brought low, and (Yahweh) saved me” (v. 6b). Yahweh allowed the psalmist to fall, to become a person of no account, to hit bottom––not for punishment but for redemption.
People who are riding high are seldom good candidates for repentance. Pride stands in the way of listening to wise counsel. The proud person is likely to feel “self-made”––and thus feels no obligation to God or man.
But disaster shatters pride and enforces reality. Samuel Johnson wrote, “When a man knows he is to be hanged, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
PSALM 116:7-9. YAHWEH HAS DEALT BOUNTIFULLY WITH YOU
7 Return to your rest, my soul,
for Yahweh has dealt bountifully with you.
8 For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
and my feet from falling.
9 I will walk before Yahweh in the land of the living.
“Return to your rest, my soul,
for Yahweh has dealt bountifully with you” (v. 7). Having experienced bountiful blessings at Yahweh’s hands, the psalmist can retreat to a safe place––a place where he not have to fear the enemy’s assaults––a place where he will no longer feel beleaguered.
“For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
and my feet from falling” (v. 8). The psalmist describes a three part salvation: From death, tears, or falling.
Deliverance from death is obviously significant, but deliverance from tears and fall is equally significant. Once a person is dead, he/she feels no more pain. But the person who can still experience tears and falling finds pain an ongoing problem.
“I will walk before Yahweh in the land of the living” (v. 9). Since Yahweh has saved his life, the psalmist pledges to walk before Yahweh “in the land of the living”––while the psalmist is alive.
PSALM 116:10-11. I BELIEVED IN SPITE OF MY AFFLICTIONS
10 I believed, therefore I said,
“I was greatly afflicted.”
11 I said in my haste,
“All men are liars.”
“I believed (Hebrew: ‘aman), therefore I said,
‘I was greatly afflicted'” (v. 10). The word ‘aman means to have the confidence that comes from depending on a reliable resource, such as a loving parent––or Yahweh. The psalmist believed in Yahweh, and that gave him confidence to face his adversities.
The psalmist believed in Yahweh even in the midst of great afflictions. He maintained his faith when sorely tempted to think that Yahweh had abandoned him.
“I said in my haste,
‘All men are liars'” (v. 11). This verse stands in dramatic contrast to verse 10. While the psalmist believed in Yahweh, he determined that he couldn’t believe in men. He found people to be liars––false witnesses. He could have no confidence in them.
PSALM 116:12-14. HEADER
12 What will I give to Yahweh for all his benefits toward me?
13 I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of Yahweh.
14 I will pay my vows to Yahweh,
yes, in the presence of all his people.
“What will I give to Yahweh for all his benefits toward me?” (v. 12). The psalmist’s question is rhetorical. He understands that he has received much from Yahweh, but has nothing equivalent to give in return. What does he have that Yahweh needs? Not much!
“I will take the cup of salvation” (v. 13a). But there is one thing that the psalmist can do. He can drink the cup of salvation that Yahweh has provided, and “call on the name of Yahweh.”
A cup is a vessel from which one drinks. It is the contents of the cup that counts. The contents might be the blessing of abundance (Psalm 23:5) or consolation (Jeremiah 16:7). However, the Bible sometimes tells of cups of God’s wrath (Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 25:15).
But in this verse, the psalmist takes the cup of salvation––drinks deeply from the blessing that Yahweh has bestowed on him––on the renewed life that Yahweh has given him.
“and call on the name of Yahweh” (v. 13b). To call on Yahweh’s name can mean seeking Yahweh’s help. But the context of this verse suggests something else––something less self-serving. The psalmist is calling on the name of Yahweh as a way of honoring Yahweh for the blessing of salvation that Yahweh has bestowed on him.
“I will pay my vows to Yahweh,
yes, in the presence of all his people” (v. 14). A vow is a solemn promise to God, often made as part of a bargain where the petitioner promises a specific action in return for a blessing from God. Presumably the psalmist made such a vow when his life was threatened. Such a vow could be, “Save me, Lord, and I will do (whatever).”
Now that Yahweh has saved him, the psalmist promises to do what he had promised as part of his vow. Not only will he pay his vows to Yahweh, but he will do so “in the presence of all his people”––bearing witness to the faithfulness that Yahweh has shown him.
PSALM 116:15-19. HEADER
15 Precious in the sight of Yahweh is the death of his saints.
16 Yahweh, truly I am your servant.
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid.
You have freed me from my chains.
17 I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and will call on the name of Yahweh.
18 I will pay my vows to Yahweh,
yes, in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of Yahweh’s house,
in the midst of you, Jerusalem.
“Precious in the sight of Yahweh is the death of his saints” (Hebrew: hasiyd) (v. 15). Hasiyd means kind, merciful, or pious––i.e., those whose lives manifest their deep faith in Yahweh––those who have determined to allow Yahweh and Yahweh’s law to shape their lives.
Yahweh’s saints die––as do we all. Some saints die as martyrs, and others die in bed. Some die young, and others die old. But none die without notice from Yahweh––because their deaths (and lives) are precious in Yahweh’s sight.
Yahweh counts saints as precious, because they are members of his family––loved ones. They are also precious because their lives, their faith, and their witness help to move this world toward the ideal that Yahweh wants it to be.
“Yahweh, truly I am your servant.
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid” (v. 16). The psalmist acknowledges being Yahweh’s servant––one obliged to do Yahweh’s will. But he is not only a servant, but the son of a servant––Yahweh’s handmaid. As such, even if his father should gain freedom, as the son of a handmaid, the psalmist would remain a servant (Exodus 21:4). The phrase, “the son of your handmaid,” emphasizes both the psalmist’s double and his perpetual servitude.
“You have freed me from my chains” (v. 16b). But oddly enough, after acknowledging his servitude, the psalmist also acknowledges his God-given freedom. How can the psalmist be both a servant and free at the same time? That is possible, because the psalmist is a voluntary servant, serving Yahweh out of gratitude. Yahweh has heard him and has saved his life. It is only natural, then, that the psalmist will pledge true loyalty to Yahweh.
“I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and will call on the name of Yahweh” (v. 17). The psalmist can’t repay Yahweh for saving his life, but he can give thanks––and praise Yahweh in a public setting.
The thanksgiving offering required the sacrifice of an animal as well as an offering of unleavened cakes and wafers mixed with oil” (Leviticus 7:12). The offering had to be eaten the same day. It served to express thanks for deliverance from peril or other blessings that had been received.
“I will pay my vows to Yahweh,
yes, in the presence of all his people” (v. 18). See the comments on verse 14 above.
“in the courts of Yahweh’s house,
in the midst of you, Jerusalem” (v. 19a). This would be the Jerusalem temple, which had four courts:
- The Court of the Gentiles (open to Gentiles).
- The Court of Women (open to Israelite women).
- The Court of Israelites (open to ritually pure Israelite men).
- The Court of Priests (restricted to priests).
Presumably, the psalmist would pay his vows in the Court of Israelites.
“Praise (Hebrew: hallel) Yah!” (Hebrew: yah) (v. 19b). Our word hallelujah comes from hallel (praise) and yah (Yahweh or God or the Lord), so it means “praise the Lord.”
The Hebrew word yah is an abbreviated form of Yahweh (the name of God, often translated “the Lord.”) It is found twice in Exodus (15:2; 17:16), once in Isaiah (38:11), and a number of times in the Psalms.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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