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Psalm 138 Biblical Commentary:
The psalms attribute a total of 73 psalms to David (3-9; 11-41, 51-65, 68-70; 86; 101; 103; 108-110; 122; 124; 131; 133; 138-145). In addition, Acts 4:25 attributes Psalm 2 to David––and Hebrews 4:7 attributes Psalm 95 to David.
This is one of eight psalms (138-145) grouped near the end of the psalter and attributed to David. Like other psalms in this section, it praises God. However, it also acknowledges the presence of trouble––of enemies––and acknowledges his need for God’s hand to save him (v. 7).
This is an individual psalm of thanksgiving. The psalmist gives thanks for God’s loving-kindness (v. 2) and for answering his prayers (v. 3). He expresses his faith that God will continue to help him in the future (vv. 7-8).
Scholars have raised questions about the Davidic authorship of some psalms attributed to him. Two psalms attributed to David mention “Your holy temple (5:7) or “Your temple (68:27), using the Hebrew word hekal, which means temple or palace. When speaking of Yahweh’s dwelling place, hekal means temple. The temple, of course, didn’t exist during David’s lifetime, but was built by his son, Solomon, after David’s death. While hekal could refer to the tabernacle (which did exist during David’s lifetime), the usual Hebrew word for the tabernacle was miskan.
Also, the word le, which is usually translated “of” in the phrase “a psalm of David,” has other possible meanings. For instance, “A psalm of David” could mean a psalm concerning David (but written by someone else).
PSALM 138:1-3. I WILL GIVE THANKS WITH MY WHOLE HEART
1 I will give you thanks with my whole heart.
Before the gods, I will sing praises to you.
2 I will bow down toward your holy temple,
and give thanks to your Name for your loving kindness and for your truth;
for you have exalted your Name and your Word above all.
3 In the day that I called, you answered me.
You encouraged me with strength in my soul.
“I will give you thanks with my whole heart” (Hebrew: leb) (v. 1a). We use the word heart to mean (1) the physical organ or (2) the seat of our emotions. The Israelites used the word leb (heart) in the same ways. The psalmist’s thanksgiving emanates from the core of his being––the center of his life. It represents his whole being.
“Before the gods (Hebrew: elohim), I will sing praises to you” (v. 1b). The word elohim (gods) is often used for the God of Israel, but is also used for foreign gods and for heavenly creatures such as angels.
In this case, elohim means either foreign gods or heavenly creatures––probably the former.
- If the psalmist is pledging to sing Yahweh’s praises in the presence of foreign gods, he is promising to witness to an unbelieving or wrongly believing world––honoring God before those who worship other gods. That constitutes brave discipleship, because those who believe in false gods often persecute those who challenge their beliefs.
- If the psalmist is pledging to sing Yahweh’s praises before the heavenly creatures, it is more a case of “preaching to the choir” (witnessing to the already converted)––or joining the heavenly chorus.
“I will bow down (Hebrew: shahah) toward your holy temple” (Hebrew: hekal) (v. 2a). Standing in the forecourt of the temple, the psalmist bows toward the temple.
To bow down (shahah ) was to show respect to a greater power (Genesis 43:28). In this case, the psalmist bows down in the direction of Yahweh’s temple. That was in effect to bow down to Yahweh, who was thought to abide in the Holy of Holies.
See the comments under SUPERSCRIPTION (above) on the word hekal (temple). The superscription attributes this psalm to David, but the temple didn’t exist until after David’s death.
“and give thanks to your Name (Hebrew: sem) for your loving kindness (Hebrew: hesed) and for your truth” (Hebrew: ’emet) (v. 2b). The word sem means name or fame. In this case, name equates to that which the name represents––Yahweh himself.
The word hesed has a rich variety of meanings––kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, or love. Each of these meanings indicate a kindly and positive attitude toward the beloved.
Truth (’emet) is that which is real or dependable––the opposite of false. A person who bases his/her life on truth will fare much better than someone who builds his/her life on falsehoods.
So the psalmist gives thanks to Yahweh for his faithfulness and truthfulness.
“for you have exalted your Name and your Word above all” (v. 2c). This is a difficult line. Few commentaries deal with it in detail, and those that do fail to achieve consensus.
I take it in the spirit of Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God. The expanse shows his handiwork.” By his word Yahweh created the heavens and the earth. By his covenant, he effected an ongoing and faithful relationship with Israel. Yahweh’s works and word bring him glory.
Since this is an individual psalm of thanksgiving, the psalmist almost certainly intends this as a personal statement. Yahweh has exalted his name and word by the faithfulness and loving-kindness that he has shown to the psalmist.
“In the day that I called, you answered me.
You encouraged me with strength in my soul” (v. 3). Now the psalmist reveals why he has been moved to compose this hymn of praise. He has prayed for help, and Yahweh has responded by granting him strength that penetrated to the depths of the psalmist’s soul.
PSALM 138:4-6. ALL THE KINGS WILL GIVE YOU THANKS
4 All the kings of the earth will give you thanks, Yahweh,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
5 Yes, they will sing of the ways of Yahweh;
for great is Yahweh’s glory.
6 For though Yahweh is high, yet he looks after the lowly;
but the proud, he knows from afar.
“All the kings of the earth will give you thanks, Yahweh” (v. 4a). This thought is also expressed in Psalm 68:29-32 and 102:15. The psalmist is expressing his faith that foreign rulers will see the light and worship Yahweh, the God of Israel.
“for they have heard the words of your mouth” (v. 4b). These rulers will come to faith by hearing the words of Yahweh’s mouth. They will acknowledge the truth of his words.
“Yes, they will sing of the ways of Yahweh;
for great is Yahweh’s glory” (v. 5). The rulers will not only give Yahweh thanks, but will also sing his praises, acknowledging the greatness of his glory.
“For though Yahweh is high, yet he looks after the lowly;
but the proud, he knows from afar” (v. 6). Yahweh’s preference for the humble over the proud is a frequent theme in both Old and New Testaments:
- “You will save the afflicted people, But your eyes are on the haughty, that you may bring them down” (2 Samuel 22:28).
- “You will save the afflicted people, but the haughty eyes you will bring down” (Psalm 18:27).
- “For though Yahweh is high, yet he looks after the lowly; but the proud, he knows from afar” (Psalm 138:6).
- “When pride comes, then comes shame, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2).
- “Before destruction the heart of man is proud, but before honor is humility” (Proverbs 18:12).
- “A man’s pride brings him low, but one of lowly spirit gains honor” (Proverbs 29:23).
- “The lofty looks of man will be brought low, the haughtiness of men will be bowed down” (Isaiah 2:11).
- “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
- “If any man wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
- “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down princes from their thrones.
And has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things.
He has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).
- Clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).
This emphasis has a theological rationale:
- Everything that we are or have was given to us from God––our physical strength and appearance––our intellects––our spiritual discernment––our financial resources––our abilities/gifts. Some make better use of their God-given gifts than others, but no one can truthfully claim to be “a self-made man (or woman).”
- Nothing we have done can hold a candle to what God has done. It is God, not ourselves, who deserves honor and glory.
- The lowly (humble, poor) are more likely to acknowledge their need for God. The proud (gifted, wealthy) are more likely to give themselves credit for their status––and are therefore less likely to honor God.
PSALM 138:7-8. IN THE MIDST OF TROUBLE, YOU WILL REVIVE ME
7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you will revive me.
You will stretch forth your hand against the wrath of my enemies.
Your right hand will save me.
8 Yahweh will fulfill that which concerns me;
your loving kindness, Yahweh, endures forever.
Don’t forsake the works of your own hands.
“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you will revive me.
You will stretch forth your hand against the wrath of my enemies” (v. 7a). The psalmist affirms his faith that the one who answered his prayers (v. 3) will do so again.
“Your right hand will save me” (v. 7b). For most people, the right hand is the dominant hand––the strong hand––the hand that wields a sword. Therefore the right hand is a symbol of power and authority (Exodus 15:6, 12; Nehemiah 4:23; Psalm 18:35; 20:6; 21:8; etc.). Kings wore the ring signifying their authority on their right hand. Fathers used their right hand to confer their blessing on their firstborn son.
So the psalmist is expressing his faith that Yahweh will pull out all the stops––will use all his power to save the psalmist.
“Yahweh will fulfill that which concerns me” (v. 8a). A better translation might be “Yahweh will fulfill his purpose for me.”
“your loving kindness (Hebrew: hesed), Yahweh, endures forever” (v. 8b). See the comments on verse 2b above for the meaning of hesed.
“Don’t forsake the works of your own hands” (v. 8c). The psalmist has been expressing his faith in Yahweh, but now closes with a prayer that Yahweh will continue his faithfulness to the works of Yahweh’s hands.
More generally, the works of Yahweh’s hands would include all the created order. More specifically, it would include the nation of Israel, with whom Yahweh established a covenant relationship as far back as Abram (Genesis 12:1-3). More specifically still, it would include the psalmist, who has devoted himself to Yahweh.
This closing prayer might seem unnecessary, since the psalmist has devoted most of the psalm to his conviction that Yahweh is faithful. Why would he need to plead that Yahweh would continue to be faithful?
However, it is possible that this prayer is the most authentic part of this psalm––akin to the statement, “I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Even at our best, we struggle with the tension between belief and unbelief. While the psalmist believes in Yahweh, he nevertheless feels a need to plead that Yahweh will not abandon him.
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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Copyright 2018, Richard Niell Donovan