Psalm 116 is a song of thanksgiving of an individual; a poem written after a difficult time of life has been endured, survived, or overcome.
It may seem strange, at times, to recite an individual’s song as a community in worship, but the individuals’ song was most likely written just for this purpose: that the whole congregation could hear what God has done for an individual. The individual bears witness to the group that God has been active in his life, and so encourages all who hear
It is not untypical of this genre of psalms to first present the specifics of the psalmist’s trials to be background introductory material leaving room for often effusive praise of God. This is precisely how Psalm 116 begins, with the psalmist saying that he loves God because…
Verse 1 - I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my supplications. The psalmist then continues to list reasons why he loves God:
Verse 2 - because God has inclined the ear to me…
Verse 7 - for the Lord has dealt bountifully…
Verse 8 - for God has delivered my soul…
The reasons for giving thanks, one of the primary elements of the song-of-thanksgiving-psalm, are reiterated throughout the psalm. The pattern of “I ‘x’ because God has ‘y’,” that is so central to the psalm might be an important and fruitful avenue of proclamation based on the psalm.
Congregations and individuals do well to remember, and to bear witness publicly, to those ways in which they have felt God to have been active in their daily lives. Other Christians, other believers, and of course other spiritual seekers need to hear this. When we find ourselves in the midst of difficult times it is important that we be a listening ear to hear those so distressed, and have a proclaiming voice for bearing witness, that these times can be endured, survived, and overcome, due to God’s care and provision.
The psalm itself serves not only as witness to what God has done but as the thanksgiving and praise that is due to God. Having prayed for help, and having experienced all the bounty of the Lord in response (cf. verse 12), the psalmist is now making good on the vow he made to declare God’s praises. Verses 12-14, paint the picture of the psalmist’s sense of obligation in response to God’s grace:
Verse 12 - What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me?
Verse 13 - I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD
Verse 14 - I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.
A useful exercise might be for us to consider the litany of “How do I love thee (O Lord) let me count the ways…” and then to beg the question for ourselves: Why do we love the Lord?
What do we owe our God in response for all that God has done for us — from the formative act of creating us as individual living beings to providing for us in our daily living (as Luther puts it, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil”), to draw us into the community of the redeemed through the Word.
For all of this, from life to faith, we owe God a declaration of thanksgiving and the witness to the world of all that God has done for us. A relative question might be, “What should such a declaration of thanksgiving look like for us?” Is there an opportunity of/for confession, of bearing witness to God’s activity in the lives of our own selves that might be explored?
Psalm 116, with its thanksgiving to God and the witness it bears, is set between two extremes, between two “existences” if you will: between Sheol — the land of the dead (verse 3), and the land of the living (verse 9). Sheol, which is literally the place where all who have died go in the ancient Israelite understanding of life and death, is often employed metaphorically in the psalms.
Sheol is not just a place — the land of the dead — but it is a state of being. The psalmist feels dead, and is lost, forlorn, troubled, while still very much alive. The benefits of God’s actions are that the psalmist is delivered from “death” and restored to a life that really feels like living. This produces not only “life,” but trust in God.
The witness that is the core of the psalm, that God delivers, is centered at first by these two extremes, the experience of a death-like state and the restoration to “the land of the living,” and second by the declaration of the psalmist that he loves the Lord (because the Lord delivers) and that he kept faith even in troubling times (because the Lord delivers).
We, as Christians may be inclined to rush to the eternal salvation promised in Christ Jesus, and that is God’s ultimate glory. However, praise God, there is something very “this-world” impacting about the promise as well. The promise is that because of what God does — listening to our supplications, answering our prayers, promising us life out of death — this life is transformed as well. And is that not worthy of our thanks, and proclamation?