Psalm 138 – He’s got the whole world in HIS hands
Have you ever written God a thank you note? Psalm 138 which is categorised as a psalm of thanksgiving is a good example of a note of gratitude that is written by David to God. This gratitude to God is also expressed by David amid trouble and opposition, all the while relying on God’s help and entrusting the future to God’s care, as we will see in the Psalm.
It is the first in the final collection of eight psalms identified as “of David” in the Psalter (138-145). It is quite evident that the psalm was composed after its author had come through a rather tight scrape. At the heart of this challenge that the psalmist faced is an account of God’s deliverance. The account of deliverance is very short in this psalm: “On the day I called, you answered me…” (138:3).
The psalm is a total of eight brief verse and may be divided as follows: I thank you, God (1-3), this is our God (4-6), you are with me (7-8). Psalm 138 gives thanks to God in the presence of three groups: the gods (verses 1-3); the kings of the earth (verses 4-6); and enemies (verses 7-8).
The psalm opens with thanksgiving to God, a thanksgiving that oozes with tremendous gratitude that ‘comes from the heart’. This thanksgiving is seen in the number of times that words ‘thanks’ and ‘praise’ appear in the psalm. Interestingly the reason for the thanksgiving and praise is mentioned in verse 3 only as; “on the day I called, you answered me, you increased the strength of my soul.”
We are not told what the issue or challenge was except that the psalmist was convinced that his prayer was answered. Perhaps a deeper look might suggest that the problem or difficulty faced by the psalmist had not been eradicated but even continued to persist. Why do I say that? The psalmist thanks God for answering his prayer but even more for ‘increasing the strength of his soul’. In short the answer to the prayer was not the disappearance of the issue at hand but the courage given by God to bear the difficulty.
The word ‘soul’ in Hebrew is translated as ‘nephesh’ and should rightly translated in English as ‘my true self’ or ‘my innermost being’. This thought that God does not take away our trial but strengths our innermost being is reiterated in verse seven which is a mirror reflection of Psalm 23:4. Verse seven acknowledges that “while I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies.” Verse seven affirms that the issue at hand has not disappeared, the psalmist continues to walk in the midst of his troubles and his enemies wrath are still his troubles, yet because the Lord increased the strength of his soul he is able to face the storm and is able to give thank with all his heart.
What is so beautiful in this psalm is the fact that the psalmist in verse 2 acknowledges with thanks the LORD (or YHWH – the name of God was never taken and hence written without the vowels so that it could not even be said) who is ‘steadfast in his love’ and ‘faithful’ The Hebrew text translates these words as ‘hessed’ and ‘emeth’; words that are repeatedly found together when God is thanked and praised. So effusive is the psalmist with the quality of God’s character that the word hessed (translated as steadfast love or loving kindness) is found 245 times in the Old Testament and 127 times in the psalm. David the psalmist confess the ‘steadfast love’ and God’s ‘faithfulness’ even when he is ‘walking in the midst of trouble’.
But this psalm is also a psalm of encouragement and one that testifies to God. Verse three testifies to the faith of the psalmist in God. “On the day I called, you answered me” or as we might read it, ‘on the day I prayed, you answered me.’ A word of caution must be added here least one might think that we need to go to God only on the day I need him. The psalmist has testified repeatedly in the psalms that the praise of God is ‘always on his lips’. Prayer and the praise of God is not seasonal, it is meant for every season. Scripture does not say ‘if you pray’ but ‘when you pray’ (Matthew’s Gospel) making it quite clear that prayer is a daily affair.
The throne of grace with the ‘Lord on high’(verse 6) can be approached by the lowly too ( verse 6). God is not only transcendent, he is also immanent. God who is in his high heaven is also Emmanuel, God with us. He is on our side and we can go to him whenever we want with our prayer. That same LORD on high walks with us (verse 7) ‘in the midst of our trouble’, ‘preserving us for the wrath of our enemies’ (verse 7)
Finally, even in our darkest struggle we are assured that we exist because we have a ‘purpose’. Verse eight reminds us that “ the Lord has a purpose for me.” We need to take comfort in the fact that I exist for a reason. We are not created by God randomly. He has a plan and purpose for me and even though I do not see it in the ‘valley of my darkness’ he will guide me with his crook and staff.
The psalm ends not with what some may see as another desperate plea but with a prayer. David prays again that the ‘Lord may not forsake the works of his hands’. He knows that God created him and that God will guide him through the purpose that was ordained for him. Now, David prays again with childlike attitude, “Lord continue to hold my hand”. You who created the whole world, do not leave my hand for there is never a time when everything will be right. You who have got the whole world in your hands, continue to hold mine. David’s prayer is ours too!
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