Read and pray through Psalm 116.
Reflection | Psalm 116 is part of a collection of songs (including Psalm 113-118) known as the Hallel. Hallel is part of the familiar word, “Hallelujah” which means “praise the Lord.” Together these Psalms incorporate gratitude for God’s past acts of salvation and confidence in God’s future redemption.
Ancient tradition suggests the first singing of the Hallel goes all the way back to the Jews who witnessed God’s rescue of them from slavery – culminating at their crossing of the Red Sea. For the people of Israel, these psalms were lifted up in song on joyous occasions – particularly during the three major festivals of Judaism: Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles and the minor festival (“minor” because it is not prescribed in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament) of Hanukkah. Jesus then would have sung the Hallel with his disciples during the Last Supper which was a celebration of the Passover meal.
Psalm 116 itself is nineteen verses long but the writer gives us the quick synopsis in the first two verses. “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live” (verses 1-2). From the outset, we learn this is an intimate, personal song of praise and thanksgiving to God.
“The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came over me; I was overcome by distress and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: “Lord, save me!” (verses 3-4). It is unclear the exact nature of the threat the psalmist was facing. Was it some sort of illness or deficiency? Could it have been a sudden injury or crippling loss? Whatever the psalmist endured was extreme enough to be perceived as a life-threatening situation!
Even though the author of these lyrics is unknown, we can all relate to the situation described in this psalm. Most of us know what it is like to be overwhelmed by sadness or grief. Each of us, will, at some point, encounter something that causes us to panic and to fear that we are on the brink of death – physical, relational or otherwise. And everyone, inevitably gives voice to one of the rawest and most essential prayers of this life, which is to look to God and simply say, “Help!”
But not everyone will, in their moment of need, offer up such a petition to Heaven. Some believe there is no one there to answer. For others, it never even occurs to them to reach out beyond themselves. What then is the basis of the psalmist’s faith? Having reached the end of their rope, what drives this person to believe there is a lifeline to be found? “The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion” (verse 5).
The psalmist knew and relied on the self-professed character of God. The Hebrew word translated here as “gracious” also means “merciful.” The Hebrew word translated as “righteous” also means “just.” From purely a human perspective, being gracious and merciful would appear to the opposite of being just and righteous. Don’t we treat often them as contrasting responses? A merciful person is willing to forgive the other person’s misdeeds, whereas a just person wants adherence to high standards. And yet these two postures that seem mutually exclusive to us are jointly held and expressed together by our Creator. We worship a God who “is full of compassion” – sympathetic to those who are in need but also committed to restoring and making right what is broken.
“The Lord protects the unwary; (verse 6). The word translated here into English as “unwary” actually has the connotation of being foolish or simpleminded. The prophet Ezekiel uses this word to describe someone who sins through ignorance (see Ezekiel 45:20). It would appear the writer of this song is hinting to us that these troubles, these wounds are self-inflicted rather than something bad that just happened.
Hence, the psalmist declares, “when I was brought low, he saved me.” More often than we might care to admit, the Lord’s work of salvation in our daily lives is humbling – saving us from ourselves! The Lord allows us to fail and to hit bottom – not to punish us but to remove all the self-imposed barriers to our redemption by Him.
Before we go further, let us recognize the loving gratitude the psalmist professes is for more than just answered prayer – but for being heard by God. The psalmist says the Lord “turned his ear to me.” Undertaking such a gesture is to intentionally position oneself to hear another person as clearly as possible. God is never distractedly or half-listening to us. While our Creator can and does multi-task, we have the Lord’s full and undivided attention whenever we speak to God.
It also is compelling the psalmist says the Lord heard his voice – and not necessarily his specific request. Sometimes when we are overwhelmed – especially when we are shaken to the very core of our being – we struggle to express what we need. Our emotions overtake the situation. Words escape us. Nonetheless, the Lord listens carefully and hears what we need even when we ourselves don’t know or can’t explain it. And God answers – always.
Once the danger has passed, it can be tempting to go on with our lives as they were before. We can treat God like an emergency responder – someone who gets us out of a threatening situation but then is expected to depart and let us get back to our lives. The psalmist, however, models a healthier and better course of action. “Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you” (verse 7).
Ironically and perhaps tragically, “Rest in peace” is a blessing we often extend to the dead but rarely, if ever, extend towards the living. We have no peace in our lives because we insist on being restless with all our worries and concerns, with all our frustrations and contentions. We work ourselves to death and only then, do we allow ourselves to rest in peace. But our Creator never instituted rest as a consequence of dying. Our Heavenly Father created rest as our means of truly living – of experiencing a peace that can carry us through whatever befalls us, whatever threatens us, even the shadow of death itself. But such peace which passes all our understanding can be found only as we regularly rest in our relationship with the Lord.
The salvation that Lord provides is more than getting us out of a spot; it is an invitation to find ongoing refuge and the strengthening rest that come from abiding in God. Gratitude expressed towards the Lord ought to lead us into a deeper reliance upon the Lord. It is to focus, as the psalmist does, not on the gift but the Giver: “For you, Lord, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling…” (verse 8). True thanksgiving for God is to realize one stays out of trouble and avoids death by, like our songwriter, “walk(-ing) before the Lord in the land of the living” (verse 9).
Ours is a walk of faith. It is learning to thank God before God provides – remaining confident in who the Lord is even when our circumstances are not what we want them to be. This too, the psalmist exhibits for us: “I trusted in the Lord when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”; in my alarm I said, “Everyone is a liar” (verses 10 – 11). Apparently, the writer, much like Job, encountered people who argued that God had abandoned him. And yet, as he confronted the question of who to believe, the psalmist doubled down in his dependence upon the Lord. The psalmist trusted in the Lord not only to answer his prayer but to give him strength to endure the doubts and accusations of others.
With the remaining lines of this song, verses 12-19, the lyricist wrestles with how best to respond to what God has done. “What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?” (verse 12). But the psalmist’s question is rhetorical. He understands that he has received much from God but has nothing equivalent to give in return. None of us cannot repay the Lord for all the ways in which He daily and ultimately saves our lives. Grace can be given but grace cannot be paid back. Grace can only be shared and extended.
Therefore, the list of actions outlined by the psalmist are more symbolic in nature – representative in their practice. To “lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (verse 13) is to drink deeply from the renewed life we have been offered and always to give the glory to God. To “fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people” (verse 14) is to publicly and vocally bear witness to God’s faithfulness in one’s life.
Let us, like the psalmist, no matter what the threat, know and celebrate the One to whom we always can turn. And then, with deep gratitude, as we wonder like our fellow pilgrim in the faith how best to respond, let us remember to give thanks. May our gratitude be expressed not just verbally but actively. May we go beyond feeling thankful or saying, “Thank you!” and reflect our gratefulness to God by being the Lord’s servants – in serving each other (see verses 16-17).
Remarkably and soberingly, our God serves us – ultimately coming down in Jesus Christ to sacrifice Himself and to redeem all the world. We give thanks to the Lord by serving each other the way He has served us. True gratitude then is following the way of Christ. It is turning our ears and hearing the voices of those who are crying out to God. It is becoming, by the grace of God which saves us, the hands and feet of Jesus to those who are desperately looking and asking for help from the Lord.
Consider & Discuss | If you were in a time of need, would you call out to the Lord? When you call on God when you are in trouble, do you really expect God to save you? Why or why not? Take this moment to cry out to the Lord with the troubles or concerns that you are facing. Commit to bring these petitions to God repeatedly and regularly and give thanks to God in advance as you look for God’s gracious, good, merciful, and just answer.
Consider keeping a Gratitude Journal. Daily record in a notebook three blessings or gifts from God. Keeping a Gratitude Journal will train your heart to look for God’s goodness and to express thanksgiving to him. You cannot do this exercise and remain unchanged. Out of this daily exercise, ask and listen to how the Holy Spirit is calling you to publicly express and share your gratitude to God through serving another person. Who, in your circle of community is crying out for help right now?
Prayer Focus | Heavenly Father, thank You for always turning Your ear to us – for being able to hear and understand our needs that even we sometimes cannot put into words. Thank You for being the God who always responds by giving us what we need when we need it. Knowing that You always listen and answer our prayers, help us to keep abiding and reaching out to You until our very last breath. Empower and direct us to express our gratitude to You through our attentiveness and responsiveness to the needs of others. May our witness to Your grace glorify You and reflect the Light of Christ through acts of mercy and compassion, justice and righteousness. Amen.