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Psalm 116

Psalm 116 Reflecting on all the events of Holy Week evokes the whole gamut of human emotions. The intensity of the events is mirrored by the intensity of the emotions we feel. When we lament, it’s a hearty lament. When we’re perplexed, it’s an acute feeling of questioning. And when we praise, like the psalmist in Psalm 116, it is with vigor. Praise spills forth in light of a God who responds to the cries of his people and paves the way from the bleak desperation of immanent death to the joy of walking in the land of the living (9). Psalm 116 is part of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118). The Hallel is recited on Jewish holy days including Passover. These psalms are recited in the Passover Seder, which serves as the reenactment of the Exodus story. This week’s reading in Exodus 12 recalls that familiar story in which, by God’s grace, his people were passed-over; their lives were spared. While Psalm 116 is the personal reflection of an individual, the thematic congruence of the Exodus story is clear. It is right for the psalmist to lavishly praise God who spared his life and makes good on his promise to deliver, redeem, and bring out those who are facing death. But what of the timing of this psalm—Maundy Thursday? Is it right to allow for such unadulterated joy given that Good Friday lies in the wait? Actually, yes. This isn’t an anemic expression of joy merely because the psalmist now faces smoother circumstances. This psalm speaks to the radical trust we can put in a God who is unceasingly mindful of us and sees our tears, our stumbling, and the death that seeks us out (8). No, this is not empty praise for the psalmist. He is humbly aware, as evidenced by his pondering how he might give back to God (12), that the death of God’s faithful is costly[1] (15) and he’s consumed with the utter assurance that God alone can deliver…and has delivered. What then is the psalmist’s response to God’s deliverance? He says he will “lift up the cup of salvation” (13), “offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (17), and “keep the promises made to the Lord in the presence of all God’s people” (18). Meaningful praise elicits a response. This should not be interpreted as an attempt to earn deliverance or to secure future redemption. When we preach this psalm it’s appropriate to invite a response to God’s redemptive acts on our behalf. God doesn’t act because we’ve earned it through our sacrifices and promises, rather, we respond with sacrifices and promises precisely because we acknowledge that we have received that which we couldn’t have earned. Reflecting on the psalmist’s “lifting up the cup of salvation” makes sense in the context of the Seder meal. While it may not be common for many in our tradition to take part in an actual Seder meal, some may celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday. For those who do, Psalm 116 provides a beautiful reflection in that context and pairs nicely with the New Testament readings. In the epistle reading, particularly 1 Corinthians 11:26, Paul reminds us that when we celebrate the Eucharist (from the Greek eucharistia, meaning “thanksgiving”) we “broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes.” (CEB) Paul continues with a stern warning for those to whom this would ever become empty religious ritual. We again recall that the psalmist’s response to God’s deliverance isn’t devoid of sincerity. To lift the cup is to humbly acknowledge that life comes from God alone and to drink the cup is a commitment to be an instrument of God’s life-giving work in the world.[2] Holy Week provides the occasion for God’s people to once again ponder the creatively loving, albeit mysteriously absurd, way God brought about our redemption and to experience afresh the immense emotions such pondering is sure to bring. It is a week riddled with a full range of conflicting responses, from doubt and sorrow to assurance and triumph. But what hopefully persists is the spirit and posture of gratitude exemplified by the psalmist in Psalm 116. “When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves–that insight produces, again and again, a sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience.”[3] [1] Some translations use the word “precious” suggesting that God delights in the death of the faithful. “Costly” better captures the intent of the psalmist. [2] See Henri Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2006. [3] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 209.