A Hallel Psalm
Psalm 116 is among the Hallel Psalms (Psalms 107-150), taken from the rendering of Hallelujah or “Praise be to God,” and is actually part of a smaller unit in the middle of that hymnal that extends from Psalm 113-118. The Hallel Psalms of 113-118 were traditionally sung, verse by verse and repeated antiphonally from priests to people, at the beginning of each month of the Hebrew calendar year and also during various festivals, particularly during the Passover. Psalm 116 was one of the songs sung at the drinking of the last cup of the sacred meal (v. 13).
In the history of the Christian Church, Psalm 116 holds the elevated place of occurring during the traditional Maundy Thursday liturgy as Christians enter the Triduum or three holy days of Easter Weekend. Words like those found in vv. 3-4,
The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. 4 Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I beseech thee, save my life,”
set up the events of the crucifixion well and put the events of the last days of the life of Christ into a proper paschal perspective. In the last century though, Psalm 116 has received some renewed interest as a ‘Hallelujah’ text and has been moved in several lectionaries to Eastertide. This, of course, creates an different and interesting Christological and liturgical opportunity with the text for the preacher. The placing of the text into the life and ministry of the resurrected and exalted Lord changes the preaching territory.
Preaching Psalm 116 in Eastertide
Preaching Psalm 116 in the season of Easter requires a re-interpretation of the message and a sort of ‘flashback’ approach to examining the text. The preaching questions become quite different in a post-resurrection season of praise. The ‘Hallelujah’ is returned to the liturgy during Easter, having been denied us during the season of Lent and a re-newed vocabulary calls for a re-thinking of how to preach this. Christology moves, too, from a crucified outcast transformed into the risen Christ. The Easter setting focuses more on what to do now that the drinking of the bitter cup has passed through the wilderness of the crucifixion and the doorway of the empty tomb. A different set of questions are now in play. Christ is Risen. Hallelujah. So…the question in v.12 What can I offer the LORD for all he has done for me? Leads to acts of praise: Answer in v. 13: I will lift up the cup of salvation and praise the LORD’s name for saving me (Hallelujah. Christ is risen!), Answer in v. 14: I will keep my promises to the LORD in the presence of all his people (Hallelujah. Christ is Risen!), answer in v. 17: I will offer you a sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD (Hallelujah. Christ is Risen). Proclaiming the text in this way is quite a bit different from seeing it as a Maundy Thursday text and offers the opportunity to preach an interesting view of the sanctified life in the middle of the church’s Easter celebration and to do so beginning with praise and thanksgiving for the opportunity. This is a Christology of holy empowerment, the opportunity to make an Easter transition as we preach, to move beyond the intensely introspective Lenten passages where we considered where it began with us and God and if we have strayed in our walk with Christ to the activity of a life vested with power to move (as only resurrected bodies can) and praise and keep our promises. This can, of course, be easily trivialized. However, if one looks for examples of this holy empowerment in things like the Ten Commandments, Wesley’s Rules for the Methodist Societies, and the Church of the Nazarene’s Covenant of Christian Conduct, there is plenty to preach here connecting moral instruction and encouragement to Easter living. Confession of sin, Scripture reading, caring for the poor, sharing one’s economic means, intercessory prayer, singing lustily and with good courage all that God has done, reinstituting the love feast, and renewing a commitment to divine use of leisure time are all excellent ways to preach the living of Easter Hallelujah, a life freed from sin and death with Christ at the front of the Easter parade. The preacher should also take the opportunity to impress upon her/his hearers the need to take full opportunity of all the ordinances of God ala Wesley—church attendance (don’t let those Easter Christians go!), eucharistic participation, and even fasting can be on the lists of renewed Easter commitments. Preaching in a question/answer method as the Psalm moves may also be a good ‘catechetical’ approach for those both young and advanced in the faith. We have been freed from our chains (v. 16), just as Christ was freed from his. What now? We now follow in that life. Get to (sanctified) work. Keep your promises. Hallelujah.
The other preaching opportunity here is to examine how Christlikeness is more than a culturally relative term. Christlikeness is more about ‘What did Jesus do?’ than ‘What would Jesus do?’ This is some heady stuff, but one of the more neglected aspects of Easter preaching is remembering that there is suffering in the Easter story, scars where nails and a crown of thorns were, holes in the sides of wounded bodies that are still there despite the glory of resurrected life. There remain bitter cups to drink and sacrifices to be made but preaching this in Eastertide reminds us that they are made with a joy that is much deeper than happiness and encompasses all of what it means to be transformed by the grace of resurrection. Christ sacrificed so that we may now, too. There is a Hallelujah there. Christ is risen. It will just take a more sensitive homiletical approach to bring it out.
Practicing Pastoral Care in Psalm 116
The are two key vital ways to practice pastoral care, in and through worship, with Psalm 116 in the Easter season The first is through opportunity for confession of sin and confession of our faults one to another so that, as Wesley states in the Rules for the Methodist Societies, ‘we may be healed.’ Reconciliation with a resurrected Jesus means reconciliation with one another. The altar can be a good place to urge this. Love Feasts during the service with encouraged renewal of broken relationships and opportunities for relational forgiveness are another great way to practice Easter living.
The second opportunity to do pastoral care with Psalm 116 is to use the recurring theme of ‘in the presence of all his people,’ ‘in the house of the Lord’ to offer opportunity for public testimony. Testimonies are one of those ‘lost treasures of Nazarenedom’ that used to consistently inhabit our worship and should do so again. The Psalms served as the testimonies of the Hebrews and were used in the same way in the early church. The words and setting of Psalm 116 can be a wonderful opportunity to renew this vital aspect of our praise. During the public worship of the church offer people the occasion to testify and make liturgical time so to do. Encourage those gathered to proclaim ‘Hallelujah’ as they recall what God has done and encourage everyone present to join them so that the Hallelujah resounds in the ‘House of the Lord.’ Easter is with us. Hallelujah.