Psalm 138 has historically been attributed to King David and described as a todah, or song of praise. There is no significant evidence to prove or disprove the former claim, and so we may accept its provenance as a royal psalm. As for the latter: while it is true that the Hebrew word translated “to give thanks,” odeka, can also perhaps be more accurately translated “to confess” or “to praise.”
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise;
This distinction is particularly important when we consider that the author (presumably David) is describing God’s faithfulness to a very broad audience, one that comprises everyone from his earthly hearers to celestial beings (Heb. elohim)!
I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything.
If we accept David’s authorship, the “temple” or “palace” (Heb. hekal) referenced here must be a symbolic place, God’s holy dwelling on a spiritual or heavenly plane, rather than a literal reference to either Solomon’s Temple or the later, Second Temple.
The psalmist’s testimony is not merely temporal; he is bearing witness to the faithfulness of Yahweh for all time and before all peoples and beings. In this way God’s name, word, and identity -inextricably connected to the Ancient Near Eastern mind- are worthy of praises whose loftiness matches the remoteness of Yahweh’s dwelling.
On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.
Here the author bears personal witness to the fidelity and consistency of Yahweh: this God is present; this God is active; and this God can be trusted. This truth is reflected not only in external, observable phenomenon, but also resonates in the psalmist’s inmost being.
All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord, for they have heard the words of your mouth. They shall sing of the ways of the Lord, for great is the glory of the Lord.
Here David claims (perhaps hyperbolically) that all other earthy rulers will also confess the faithfulness of Yahweh once they have experienced the trustworthiness of God’s word and identity.
The author is certain that observation of Yahweh’s faithfulness in action must be transformative. Indeed, David invokes Yahweh’s reliability as proof that God’s words are authentically embodied in God’s ways and nature. But do we know of these ways?
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.
Here we come to the narrative and theological turning point of Psalm 138: although Yahweh is great (before all the gods! enthroned in a heavenly palace!), Yahweh also “sees” or “provides for” (Heb. r’h) David despite his lowly status.
In other words: our Creator loves and provides for all of Creation, irrespective of our earthly importance. To this end, “but the haughty he perceives from afar” is likely a mistranslation; “Although lofty or exalted, Yahweh still knows [the lowly one]” is perhaps a better representation of the psalmist’s argument.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.
David does not claim that God’s love and faithfulness ensure a calm and peaceful life. Quite the contrary! The witness of all of scripture is not that Yahweh’s faithfulness will always result in health, wealth, and prosperity for God’s chosen people, but rather that God will always be present with God’s people, even in the midst of great suffering.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.
Once more David reminds his hearers (and, it seems, himself) that Yahweh can always be trusted. The Creator will keep covenant with Creation; God’s “fidelity” or “steadfast love” (Heb. hasdeka) endures forever; and thus surely God will not abandon relationship with even the lowliest of humans. Thanks be to God!