Is there anything truer to the human condition than paradox? Is there any portion of life about which we cannot say, “This… but also this…”? The people we love most are also those we most readily despise. Within our sincerest loyalties lie the seeds of our deepest betrayals. We lie with the truth and tell truths with our lies. The human heart is a Schrödinger’s cat—filled at once with life and death, and only resolved when light observes it.
This is why we need Psalm 138. Placed as the introduction a series of Davidic psalms of praise to Yahweh (138-145), this psalm encapsulates the themes we’ll see repeated throughout the rest. Even so, in 8 short verses, paradox abounds! On the one hand, as the poet might say, this psalm asserts “God’s in his heaven—All’s right with the world!” But on the other, trouble yet reigns and chaos is everywhere. For instance:
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise;
There are few concepts of greater import in ancient Hebrew literature than wholeness of heart. The people of God longed for a whole and undivided heart, a tamim heart. And while the psalmist demonstrates this in worship, even going so far as to praise Yahweh in the presence of the gods or rulers, we are reminded that The Lord’s reign is yet incomplete. The undivided heart is always threatened by that which would compete with Yahweh.
2. All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord, for they have heard the words of your mouth.
Although there is little certainty about the dating of this Psalm, consensus tends to fall toward a postexilic designation; and if there was one thing about which a postexilic Israel could be sure, it was that the kings of the earth had little interest in the words of The Lord’s mouth. Perhaps the greatest capacity for paradox in the human heart is faith—the ability to perceive a world which we do not see. The psalmist speaks with a God-given confidence the world has done nothing to earn, and yet the proclamation is unwavering. This is the substance of hope: that Yahweh’s words will finally be heard, and having been heard, inspired praise.
3. For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.
The simultaneous immanence and transcendence of Yahweh must be the beating heart of worship. Imagine the opposite poles of an infinite line: eternity yawning between them. Now consider that The Lord does not merely move along the line at will, but rather occupies the entire expanse—the high and the low; the exalted and the humiliated; the holy and the profane. The only factor which could wrest one far from The Lord’s grasp is the haughty attempt to exalt oneself to the divine pole, as if that were how holiness is to be found. No wonder kings who discover this impossible truth will sing of the ways of The Lord!
4. 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.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.
The Lord is nowhere // The Lord is now here! The Lord is present // O Lord, come quickly! The Lord has delivered // deliver us, Lord! The Psalms see no shame in claiming simultaneously God’s current presence and lordship over all of life’s chaos, and also beseeching Yahweh to remember us in our present troubles. Psalm 138 is for all those who live in that paradox of the already and the not yet.