Psalm 138 is an individual psalm of thanksgiving, which holds a fair bit of homiletical promise. The promise is located in the tension between the thankfulness it expresses, the recognition of the reality of brokenness in the world, and the hope of God’s fulfillment of God’s eschatological kingdom.
David, to whom this psalm is attributed, opens with a declaration of praise. Whether or not David is actually in Jerusalem does not matter. He bows himself in adoration toward the direction of God’s earthly dwelling place, expressing his praise for God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” (verse 2). With his whole heart, David proclaims God’s faithfulness before all, even those who might claim some form of power as a ‘god.’
Why does David give himself to such lofty praise of the God of Israel? Simply because there was once recently a day where he experienced trouble, and God answered his call with strength. Now at this point, the text gets a bit confusing. Depending on your preferred translation, you might have a textual footnote that states that the original Hebrew for the latter half of verse 3 says something like, “you made me arrogant in my soul with strength.” Some thought-provoking options rise from this ambiguity in translation.
Of course, the easiest way of reading this verse is to assume that when David called out in his trouble, God answered him by strengthening his soul. This interpretation would be entirely orthodox. I wonder, however, if David’s problems came precisely because God had strengthened his soul? What if feeling imbued with God’s supernatural strength, David began to forget where his strength had initially come from and started to act, not in accordance with that strength and the purpose behind it, but by following his desire. Arrogant strength always eventually leads to destruction. It is no different for God’s anointed.
For the preaching moment, this is something immediately relatable. Who among us has not fallen prey to the arrogance of our own strength, strength which we must always confess is not our own but a gift from God through the agency of the Spirit? Would this not also make the offering of praise and thanks to God that much more meaningful if God’s salvation comes to David even in spite of his own arrogant abuse of God’s strength?
Skipping down to the final strophe found in verses 7-8, David continues to confess that God’s mighty hand is always with David, especially in the midst of his trouble. Even when David abuses his God-given power, God fulfills God’s purposes for and through David. Again, because of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, God continues to work through David despite David’s faults.
That God continues to work through us in spite of our faults, is a profound moment of hope for us as followers of Jesus Christ. By virtue of our calling and our commissioning through baptism, we are endowed with God’s strength to witness and work as agents of God’s mission in the world. What we all intuitively know is that more than we’d like to admit, we take that commissioning and the power that comes with it and we abuse it for our selfish ends, with terribly predictable consequences. Then, we call out to God, and because of God’s faithfulness, God exalts God’s name and God’s word above everything (verse 2), even the stupidity of his followers, not forsaking the work of his hands (verse 8), and we are saved.
A second moment of hope comes in the center strophe, verse 4-5. What David confesses in these verses is a profound eschatological hope that God’s redemption will be sung, not just by God’s faithful servants but by all the kings of the earth. Even though God’s people often abuse the divine power they are given, God will eventually find a way to exercise lordship over all people everywhere, receiving God’s due praise.
In many ways, we are like David. We are uniquely called by God to God’s work and will in our world. Because we are called, God’s Holy Spirit rests upon us and gives us strength in our soul, and like David, sometimes we use that power to participate with God’s work in our world, and sometimes we do not. Like David, when our unfaithfulness traps us, and we become in need of saving, God stretches out his hands to save us.
It may seem a little disappointing that we still fall prey to the temptations to use God’s power in our own way, but it should bring us hope that even when we do, God is working to redeem it. Our hope in God’s future is that even despite us, the nations will one day bow down in worship with us.