Studying Psalm 107

We will not be going down to the sea in ships, I hope, but we may find ourselves thinking about those famous words as we are studying Psalm 107 for Sunday, October 17. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text, including some specific focus on verses 1-9 and 39-43, the opening and the conclusion:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Psalms contains liturgical poetry: hymns of praise, thanksgiving, and lament, among other genres, which were part of the worship life of ancient Israel. The collection is divided into five “books” of unequal length; Psalm 107 begins the fifth of these books.

Psalm 106, which ends the fourth book, depicts the history of ancient Israel as a story of God’s continuing faithfulness even in the face of the people’s sin and disloyalty, and even in the teeth of [justified] divine anger. Psalm 107, which relates concrete stories of divine deliverance, can be understood as picking up the thread of redemption where Psalm 106 leaves off, and responding to the concerns it voices.

Commentators think the psalm would have been used in or as collective worship. Several features of the psalm speak to this, in particular its length, and its careful, formal structure. The psalm is organized around major divisions that describe categories of people delivered by the God of Israel, marked off by alternating refrains.

The date of composition of this psalm is debatable and debated. We can easily imagine it as a post-exilic psalm, but nothing in the text prevents its being from an earlier time.

Most of Psalm 107 shows up in the lectionary, piece-wise, on four separate occasions (4th Sunday in Lent year B, 12th Sunday after Pentecost year B, and a different Sunday after Pentecost in each of the other years). The verses about the prisoners, though – verses 10-16 – and the concluding verses that describe “pouring contempt on princes” – verses 38-42 – would be something you wouldn’t know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees take note.

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CLOSER READING: Verses 1-3 open the psalm with a formal invitation to thanksgiving. In v2, the redeemed are the objects of God’s redemption. Socially, the institution of “redemption” involved close kinship. A redeemer (goel) was a kinsman who could buy back and restore land or kinsfolk who had fallen into slavery to the family. God [the God of Israel, YHWH] is depicted here as standing in that relationship to the people invited to thank God, the people reciting the psalm.

In v2, these people are literally redeemed “from the hand of the enemy.”

The verb used for “gathered” – or “collected” – in v3 is the same root as in the word “kibbutz,” a collective living and farming community.

The body of the psalm presents four sets of people redeemed by God, in vv4-9, 10-16, 17-22, and 23-32. These sections have notably formal parallel structure. First is an identification of the redeemed, and what they suffered; their cry to God and God’s response is the first refrain; then comes an identification of God’s redemptive action; a call to thanksgiving for God’s deliverance is the second refrain. In three of the four sections, the redeemed are identified with a participle, emphasizing what these people have done that has gotten them into a place of needing redemption.

The final sections of the psalm, vv33-43, describe God by what God does in the earth and for people, or to people (“princes,” oppressors) on behalf of the afflicted. The psalm concludes (vv42-43) with a word to “the wise,” to be mindful of this character and activity of God.

In vv4-9, the redeemed are those who “wandered” in the wilderness (midbar, the title of the book of Deuteronomy, bringing to mind the time in the wilderness), in “wasteland.” The verb “wander” implies – despite the recent meme “not all who wander are lost” – that these people have gone astray, taken a wrong turn somewhere. They are not finding their way.

Christian readers may be reminded, in v5, of those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness;” they are filled in v9.

In the first refrain, v6, and subsequently vv13, 19, and 28, “they cried out to YHWH,” opens the line, and YHWH’s action closes the line. In this verse, the verb describing God’s action is “snatched”: out of their distresses he seized them. In vv13 and 19, God saves. In v28, God brings them out.

God’s action in v7 is to lead the wanderers by a right way to walk in to a city for dwelling. There is a loud echo of wisdom literature here, with its recurrent motif of God’s ways (compare Proverbs 3:17, for instance). Also, a loud echo of Israel’s time in the wilderness. But the “time in the wilderness” itself can be read as a metaphor for any experience of dislocation, as can these verses.

The second refrain, vv8-9, features an invariant part – v8, the invitation to thanksgiving, “let them thank YHWH for his chesed and his wonderful doings to the children of humanity” – and a variable part – in this case v9. The second part again describes God’s action, as an ascription of divine character.

In the case of the wanderers in the wilderness, v9, God satisfies the craving or thirsty throat/soul, and fills the hungry with good (tov).

The second section, vv10-16, features people sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. This is because they rebelled against God’s sayings and “spurned the counsel of the Most High.” The consequence, in v12, is that they “stumble with no one to help.” Anyone familiar with Genesis 2 or Ecclesiastes 4 will find this reference to “help” striking. In vv14, God precisely rescues them from the darkness and the shadow of death; in v17, God hacks apart the [prison, presumably] doors and bars – whether shackles, or the bars on the gates. The image is violent – heroically.

The third section, vv17-22, opens with a variation. Instead of a participle, the objects of God’s redemption are identified as “fools.” Again, a loud echo of the wisdom literature. But, we don’t usually think of fools as anyone who can expect to enjoy God’s activity on their behalf. They are more normally depicted as those who will bear the brunt of God’s disfavor, those no one should want to be. In these verses, their foolishness has made them sick unto death.

But God sends out his word and heals them, which saves them from their destructions. Does the healing in v20 go deeper than the physical illness? Does it heal the foolishness that is the root cause of the problem? This seems possible.

These beneficiaries of God’s activity are invited to make sacrifices of thanksgiving – we presume there is a Temple in which this can take place – and recount God’s deeds with a “ringing cry” or joyful shout.

The fourth section, vv23-32, strikes many readers as being out of place. The description of sailors, what we used to call “the mercantile” back in Michigan, strikes people as remote from wilderness wandering and exile.

On the other hand … the participle that opens the section implies that this “going down to the sea” is going on all the time. If we recall that the sea is the recurrent Biblical symbol for chaos, disorder, and threat, it’s only a short stretch to imagine that the literal plight of sailors is being used here as a figure for the plight of everyman, constantly engaging with the perilous toil that God has given humanity to be toiling with under the sun.

Living through the making of human history is like being caught in a storm at sea.

In v24, the deep where these people see God perform wonders is the same kind of deep in which the Egyptian pursuers sink in the Red Sea, as told in the “Song of Moses” in Exodus 15:5. In v25, the stormy wind is the same kind of wind that we met in Genesis 1:2 hovering over the same kind of formless deep that makes its own reappearance in v26. In v27, the phrase translated “their wits’ end” is literally “their wisdom was swallowed up.”

In v30, God’s action of bringing them out of distress brings them literally to “the haven of their delight / desire.”

[Christian readers, again, will be reminded of Jesus’s act of “calming the storm” (Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25). In light of Psalm 107, that episode clearly asserts Jesus’s redemptive identity.]

In the psalm’s concluding section, vv33-34 and vv35-36 are strictly parallel, emphasizing that God “makes weal and creates woe” (Isaiah 45:7). The benefits of God’s favor, detailed in vv36-38, are the pleasant conditions of “normal” human lives.

In vv39-41, the “princes” – who are presumably those responsible for making people small and bringing them low – end up wandering (a repeat from v4) in “trackless wastes” – literally, emptiness, the formless kind prior to God’s creation, without way. While the needy are raised high above all that.

Whoever is wise will pay close attention to this, “considering” or discerning – wisely perceiving – God’s chesed – God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, loyalty, and kindness.

There are profound and persistent echoes of the wisdom literature in this psalm, and of the large story of the people of Israel. The concrete fate of these “redeemed” seems to point insistently to more universal human situations: to all the ways people – and peoples – go badly wrong, lose their moral way, suffer from their own sin and from the chaos of life in the world, and even on occasion from the wondrous, mysterious activity of God taking place throughout all this – the wind sweeping over the face of the waters, with its fearsome consequences. God is greater than every concrete situation, is the creator, and the ultimate redeemer.

God’s steadfast love, which endures forever, begins and ends this psalm. It is grounds for thanksgiving, but also for consideration by “whoever is wise.” Because the work of redemption is earth-shaking, sea-changing, world-upside-down-turning kind of work. Being redeemed is not placid. Being redeemed is a hair-raising adventure.

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Image: Illuminated Psalter, Lionel Allorge, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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