Bible Commentary: Psalm 138

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Psalm 138

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Just before the final five praise hymns that close the book of Psalms (146-150), those responsible for its final compilation placed a collection of eight psalms attributed in their titles to King David (138-145). This serves to tie the whole Psalter together, as David composed most of its first two books. The final Davidic collection, as the Zondervan NIV Study Bible comments, "is framed by songs of praise (Psalms 138; 145). The first of these extols the greatness of the Lord's glory as displayed in his answering the prayer ('call') of the 'lowly' when suffering at the hands of the 'proud.' The last, employing a grand and intricately woven alphabetic acrostic design, extols the 'glorious majesty' of the Lord as displayed in his benevolent care over all his creatures--especially those who 'call' on him (look to him in every need). Within this frame have been placed six prayers--with certain interlocking themes" (note on Psalms 138-145)--the first (Psalm 139) taking a stand against the wicked and the five others (140-144) seeking deliverance from wicked foes.

In Psalm 138 David wholeheartedly praises God for imbuing him with confidence that God will help him against threatening enemies. Given the prophecy of all kings of the earth coming to praise God (verse 4), the song clearly looks forward to the time of the setting up of God's Kingdom with the future coming of the Messiah for ultimate fulfillment.

David says in verse 1 that He will sing praises to God "before the gods." As in Psalm 135:5 and Psalm 136:2, the identity of the "gods" here could refer to foreign kings falsely claiming divinity or perhaps to human rulers who, as the offspring of the true God commissioned to represent Him in dominion, can bear this title in a sense (compare Psalm 82:1, Psalm 82:6). The reference could also be to demons, the powers behind the thrones of pagan nations who sometimes posed as the false gods these nations worshipped (compare Deuteronomy 32:17). Then again, as this song looks forward to the time of Christ's reign over all nations, the term "gods" here may designate the resurrected saints of God who will reign with Him and share in His divine glory (see "You Are Gods"The Good News, July-Aug. 2002, pp. 28-29).

In Psalm 138:2 David says that He will worship toward God's holy temple. He said the same thing in Psalm 5:7. While the Jerusalem temple was not built until after David's death, this does not rule out David as the composer of these psalms. Some point out that the word for temple here was a general one that could refer to the tabernacle structure David built for the ark in Jerusalem. Moreover, it is possible that David was referring to God's temple in heaven. We should also consider that David was looking forward to the time of God's Kingdom, when a temple will evidently stand in Jerusalem, as seen in the concluding chapters of the book of Ezekiel. Another thought to bear in mind is that David may have composed these songs to be sung in temple worship after his death. Alternatively, it is possible that others edited them to fit later circumstances, though, as we've seen, there is no need to assume this.

David says He will praise God "for Your lovingkindness and Your truth" (Psalm 138:2). The word lovingkindness is translated from the important Hebrew term hesed, which can also mean "mercy," "grace," "loyal love" or "devotion." The word rendered "truth," emet, besides defining reality as opposed to falsehood, is also understood to refer to the quality of being true to one's word--faithfulness. These words for mercy and truth are often paired together. The NIV translates them as "love" and "faithfulness." We also find this terminology in the New Testament as "grace and truth" (John 1:14).

Continuing from this description of God's character, David further states, "For You have magnified Your word above all Your name" (Psalm 138:2, NKJV). Different versions give an alternate rendering, with translators unable to reconcile how God's word could be above His name-signifying His identity and reputation. Following the Hebrew arrangement, the actual word order is "For You have magnified above all Your name Your word" (J.P. Green, The Interlinear Bible). The NIV renders it this way: "For you have exalted above all things your name and your word." However, there is no "and" specified in the Hebrew here, though it could perhaps be interpolated. More importantly, the KJV and NKJV translation does make sense--and conveys a wonderful message. The meaning seems to be that God does not put who He is above what He has said. Rather, what He has said comes first. Consider that the Almighty Sovereign God could go back on every promise He has made and no one could do a thing about it. Yet God of His own will has set His word above all the prerogatives associated with His divine supremacy--that is, He has obligated Himself to abide by everything He has declared. This is truly awesome to ponder. It should lead us all to join with David in wholehearted worship and praise.

In verse 3, David recounts his own experience of God's faithfulness in having his prayer answered. It is not clear if the day of David crying out refers to a particular instance or if he is describing a regular pattern. Whichever is intended, David is thankful for God intervening and strengthening his resolve and confidence.

As noted above, all kings of the earth coming to praise God and sing of His ways in verses 4-5 is a prophecy of the future messianic era. "David, as a king who believed in God, looked forward to a day when all the kings of the earth would share his experience" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 4-6). In the meantime, God, despite His high and lofty station, regards the lowly and humble in spirit--as the mighty of the earth today are typically arrogant and cut off from a relationship with Him (verse 6).

The mighty and proud evidently include David's wrathful enemies, mentioned in verse 7. David here trusts in God to deliver him from them in terms reminiscent of the words he wrote in Psalm 23:3-4.

In verse 8, David says, "The LORD will perfect that which concerns me" (the italics here and in the following citations signifying interpolated text not in the original Hebrew). Essentially the same thing is written in Psalm 57:2, where David says that God "performs all things for me"--the word translated "performs" being the same Hebrew verb translated "perfect" in Psalms 138:8. It can also mean "complete" or "fulfill," as in the NIV translation: "The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me." David had faith that God would save him from his enemies in order to fulfill God's reason for his existence. God would not let anything cut short the work He had begun in him--a tremendous promise that also applies to us (compare Philippians 1:6).

David ends with a declaration similar to the refrain of Psalm 136 and a closing plea, uttered in great confidence as we've seen, that God not abandon the work He was doing in him. As a final observation, it may be that the notation at the beginning of the superscription of Psalm 139, "For the Chief Musician," is actually a postscript for Psalm 138.