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Wednesday, September 27th, 2023
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 116

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verse 1



As an introduction here, we submit these discerning words of Derek Kidner.

There is an infectious delight and a touching gratitude about this psalm, the personal tribute of a man whose prayer has found an overwhelming answer. He has come now to the temple to tell the whole assembly what has happened, and to offer God what he had vowed to him in his extremity.[1]

This writer feels an especially deep appreciation for this psalm, because three years ago, in 1988, he was diagnosed by six of the leading orthopedic surgeons in Houston as having the most "acute case of spinal stenosis" the doctors had ever seen. Included in the list of doctors was the head of the orthopedic surgery department of Baylor Medical University. The diagnosis included such words as "inoperable," "incurable" and "wheel-chair." Many people prayed for him, and many treatments were tried; God heard the prayers and healed him. Even the distinguished physician, Dr. Dean Cline, who supervised this writer's illness, monitored all the treatments, and at last expressed astonishment at the complete recovery that God granted, when asked by this writer, "What shall I tell people who inquire as to what helped me to get well?" simply pointed upward and replied, "It is my medical opinion that the Great Physician on high laid his hand upon you"!

There can be no wonder, then, that this writer can identify with almost every word of this psalm.

Some commentators are reluctant to view the crisis from which the psalmist was rescued here as a serious illness, but there is no acceptable alternative. The great majority of the scholars whose works we have consulted prefer the interpretation expressed by Kidner in our opening lines. These include Clyde Miller, Albert Barnes, J. R. Dummelow, Arnold Rhodes, G. Rawlinson, W. Stewart McCullough, and a number of others. The interpretation accepted by all of these was thus stated by McCullough: "This psalm is an individual's hymn of thanksgiving for deliverance from an illness that brought him to the very brink of death."[2]

Briggs insisted that, "The psalm is not individual but national."[3] But we cannot harmonize Brigg's interpretation with the fact that in the RSV, the words, "I," "me" and "my" occur no less than thirty-three times in nineteen verses!

Regarding the date and authorship, this writer is willing to accept, "The ancient Hebrew tradition which ascribed it to Hezekiah, and considered it to have been written on the occasion of his deliverance from death, as narrated in Isaiah 38. Many resemblances are traced between the phraseology of the psalm and expressions attributed to Hezekiah in Isaiah 37 and Isaiah 38."[4]

To this writer, that old tradition is much more satisfactory than the `We don't have the slightest idea' opinions of some present-day scholars. Briggs cited the structure of Psalms 12b and Ps. Psalms 18b, stating that, "This favors an early date."[5]

The presence of Aramaisms in the psalm has been interpreted by some as evidence of a late date; but the use of Aramaisms as an indication of date has been totally discredited by the discovery of the great corpus of Canaanite religious poetry dating back to 1400 B.C., called the Ras Shamra Discoveries (1929-1937). As Merrill F. Unger stated, "Aramaisms cannot be made a criterion for determining the date or authorship, for they occur in Old Testament books from both early and late periods."[6] (See Vol. 1 of our Minor Prophets Series, pp. 263,264, for more on this.)

Psalms 116:1-2


"I love Jehovah because he heareth

My voice and my supplications.

Because he hath inclined his ear unto me."

Nothing so thrills the human heart as the realization, sweeping like a tidal wave over one's soul, that God, even the Almighty and Eternal God, has heard the feeble and distressed cry of a sufferer. For one not to love such a merciful and compassionate God would press the limits of human ingratitude.

Verse 3


"The cords of death compassed me,

And the pains of Sheol gat hold upon me:

I found trouble and sorrow.

Then called I upon the name of Jehovah:

O Jehovah, I beseech thee, deliver my soul."

Leupold noted that "Psalms 116:3 here is based upon Psalms 18:4."[7] This verse describes his illness (or whatever the crisis was) in figurative language. "In the Old Testament, death is represented as a hunter with a cord and a net. In any lingering sickness, the cord gets tighter and tighter until all possibility of escape is cut off."[8]

"I called upon the name of Jehovah ... I beseech thee, deliver my soul" (Psalms 116:4). This is a concise and very brief summary of his prayers to the Lord. In the throes of the terrible threat of death which was upon him, he did not cease to cry unto the Lord night and day.

Verse 5

"Gracious is Jehovah and righteous;

Yea, our God is merciful.

Jehovah preserveth the simple:

I was brought low, and he saved me."

"Gracious ... righteous ... merciful" (Psalms 116:5). Delitzsch stated that, "The term `righteous' here comprehends within itself everything that Yahweh asserts concerning Himself in Exodus 34:6ff."[9] Thus this passage exhibits familiarity with the Pentateuch and also with Psalms 112:4 where these same three attributes of God are mentioned together. In fact, in the language of this psalm, there are so many allusions, quotations, and similarities to other portions of the Old Testament that, "Hupfeld called it a `patched-up psalm'."[10]

Of course, it is no such thing. The words of the Psalter and of the entire Old Testament available at that time, "Were part of this singer's mental furniture, and came to his lips, when he brought his own thanksgivings."[11]

Verse 7


"Return unto thy rest, O my soul;

For Jehovah hath dealt bountifully with thee.

For thou hast delivered my soul from death,

Mine eyes from tears,

And my feet from falling.

I will walk before Jehovah in the land of the living."

These lines concern the thoughts and feelings of the psalmist following his deliverance from death through God's merciful answer of his prayers.

"Return unto thy rest" (Psalms 116:7). Gone is the burning anxiety, gone is the distressing fear, gone are the tears and the pains of agony. A great restfulness has healed all of his troubles; and he recognizes the source of it all in the words of the second clause, "Jehovah had dealt bountifully" with him.

"I will walk before Jehovah in the land of the living" (Psalms 116:9). This is a pledge to walk "uprightly" before God out of gratitude for his gracious healing and deliverance from death. This being appropriate indeed for such a deliverance, how much more is it true of one who has been redeemed from "eternal death" in the forgiveness of his sins through Jesus Christ our Lord! There is not a Christian on earth who should fail to make this pledge his very own.

Verse 10


"I believe, for I will speak:

I was greatly afflicted:

I said in my haste,

All men are liars."

It is by no means clear to this writer exactly what is meant here. As Leupold said, "These verses are admittedly difficult, even to the despair of some commentators."[12]

The various versions translate this with amazing differences.

RSV: I kept my faith even when I said, "I am afflicted." I said in my consternation, "Men are a vain hope."

MOFFATT: Though I cried out, "I am crushed," thinking in my distraction, all men are a failure," yet I had faith.

NIV: I believed, therefore I said, "I am greatly afflicted." And in my dismay, I said, "All men are liars."

DOUAY: I was confident, even when I said, "I am greatly afflicted"; I said in my fear, "Every man is deceitful."

GOOD NEWS BIBLE: I kept on believing, even when I said, "I am completely crushed," even when I was afraid and said, "No one can be trusted."

LXX (translated): I believed, wherefore have I spoken: but I was greatly afflicted. And I said in mine amazement, Every man is a liar.

(Apparently, this is the version Paul referred to when he wrote, "But having the same spirit of faith, according to that which is written, "I believed, and therefore did I speak"; we also believe, and therefore also we speak, 2 Corinthians 4:13).

One must admit that the exact meaning of the passage fails to appear in any of the above versions. We shall offer two explanations, one by Professor Cheyne, and the other by Kidner.

CHEYNE: He rendered the passage: "I was confident that I should speak thus," even while my affliction was going on. I felt confident that relief would come, and that I should one day speak as I have just spoken. I was, however, too afflicted to give utterance to my feelings. Instead of so doing, I vented my unhappiness in abuse of my fellow-men. Rawlinson's comment on this `explanation' was, "Both the rendering and the connection are doubtful."[13]

"KIDNER: James Denney remarked that, "The open confession of God as a duty of faith, pervades the psalm." So the author here makes the point that to feel `crushed' (Psalms 116:10) or `disillusioned' (Psalms 116:11) and to say so, even in the wild tones of panic (The New English Bible's word for `consternation') is no proof that faith is dead. It may even vouch for its survival, as pain betokens life.[14]

Among so many different opinions, this writer feels quite secure in offering some of his own. From the usage Paul made of the first half of Psalms 116:10, that verse evidently means that, "Faith carries with it the duty to speak the truth." The statement in Psalms 116:11 that "All men are liars. or deceivers" simply means that lying and deceitful enemies of the gospel should not prevent the proclamation of it. It also may apply to what such men had been saying about his illness prior to his recovery, and that his refusal to believe them contributed to his recovery.

In my Bible class, I confessed my uncertainty regarding the meaning of this line that says, "All men are liars"; and L. W. Carpenter said, "Maybe his doctor had told him he could never get well"! This was greeted with a storm of laughter.

Verse 12


"What shall I render unto Jehovah

For all his benefits toward me?

I will take the cup of salvation,

And call upon the name of Jehovah.

I will pay my vows unto Jehovah,

Yea, in the presence of all the people."

"Vows were never commanded in the Old Testament; the point stressed was that, once made, they had to be kept punctiliously."[15] Apparently, vows were often made and seldom kept. In the case of Jonah's prayer from the belly of "the great fish" he promised God that, "I will pay that which I have vowed" (Jonah 2:9). Here the rescued psalmist asks, "Just what could be appropriate as a gift to God in appreciation for all he has done for me?" It would be well indeed for every Christian to ask himself the same question.

We naturally ask questions similar to this when we have received outstanding favors from our earthly friends. "How much more proper is it to ask such a question in view of the favors we receive from God?"[16] As we come to think of it, indeed, "What can be an adequate return for love like God's, - for mercies so great, and so undeserved?"[17]

The pledge of the healed psalmist here is that he shall engage in a ceremony of thanksgiving in the Temple before all the people and that his gift shall also be presented.

Verse 15


"Precious in the sight of Jehovah

Is the death of his saints."

Where is the minister of the gospel who has never used this passage as comfort for the bereaved at a funeral service? "The word `precious' here means `costly,' as in Psalms 72:14; 1 Kings 5:17; and 7:9-11, where the same Hebrew word is used."[18] "The sense is that Yahweh will not easily suffer his saints to perish; the cost of their death is too great. In other words, the godly need Yahweh's help; and He needs their service."[19]

Delitzsch tells us that one of the oldest documents of Christendom, "The `Apostolic Constitutions' recommends the singing of these words at the funerals of those who have departed in the faith, and that `The Bishop of Antioch, full of blessed hope, met death singing these words, `during the reign of the Emperor Decius.'"[20]

Verse 16


"O Jehovah, truly I am thy servant:

I am thy servant, the son of thy handmaid;

Thou hast loosed my bonds.

I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving,

And will call upon the name of Jehovah.

I will pay my vows unto Jehovah,

Yea, in the presence of all the people,

In the courts of Jehovah's house,

In the midst of thee, O Jerusalem.

Praise ye Jehovah (Hallelujah)."

"I am thy servant, the son of thy handmaid" (Psalms 116:16). "Thine handmaid here is `The Church,' or if Hezekiah was the author, `Thy handmaid was Abiyah, the daughter of Zechariah, who `had understanding in the vision of God (2 Chronicles 26:5; 29:1).'"[21]

"I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving" (Psalms 116:17). This heart-felt sacrifice is the real worship of which all the ancient bloody sacrifices were only the tokens and symbolical predecessors.

Note that this final paragraph begins with a statement of who the psalmist is; "I am thy servant." Then there follows a group of "I will's."

"I will offer ... I will call ... I will pay" (Psalms 116:17-18). There are three great reasons why men should love and serve God: (1) Because of who we are, His servants, purchased with the blood of Christ; (2) because of all the wonderful benefits that he has conferred upon us (Psalms 116:2); and (3) because we have promised so to do, in a sense, `vowed' to serve him.

"In the presence of all his people" (Psalms 116:14,18). The importance of "public worship" is also in focus in this psalm. Psalms 116:14 and Psalms 116:18 are identical, both of them stressing that the payment of the psalmist's vows shall be, "In the presence of all his people."

No matter how great the loving devotion of an individual worshipper may be, his duty is not discharged until he places his appearance and his influence in the midst of the congregation of believers. Private devotion and worship are wonderful; and Satan would really like to keep it that way, but far more is required of the faithful servant of God.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 116". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-116.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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