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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 138

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-8

This is the first of a group of eight psalms attributed to David in the superscriptions. It precedes the closing hallelujah psalms, and thus stands where a "find" of Davidic psalms at a late date would naturally be put. In some cases, there is no improbability in the assigned authorship; and this psalm is certainly singularly unlike those which precede it, and has many affinities with the earlier psalms ascribed to David.

In reading it, one feels the return to familiar thoughts and tones. The fragrance it exhales wakes memories of former songs. But the resemblance may be due to the imitative habit so marked in the last book of the Psalter. If it is a late psalm, the speaker is probably the personified Israel, and the deliverance which seems to the singer to have transcended all previous manifestations of the Divine name is the Restoration, which has inspired so many of the preceding psalms. The supporters of the Davidic authorship, on the other hand, point to the promise to David by Nathan of the perpetuity of the kinghood in his line, as the occasion of the psalmist’s triumph.

The structure of the psalm is simple. It falls into three parts, of which the two former consist of three verses each, and the last of two. In the first, the singer vows praise and recounts God’s wondrous dealings with him (Psalms 138:1-3); in the second, he looks out over all the earth in the confidence that these blessings, when known, will bring the world to worship (Psalms 138:4-6); and in the third, he pleads for the completion to himself of mercies begun (Psalms 138:7-8).

The first part is the outpouring of a thankful heart for recent great blessing, which has been the fulfilment of a Divine promise. So absorbed in his blessedness is the singer that he neither names Jehovah as the object of his thanks, nor specifies what has set his heart vibrating. The great Giver and the great gift are magnified by being unspoken. To whom but Jehovah could the current of the psalmist’s praise set? He feels that Jehovah’s mercy to him requires him to become the herald of His name; and therefore he vows, in lofty consciousness of his mission, that he will ring out God’s praises in presence of false gods, whose worshippers have no such experience to loose their tongues. Dead gods have dumb devotees; the servants of the living Jehovah receive His acts of power, that they may proclaim His name.

The special occasion for this singer’s praise has been some act, in which Jehovah’s faithfulness was very conspicuously shown. "Thou hast magnified Thy promise above all Thy name." If the history of David underlies the psalm, it is most natural to interpret the "promise" as that of the establishment of the monarchy. But the fulfilment, not the giving, of a promise is its magnifying, and hence one would incline to take the reference to be to the great manifestation of God’s troth in restoring Israel to its land. In any case the expression is peculiar, and has induced many attempts at emendation. Baethgen would strike out "Thy name" as a dittograph from the previous clause, and thus gets the reading "done great things beyond Thy word"-i.e., transcended the promise in fulfilment-which yields a good sense. Others make a slight alteration in the word "Thy name," and read it "Thy heavens," supposing that the psalmist is making the usual comparison between the manifestation of Divine power in Nature and in Revelation, or in the specific promise in question. But the text as it stands, though peculiar, is intelligible, and yields a meaning very appropriate to the singer’s astonished thankfulness. A heart amazed by the greatness of recent blessings is ever apt to think that they, glittering in fresh beauty, are greater, as they are nearer and newer, than the mercies which it has only heard of as of old. Today brings growing revelations of Jehovah to the waiting heart. The psalmist is singing, not dissertating. It is quite true that if his words are measured by the metaphysical theologian’s foot rule, they are inaccurate, for "the name of God cannot be surpassed by any single act of His, since every single act is but a manifestation of that name"; but thankfulness does not speak by rule, and the psalmist means to say that, so great has been the mercy given to him and so signal its confirmation of the Divine promise, that to him, at all events, that whole name blazes with new lustre, and breathes a deeper music. So should each man’s experience be the best teacher of what God is to all men.

In Psalms 138:3 b the psalmist uses a remarkable expression, in saying that Jehovah had made him bold, or, as the word is literally, proud. The following words are a circumstantial or subsidiary clause, and indicate how the consciousness of inbreathed strength welling up in his soul gave him lofty confidence to confront foes.

The second part (Psalms 138:4-6) resembles many earlier psalms in connecting the singer’s deliverance with a world wide manifestation of God’s name. Such a consciousness of a vocation to be the world’s evangelist is appropriate either to David or the collective Israel. Especially is it natural, and, as a fact, occurs in post-exilic psalms. Here "the words of Thy mouth" are equivalent to the promise already spoken of, the fulfilment of which has shown that Jehovah the High has regard to the lowly-i.e., to the psalmist; and "knows the lofty"-i.e., his oppressors-"afar off." He reads their characters thoroughly, without, as it were, needing to approach for minute study. The implication is that He will thwart their plans and judge the plotters. This great lesson of Jehovah’s providence, care for the lowly, faithfulness to His word, has exemplification in the psalmist’s history; and when it is known, the lofty ones of the earth shall learn the principles of Jehovah’s ways, and become lowly recipients of His favours and adoring singers of His great glory.

The glowing vision is not yet fulfilled; but the singer was cherishing no illusions when he sang. It is true that the story of God’s great manifestation of Himself in Christ, in which He has magnified His Word above all His name, is one day to win the world. It is true that the revelation of a God who regards the lowly is the conquering Gospel which shall bow all hearts.

In the third part (Psalms 138:7-8), the psalmist comes back to his own needs, and takes to his heart the calming assurance born of his experience, that he bears a charmed life. He but speaks the confidence which should strengthen every heart that rests on God. Such a one may be girdled about by troubles, but he will have an inner circle traced round him, within which no evil can venture. He may walk in the valley of the shadow of death unfearing, for God will hold his soul in life. Foes may pour out floods of enmity and wrath, but one strong hand will be stretched out against (or over) the wild deluge, and will draw the trustful soul out of its rush on to the safe shore. So was the psalmist assured; so may and should those be who have yet greater wonders for which to thank Jehovah.

That last prayer of the psalm blends very beautifully confidence and petition. Its central clause is the basis of both the confidence in its first, and the petition in its last, clause. Because Jehovah’s lovingkindness endures forever, every man on whom His shaping Spirit has begun to work, or His grace in any form to bestow its gifts, may be sure that no exhaustion or change of these is possible. God is not as the foolish tower builder, who began and was not able to finish. He never stops till He has completed His work; and nothing short of the entire conformity of a soul to His likeness and the filling of it with Himself can be the termination of His loving purpose, or of His achieving grace. Therefore the psalmist "found it in his heart to pray" that God would not abandon the works of His own hands. The prayer appeals to His faithfulness and to His honour: It sets forth the obligations under which God comes by what He has done. It is a prayer which goes straight to His heart; and they who offer it receive the old answer, "I will not leave thee till I have done unto thee that which I have spoken to thee of."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 138". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-138.html.
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