This psalm is perhaps familiar to us primarily because verse 1 is uttered by Jesus on the cross. But the psalm doesn’t stay with the sense of abandonment by God that is spoken in that first verse. There is a decisive turn right in the middle of verse 21. At this break point, something transformative has been brought about by God which decisively changes the mood of the speaker and the circumstances in which he finds himself.
This psalm is perhaps familiar to us primarily because verse 1 is uttered by Jesus on the cross. But the psalm doesn’t stay with the sense of abandonment by God that is spoken in that first verse. There is a decisive turn right in the middle of verse 21. At this break point, something transformative has been brought about by God which decisively changes the mood of the speaker and the circumstances in which he finds himself. So the psalm moves from complaint and plea to praise, or from desolation to consolation, or disorientation to reorientation as some commentators have described it. The verses that the lectionary sets for this Sunday come in the second half of the psalm, in which the psalmist is expressing his delight that the sense of abandonment in the first 21 verses has been overcome by the goodness and power of God. If you read through the first part of the psalm you can see that the speaker voices his feeling that God has left him - he asks for help, he cries out to God, but God does not answer. In verses 3-5 he leans on the faith tradition of which he is a part - “Yet you are holy…In you our ancestors trusted…To you they cried, and were saved; they trusted in you and were not put to shame.” This alternation between complaint and a trust in the past continues in verses 6-10. The psalmist is despised and rejected and everyone who sees him mocks him, yet…and that yet (which also occurs in verse 3) holds so much faith and promise…”Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.” The terrible predicament that the psalmist is in is expressed in verses 12-18, and in verses 19-21 his plea comes again: Come and help me! Come and save me, and don’t hang about!
The turning point in the middle of verse 21 reveals that God has responded and the psalmist has indeed been rescued. Then the next few verses leading up to the point at which the lectionary picks up (verse 25) call on the wider community to join the psalmist in praising God in ever-widening circles. He starts with family in verses 22-24, moving on to “congregation” in verses 25-26, and then to “all the ends of the earth” in verses 27-31. The speaker has a lot to celebrate, and he wants to mobilise the whole world to join in this great celebration of God.
Verses 25-26 portray a festive scene. Such is the joy of the worshipping community that not only do they voice their praise in their corporate worship, but they have a party too! The “poor” mentioned in verse 26 could also be translated as “the afflicted” - these people are all invited to join in the festivities, and there is plenty of food for everyone. These verses stand in contrast with verses 1-21 not just in content. The complaint of the first part of the psalm is quite intense and personal, voiced in the first-person singular: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.” But verses 25-26 are much more corporate. They show us how the whole faith community can share in the joy of one individual member.
The psalmist is willing to stand and be counted as part of the congregation, part of that assembly of the faithful. He’s not intimidated or embarrassed any more. He is so overcome with the powerful goodness of God that joy and gratitude overcome any social pressure he might be feeling. This seems to be a testimony moment, in which the speaker tells everyone else how good and powerful God has been. This praise is partnered with a more disciplined act of paying a vow. This kind of payment is a conventional part of thanksgiving. We can assume that while the speaker was in the middle of his troubles he made a pledge that if God saved him he would make certain offerings as a sign of his gratitude. Here the speaker remembers his pledge, and he gratefully and generously pays up. We might even wonder, if verse 26 follows on directly from verse 25, whether the payment was made in the form of grain or food that provided the basis for the great feast which is widely shared, especially among those who don’t have the means for such a meal themselves. The image here is of exuberant extravagance in which generosity, motivated by thankfulness, goes beyond economic prudence and calculation. Everyone is invited to enjoy the extravagance that is gratitude to God. The last line of verse 26 sounds a bit like a toast. Perhaps the speaker has had a few glasses of wine, which combined with the euphoria of his gratitude causes him to raise a glass to everyone there: “May your hearts live for ever!”
Verses 27-28 widen the circle of gratitude beyond the congregation. It is now as big as creation itself. The speaker has a vision of the whole of creation being so moved by what he has to say that everything will share in his delight and praise of God, and all nations will share in the faith and faithfulness of Israel. “All the families of the nations” puts us in mind of God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, and perhaps the psalmist sees this amazing moment as the time when these ancient promises come to ruition. The psalmist affirms God’s sovereignty in this large and visionary way because of his experience of God’s generosity and faithfulness.
The largest circle of praise comes in verses 29-31. Verse 29 refers to all those who have lived in the past but are now dead - even those who are dead will declare allegiance to God. There is nothing explicit here about resurrection or life after death - the main focus is still the praise that is due to God. And the claim about those alive in the past joining in worship is matched with an anticipation of those yet to be born. This reference is as unspecified as the one to the past. The psalmist doesn’t have anyone in particular in mind. He simply imagines all of humanity - past, present and future - gathered in praise, joy and allegiance to God. This is the “communion of saints” - everyone sharing in joyful and willing obedience that overrides the distinctions of time and place.
This display of unreserved loyalty to God is inspired by one thing only - God’s deliverance. “Deliverance” refers to God’s active intervention in order to make life right, whole and joyful. Here, it seems to be the specific intervention in the life of the psalmist that is mentioned in verse 21 (where the psalm changes direction) that causes this great celebration. All the faithful in the world, past and future as well as in the present, come together to celebrate the love and goodness of God that seeks to set people free.
For further reflection…