George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

Psalm 138

1. Historical setting

The title, A psalm of David, does not make easy identification with any particular occasion in the king’s long and varied experiences. The mention of thy holy temple (v. 2) does not necessarily require reference to a time after Solomon’s temple was completed, because the sanctuary inaugurated in 2 Samuel 6 is called “the house of the Lord” (the normal phrase for the temple) in the title to Psalm 30 (see Par. 2 there). (See also, in other Davidic psalms, 5:7; 11:4; 18:6; and 27:4.)

The best historical hint is in v. 4: All the kings of the Land shall praise thee, O Lord. 2 Samuel 6 and Psalm 60 (see Par. 3 there) summarize crises in David’s reign immediately after the bringing of the ark to Zion. For a while it was questionable whether David’s new kingdom would even survive. It did, and David all at once found himself, by the hand of God, the monarch of a great empire.

2. Details

Before the gods. Here elohim may refer to princes in Israel, as in Psa. 82 (see Par. 3 there, and possibly Psa. 86:8). Alternatively, elohim may mean the conquered kings of the surrounding peoples (cp. v. 4; Psa. 97:7,9; 119:46), or the vain idols they served (Psa. 95:3; 96:4,5; 135:5).

Will I sing praise unto thee. Whichever way elohim is read, David is determined that the glory of the triumph over hard adversity shall go to his God, and not to himself.
I will worship toward thy holy temple might mean: (1) ‘from the court before the sanctuary’ (1 Kings 8:29; see references, Psalms Studies, Psa. 28, Par. 5); or (2) even from the field of battle David thankfully faces towards Jerusalem, and prays to the God enthroned there (cp. Psa. 5:7; 28:2).

For thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name. This is often read as referring to the whole of the Bible, which is God’s “word”; but the context hardly allows this, laudable though the sentiment may be. Rather, the reference (“word” here = imrah, as in Psa. 119:38,41,50, etc.) is to God’s promise, probably the special promise given to David in 2 Sam. 7:12-16 (see vv. 21,25,26,28 there) at the beginning of his reign in Jerusalem. (Note the coincidence between Psa. 138:2 and 2 Sam. 7:26: “let thy name be magnified for ever.”) The unexpected series of brilliant victories is here seen as a first token of the utter dependability of that great promise. Lovingkindness and truth are commonplace synonyms for God’s Covenants: cp. v. 4 here — the words of thy mouth.
In the day when I cried thou answeredst me. The crisis evidently came and went with remarkable rapidity (cp. the tone of Psa. 60).

And strengthened me with strength in my soul. In difficult times this is what a man needs most of all — reinforcement of spirit. If he receives this, then anything else can be successfully handled.
All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord, when they hear the words of thy mouth. Messianic reference of these words is easy; but what relevance is there to the time of David? Was the prophecy of 2 Sam. 7 published far and wide, thus provoking the hostile reactions described in 2 Sam. 8? Then, after the sequence of lightning victories by David, they quietly accepted the truth and divine authority of the promise; cp. Psa. 2 (and see notes there).
Yea, they shall sing in the ways of the Lord: for great is the glory of the Lord. Again, Messianic reference is easy; but did this really happen also in the time of David? Or was he aware that the Holy Spirit was guiding him to expand the remarkable experiences of his own time into a prophecy of Messiah’s kingdom?
Though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud he knoweth afar off (James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5: Prov. 3:34). How well illustrated in David’s own recent experience: the “lowly” king dancing with abandon before the Ark, and the “proud” Michal rebuking him (2 Sam. 6:20-23)! And so she was removed “afar off” from her husband the Lord’s Anointed, thus making certain that the great promise of a special Seed for David would never be fulfilled through the proud daughter of Saul (v . 23)!
Thou shalt stretch forth thine hand against the wrath of mine enemies, and thy right hand shall save me. Now, this may be seen as easily fitting 2 Sam. 8.
The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me. “That which concerneth me” is explained by the parallel phrases: (1) the works of thine own hands; and (2) thy mercy, a technical term, in psalms and prophets, for God’s assured promises (cp. v. 4) concerning David’s “house” and throne (2 Sam. 7:13,26).

3. Hezekiah reference

The inclusion of this psalm in a group of psalms with evident reference to Hezekiah’s reign is not difficult to understand. He evidently saw much similarity between his own circumstances and those of David. Both he and David were intimate types of Messiah, and they both knew it. Regarding the Hezekiah relevance, then, consider especially:

I will worship toward thy holy temple. After recovery from his sickness, this was Hezekiah’s great delight (2 Kings 20:8; Isa. 38:20).
In the day when I cried. Read this with reference to the great double crisis in Hezekiah’s life — his desperate sickness, and the collapse of his kingdom before the Assyrian invasion, culminating in a seemingly hopeless defense of Jerusalem against the besiegers.

Thou answeredst me, and strengthenedst me with strength in my soul. Here compare Isa. 37:21-36.
All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord... Yea, they shall sing in the ways of the Lord. Here is the reaction among neighboring Gentile nations to Hezekiah’s miraculous recovery, and the destruction of Sennacherib’s army:

“And many brought gifts unto the Lord to Jerusalem, and presents to Hezekiah king of Judah: so that he [the Lord, not necessarily Hezekiah] was magnified (cp. Psa. 138:2) in the sight of all nations from thenceforth” (2 Chron. 32:23; cp. Isa. 49:22,23; 60:3).

So there came a time when the praise of the Lord, which was earlier obliged to be dumb in the presence of the heathen (Psa. 137:3,4), would then be sung by heathen kings themselves.
The lowly and the proud are now, respectively, Hezekiah and Sennacherib.

4. Messiah

In the day when I cried thou answeredst me, and strengthenedst me with strength in my soul. It is difficult to see these words as appropriate to Messiah in the day of his glory; but how well they fit him in his Gethsemane experience! And how much even the Messiah needed the strengthening of his soul, which help could come only from the Father!
See previous paragraphs. “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him” (Psa. 72:10,11). “So the heathen shall fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth thy glory... When the people are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the Lord” (102:15,22). And many others.
The separate fates of the lowly and the proud are the subject of Isa. 57:15 and 66:1,2 (concluding a lovely picture of Messiah’s kingdom).
Though I walk in the midst of trouble. Christ’s walking on the stormy waters was emblematic of the help given him against the tide of opposition from the rulers which constantly surged round him.
The works of thine own hands is the work of God in His saints (Psa. 102:18; 103:22; 145:9,10; Eph. 2:1-10; 4:22-24; Col. 1:15-18; 3:9,10; 2 Cor. 5:14-19). Mercy especially emphasizes the fulfillment of the promises through Christ.
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