Psalm 116 – Sharing News of Salvation
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. I love that the LORD hears my voice, my 1-pleas for mercy-1;
2. that He turned His ear to me. Thus during my life I would call:
3. “The bands of death have surrounded me; the torments2 of Sheol have found me. I find torment2 and sorrow,”
4. and I would call on the name of the LORD, “O LORD, please save my soul.”
5. Merciful is the LORD, and righteous, and our God is compassionate.
6. A protector of the simple is the LORD. I was brought low, but He would save me.
7. “Go back to your rest, O my soul, for the LORD has been bounteous to you.”
8. Truly You have delivered my soul from death, my eye3 from a tear,3 my foot3 from stumbling;
9. I will stride4 before the LORD in the lands of the living.
10. I trusted, though I spoke, “I have suffered greatly”;
11. I said in my trepidation, “All humanity is false!”
12. What can I give back to the LORD for all His bounties to me?
13. I will raise a cup of salvation: and call on the name of the LORD.
14. My vows to the LORD I will fulfill, indeed in the presence of all His people:
15. “Grievous5 in the eyes of the LORD is the death of His faithful ones…
16. O LORD, please, I am Your servant, Your servant, son of Your maidservant…. You undid my bonds….
17. To You I will sacrifice a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the LORD.
18. My vows to the LORD I will fulfill, indeed in the presence of all His people;
19. in the courts of the house of the LORD, in 6-the midst of-6 Jerusalem.”
1. The term means “pleas.” (The root indicates mercy and appears as such in verse 5.)
2. These are two uses of the same root, indicating respectively “straits” and “distress.”
3. These singular terms in verse 8 possibly emphasize the individual salvation.
4. Verb can indicate survival or service. Both may be implied.
5. That is, “costly,’ as the uses in Pss. 49:9, 72:14. Rashi: “heavy and difficult.”
6. As Radak, Dahood. Others, “in your midst, O.”
The speaker of Psalm 116 desperately wishes to share. His excitement, however, is easier to detect than the details of his past, present, or future (intentions), clarity being a victim of his enthusiasm. While the tale is not clear, the intention is.
Three unusual aspects of Psalm 116 alert the readers to an encounter with an atypical speaker. First, the opening “I love” has no direct object, a striking and puzzling beginning. (Two other transitive verbs have no object, “call” in verse 2, and “trusted” in verse 10. In all three cases, this translation follows others, based on tenuous constructions.) Second, the speaker claims God’s special care for the simple (v. 6), an unparalleled contention. (The closest verses would be Psalms 19:8 and 119:130, where God’s word changes the simple to wise.) Third, the last five verses are disjointed, to say the least.
The first two verses of Psalm 116 include five terms related to speaking and/or hearing, thus setting a focus. The concentration will be on the speaker’s words, past, present, and future, to different audiences. As the speaker deals with both former experiences and future intentions, whereas the psalm itself is a speech in the present, there is a constantly shifting background of time references. The disjointed style probably reflects agitation. (The possibility that this reflects one less trained in formal speech, the "fool" of verse 10, does not befit elegant usages elsewhere.) This requires, to a degree, a more patient and forgiving reader.
In terms of the translation, in this psalm the imperfect mode, most often used for actions stretching from the present through the future, clearly sometimes indicates acts in the past looking forward. In the translation, I use the future perfect, “would…” for such terms. Further, I use quotations in order to better understand the time references. Even so, this psalm is hard to follow.
Sections and Progress
Most interpreters agree that there are two basic stages in Psalm 116, salvation in the past and a subsequent combination of thanksgiving, sacrifice, and acknowledgment. Despite this, the Septuagint's decision that these are two separate psalms is rejected by most commentators. In particular, the repeated phrase “call on the name of the Lord” (vv. 4, 13, 17) as well as some other repetitions (turning to God with the term “please,” vv. 4 and 16; “save/salvation,” vv. 6 and 13; “back” and “bounty,” vv. 7 and 12; and “death,” vv. 3, 8, and 15) bespeak a unified psalm.
I trace the progress of the psalm as translated above. The opening declaration (vv. 1, 2a) is followed by a recollection of the speaker calling upon God. This moves forward by stages, with citations of a number of quotations from the past. The speaker recalls salvation (v. 8), his own self-assurance, and the ups and downs on his path to deliverance (through v. 11). The trouble itself is never detailed, apart from its perceived life-threatening nature, although the failure of other humans to help is clear. That is evidently the psalm’s flash point, for it leads to the speaker’s determination not only to praise and thank God, but to do it publicly. He has a didactic task―to bear witness to God’s intervention and salvation before the masses (vv. 12–14).
This translation suggests that the best understanding of verses 15–19 is as the content of what the speaker intends to say to “all His people.” It is a staccato and somewhat disconnected group of snippets of what will happen then, when he gives thanks, recalling parts of the history of his salvation (including some terms from earlier in the psalm), up to and including the very act of fulfilling his vow (so verse 18 is in fact his picturing himself in the future citing the vow he made formerly, as it appeared in verse 14). The last verse, the direct reference to the Temple and to Jerusalem, cleverly completes both the original tale (v. 14) and its subsequent recounting (v. 18).
Many commentators have noted the radically individual concentration of Psalm 116 (there are thirty-five first-person references), particularly as opposed to its predecessor. However, this is not the focus of the psalm, for such an analysis does not pay sufficient attention to the speaker’s intention. Disappointed with human reaction and determined to share his knowledge of God’s acts, the speaker takes his message to the public. He wants all to understand, both so that they learn to depend on God and that in the future they also will support those in need. This ending is very communal, both in its message and in its locale. The reader, as he is ‘transported’ to Jerusalem, is treated vicariously to a communal celebration of the individual’s salvation.
Turns of Phrase
Apart from the speaker’s use of verbs and the quotations, there are several other unusual patterns. Three times the object of a verb is unclear (verse 1, “I love,” where I have interpreted the object to be the rest of verse 1 and 2a; “call,” where I have assumed that the object is the next verse as a quote; and verse 10, “trusted” where the object is unclear). Similarly, his vision of thanksgiving in the Temple is composed mostly of snippets, partial recollections of the past, including incomplete sentences (such as “please,” not followed by any request in verse 16). Within that section, “You undid my bonds” stands out as an exception to the usual poetic rhythm of parallel statements, with no immediate precedent or following phrase.
Beyond these patterns and the swirling of time, other elements add to the ambiguity or multivalence of the psalm, such as the “cup of salvation,” which might have specific reference to a libation offering, but could alternatively simply refer to a toast-like honor. Further, various combinations of present statements or citations from the past are possible. Verses 5 and 6a, treated as a separate statement above, could continue the quotation of verse 4. Verse 7 is treated as part of the recollection of the past, but it could be a statement in the present. Verses 12 through 14 could be a direct continuation of the quotation in verse 11b, thus granting his disappointment in man a larger role in his decision to thank God publicly.
All of these elements, many quite sophisticated, suggest complexity and excitement rather than inexperience. The enthusiasm induces the reader to join the speaker both in seeing the half-full cup and in celebrating and sharing with community.
There are several impressive literary usages in Palm 116. “Stride” in verse 9 has an appealing double implication. (See the note, as pointed out by Alter.) The double use of “find” and “torment” in verse 3 effectively intensify the verse. The Talmud (B’rachot 60b) already shows awareness of one of the psalm’s subtleties: “calling on God’s name” is both request (v. 4) and thanksgiving (vv. 13, 17), possibly an indication that both are equally called for. Finally, the verb forms in verse 7 are (and seem purposely to be) archaic, lending the great power of age old assurance to the personal deliverance. One might guess that the statement is a quoted prayer used elsewhere.
In short, the poet places the reader as the first to know that he intends to share news of his salvation with all, that he wants others to understand how important community is to thanksgiving. The literary maelstrom reflects the inner ferment.
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Additional Comments – Echoes
Verse 12, “What can I give back to the LORD for all His bounties to me?,” achieved independent epigrammatic status as a motivational expression of piety (as noted by Kirkpatrick, who cites a seventeenth-century bishop who used it as a constant reminder, and Dahood, who notes that it was Voltaire’s favorite biblical verse).
Jewish worshippers will identify in this psalm a predecessor of the later (and still current) practice of those who have recovered from sickness or other danger to publicly thank God in the synagogue, with a blessing whose core term is “bounty” (gomel, vv. 7, 12), reflecting the same compulsion as the psalm to share news of deliverance.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at email@example.com.
(א) אָהַבְתִּי כִּי יִשְׁמַע יְהֹוָה אֶת קוֹלִי תַּחֲנוּנָי:
(ב) כִּי הִטָּה אָזְנוֹ לִי וּבְיָמַי אֶקְרָא:
(ג) אֲפָפוּנִי חֶבְלֵי מָוֶת וּמְצָרֵי שְׁאוֹל מְצָאוּנִי צָרָה וְיָגוֹן אֶמְצָא:
(ד) וּבְשֵׁם יְהֹוָה אֶקְרָא אָנָּה יְהֹוָה מַלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי:
(ה) חַנּוּן יְהֹוָה וְצַדִּיק וֵאלֹהֵינוּ מְרַחֵם:
(ו) שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם יְהֹוָה דַּלֹּתִי וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ:
(ז) שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי לִמְנוּחָיְכִי כִּי יְהֹוָה גָּמַל עָלָיְכִי:
(ח) כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי מִמָּוֶת אֶת עֵינִי מִן דִּמְעָה אֶת רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי:
(ט) אֶתְהַלֵּךְ לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה בְּאַרְצוֹת הַחַיִּים:
(י) הֶאֱמַנְתִּי כִּי אֲדַבֵּר אֲנִי עָנִיתִי מְאֹד:
(יא) אֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי בְחָפְזִי כָּל הָאָדָם כֹּזֵב:
(יב) מָה אָשִׁיב לַיהֹוָה כָּל תַּגְמוּלוֹהִי עָלָי:
(יג) כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא וּבְשֵׁם יְהֹוָה אֶקְרָא:
(יד) נְדָרַי לַיהֹוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נֶגְדָה נָּא לְכָל עַמּוֹ:
(טו) יָקָר בְּעֵינֵי יְהֹוָה הַמָּוְתָה לַחֲסִידָיו:
(טז) אָנָּה יְהֹוָה כִּי אֲנִי עַבְדֶּךָ אַנִי עַבְדְּךָ בֶּן אֲמָתֶךָ פִּתַּחְתָּ לְמוֹסֵרָי:
(יז) לְךָ אֶזְבַּח זֶבַח תּוֹדָה וּבְשֵׁם יְהֹוָה אֶקְרָא:
(יח) נְדָרַי לַיהֹוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נֶגְדָה נָּא לְכָל עַמּוֹ:
(יט) בְּחַצְרוֹת בֵּית יְהֹוָה בְּתוֹכֵכִי יְרוּשָׁלִָם הַלְלוּ יָהּ: