Psalms of David
This psalm has a lot in common with Psalm 23, also by David. They both share the same structure and this psalm even points back to Psalm 23’s theme. This could, possibly, be written as a sequel to that far more famous psalm.
The books of Psalms are roughly themed like this:
Book 1: Psalms 1 – 41: God is beside us.
Book 2: Psalms 42 – 72: God goes before us
Book 3: Psalms 73 – 89: God is all around us.
Book 4: Psalms 90 – 106: God is above us.
Book 5: Psalms 107 – 150: God is among us.
A. 138 I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
2 I bow down towards your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.
B. 3 On the day I called, you answered me;
my strength of soul you increased.
C. 4 All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth,
D. 5 and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
for great is the glory of the Lord.
C’. 6 For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly,
but the haughty he knows from afar.
B’. 7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life;
you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
and your right hand delivers me.
A’. 8 The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me;Psalm 138 ESV UK whith chiastic structure added.
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures for ever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
Psalm 139 shares its structure with Psalm 23 which is a chiastic poem with four sections, three of which repeat in reverse order: A, B, C, D, C’, B’, A’. That is what chiasm and chiastic structure mean, a number of themes that repeat in the reverse order. Psalm 138 even uses themes from Psalm 23 in the B, B’ parts of its structure. I know I am not explaining this very well, so I included structure marks in the quote of the psalm above.
The theme of Psalm 23, taken from the D section, is “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” That same theme is referred to in Psalm 138 in the B’ section, verse 7, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life.” But although God’s protection is the theme of Psalm 23 and used in Psalm 138 it is not the main theme of the latter psalm.
Psalm 138 has two themes. The A, A’ and B, B’ sections concern the writer and the LORD; the C, C’ and D sections ane about them and God: Here it departs from Psalm 23 which is solely about the Psalmist and The Lord.
Working inwards, the A and A’ section centre around the Hebrew word Chesed (חֶסֶד), one of those foreign words which are cruel to my dyslexia as I always read it as cheesed. Chesed, translated as steadfast love here is about kindness and friendship between people, so used in this way the psalmist is saying God is my best friend.
B and B’ are, as discussed above, referencing Psalm 23, showing the psalmist faith in God’s protection.
C and C’ are no longer about the psalmist’s relationship with God, but of other people and though they are called enemies in B’ it is not about their relationship with the psalmist but with God, they will come to acknowledge God and God’s priorities to the humble and lowly and not to those who make themselves great. It is clear from the context in the B’ section that this is in the future, this they section is a prophesy.
Which brings us from the outside of the psalm to the centre, the D section. It is about the glory of God. God’s glory is a common theme in the Old Testament. The Glory of God is greater than that of men, even the greatest of kings and also greater than the gods of the other people. Not only that but humans are made in God’s image and can share God’s glory. In fact we already do, all people share imperfectly and partially in God’s glory as image bearers.
So far this is good Jewish theology. I think it is good practice when looking at the Old Testament to see what the Rabbis make of the reading before giving it a Christian spin. The Christian spin is always Jesus, Emmanuel, God made man. Jesus shows us what God is like in the incarnation, and in taking on the sins of the whole world in his crucifixion and being raised from the dead so that we can be raised in him.
Jesus gave up the glory of being in heaven to become human, then as a human gave up the glory of humanity to be crucified, an extremely cruel form of execution. We gain the Glory of God not by becoming great but by becoming weak so that God can work in us. The cross in the picture I used at the top of this post is not the cross of Jesus but our cross, Jesus said that “anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.£ (Matthew 10:8). We have to follow the example of Jesus and put aside our desire for wealth, security of fame in order to follow Jesus.
This is the way to obtaining God’s glory.