A Song of Salvation
Psalm 116:1 – “I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.” (NIV)
Sometimes the best way to appreciate where you are is by looking back at where you’ve been. We’ve been working our way through the Egyptian Hallel, the cluster of psalms traditionally sung by Jews during their Passovers. It’s possible that this custom was already in place in the first century. If so, then Jesus and his disciples would have sung these psalms around Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper before he went to pray in Gethsemane and die on Calvary (see Matt. 26–27, especially Matt. 26:30). Psalm 113 started this series of praise songs with a general call for people everywhere and everywhen to praise the most high yet merciful God. Psalm 114 then zoomed in on God’s mighty mercy toward the nation of Israel in its founding event: the Exodus from Egypt. Yesterday we considered Ps. 115, which contrasted the idols of the surrounding nations with Israel’s single—and singularly invisible yet living and faithful—God. That psalm ended with these lines: “It is not the dead who praise the LORD . . .; it is we [the living servants of the living God!] who extol the LORD, both now and forevermore. Praise the LORD” (Ps. 115:17–18; all quotes NIV). Today’s psalm picks up where Ps. 115 ended and personalizes the thought of those last lines. Here at the heart of the Egyptian Hallel is the song of a single heart, an “I” who praises the LORD for deliverance from death. Let us read it through the lens of Jesus’ experience as a song he may well have sung before his crucifixion.
The first two verses set the mood for the psalm: God has shown the psalmist mercy by rescuing him, so the singer responds with love and a pledge of lifelong fidelity to his Rescuer. As I observed above, sometimes the best way to appreciate where you are is by looking back at where you’ve been. That’s the strategy this psalm follows. Verses 3–4 describe the psalmist’s dire situation: “death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the LORD: ‘O LORD, save me!’” Shortly after he would have sung these lyrics, Jesus entered Gethsemane and “began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said . . ., ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.’” Out of this anguish, he cries out for his Father to deliver him (Matt. 26:30, 38–39). Another New Testament writer comments, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard” (Heb. 5:7).
He was heard. Psalm 116:5–11 testifies that because of God’s merciful character (verse 5), he saved from death the one who called on him. In Jesus’ case, being heard didn’t mean that his crucifixion was cancelled. He still died. But he didn’t stay dead. God the Father delivered him from out of the state of being dead. Up from the grave he arose! In our own experience, sometimes God saves us from having to go through hardship, but often he saves us by bringing us through hardship and out to the other side.
What is the proper response when God delivers? Verses 12–19 round out this psalm by repaying God with praise. Imagine verse 13 on Jesus’ lips: “I will lift up the cup of salvation.” Now recall that right before singing this hymn (Matt. 26:30), he’d just passed around a cup of wine to his disciples, telling them, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:28–29). Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are lifting up the cup of salvation in praise to God the Father, who freed his Son from death, who frees us now from our sins, and who one day will free us all from death as well.
Again, think of Jesus singing verses 15–16: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. O LORD, . . . I am your servant, the son of your maidservant.” Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, who saw herself as God’s maidservant (Luke 1:38), and his death was so precious in his Father’s sight that it atoned for the sins of the whole world. We are the recipients of all the benefits of his holy birth, sinless life, and precious death. Our response must be praise and gratitude: “I will sacrifice a thank offering to you and call on the name of the LORD,” writes the psalmist. “I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people” (verses 17–18). The New Testament puts it similarly: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:15–16). Let such grateful sacrifices mark our lives today.