Psalm 108: Old Words for a New Situation

My heart, O God, is steadfast;
    I will sing and make music with all my soul.
Awake, harp and lyre!
    I will awaken the dawn.
I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
    I will sing of you among the peoples.
For great is your love, higher than the heavens;
    your faithfulness reaches to the skies.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
    let your glory be over all the earth.

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Psalm 108

In my music collection I have a few CDs which feature prototypes or demos – rough, preliminary versions of artists’ songs. Sometime before the final version emerged, lyrics or music or both may have changed – reworking material is very much part of the creative process. Something like that is what is going on in this Psalm, which is a composition, a mashup of two earlier songs, Psalm 57:7–11 and 60:51–12. At the very least this speaks of the process, under the guidance of God’s Spirit, whereby words that were once said in one context can speak powerfully into a new situation.

The first part of Psalm 108 is an enthusiastic hymn of praise anchored in dogged orientation. In this case the turning to God in praise doesn’t seem to flow spontaneously from David’s feelings but more from a determined act of will: his heart, he says, is steadfast (v. 1). Worship is not just based on an impulsive feeling, something we do when we feel like it, but is the only fitting response to God, however we feel. Feelings are not to be denied in worship (see the rest of the Psalms) but they are not the determining factor in whether we should worship in the first place. The second half of the Psalm suggests that times were very difficult – yet in spite of this, David turns to praise God.  

In Psalm 57 these verses come at the end of the song, growing out of heartbreak and prayer. But in this Psalm they are situated at the beginning. For Christians, our hope for the future – both individually and collectively – is not based on wishful thinking, as critics often suggest, but it is based on the solid conviction that the God who raised his Son from the dead will by his Spirit do the same for us, transforming us along with the whole of his creation (Romans 8:11–24).

As a general point it is interesting that David uses words he’s used before. Sometimes when we are struggling or going through a painful time we can’t express our feelings. Baptists have had a history of being suspicious of set prayers, but we don’t need to be. Spurgeon said we need not ‘hesitate to use the same words in drawing near to God, for the Lord who cannot endure vain repetitions is equally weary of vain variations. Some expressions are so admirable that they ought to be used again.’

In the original (Psalm 60:5–12), the latter part of this Psalm (vv. 6–13) came after David’s complaint that God was angry and had abandoned his people. Here the context is different: perhaps there was some consciousness in the earlier Psalms that whatever they were going through was self-inflicted but that is only hinted at in these verses (v. 11). David’s plea is for rescue, not just for himself but for his people. We don’t have King David’s responsibilities as a monarch ruling over a nation but we do have a responsibility to look out for others and to pray on their behalf.  

God’s answer to David’s prayer is to remind him of the promises he had made to his ancestors. It is good to remind ourselves of the promises that God has made in the past. Those promises are the basis of our hope for tomorrow. Verses 7 and 8a proclaim Judah’s inheritance – the land that God has promised belongs to God and it is God who will decide who lives there (Psalm 24:1). Verse 8 puts Judah’s noisy neighbours firmly in their place.  The images are of humiliation, where the lofty, the proud and the arrogant are brought low (see Luke 1:46–55). That is both an encouragement to all those who are bullied and abused and also a challenge to us not to act and think and speak in those ways ourselves.

The remembrance of God’s promises leads to action, it makes a difference. It seems that David, the Commander-in-Chief, has in mind here some daring military operation. That won’t be our mission, but for those who have heard the promises of God there is a mission, there are tasks to fulfil, not in our strength but in the strength that he supplies through his Spirit. And with that we can be confident that God’s good purposes will prevail (v. 13)!