Psalm 116: Delivered from Death

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
    he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
    I will call on him as long as I live.

The cords of death entangled me,
    the anguish of the grave came over me;
    I was overcome by distress and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    ‘Lord, save me!’

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Psalm 116

Both Matthew and Mark’s gospel refer to the disciples singing a hymn at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26), in all probability that is a reference to the tradition of singing Psalms 115–118. It was, and still is, customary to sing these psalms at Passover, and for Jesus this psalm must have been particularly poignant as he thought about what lay ahead.

According to the gospels, Jesus anticipated his death. That didn’t need any divine insight. On the night before he died Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.’ And then he added, ‘I may not get there with you.‘

Martin Luther King Jr knew that his campaign against racism, poverty and war was making him powerful enemies and he knew that he might not live to see the great changes that he desired. It was similar for Jesus, make powerful enemies in any age and your life might be in jeopardy. Verse 11 hints at lies being told and false accusations at Jesus trial led to him being condemned for blasphemy.

For Jesus, the belief that he was doing his Father’s will led him to the conviction that his Father would not abandon him to death (Psalm 2:27, 8, Acts 2:22–32). Jesus anticipated the threat (vv. 2, 8, 15) but trusted that God would deliver him and he celebrates that ahead of time (vv. 1, 2, 6, 8–9).

Verse 13 must have resonated in Jesus heart as he picked up the Passover cup and spoke of how he would add a new chapter to the old story of salvation, how through his death he would bring about a new Exodus, defeating the powers of evil, setting people free from the enslaving powers of sin and death. That self-offering was the fulfilment of Jesus‘ vow (v. 14) as all through his life he had carried out the will of his Father (John 4:34, 5:30, 6:38, 8:26, 10:18, 12:49–50, 14:30–31, 15:10).

After the Supper, Jesus took his disciples to Gethsemane to pray (Matthew 26:36–45). In the garden Jesus ‘was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’ (Matthew 26:38) and he pleaded agonisingly with his Father to take away the ‘cup (of suffering)’ (Matthew 26:39, 42).

In the weakness of his humanity Jesus cried out to his heavenly Father and his prayer for strength to do his Father’s will was answered. If Jesus looked to his Father, then so should we. And we can be confident that God will hear and answer our prayers, not because of who we are but because he is ‘gracious and righteous, full of compassion’ (v. 5).

Jesus surely saw himself as the faithful one whose death would be precious in God’s sight (v. 15). The Hebrew word for ‘precious’ can also mean ‘costly’ and it is a reminder that God the Father is not unmoved by the death of his beloved Son. The spear which pierces the Son’s side touches the heart of the Father. On Easter Sunday it is the Father to whom Jesus committed his spirit who overturns the flawed human verdicts of Good Friday and by the Spirit vindicates Jesus and raises him to new life. And all this is for us.  

One of the greatest of Christian hymns, ‘O love, how deep, how broad, how high,’ dates back to the 15th century and reminds us that, ‘He bore the shameful cross and death / For us at length gave up his breath / For us he rose from death again / For us he went on high to reign.’

Psalm 116 invites us to remember that Jesus death was ‘for us’, that we might be ‘delivered from death’ and calls us to thanksgiving and praise for all God’s goodness.