For my weekly quiet time this week, I read and studied Psalm 107.
To be honest, this is my favorite Psalm of all of the Psalms that I have read and studied so far. Why? Because I love its concrete examples of God’s deliverance of people. Psalm 107 mentions four scenarios. First, there are those who are lost, hungry, and tired in the desert, and God leads them to an inhabited city when they call out to him. Second, there are those who are forgotten in a dark prison, in iron bonds that are extremely difficult to break. (I draw here, not only from Psalm 107, but also from Leslie Allen’s commentary, as well as the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary.) But they call on God, who breaks their shackles and brings them out of the darkness. Third, there are those who are sick, so sick that they do not even want to eat, but they cry out to God, and God heals them. And fourth, there are those who are on a sea voyage and a storm arises and threatens their lives, but they cry out to God, who stills the storm and brings them safe and sound to their destination.
In some (if not all) cases, these people in Psalm 107 are suffering on account of their sins. This is explicitly said to be the case with the prisoners and the sick people. It is not said explicitly about the wanderers in the desert, and yet vv 33-34 say that God turns fruitful places into deserts on account of the wickedness of the inhabitants, and so sin may somehow be behind the wanderers’ difficulty, as well. Regarding the seafarers, it is not explicitly said that their suffering was due to their sins, but there are scholars who associate that part of Psalm 107 with the story of Jonah, who disobeyed God, and this view occurs within the history of biblical interpretation.
But, even if the people were suffering on account of their sins, God delivered them when they called out to him. And they then appeared before the assembly of the elders and praised God, according to v 32 . I liked how the orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary handled v 32: Israelites were to demonstrate a renewed and increased commitment to the Torah after their deliverance by reciting the Thanksgiving Blessing before at least two Torah scholars (who are equated with the elders of v 32). The Artscroll cites Babylonian Talmud Berachot 54b and Samson Raphael Hirsch. When God delivers people, that is an opportunity for them to renew their commitment to God and God’s ways. I think of what Jesus told a man he had healed in John 5:14: “Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.”
Psalm 107 also makes the point that God is in the business of delivering people, even if they have sinned. V 3 affirms that God gathered the redeemed from the east, the west, the north, and the sea. (There is debate about the word “yam”, sea, in v 3. Why does v 3 mention yam after it has already referred to the west, when yam in the Hebrew Bible often means the west when it is used to refer to a direction, since the Mediterranean Sea was west of Israel? Some say that yam in v 3 should be emended to yamin, which can mean “south”. Others say that the yam in v 3 refers to the Red Sea, which is south of Israel. Another view is that we should just interpret it as the “sea.” John Jarick, in an article that he wrote for the April 2, 1997 Catholic Biblical Quarterly, contends that v 3 corresponds with the four scenarios of Psalm 107, and he bases this argument on passages in the Hebrew Bible. For Jarick, the east corresponds with the desert, for the sun rising from the east and the east wind bring heat. The west corresponds with the prisoner in darkness, for the west is where the sun sets, resulting in darkness. The north pertains to the sick people, for the north is a place from which invaders and pestilence come. And the sea corresponds with the seafarers.) That refers to the exiles, whom God returned to Israel. And vv 35-41 affirm that God replenishes the desert, rescues the oppressed, brings down the princes, and lifts up the poor. This may be an eschatological expectation, for v 42 says that the righteous will see this and rejoice. And yet, has not God done these sorts of things throughout history, even though there appear to be times when God is more hidden?
Some will argue that there are times when God does not answer cries for deliverance, and one view is that this is because God does not exist. Indeed, there are people who die from thirst and heat-exhaustion while wandering in the desert, who rot in prison, who die from illness, and who perish at sea, and some of them (perhaps even a number of them) could be characterized as godly people. But there are times when I wonder if my own resources are adequate, and I feel desperate enough to cry out to God—-not to absolve myself of responsibility, but because I need a breakthrough as I try to do what I can. Consequently, I appreciate Psalm 107 for capturing and expressing a sense of desperation.