[K:NWTS 20/3 (Dec 2005) 2-10]
The church has a unique treasure in the Psalms. All revelation is unified by the fact that it is the record of God's intervention from heaven in human history to bring salvation to his people. All Scripture is a revelation of God himself. But the Psalms contain an element unique in revelation. In them, we have not only the revelation of God acting in history for the salvation of his people, but also the response of those peoplethose who have been touched by the mighty working of God in historywho have experienced his salvation in their own livesand thus give voice to their praise of God. But not only is the Psalter the response of the people back to God, it is an inspired response, one that itself is a revelation of God.
Psalm 113 is no exception. It reveals God's working in the life of the psalmist and the psalmist's inspired response to God's intervention in history. But it is also participatory. The psalmist gives his inspired response back to God because he has participated in the reality of which he sings. And this Psalm (like all the Psalms) is participatory for all the people of God who have likewise experienced God's working on their behalf. The Christian, reading and singing Psalm 113, is brought into the drama of which the psalmist sings. And like the psalmist, the Christian must take these words in his own mouth in praise to God.
At the beginning and end of the psalm is a literary bracket; it is framed by the imperative, hallelujah! In this way the text explicitly makes known the response it demands. The bracket does more, however, than mark the beginning and end of the psalm; it draws the singer down into the drama contained within the bracket. The singer, drawn into the song, finds his heart at the exact center of the text: Who is like the LORD our God (5a)? It is obvious that this question demands the answer that no one is like the Lord! The whole structure of the passage is designed to answer this question. The first half of the psalm, verses 1-5a, responds that no one is like the Lord our God as the peerless object of praise. The second half of the psalm, verses 5a-9, answers that no one is like the Lord our God as the peerless acting subject.2 Each section will be considered in turn.
The first four verses of Psalm 113 are unified by the sevenfold repetition of the name, Yahweh. With the exception of the concluding bracket, it is used exclusively in this first section. By the constant repetition of the name of the LORD, the psalmist does not allow the reader to stray from the fact that it is Yahweh alone who is the only object of praise. In every verse we are reminded of this fact. This emphasis is furthered by the frequent use of the imperative which has the effect of focusing the reader's attention on the object of all the imperatives: the LORD. The very grammar of the first section stresses the unique status of Yahweh who alone is worthy of praise.
However, the importance of the use of Yahweh's name extends farther than its mere repetition. The psalmist has purposely arranged his use of the name in a descending pattern. Excluding the initial bracket, in which the abbreviated form "Yah" is used, we find that vv. 1-2 use Yahweh three times, vv. 3-4 use Yahweh twice and there is one occurrence of Yahweh in verse 5. As the use of the name of the LORD descends while nearing the end of the section and the center of the Psalm, the LORD's name becomes more prominent. In verse 5a, there are three Hebrew words with Yahweh occupying the center place. Through this intentional literary pattern, the author is again quite purposefully disallowing us to focus on anything else but Yahweh himself.
The psalmist is also emphasizing the uniqueness of the LORD by simultaneously causing the singer's attention to follow another patternthis one ascending. Spatial and temporal elements are combined to lift the eyes of the servants of the LORD gradually above the vast expanse of creation to Yahweh himself. The name of the LORD is to be praised foreverhis praise is to fill all time (v. 1). The name of the LORD is to be praised from the rising of the sun to its going down (v. 2). The singer's gaze is directed above the linear reaches of time to the march of the sun across the canvas of the sky. His gaze is elevated still higher as the LORD's glory is above all the nations of the earth (v. 4a). The glory of God is above the sphere of the globe and all the nations that dwell on it. Higher still than all the earth, the LORD's glory is above the heavens themselves (v. 4b). At last, the psalmist ends with the LORD himself in the question of verse 5a. Yahweh is so high and exalted that he alone is above all things.
With his descending and ascending lines, the psalmist reaches the same point. There is none like the LORD our God because he is the peerless object of praise. Yahweh stands by himself at the center of the text because there is none to be compared with him. And the centrality of Yahweh in this text reflects the centrality of Yahweh for the psalmist. The psalmist cannot conceptualize a heaven or earth in which the LORD is not central. He cannot imagine any other sharing the praise of the servants of the LORD. The incomparable God completely dominates the psalmist's mind and praise in these first five verses. And unless the matchless glory of God controls your thinking and worship as well, you will not worship like the psalmist because you have not laid hold of that which has laid hold of him. The all consuming passion for the glory of God is abundantly displayed in the Psalms. It is as David sang elsewhere"One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD " (Ps. 27:4). Such an enthrallment with the glory of God is what the text reveals as the only possible response from a servant of the LORD who has beheld that glory.
The imagery of the first half of this Psalm is also very concrete. This is not a call to praise an abstract God. The glory of God is objectively real and it is has been manifested in history. The descriptions have been purposefully chosen by the author to highlight that the incomparable God, who is enthroned above the heavens, is the God who is king in redemptive history. His praise is called forth from the servants of the LORD (v. 1). This term is used in the Bible to describe those who "stand by night in the house of the LORD" (Ps. 134:1). The servants of the LORD are those who dwell in his presence and worship him. The scene is similar to that in Revelation 4-5 where God, seated on his throne, is surrounded by the twenty-four elders and all the host of heaven who ceaselessly praise him.
In verse 2, the LORD's name is to be praised now and forevermore. What is in view is not merely a long period of time, but eternity. The Hebrew term, in the Psalter, has taken on a technical sense referring to the eternity of the eschaton. Such a command can only be fulfilled by the servants of the LORD in the endless reaches of heaven's eternity.
In verse 3, the expression "from the rising of the sun to its going down" carries with it the sense given to it by the prophets. Isaiah describes a day in which the Lord, finding no savior for his people, girds himself and brings salvation by his own mighty arm. In that day, when he saves his people and punishes his enemies, all will fear the LORD from rising of the sun to its going down (Is. 59:15-19). Malachi uses this expression similarly. God condemns the worthless and hypocritical worship of Israel but declares that there will be a day when even the Gentiles will worship God in purity as he is reverenced from the rising of the sun to its going down (Mal. 1:11). In both these cases where this language is used, it is with reference to the universal fear and worship of God that takes place in the future. The worship projected is the worship of God who has completed redemptive history by vanquishing his foes, saving his people and is glorified among them.
The unparalleled God who is to be worshiped is the God who is glorious in redemptive history and into eternity. None other has done what he has done in history; none other will reign as king forever. The unrivalled God is the God of the eschatological arena who will be worshiped there forever. But it is interesting to note that this eschatological worship has begun already in history. The psalmist is singing of God in his eschatological splendor now. In fact, this eschatological worship of God, in addition to lasting forever is also to be heard "now" (v. 2)! Just as the God who is praised is not abstract, neither is the praise offered to him. The song of heaven has intruded into history and because the psalmist is consumed with the glory of God his glorious praise is to be heard emanating from his lips. Like the psalmist, as many of us as have been affected by the glory of the matchless God who is the eschatological king offer up to him again his own eschatological psalm! Just as we do not praise an abstract God, our praise of him cannot be abstract.
After everything in the first section has culminated in the question of verse 5a, the Psalm "shifts gears". The name of the LORD, so prominent in the first half, is not used again in the second half. This in no way suggests, however, that God has disappeared from the song! Rather, the peerless object of praise has become the acting subject. The seven-fold use of Yahweh's name has been replaced by seven verbs with Yahweh as the subject of each. In the Hebrew text, each verb appears in the hiph'il form, indicating causation. The God who is revealed as the matchless LORD worthy of all praise, is now the subject who acts mightily and effectively.
It is not only the grammar that has changed in this second half of the Psalm, however; the line has reversed as well. To this point, the gaze of the servants of the LORD has been directed upward even to God himself. But after verse 5a, it is Yahweh who looksdown. This is reflected by a literary reversal in verses 4 and 5 around the central question. The LORD is above all nations, above the heavens, yet he looks down upon the heavens and the earth. The LORD from his glory above the heavens looks down on everything until his gaze terminates on the lowest of the low.
The first individual on whom the LORD is pleased to look is described as being in the dust and ash heap. The language reflects one who is in the most wretched state of grief and agony. Recall Job, who sat in the ash heap scraping himself with a potsherd for all his suffering. But beyond even this the Bible uses this language of one dwelling in the dust to refer to death (e.g. Dan. 12.2). And Yahweh looks down on the poor man in all his misery and even in his death, and Yahweh acts. The LORD causes the poor man to be raised out of the dust! The line changes once more. The vector is reversed for this needy one. He is raised out of misery. He is raised out of grief. He is raised from the dead! And Yahweh raises him toward himself. He is raised out of his lowly state and lifted up to where the LORD dwells in the heights.
Furthermore, the text says that the LORD seats him (v. 8). The line changes again. But we must not imagine that this is a case of the LORD raising the poor man up only to set him down or aside. A better translation for this word here would be "the LORD settles him." The poor man is settled by Yahweh in a glorious place, with the princes of his people. This needy one has been raised from the lowest state to the highest glory by the powerful action of God. He has been raised from death to life.
The LORD acts for another in this text as wella barren woman. There have been many such in redemptive history: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah.3 The barren woman in Israel bore shame for her inability to conceive a son. Hannah bore mocking from her husband's second wife and grief. But much like the poor man of verse 7, the barren woman also bears death in herself. No life can come from her dead womb. Both shared in misery, wretchedness and even in death.
But as the LORD acted for the poor man so he acts for the barren woman. The term "he seats/settles" in verse 8 is precisely the same word for that which Yahweh does for the barren woman in verse 9. But this settling for the barren woman can only come if she, like the poor man, has experienced new liferesurrection. She experiences life proceeding from her formerly dead womb as she is settled as a joyful mother of sons.
After considering these two individuals then, do you see how the question of verse 5a is answered? Who is like the LORD our God? Who else humbles himself to behold the lowly? Who else intervenes on their behalf? Who else can bring life out of death? There is none except Yahweh alone.
This article began by claiming that all of Scripture is a revelation of God acting in history for the salvation of his people. This action is centered in the person of Jesus Christ. And who cannot see our Savior in this Psalm?! Jesus, who being in the very form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant and humbling himself to death is the peerless God of whom the psalmist sings (cf. Phil. 2:6-11). He not only stooped so low as to behold the misery of his people, but he took their nature, wretchedness and death to himself! Jesus dwelt in the grave for three days before being raised up. Jesus, very God of very God, did not abhor to be born out of a virgin womb. He took all this to himself that he might bring to his people his life as he draws them heavenward, to himself. Consider how Paul describes this very thing: "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressionsit is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:4-6). He does not only identify with you in your misery and death, he brings you to himself.
And so we return once more to the question in verse 5 and notice the beautiful pronoun contained in it. Who is like the LORD our God? He is not a God far removed from us. He is not a God who acts but keeps his people at arm's length. He is a God who stoops low that he might bring them up high to have fellowship with him. For the word "settles" in verses 8 and 9 is the same Hebrew root describing God's own enthronement on high (v. 5). That great resurrection which Jesus has effected for all his people is a resurrection unto God and life and fellowship with him in heaven where he will be your God and you will be his people and he will dwell with you.
It is because of their participation in this great reality that the poor man, the barren woman and the psalmist are all made the servants of the LORD (v. 1). They are the servants who stand by night in the heavenly courts of God, forever. And there with the formerly poor man and the formerly barren woman and the psalmist, you tooas many of you as have known this grace of Godmust offer up your own eschatological and eternal "Hallelujahs"! Praise the LORD!
Who is like the LORD our Godindeed!
1 This article, derived from a sermon preached by the author, is indebted to the theological insights on the Psalms by Geerhardus Vos in his Eschatology of the Psalter and the structural insights of J.P. Fokkelman in Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible: at the Interface of Hermeneutics and Structural Analysis, vol. 1 (Van Gorcum Press, 1998) 8-16.
2 It should be noted from the foregoing divisions that 5a serves as a hinge by its inclusion in both sections. The first four verses lead up to and culminate in the question, whereas the second section begins with the question. It is part of the first section by virtue of its use of "the LORD" and it is included in the second section by providing the subject for the verbs that follow.
3 Note the marked similarity of vocabulary between Psalm 113:7-9 and Hannah's prayer of I Samuel 2:5 and 8.