Theme: Psalm 115 in History
This week’s lessons remind us of the need to trust God in all things, and of what he will do for us as we look to him in faith.
Scripture: Psalm 115:1-18
Henry V of England was a remarkable king who might have become emperor of Europe if he had not died of a fever in France at the age of thirty-five. He had been wild and frolicsome in his younger days, a lifestyle effectively dramatized by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. But he changed when he assumed the throne, becoming “honest, grave and modest,” as one contemporary historian has recorded.1
Henry dedicated himself to uniting Christendom against the advancing Turks, conquering France, the hereditary enemy of England, on the way. So on August 11, 1415, he left England with 1,300 ships and 11,000 men, landed at Harfleur near the mouth of the Seine and after capturing that city advanced toward Calais.
The French met him at Agincourt on October 25, St. Crispin’s Day. The opposing army relied on its mounted chivalry. But its knights were no match for the English bowmen. Their horses were mired in mud caused by the heavy fall rains, and they were unable to advance against the sharp stakes the English had planted at an angle in the ground to protect their bowmen. When the horses turned back they pressed against their own army, and the English fell upon the chaotic mass of retreating soldiers with maces, hatchets and swords. King Hal fought in the thick of the battle, too excited for fear, and the triumph was overwhelming. French historians put the English losses at 1,600 men against the French losses of 10,000.2 In his patriotic play Henry V Shakespeare puts the English losses at just four commanders and twenty-five common soldiers!
But here is the interesting part. Several years before this, when he had been called to share in the government by his father, Prince Hal had been given Psalm 115:1 as a guide. Now as Henry V, the king commanded the victorious English armies to kneel in the mud of Agincourt and sing the hymn together: Non nobis, Domine, sed tibi sit gloria (“Not to us, O LORD, but to thyself be glory’). The Psalm reads,
Not to us, O LORD, not to usbut to your name be the glory,because of your love and faithfulness.
In Shakespeare’s version the king declares:
O God, thy arm was here, and not to us, but to thy arm alone, ascribe we all.3
Most of the commentators on this psalm do not see it as a victory hymn but, to the contrary, as a plea for God’s help emerging from a time of distress and discouragement in Israel. Their reasons are largely based on verse 2, where the heathen are reported as taunting Israel with the query: “Where is their God?” It is a reasonable position, but I confess that I do not see it this way. I think the tone of the psalm is anything but distress and discouragement. Its dominant note is trust in God (vv. 9-11). I think it is saying that God has helped us in the past, he will help us in the future, and therefore trust him, and tell others how great our God is.
More likely is the opinion of the majority of scholars that the psalm is liturgical, that is, it was intended to be sung by alternating groups of worshipers: the priests, the high priest, the people, and so on. It reads that way. But it is useless to spend time trying to decide who said what part. The scholars themselves differ widely.
This is the third psalm in the Egyptian Hallel (Psalms 113-118).
1See Will Durant, The Reformation, The Story of Civilization: 6, A History of Western Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300-1564 (Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1992), p. 106.
2Durant, p. 70.
3Historians recount that the psalm was used in a similar way on several other momentous occasions. When John Sobieski, the king of Poland, turned back the Turks from Vienna on September 12, 1683, thus ending the Muslim’s final attempt to conquer Europe, the jubilant army sang the opening lines of the psalm, including verses 2 and 3: “Why do the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” Likewise, in 1510, when Cardinal Ximenes led Spanish troops against the Moors at Oran, the town was captured and the victorious cardinal rode through the streets declaiming: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to your name be the praise.” See Rowland E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1904), pp. 80-83, 182; Herbert Lockyer. Sr., Psalms: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1993), p. 491.
How do most commentators view this psalm? How does Dr. Boice see this psalm? On what is this position based?
What does it mean to call this psalm liturgical?
Key Point: God has helped us in the past; he will help us in the future; therefore trust him, and tell others how great our God is.
For Further Study: To learn more about God’s glory, download for free and listen to Bryan Chapell’s message, “God’s Glory Revealed.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)