Theme: A Puzzling Phrase
In this week’s lessons, we are again directed to the privilege of offering to the Lord our worship and our thanks for who he is, for what he has done, and for what he promises to do for his people.
Scripture: Psalm 138:1-8
Since this is a worship psalm and its dominant note is thanksgiving we are reminded at the start that worship involves thanksgiving. Up to now in our study of these last psalms we have stressed that worship is acknowledging God as the great God he truly is and praising him for it. In other words, worship has to do with confessing God’s attributes. But we are reminded here that it also has to do with thanking God for being who he is and for doing what he has actually done. How could it be otherwise if, as is the case, the only way we know what God is like is through his actions?
We should remember the ACTS acrostic that is often used as a guideline for prayer: “A” for the adoration of God, “C” for confession of sin, “T” for thanksgiving, and “S” for supplication or requests. And we should remember to be thankful. One of the great hymn versions of Psalm 138 recognizes it as a psalm of thanksgiving when it begins:
With grateful heart my thanks I bring,
Before the great thy praise I sing;
I worship in thy holy place
And praise thee for thy truth and grace.
The Psalter 1912
Yet the opening verses of this psalm (vv. 1- 3) have a number of puzzling parts which need to be discussed. First, what is the meaning of the phrase “before the gods”? Second, what is the exact meaning of the words that the New International Version translates “for you have exalted above all things your name and your word” (v. 2)? That is only an interpretation because the verse actually reads, “you have exalted your word above your name.”
1. “Before the ‘gods.’” The Hebrew word is elohim, a plural word, which is nevertheless most often used for God himself, as in the very first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God (elohim) created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Some writers think that is what it means here, but it seems a bit strange to most readers to have the psalmist saying, in effect, “I will praise you, O God, before God.” Thus, most commentators on Psalm 138 look for other possibilities.
One idea is that “before God” means “before the Ark of God,” that is, in the sanctuary. But that is unusual and even a bit redundant since the next verse says, “I will bow down toward your holy temple.” Martin Luther and John Calvin thought the word refers to angels since it is used that way in a few other places, as in Job 1:6 where the “angels” (“sons of God”) present themselves before God. Some of the older versions of the Bible as well as some of the newer interpreters suggest that it refers to kings or judges. This is the probable meaning of the word in Psalm 82:6, which Jesus referred to, saying, “If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came,…” (John 10:35). This seems to mean the judges of Israel. An extension of this meaning would be “the great of the earth” before whom David, a king himself, would most naturally express his praise of God. This is the view of Franz Delitzsch.1 The final possibility is that elohim refers to the idols or false gods before whom David would be declaring the existence of the one and only true God. This was the view of some of the older commentators, such as J. J. Stewart Perowne, H. C. Leupold and Alexander Maclaren.2
Any of these interpretations is possible, and there is not a great deal that hinges on the outcome. But two facts point in the direction of kings, judges or other “great” people of the earth. First, if the background of the psalm is God’s promise of a lasting dynasty for David as recorded in 2 Samuel 7, then verse 9 of that chapter would explain the reference. God said, “I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men of the earth.” David would want to praise God before these other great men, his peers. The verse would teach that we are to praise and exalt the Lord before those who are our peers also.
The second fact is that David mentions these kings explicitly in verse 4: “May all the kings of the earth praise you.” In other words, he wants to praise God before the great of this world so that they might learn to praise God also, following his example. To my mind, this gives the best meaning to the words “before the ‘gods’” in the context.
1Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Francis Bolton (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, n.d.), vol. 3, p. 339.
2J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1989), vol. 2, p. 435; H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, p. 939; Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 3, Psalms 90-150, p. 378.
Why does true worship involve giving thanks?
What is the first troubling phrase in this psalm and what are some various explanations for what it means?
Give two reasons for interpreting elohim as kings or judges.
Application: Memorize the ACTS acrostic and incorporate its teaching into your prayers this week.