This is essentially a Psalm of praise. We are called into praise from the very opening “Hallelujah” (praise Yah). So, it is a song of worship and it calls us into an attitude of worship. As Adam Clarke says: “It is an exhortation addressed to the priests and Levites, and to all Israel, to publish the praises of the Lord.”
The opening verses are an exhortation to worship.
Verses 8-12 remind the people of Israel of God’s saving acts in their history: their deliverance from Egypt and the defeat of legendary kings. Then, they are called again to praise.
Remembrance has a significance for our faith. it is good to recount for ourselves the answered prayers we have experienced — and the unexpected blessing of God on our lives. The Bible is a book of remembrance: recounting the deeds of the Lord God in times past, as a way of illuminating our lives in the present. We know God through what God has done. For Christians, it is the story of Jesus — before any other — that calls forth our praise.
And, so it is that in this psalm, the remembrance of God’s deliverance in the past, calls forth praise.
Psalms 135:13, 14:
הוָה שִׁמְךָ לְעוֹלָם יְהוָה זִכְרְךָ לְדֹר־וָדֹר
“Your name, O LORD, endures forever, your renown, O LORD, throughout all ages.”
כִּי־יָדִין יְהוָה עַמּוֹ וְעַל־עֲבָדָיו יִתְנֶחָם
“For the LORD will vindicate his people, and have compassion on his servants.” (NRSV).
As I said, this is the natural follow up to the remembrance of YHWH’s deliverance. Through God’s acts of salvation God’s character has been revealed. We know what God has done, so we know what God will do.
God’s reputation will endure forever, on the basis of what God has done. Verse 13 speaks of God’s name (שִׁמְךָ֣) and God’s renown (זִכְרְךָ֥). God’s name is what is known of God — and, thus God’s reputation. Because God has done great things, God’s reputation will be upheld forever. The second term translated “renown” means “remembrance” or “memory.” This affirmation of the greatness of God’s name is firmly rooted in the story of Israel. The revelation of God’s character and faithfulness comes through the acts of God in the life of the nation. The revelation is through the history of salvation. The greatness of God will always be upheld as long as the acts of God are remembered.
This is equally — if not more — true for Christians. Where do we see the character and faithfulness of God? In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christianity is first a story before it is a theology or a philosophy. It is the story of a God who has come to us in Christ. Without the story there is no foundation upon which the theology can be built. So, we speak of God and God’s faithfulness by first speaking of Christ. Christians often respond to unbelief or atheism with detailed defenses of the concept of a theistic God. Those kinds of arguments are important — though they don’t really get to the heart of the issue. It is the story of Jesus that is the Gospel, and it is the story of Jesus that reveals to us the heart and the reality of God. There is a revelation of God in Christ. Without this, we don’t really know much of anything of the character of the theistic God our philosophical arguments defend.
I recently came across this passage from James K. A. Smith’s book How (Not) to be Secular. Smith is discussing Charles Taylor’s 900 page book A Secular Age. Taylor discusses those people who abandon religious faith allegedly on the basis of science. And, Smith writes:
Taylor suggests that those who convert to unbelief “because of science” are less convinced by data and more moved by the form of the story that science tells and the self-image that comes with it (rationality = maturity). Moreover, the faith that they left was often worth leaving. If Taylor is right, it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or “evidences” but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith. The goal of such witness would not be the minimal establishment of some vague theism but the invitation to historic, sacramental Christianity.
It is the story of God’s salving acts — especially in Christ — that are the basis of faith in God and in God’s goodness. It is by telling that story anew — pressing its implications for our day — that we uphold the greatness of God.
Believers can have confidence in God’s compassion and salvation. The remembrance of what God has done become the basis for confidence in the future. God “will vindicate his people, and have compassion on his servants.” This confident expectation of God’s faithfulness in the future is what the New Testament calls hope. “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24, 25 NRSV.)
It is worthwhile to notice the actual wording of verse 14. “For YHWH will judge (יָדִ֣ין) for his people and for his servants repent (יִתְנֶחָֽם).” Okay, I am exaggerating. Yes, that translation is too extreme. I just want to point out the connotation of the words used here. The usual translations are fine. But the first phrase has a verb whose connotation is judgement: to vindicate. The second phrase has a verb whose connotation is to repent — thus, to turn in compassion rather than anger. I just mention it, because in Hebrew the wording is striking. We don’t usually think in this kind of imagery. For us (for some reason) judgement usually suggests condemnation, and repentance suggests grief. But, God’s judgement can mean vindication. And, God’s repentance means compassion.
The experience of God’s salvation in the past produces confidence in God’s salvation in the future.
עֲצַבֵּי הַגּוֹיִם כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵי אָדָם
“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.”
פֶּה־לָהֶם וְלֹא יְדַבֵּרוּ עֵינַיִם לָהֶם וְלֹא יִרְאוּ
“They have mouths, but they do not speak; they have eyes, but they do not see;”
אָזְנַיִם לָהֶם וְלֹא יַאֲזִינוּ אַף אֵין־יֶשׁ־רוּחַ בְּפִיהֶם
“they have ears, but they do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths.”
כְּמוֹהֶם יִהְיוּ עֹשֵׂיהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־בֹּטֵחַ בָּהֶם
“Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them.” (NRSV).
Here the contrast is made between the God of Israel and the gods of the surrounding nations. The wording is very similar to Psalm 115:4-8. The idols of the nations are human creations — they are able to do nothing. The God of Israel is a God of whom no image can be made — a God beyond all images or words. And, it is YHWH who has the ability to act.
Remember also, that this polemic against idolatry had political implications. Most often, in ancient times, religion served the interests of the state. So, the idols represent these political powers, as well. Only YHWH does not serve the state.
There are slight variations from the wording of Psalm 115: in verse 15 the words “of the nations” are added. In verse 17 rather than “noses, but do not smell” (Psalm 115:6) we have “and there is no breath in their mouths.” This may be significant, since we remember the Creation story, where God breathed into Adam the breath of life. The word “breath” here is the Hebrew word ר֥וּחַ (ruaḥ) which also commonly means “spirit.” Brueggemann and Bellinger comment:
As in the parallel dismissive recital of Ps 115: 5–7, the dominant word in this recital is “not” – not speak, not see, not hear, not breathe! In every regard, the idols are without power, a total contrast to YHWH, who “does whatever he pleases.” These idols do nothing, amount to nothing , and merit no attention and certainly no obedience. They have, moreover, no breath (ruaḥ), no capacity for life. Not much is made of that point here, but it may be noted that ruaḥ is used in verse 7 to mark the “wind” that YHWH commands; and of course it is the ruaḥ of YHWH that creates heaven and earth (Gen 1: 2; see vv. 6– 7 in this psalm) and the ruaḥ as wind that causes the Exodus waters to part (see Exodus 14: 21; this psalm vv. 8– 9). Thus YHWH is praised because YHWH has a life-giving, life-causing, life-transforming ruaḥ; the idols have none!
— Brueggemann, Walter; Bellinger, Jr, W. H. (2013-11-30). Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) (Kindle Locations 14311-14320). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
And, we reminded again that we become shaped by the god we serve: those who trust in them shall become like them.
בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּרֲכוּ אֶת־יְהוָה בֵּית אַהֲרֹן בָּרֲכוּ אֶת־יְהוָה
“O house of Israel, bless the LORD! O house of Aaron, bless the LORD!”
בֵּית הַלֵּוִי בָּרֲכוּ אֶת־יְהוָה יִרְאֵי יְהוָה בָּרֲכוּ אֶת־יְהוָה
“O house of Levi, bless the LORD! You that fear the LORD, bless the LORD!”
בָּרוּךְ יְהוָה מִצִּיּוֹן שֹׁכֵן יְרוּשָׁלִָם הַלְלוּ־יָהּ
“Blessed be the LORD from Zion, he who resides in Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!”
And, this Psalm ends as it began: with a call to the religious leaders of the nation to lead the nation in the praise of God. Again, to repeat Adam Clarke’s remark: “It is an exhortation addressed to the priests and Levites, and to all Israel, to publish the praises of the Lord.” Someone has to begin the song. Someone has to continue telling and re-telling the story. If the “house of Israel” is to praise, it is up to the “house of Aaron” and the “house of Levi” to remind them and to lead the way for them.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise him, for he is your health and salvation!
Come, all who hear; now to his temple draw near,
join me in glad adoration.
Praise to the Lord, above all things so wondrously reigning;
sheltering you under his wings, and so gently sustaining!
Have you not seen all that is needful has been
sent by his gracious ordaining?
Praise to the Lord, who will prosper your work and defend you;
surely his goodness and mercy shall daily attend you.
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
if with his love he befriends you.
Praise to the Lord! O let all that is in me adore him!
All that has life and breath, come now with praises before him.
Let the Amen sound from his people again;
gladly forever adore him.
— Joachim Neander (1680), translated by Catherine Winkworth (1863).