Summary: Year C. Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost September 23, 2001 Title: “God’s character.”
Year C. Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost September 23, 2001
Title: “God’s character.”
Psalm 113 is one of the “Hallel” psalms. “Hallel” means, “praise;” “Halleluia” means “Praise Yah-weh.” There are three collections of “Hallel” psalms, all hymns of praise, in the Psalter: first, Psalms 113-118; second, Psalms 120-136; and lastly Psalms 146-150. Traditionally, the first group was sung at Passover before the meal and the second group after the meal. Psalms 113-118 were sung at all three pilgrimage festivals- Pentecost, Tabernacles and Passover. They were also assigned to Hanukkah, the Dedication of the Temple, and sung on the first day of each month the new moons. Psalm 113 follows the pattern of hymns of praise: the summons to praise verses one to three, and the reasons why verses four to nine. Its date of composition is uncertain, probably postexilic.
In verse one, servants of the Lord: As this psalm was used in the liturgy this phrase would refer to choirs, most probably of priests and Levites.
The name of the Lord: “Name” is a way of obliquely referring to the whole character and being of God as he has revealed himself to his people.
In verse three, from the rising of the sun to its setting: This image kills two birds with one stone. Since the sun rises in the east and sets in the west it means that God is to be praised, recognized as God, everywhere. Since the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening it means that God is to be praised all day long, at all times.
In verse four, high above: The poet uses the earthbound language of direction east, west, up, down, high, low, to express abstract concepts. In this case it is God’s transcendence.
In verse six, looking down: This directional language serves to express God’s care for his creatures. True, it connotes condescension, but not the haughty type.
In verse seven, raises the needy from the dust: Directional language again is employed to indicate God’s salvation, especially of those least expected, deserving, qualified or competent.
The ash heap: This would be the rubbish heap outside any village, town or city where the destitute would live and scavenge for scraps. This was the worst and lowest form of existence, devoid not only of human requisites but dignity.
In verse eight, seats them with princes: This is horizontal language to indicate equality. God does not distinguish, as earthlings do, between prince and pauper. God is to be praised because he gives dignity to those whom the world despises.
In verse nine, gives the childless wife a home: Barrenness was considered a disgrace, one of the worst. Unable to bear children, a barren woman had to bear a very hard and harsh life. God treats her and others like her, albeit for different reasons, differently.
The joyful mother of children: We would naturally think of Hannah who became the mother of Samuel in the Old Testament and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, in the New Testament, but the last of the prophets. God is to be praised for his power to accomplish what humans would consider to be impossible. Indeed, this psalm has been influenced by the Canticle of Hannah 1 Samuel 2: 1-10 and both have influenced the Canticle of Mary found in Luke 1: 46-55.
Even the grammar of this psalm exudes harmony. The mixture of imperative calls to worship and the reasons for doing so are so intimately woven together that the transition seems seamless, hardly noticeable. The flowing grammar reflects the subject, God. He can blend and, harmonize otherwise discordant realities. He harmonizes his great power with intense care, his lofty position with loving condescension. He puts opposites together and harmoniously: princes and paupers, sterile women and childbearing ones, east and west, morning and evening, up and down. In God, what is discordant to humans is harmonious and what is impossible is possible.
Recognizing all this can only result in singing it out. One cannot keep silent about God. He is just too great, too great for words. Yet words must be put in service to at least attempt to express his greatness, because words is all that we have to express ourselves fully. So the poet here for comparison and to contrast opposites, to get at the scope of God’s power, harmonizing them without contradiction. For God does not behave like the “greats” of this world. There is none of that haughtiness in God. He cares for the marginal, dispossessed, lowly, victimized, discounted and dismissed people of the earth. If an earthly king or prince did that, he would be ridiculed as odd. But God is to be praised for it. He is “odd” in the sense of verse five, “Who is like the Lord?” He is incomparable. He focuses his power upon the individual, no matter their status, as well as upon the world. When he does so he raises a person’s “status” by giving the person a share in his own glory. That happened to Jesus and it happens to those who follow him according to 1 Corinthians 1: 26-29.