God delights in our thanks, and the Psalms provide prayers of Thanks. Psalm 138 is an excellent example.
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
for you have exalted your name and your word above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.
All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
for great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly;
but the haughty he perceives from far away.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
Just as God delights in our worship, so, too, does he delight in our thanks. Expressions of gratitude are found in many psalms that are hymns of praise—and giving thanks to God is essentially the same as praising and lauding him, for in all these vocal acts we are acknowledging the greatness of the Lord and his fidelity, goodness, favor, and benefits to us. Yet, psalms of thanksgiving are recognized as a distinct literary genre because they chiefly express gratitude for a specific circumstance, such as help received at a time of need, deliverance from trials or enemies, healing of illness, or relief from anguish.
In ancient Israel, individuals wishing to show gratitude to God would normally visit the Temple in Jerusalem, where they accompanied their prayer by a thank offering. This was followed by a meal in which they feasted on the sacrificial offering—a lamb or bull. Those present in the Temple area, especially the poor, were invited to take part in the feast. In this way, the person giving thanks publicly testified to God’s goodness. Among psalms of individual thanksgiving are Psalms 9, 30, 92, 100, 103, 116, and 138. Some of the psalms are communal or national hymns of thanksgiving (for example, Psalms 65, 66, 75, 118, 124, and 136), where God’s saving deeds on behalf of his entire people are recalled. Often these communal psalms include narratives that give a historical survey (as in 107) and may have been composed for use at liturgical celebrations or days of national public thanksgiving.
Although authorship of Psalm 138 is attributed by Judaic tradition to David or his patronage, most likely it was composed in a later epoch. The psalm opens with a wholehearted expression of gratitude as the psalmist praises the Lord for his steadfast love and faithfulness. He sings before God, who is in heaven with his court of angels (Psalm 138:1-2). (The “gods” of verse 1 were understood by the ancient Israelites to be the deities worshipped by the surrounding nations and were considered less powerful than Israel’s God. After the Babylonian Exile, as Israel’s monotheistic belief in God as the sole deity grew, these “gods” were understood to be angels.) The psalmist also bows toward the earthly Temple in Jerusalem, knowing that the Lord listens to prayer there too.
Next the psalmist recalls that God had heard his cry and helped him in past afflictions, giving him strength (Psalm 138:3). Then he looks beyond his own personal needs, broadening his vision outward, to declare that others—“the kings of the earth”—will also recognize the ways of the Lord, acknowledge his greatness, and glorify him (138:4-5). It’s also recognized that although the Lord is “high”—mighty and sovereign over all that he has created—he cares for the “lowly” who are in distress (138:6). The psalmist then again gives personal testimony, declaring that when he is in trouble, the Lord stretches out his hand to deliver him (138:7).
Finally, convinced that the Lord will fulfill his purpose for him and will never forsake him (Psalm 138:8), the psalmist places complete confidence in God. Just as the psalm began with a heartfelt acknowledgment of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness (verse 2), it ends in a exultant crescendo proclaiming that this love—hesed, in Hebrew—will endure forever (verse 8).
As Pope Benedict XVI noted in a homily on Psalm 138, the finale of the psalm is “a last passionate profession of trust in God whose goodness is eternal: he will not ‘discard . . . the work of [his] hands,’ in other words, his creature (verse 8). And we, too, must live in this trust, in this certainty of God’s goodness.” The pope concluded,
“We must be sure that however burdensome and tempestuous the trials that await us may be, we will never be left on our own, we will never fall out of the Lord’s hands, those hands that created us and now sustain us on our journey through life. As St. Paul was to confess: ‘he who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion’ (Philippians 1:6).”
Excerpted from The Psalms: Gateway to Prayer, by Jeanne Kun (The Word Among Us Press, 2013). Available at wau.org/books