Saturday, December 14, 2013

Psalm 138

Psalm 138:2 states (in the KJV): “I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.”

What does it mean for God to magnify his word above his name?  God’s word and God’s name are both good, right?  So why would God choose to magnify one above the other?

Here are some explanations that I came across in my study:

1.  Leslie Allen states that the verse means that “by fulfilling his promise Yahweh has surpassed all earlier revelation of himself.”  According to this interpretation, God’s name is God’s reputation, which is based in part on how God has revealed himself in the past.  God magnifies God’s word by fulfilling it, and God in the process surpasses the earlier revelations of himself.  On a similar note, Charles Spurgeon quotes someone who said that the verse means that God has surpassed what people have said about him.  This interpretation is slightly different from that of Allen, for what people say about God may not be accurate, whereas God’s previous revelations of himself are accurate.  Remember Job’s contrast between hearing about God and actually seeing God, and Job’s implication that he did not understand God when his knowledge of God was based merely on what he had heard (Job 42:3-5)?  Perhaps the reputation that the God of Israel had was as someone who was inadequate in terms of power (since Israel had been defeated by her enemies), or as one who had forsaken Israel or the Davidic dynasty to which God had pledged everlasting faithfulness.  By fulfilling God’s word, God corrects the ways that people have misrepresented God.

2.  The United Church of God’s commentary states: “The meaning seems to be that God does not put who He is above what He has said.  Consider that the Almighty Sovereign God could go back on every promise He has made and no one could do a thing about it.  Yet God of His own will has set His word above all the prerogatives associated with His divine supremacy, that is, He had obligated Himself to abide by everything He has declared.”  According to this interpretation, God’s name is who God is, in terms of status and power, and God exalts God’s word of promise above God’s status by being faithful to the word of promise.  Although God is supreme, God limits himself by obligating himself to his promises.  Rashi and John Gill have similar interpretations.  Rashi affirms (in whatever translation Chabad.org is using): “Your name is mighty, jealous, and vengeful, but You magnified Your word, so that You skip over Your standards, over all Your names, and You forgive us.”  Gill states that God demonstrates God’s faithfulness by fulfilling God’s word, exalting faithfulness over God’s other attributes.  These interpretations treat God’s name as God’s attributes, and, like the UCG’s commentary, they maintain that Psalm 138:2 means that God is committed to the recipients of God’s promises, notwithstanding what some of God’s attributes may be.

3.  Marc Brettler and Adele Berlin state in the Jewish Study Bible: “In Deuteronomic theology, the name of the LORD resides in the Temple (Deut. 12.11).  The Temple is the place where humans come into ritual contact with God, but God is not contained within the Temple.”  The idea here seems to be that God’s name is associated with the sanctuary, and that God by fulfilling God’s word demonstrates that God is not limited to that sanctuary.  God’s presence and power are active in the world outside of the Temple.  God exalts God’s word above God’s name when God demonstrates this.

4.  What is the word that God exalts above God’s name?  Some say that it is God’s promise that the Davidic dynasty would be everlasting.  Perhaps it could relate to God’s commitment not to forsake Israel.  Some Christians even interpret God’s word in Psalm 138:2 as Jesus Christ.

5.  Admittedly, the idea of God exalting God’s word above God’s name appears odd, and so it’s not surprising to me that some have understood the verse to mean something different.  The Septuagint for the verse says that God exalted God’s word above every name.  The Midrash on the Psalms somehow interprets the verse to mean that God has exalted God’s name and God’s word above what God promised to the prophets.  As interesting as these interpretations are, however, I’m much more fascinated when interpreters try to make due with verses’ difficulties.

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