Psalm 116: 12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18
The responsorial psalm for this week is from Psalm 116, a hymn from a temple service of thanksgiving. In it, someone who made an appeal to God and promised to perform some act of devotion when the request was granted now comes to the temple and, before God and the assembly of believers, gives thanks for the favor granted and fulfills the vow that was made.
How shall I make a return to the LORD for all the good he has done for me?
The passage opens with an acknowledgment that there is nothing the psalmist can do and no gift that can be offered that will even begin to compare with the favors that have been received from God.
The cup of salvation I will take up, and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
Inadequate as it is, the psalmist still renders what can be offered, expressing devotion by offering a cup of salvation.
It’s not clear exactly what the cup of salvation is. It might be a libation offered in thanksgiving. Or it could be a festive drink, the wine that was shared at a sacred meal, a symbol of the joy that God’s graciousness has produced. Whatever its identity, it serves as a cup of joy for having been saved.
Along with the offering of this wine is the proclamation of the name of God. Since God’s name holds part of the divine essence, to proclaim that name is to recognize and praise God’s greatness; in this case, the graciousness of God’s saving action. The cup is taken up and God’s name is proclaimed.
Precious in the eyes of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.
The psalmist insists that, contrary to any appearances, God is concerned with the fate of the righteous (hāsîdîm). Despite how others may interpret their plight, their death is precious; that is, of inestimable value.
This conflicts with a traditional understanding of retribution, which suggests that the faithful should not be afflicted and the righteous should not have to face a wretched death.
O LORD, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your handmaid;
The relationship between the psalmist and God is strikingly characterized in the servant metaphor and its parallel “son of your handmaid.” Although the first image has taken on a profound theological connotation (servant of God), the second clearly identifies both images as classifications within a structured household.
Like a slave that has no hope of release, the psalmist was bound to a life of great difficulty. By using these legal metaphors to characterize his relationship with God, he is dramatizing his own situation.
you have loosed my bonds.
A slave born into a household (“son of your handmaid”) had neither a justified claim to, nor any guaranteed likelihood of, emancipation. However, God looked kindly upon him and loosed him from his servitude.
To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving, and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
The rest of the passage draws the outlines of a ritual of thanksgiving. Included in such a ritual are a confession of praise, a call on God, and the taking of vows.
The actual thanksgiving (tôdâ) is a public acclamation of God’s saving action. The name of God, which is a manifestation of the very essence of God, is called on in the song of thanksgiving, thereby proclaiming before all the people God’s salvific presence.
My vows to the LORD I will pay in the presence of all his people.
Vows that are made in times of distress are later fulfilled during the tôdâ. The sacredness of the ceremony is underscored by the fact that it takes place within the setting of a liturgical assembly.
The psalmist who once faced the prospect of death now stands in the midst of the assembly, humbled and grateful to God.