The book of Psalms remains one of the most popular books in the Bible. That the psalms are so popular can be ascribed to the content of the Psalter. The psalms contain a wide range of human emotions, reflecting traumatic experiences as well as feelings of joy and amazement. The psalms can be described as dialogues with God uttered as the result of hardships experienced by the poets of Psalms. This is also the case regarding Psalm 116. The problem investigated in this contribution entails an enquiry into the theological meaning of Psalm 116. This is done by paying attention to the literary and historical aspects of the text. While other problematic issues have received due attention in the research on this psalm, not much attention has been given to a theological interpretation of the psalm. In particular, it was the composition of the psalm that captured the attention of scholars. Earlier research on the psalm resulted in the conclusion that little or no cohesion can be found in it. More recent researchers have come to the conclusion that there is indeed coherence to be found in the composition of the psalm, but scholars still differ as to how the coherence should be seen. Opinions in this regard vary from a twofold division of the psalm, to a threefold division, to a more complex structure comprising stanzas and strophes, through to a division in five parts, and right up to an eightfold division that could be made. In one instance, a concentric structure of the psalm was proposed with verses 8–11 as the centre of the psalm. In this article a threefold division is opted for (vv. 1–9, 10–11, 12–19). There is fair consensus that verses 1–9 should be seen as a unit. Verses 10–11 form a self-reflection by the poet on his plight. Verses 12–19 have a cultic background where the poet praises YHWH in the temple for the redemption experienced. From a careful reading of the text, focusing on issues such as the extent of the text, text critical matters, structural elements of the text, literary features (parallelism, chiasmi, inclusio, metaphors) that can be identified in the text, the literary genre used (identified as an individual hymn of thanksgiving), attention is also briefly given to the historical context of the psalm, dating it as a post-exilic text. Theological meaning is created through a combination of the literary and historical analyses of the psalm. The aim of this investigation is to create a dialogue between the current context of the COVID‑19 pandemic and the text of the psalm which originated in the past.
Theologically speaking, the most important statement made in the psalm is found in verse 5 where the poet confesses YHWH as the gracious, righteous God who is full of compassion. With this confession the poet draws on the way in which YHWH revealed God-self in the past to the people of Israel (Exod. 34:6). The poet confessed that he had first-hand experience of YHWH’s graciousness, righteousness and compassion even though he regarded himself as simple-hearted. Yet his overwhelming experience was that YHWH had saved him from a terrible condition, presumably an illness that had brought him to the brink of death itself. The testimony of the poet is that YHWH heard his voice and cry for mercy and, as a result, rescued him from his dire situation. As a result of the redemption he experienced, he is in a position to declare his love for God (v. 1). In the last part of the psalm the poet expresses his gratitude for his redemption. He had once cried to YHWH in distress, but the situation has now changed, so that he can once again call upon the name of the Lord, but this time in sincere gratitude. He does so in the presence of God’s people “in the courts of the house of the LORD” (v. 19). There is a decisive move from being on the brink of death and an experience of God-forsakenness – Sheol is the term used in Hebrew (v. 3) – to an experience of the presence of YHWH in the temple. The psalm commences with a cry to YHWH to come to his rescue, but culminates in a jubilant “Hallelujah”.
This research originated in the midst of the third wave of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, and the theological message of the psalm, then, is also linked to this situation. The pandemic has in a very real sense brought death close to many believers, where loved ones, friends, family and colleagues have suffered and even passed away. Current-day believers seeking comfort from the Bible may then identify with the cry of the poet uttered at the beginning of the psalm: “Cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow” (v. 3). At the same time, they may also follow the example of the poet by calling upon YHWH in their need, confessing their trust in the Lord despite the extreme situation of severe illness, and then, in the end, rejoice in the presence of God together with fellow believers.
Keywords: homiletical guidelines; literary features; Psalms; theology