This coming Sunday, the third Sunday in the season of Easter, the lectionary offers a series of verses from psalm 116 (1–4, 12–19). This psalm is one of six psalms, numbered from 113 to 118, which are known as Hallel psalms—from the Hebrew term hallelu-jah, meaning “praise the Lord”. That phrase starts psalm 113 and ends psalms 115, 116, and 117. These psalms were, and are, used in Jewish communities at times of festive celebration; so they are also most suitable in the current Christian season of Easter.
The opening section of this psalm celebrates a rescue from near death (v.8) and continuing in life (v.9), which is a relevant motif for the season of Easter—it evokes the story of Jesus we heard over the Easter weekend, recently. In verse 5, the psalmist identifies some central characteristics of God. That God is merciful and gracious is a recurring Israelite theme (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9).
That God is righteous is likewise declared in scripture (Deut 32:4; Ps 145:7; Job 34:17). The psalmists regularly thank God for God’s righteousness (Ps 5:8; 7:17; 9:8; 33:5; 35:24, 28; 36:6; 50:6; etc) and note the importance of humans living in that way for righteousness (Ps 18:20, 24; 85:10–13; 106:3, 31; 112:1–3, 9). The book of Proverbs advises that the wisdom it offers is “for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity” (Prov 1:3) and the prophets consistently advocated for Israel to live in accordance with righteousness (Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3; Hab 2:1–4).
These recurring notes of the nature of God then form the basis for a Christian understanding of Jesus, who affirms mercy (Matt 23:23), teaches righteousness (Matt 5:6, 10, 20; 6:33), and exudes grace (John 1:14–18). This is an ancient Jewish psalm that we Christians can joyfully sing and affirm!
The second part of the psalm focusses on appropriate ways for the psalmist to respond to the experience of escaping death (see v.8). The psalmist affirms, “I will pay my vows”—not once (v.14), but twice (v.18). Other palms refer to paying vows before God (Ps 22:25; 50:14; 61:8; 65:1; 66:13; 76:11). The words of the psalmist are echoed by Eliphaz in one of his speeches to Job: “you will delight yourself in the Almighty, and lift up your face to God; you will pray to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows” (Job 22:26–27).
Paying a vow is a public act, most likely undertaken in the Temple precincts, as v.19 indicates. The psalmist indicates two such public actions to “pay my vows”. First, the cup of salvation is to be lifted up (v.13). Perhaps this was the drink offering that was to be presented each year at the Festival of First Fruits (Lev 23:13), an expression of deep gratitude for God’s continuing care.
Then, because of the predominance of sacrifices within Israelite religion, offering “a thanksgiving sacrifice” is also an appropriate response (v.17). The regulations for this sacrifice (found in Lev 7:11–15; see also Ps 50:14) indicate that it can be made at any time during the year, as a regular expression of that gratitude for God’s care.
Jews today do not bring specific physical sacrifices, but understand the scriptural language about sacrifice to refer to a way of living. It is said that, on one occasion, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his disciple Rabbi Yehoshua were leaving Jerusalem, Rabbi Yehoshua looked at the ruins of the destroyed Temple and despaired, “Woe to us! The place where Israel obtained atonement for sins is in ruins!” Rabbi Yochanan said to him, “My son, be not distressed. We still have an atonement equally efficacious, and that is the practice of benevolence” (Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 4).
So this is how this ancient psalm functions in Judaism today: as a call to a way of life that is offered fully to God. This parallels the way that Christian writers developed a spiritualised understanding of sacrifices—both of the sacrifice of Jesus, and of the sacrifices to be offered by followers of Jesus.
The offering of his life on the cross by Jesus is understood by early Christian writers within the framework of the ancient Jewish system of sacrifices and offerings: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2); “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
In John’s Gospel, the time when Jesus dies is not the day after Passover (as in the Synoptics), but on “the Day of Preparation for the Passover” (John 19:14), as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered and prepared for the meal that evening. The symbolism is potent; Paul adopts this symbolic and spiritual understanding as he notes, “our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7).
Those who follow Jesus are called to live in the same sacrificial mode, offering their lives to God. Paul refers to the gifts sent by the Philippians (most likely financial support for his mission) as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil 4:18).
Most famously, he appeals to the Romans “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), and reinterprets the Exodus story as spiritualised symbolism, telling the Corinthians that “all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:2–4).
Other letter-writers whose works were collected into the New Testament speak of “a spiritual circumcision … putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11) and encourage believers to “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:25).
So this psalm, and others like it, continue to hold a valued place in Christian spirituality, because of this process of reinterpretation that has taken place in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, and in the early stages of the Jesus movement. The reference to the vows to be paid and the thanksgiving sacrifice to be offered can be understood as metaphors for the way that we are to live our lives as the offering of ourselves to God in obedience and gratitude.
The psalm ends with a joyful exclamation which picks up the key theme: hallelu-jah! praise the Lord! This encapsulates the joyful appreciation for God and God’s way that encompasses all of these psalms of Hallel. It is a fitting psalm for the Easter season.