A Reflection on Psalm 116.1-7 by Canon Rob,
23rd April 2023, The Third Sunday of Easter
In his book, “How to Pray,” John Pritchard – who was Bishop of Oxford until 2014 – wrote, “Prayer is the gift of ourselves to God in response to the gifts he has given to us…. Prayer is holding open the door of opportunity in places of despair. Prayer is struggle, joy, laughter and pain.” As you reflect upon the verses of today’s psalm, you may find it helpful to keep these words in mind especially if you haven’t thought of prayer in these ways before. Prayer can take several forms, but one will almost certainly be “asking prayers” and they are legitimate because, during a lesson about prayer, Jesus said, “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you….” [See also Luke’s Gospel 11.1-13.]
Psalm 116 is a personal prayer of thanksgiving after the writer has recovered from a very serious, possibly terminal, illness. If you read the first verse several times you may sense the sheer relief and joy being expressed. “I love the Lord, for he has heard the voice of my supplication; because he inclined his ear to me on the day I called to him.” Then, in verse two, we can see how ill he had been. “The snares of death encompassed me….” Coping with this illness had been a real struggle: “by grief and sorrow was I held.” Yet, even when he was at his lowest, he knew that God would listen to his prayer. [See verse 3.]
Some scholars suggest that today’s psalm is reminiscent of King Hezekiah’s prayer of thanksgiving after he recovered from a severe illness. [See Isaiah Chapter 38 in the Old Testament, especially verses 9 – 20.] Whether or not that is the case, Hezekiah’s prayer is heartfelt. Just as important, the illness was a turning point in the King’s life just as his illness was for the author of the psalm. Hezekiah says, “Lord, I will live for you, for you alone…” The psalmist says in verse 14 – beyond our reading today – “O Lord, I am your servant….” This is life-changing. For both the author of the psalm and King Hezekiah, their prayers have not only been heard by God, God has answered. They are healed and they offer their lives in His service. Years later, this was to be the same when Jesus healed those who were sick. Their lives would never be the same because they experienced, through Jesus, what the writer of Psalm 116 experienced: a God who “is full of compassion.” [See verse 4.]
Allan Harman, in his commentary on the psalms captures this experience well, when considering verse 6: “Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has been gracious to you.” Harman writes, “The needy child has met with gracious, parental care, and there is abundant rest for the soul trusting in Him.” God is experienced as the loving parent, which is certainly not always the case in the Old Testament. No wonder then that the author of the psalm wants to serve God in whose presence he now knows he lives. God can be trusted with his life and he rejoices over this new relationship in verse 8, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” These words are echoed in Psalm 56 verse 12 where,addressing the Lord, the author says, “…you will deliver my soul from death and my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living.” Both are about being constantly in God’s presence: a presence which brings light and life. Presumably this is why these verses from Psalm 116 are chosen for use during Eastertide when we celebrate the enduring presence of the Risen Christ, who is the Light of the world and whose gift is life in all its fullness. [See John 10.10]
Psalm 116 is a prayer of thanksgiving because God has rescued the author from death and that will be true for others who have recovered from a serious illness. The prayer has been answered in the way that was hoped. But that isn’t always the case as we know. Other psalms address this and, no doubt, we will meet them in other Reflections during this year. For today though we celebrate!
“Risen Christ….. strengthen us to proclaim your risen life and fill us with your peace…”