the structure of Psalm 107

PSALM 107!!!

I have been enamored with Psalm 107 this fall. The poetry, the promises, and the hope in the midst of distress, whether those troubles are deserved or not, all come together to make one awesome psalm.

To review, AWESOMENESS #1 is that in Hebrew, “Give thanks” in verse one paints a picture of raising your hands to God to gesture thanksgiving.

Bonus Awesomeness: the word translated as “love” in Psalm 107:1 is hesed. Hesed is a word in Hebrew that is often translated as love in English, but when it is translated into Greek, mercy is used. It is the love in a one-way relationship, where one person mercifully extends kindness towards another who is in need. The whole psalm is about God showing compassion and helping people who were totally lost and in need, sometimes toward those who had even turned their backs on God. Really, this “Bonus Awesomeness” is the point of the whole psalm. Every stanza concludes with the refrain to “give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing hesed.” I suppose nothing else is as important as the hesed of the LORD. Nonetheless, I am going to share with you another bit of awesomeness about the psalm.

1 Give thanks [Extend your hand in thanksgiving] to the LORD, for he is good; his love [loving-merciful-goodness-full-of-pity] endures forever.

AWESOMENESS #2: The structure of Psalm 107 is outlined in verse three. I love how poetic this structure is. Verse three makes more sense connected to the first two verses:

1 Give thanks [Extend your hand in thanksgiving] to the LORD, for he is good; his love [loving-merciful-goodness-full-of-pity] endures forever.

2 Let the redeemed of the LORD say this – those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,

3 those he gathered from the lands, from east [the place of the rising sun] and west [shadows/evening], from north [hidden] and south [west/roaring/sea].

Psalm 107:3 describes the thoroughness of God’s redemption. From every corner of the globe, he has taken care of his people and redeemed them from trouble and their enemy because of his faithful love for them. By saying “from east and west, from north and south,” the psalmist is alluding to Isaiah 43:1-7. Both Psalm 107 and Isaiah 43 are about God restoring Judah after captivity in Babylon.

Reading Psalm 107:3 in English as “from east and west, from north and south,” without knowing the Hebrew, you might miss that that the next four stanzas are outlined by those words. The words translated into English as “east” and “west” and “north” and “south” are much more vivid in Hebrew. In fact, there is debate regarding the word translated as “south” because it is a word more frequently translated as west or sea. Without knowing the Hebrew, it is difficult for English readers to see that the poet-psalmist plays on those words as an outline for the four main stanzas.

THE OUTLINE OF PSALM 107

  1. INTRO  Psalm 107:1-3  “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good…”
  2. STANZA 1-East/Rising sun Psalm 107:4-9 “Some wandered in desert wastelands…”
  3. STANZA 2-West/Shadows/Evening Psalm 107:10-16 “Some sat in darkness and the deepest gloom…”
  4. STANZA 3-North/Hidden Psalm 107:17-22 “Some became fools through their rebellious ways…”
  5. STANZA 4-South/West/Sea Psalm 107:23-32 “Others went out on the sea in ships…”
  6. STANZA 5-Conclusion/History of Blessing and Rebuke Psalm 107:33-43 “He turned rivers into a desert…”:

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE STRUCTURE

Stanza 1:  East/Rising sun
The word mizrach, “east” is also “sunrise” and “eastward.” Wandering in the desert searching for a city to settle was the beginning for Abram and later Israel. Sunrise also tends to symbolize new beginnings. Then when Israel wandered in the desert, they headed in an easterly direction from Egypt toward the land promised to them.

I know from the explanation from the end of Psalm 107 that this first stanza is referring to God leading the Israelites to Canaan and giving them the land. A city symbolizes prosperity, blessing, and a name. I hope that the LORD will also lead me and anyone else who feels lost to a city where we can settle and provide our daily bread and water.

Here is what I call the first stanza of Psalm 107, with the eastward/beginnings theme:

4 Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle.

5 They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away.

6 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.

7 He led them by a straight way to a city where they could settle.

8 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men,

9 for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.

Stanza 2:  West/Shadows/Evening

Moving on to the second stanza, Psalm 107:10-16, we see it is referring to the captivity of Judah and/or Israel’s plunder by Assyria. At first I was not sure to which historic episode the psalmist is referring. As we know, Israel failed to keep the covenant given to them from God, resulting in Israel’s demise by Assyria and later Judah’s exile to Babylon.  If the psalmist is giving a recap of Israel’s history, then perhaps the second stanza is referring to Israel rather than Judah since that happened before Judah’s captivity; however the psalmist concludes the second stanza with yet another allusion to Isaiah. He practically quotes Isaiah 45:2, which is about God anointing Cyrus to destroy the nation who had taken Judah captive. The usage of Isaiah 45:2 indicates that the psalmist is Judah-centric in his story-telling. In other words, I think the second stanza is about Judah being set free from captivity and the punishment of her captors.

How does this relate to Psalm 107:3 and the second term, “west”?  The direction of Babylon was east, not west from Jerusalem. BUT the word translated as “west” (marab) also means westward. Once freed, the Israelites would travel westward to return to Jerusalem from Babylon. I also found that marab comes from the root word arab meaning “shading” or “growing dark,” and the second stanza immediately refers to darkness and gloom. Isn’t that cool? I think it’s awesome.

10 Some sat in darkness and the deepest gloom, prisoners suffering in iron chains,

11 for they had rebelled against the words of God and despised the counsel of the Most High.

12 So he subjected them to bitter labor; they stumbled, and there was no one to help.

13 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.

14 He brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom and broke away their chains.

15 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men,

16 for he breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron.

I am going to deviate a moment from the structure to note the dramatic shift in that second stanza from the prisoners suffering in iron chains to the final line referring to God breaking down gates of bronze and cutting through bars of iron. When I first read this psalm, I thought that psalmist was just repeating himself in Psalm 107:16 to say the chains were gone. But he is quoting Isaiah 45:2, which is about God empowering Cyrus to destroy Babylon. This means that the second stanza is concluding with victory and retribution in mind. The stanza begins with people crying out to be freed from the gloom and chains and slave labor associated with imprisonment and the exile. And God hears their cry. But even more than just freeing the prisoners, God removes the power of their captors to do harm and brings punishment. I do not rejoice that the Babylonians were justly punished, 1 but I do think it is awesome that the prisoners were not just whisked away. God is so powerful that he both transforms the chained to become free and destroys the power of the oppressor.

Stanza 3:  North/Hidden

The word tsaphown, “north” comes from tsaphan, which means “hidden from discovery” in Hebrew. Psalm 107:17-22, the third stanza, which might correlate to “north,” describes fools who draw near the mysterious gates of death. Those gates of death could be said to be hidden, and the dead could be said to be in darkness. The Babylonians (and Assyrians, too) were north of Judah. But the people described as suffering plague in Isaiah and Jeremiah were the ones who stayed in Israel and Judah. So, even though Assyria and Babylonia were northward, I think the psalmist is playing with words here, using the literal meaning of north, tsaphan, as “hidden from discovery.” Of all the stanzas, this one might be the loosest connection to the coordinates of Psalm 107:3, but it is also the most exciting one. Because I think that it is referring to the ultimate place from which God will call his people: death. But more about that later…

17 Some became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction because of their iniquities.

18 They loathed all food and drew near the gates of death.

19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.

20 He sent out his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave.

21 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind.

22 Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of his works with songs of joy.

Stanza 4:  South/West/Sea

I was not convinced that Psalm 107:3 outlined the structure until I discovered that the word yam translated as “south” actually refers to the roaring of the sea, and is more often used as “west” and only rarely as “south.”  The fourth stanza is about God saving some people from roaring waters. It was here that I began to get an inkling of the cleverness of the psalmist. I am just in awe at how poetic that is. I think that the English translation is not wrong to translate yam as “south” because of the clear connection with Isaiah 43:5-6, but most English translations are not able to convey the double-meaning of the word that the psalmist utilizes most clearly in Psalm 107:23-32:

23 Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters.

24They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep.

25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves.

26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away.

27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end.

28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress.

29 He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.

30 They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.

31 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind.

32 Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people and praise him in the council of the elders.

5th Stanza: Conclusion/History of Blessing and Rebuke

The concluding fifth stanza summarizes the history of Israel and Judah and correspond nicely with the first two stanzas, but initially I found it strange that third and fourth stanza were barely mentioned. The historical summary focuses on the events of stanza 1 and its background for four to six verses, depending on whether or not you include the two segue verses about a time of abundance after settling in the city. But a mere three verses summarize stanzas 2 and possibly 3. The only reference to the fourth stanza is another single verse saying that the righteous see the works of the LORD and rejoice. Then the final verse concludes with a call to worship. Here is the final stanza of Psalm 107:

33 He turned rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground, 

34 and fruitful land into a salt waste, because of the wickedness of those who lived there.

35 He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs;

36 there he brought the hungry to live, and they founded a city where they could settle.

37 They sowed fields and planted vineyards that yielded a fruitful harvest;

38 he blessed them, and their numbers greatly increased, and he did not let their herds diminish.

39 Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled by oppression, calamity and sorrow;

40 he who pours contempt on nobles made them wander in a trackless waste.

41 But he lifted the needy out of their affliction and increased their families like flocks.

42 The upright see and rejoice, but all the wicked shut their mouths,

43 Let the one who is wise heed these things and ponder the loving deeds of the Lord.

Yes, “loving deeds” is actually the word hesed again.

I think the reason why the concluding stanza does not give specifics related to the fourth stanza about the sea is because that event had not yet happened.

Did anyone else notice that Jesus stilled the storm to a whisper, just like the fourth stanza describes? And that the apostles, formerly fishermen, became spokesmen for the praise of Jesus, the Son of God, before the elders of Israel and the assembly of the peoples? The only story that comes close in the Old Testament is the story of Jonah.

The first two stanzas of Psalm 107 are historic, describing what had happened in Israel, the third stanza is both historic and prophetic regarding salvation, and the fourth stanza about the sea is entirely prophetic regarding the apostles.

The unfailing hesed of the LORD extends over all the earth and through all time. I think that the psalmist uses the four coordinates to trace how God’s faithful love reaches to every corner of the earth, from humble beginnings to even beyond death and continues for all time, from the very beginning with Abraham up through the coming of Jesus and the sending out of the apostles, and his love continues and reaches us. The psalmist says if we are wise, we will remember and believe the LORD is full of hesed now and forever. Unfailing love from God is a promise.

There is more awesomeness to this psalm. But I will leave that to you to find. I suggest reading Isaiah and Jeremiah. I am convinced that the psalmist knew scripture really well, and that his psalm(s) synthesized scripture, transforming it to a personal level and perspective.

 

Psalm 107:3 is key for the structure of the whole psalm.
Psalm 107:3 is key for the structure of the whole psalm.

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. If the captors repented, God says in Jeremiah 51:8-9 that he would have healed them, but they did not.

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