Psalm 138: The Work of Your Hands

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.

–Psalm 138:1,2 (ESV)

"Do not forsake the work of your hands."

“Do not forsake the work of your hands.”

Perhaps the best commentary on Psalm 138 comes from the Apostle Paul, who wrote confidently to the church in Philippi that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).  Indeed, though this psalm contains a mixture of praise, prayer, and exposition, its central theme can be summed up as the Perseverance of the Saints, the “P” in our familiar Calvinistic acronym “TULIP.”

As I mentioned during our study of Psalm 135, this final section of the Psalter freely echoes many phrases from earlier in the book.  Thus, David begins Psalm 138 by bringing whole-hearted thanksgiving to God, much as he did in Psalms 9 and 111.  Next he praises the Lord for exalting “above all things” his Name and his Word, recalling the themes of Psalms 8 (“How majestic is your name in all the earth!”) and 19 (“The law of the Lord is perfect”).  The psalmist also says, “On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased,” which serves as a marvelous answer to the numerous requests for deliverance throughout the Psalter, such as Psalm 3:4 and 4:1.

In the next section of Psalm 138, David declares:

All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth,
and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
for great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly,
but the haughty he knows from afar.

–vv. 4-6

Truly the parallels between Psalm 138 and the rest of the Psalter are countless, but this section most closely resembles (and responds to) Psalm 102.  Or, in the words of the Psalter Hymnal’s versification of Psalm 22, “Both rich and poor, both bond and free/Shall worship Him on bended knee.”

Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life;
you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.

–vv. 7, 8

As Psalm 138 draws to a close, the beloved words of Psalm 23 come to mind: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…you are with me…Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  What awes me about Psalm 138 is the seamless transition from the universal greatness of God (“All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord”) to a deeply personal realization of God’s goodness (“I give you thanks, O Lord…The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me”).  Because its author rests in the confidence that God will never forsake the work of his hands, Psalm 138 affords its readers an all-transcending comfort.

286, “With Grateful Heart My Thanks I Bring”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, and at Synod 2012)

The Psalter Hymnal contains two complete settings of Psalm 138, one from the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter and one from the Genevan (Dutch) Psalter.  Both are textually and musically solid, although they do contain a few variants which result from their basis in the King James Version rather than a contemporary translation.

The only significant weaknesses in number 286 are the lack of reference to God’s Name along with his Word at the end of the first stanza, and a rather poor rendering of the very last sentence, “Do not forsake the work of your hands” (versified as, “O Lord, my Maker, think on me”).  Thankfully, both of these flaws should be easy to fix.

The tune of “With Grateful Heart” will be immediately recognized as the music of the gospel hymn “The Solid Rock” (which a glance at the tune name would confirm).  Many newer hymnals have made the decision to lower the key from G to F; this sacrifices brilliance, but it may be the only option for a congregation lacking in sopranos and tenors.  A possibly appropriate compromise would be to play the first three stanzas in F, then rise to G for the last verse.  Stylistically, the only troublesome spot to watch out for is the quarter note at the end of the third line of music, on the syllable “grace.”  The gray 1987 Psalter Hymnal changed this measure to 5/4 with this quarter note augmented to a half note, which I believe is the proper length.  In other words, just make sure you hold this note long enough for the singers have enough time to catch their breath before moving on to “For truth and grace…”  Thankfully, most musicians will take this pause instinctively even if they don’t realize it.

287, “With All My Heart Will I Record”

(Sung on YouTube)

There is nothing like a good, singable Genevan psalm to raise the spirits, and this versification of Psalm 138 fits the bill.  The text is probably one of Dewey Westra’s best psalm settings, striking a much-needed balance between accuracy and poetry.  It must have taken some amount of genius to compose this versification, since it also contains a hidden rhyming scheme:

With all my heart will I record
Thy praise, O Lord,
And exaltation.
Before the gods with joyful song
Will I prolong
My adoration.

For me, the fourth and final verse packs the most powerful punch:

Lord, though I walk ‘mid troubles sore,
Thou wilt restore my faltering spirit;
Though angry foes my soul alarm,
Thy mighty arm will save and cheer it.
Yea, Thou wilt finish perfectly
What Thou for me hast undertaken;
May not Thy works, in mercy wrought,
E’er come to naught or be forsaken.

While the first line of the tune JUBILATION resembles the opening of DUKE STREET (“Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun”), this tune is both longer and much more musically interesting.  On the other hand, it could certainly prove to be a challenge for an unfamiliar accompanist.  The keys to the successful execution of a Genevan tune are a solid rhythm and emphatic melody line; one suggestion I’ve heard for unfamiliar congregations is to play only the melody line for the first verse, even on the pedals.  But while this music may be challenging, I think it flows quite logically, and will probably be picked up in no time.

Commenting on Psalm 138:8, Charles Spurgeon writes:

Our confidence does not cause us to live without prayer, but encourages us to pray all the more.  Since we have it written upon our hearts that God will perfect his work in us, and we see it also written in Scripture that his mercy changeth not, we with holy earnestness entreat that we may not be forsaken.  If there be anything good in us, it is the work of God’s own hands: will he leave it?  Why has he wrought so much in us if he means to give us up?—it will be a sheer waste of effort.  He who has gone so far will surely persevere with us until the end.  Our hope for the final perseverance of the believer lies in the final perseverance of the believer’s God….Therefore do we praise him with our whole heart.

–MRK

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